“I think of it like an alarm — like a smoke detector — a good alarm isn’t silenced all the time,” Dr. Gillihan added.
Accepting anxiety can help you face your fears.
If you find yourself overestimating the risk of something terrible happening, start by acknowledging your anxiety and looking at it objectively, said Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist at the Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in Chico, Calif., and the author of “Show Your Anxiety Who’s Boss.”
Remind yourself that this is the emotional reaction that occurs when you anticipate bad things will happen, he said, an inconvenient annoyance, “almost like my brain is a child throwing a tantrum right now.”
Be patient and kind with yourself, he said, the way you would be with a friend, as you take small, manageable steps to confront your fears.
“This is an opportunity to learn how to accept and tolerate anxiety,” he added.
Todd B. Kashdan, a professor of psychology and director of the Well-Being Lab at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., was working up the courage to finally try outdoor rock climbing in Arizona; he started small by scaling the rock climbing wall at his gym.
During his first attempt outdoors, his hands were sweating so much the chalk wouldn’t stay on. One of the guides gave him a choice: You can stay on the ground — alone, in the middle of the desert — or you can climb, and take your anxiety with you.
“My heart was exploding,” said Dr. Kashdan, co-author of “The Upside of Your Dark Side,” a book that explores the usefulness of anger, anxiety and doubt. “But I had a very clear task and I knew that I could do it with the anxiety because this expert guide told me he’s done it, people do it, you’re going to do it.”