How to Overcome Fear

BY BRANDON VAGNER, CPA, Ph.D., & WALLET WIT FOUNDER

How-to-Overcome-FearI had a decade long fear that really held me back, but I was finally able to overcome my fear after taking the right steps. You might have a slightly different fear than I did, but I’m hopeful my story will help you no matter what your fear is. Maybe you have a fear of starting a business, quitting your job, public speaking, or possibly flying. Regardless of what your fear is, my story should help you.

At the end of the day, fear holds a lot of people back from chasing their dreams whether it be in business, education, investments, etc. Fear can be crippling in so many ways, including financial, but it’s also something you CAN overcome.

A quick snapshot of my story is that I flew quite a bit in college and during the early years of my career, but about 10 years ago I experienced vertigo during a flight that was so severe it caused me to start passing out on the flight. Not to mention, driving was near impossible after the incident due to an ongoing vertigo feeling that lasted a couple weeks. At the time, I was stunned and had no clue what to make of it, but an ear specialist explained to me that my inner ear is smaller than most and likely had something to do with it. I asked the specialist what that meant and what could happen the next time I flew on a plane, and he told me worst case scenario was going deaf.  Naturally, I was extremely fearful to get back on a plane, and before I knew it, 10 years went by without flying commercial.

Have you had something come out of nowhere like this or maybe you have just battled a fear for no apparent reason? No matter what your fear is, you WILL be able to use some of the same strategies I did to help you get over your fear. If nothing else, I will provide you the contact information of the lady who helped me and changed my life. Ultimately, I overcame my fear and recently flew. I’m incredibly happy I was able to get past my fear of flying, and I want you to overcome whatever your fear is as well!

On a side note, most of my content on this website is directly related to personal finance topics such as budgeting, how to manage your money the smart way, financial literacy, etc. If you like my style of writing, please be sure to check out other articles in my blog.

How Fear Works

Fear is complex, but can actually be described very simply. The reason why you may have, or could have, a fear that impacts you longterm is because fear leads to anxiety, which leads to avoidance, which leads to more fear. That’s what I call the fear trap and is the simplistic fear cycle.

For me personally, my vertigo/starting to pass out incident caused some initial fear of getting back on a plane. That gave me anxiety about what “could” happen if I did get back on a plane. Ultimately, that anxiety led me to avoid all possible opportunities to fly, which sent me into that never ending fear cycle. I simply drove everywhere I needed to, and there were times those drives were EXTREMELY long.

Biggest Mistake I Made

Have you ever heard the saying “you have to get right back in the saddle,” which is referring to getting right back up and on the horse that bucked you off? I used to hear a version of that from my family growing up. If anything happened, it was always just “get right back at it.” Without a doubt, the biggest mistake I made was not getting right back on a plane as soon as my on-ground vertigo went away.

I didn’t realize this was my biggest mistake until I listened to a guy by the name of John Howell speak at an event about 9 years after my incident. Oddly, I had actually heard about this guy long before hearing him speak, because he was a Partner at the large accounting firm I used to work for. I never knew the guy personally, but word got around that a KPMG partner had been on the US Airways plane that landed in the Hudson. He was one of Sully’s survivors from the plane landing that is now called the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

This guy had one absolutely incredible story. It was so much more than just his story of what happened. I can’t even do it justice to try and summarize, but one very specific moment of his speech changed my life.

He started talking about how he booked a flight the very next day after getting home from surviving the US Airways plane landing in the Hudson. I believe he said it was his wife that asked him why he wouldn’t just take a break from flying for a little while. Understandably, he just went through a very traumatic event. His response to her was that if he didn’t get back on a plane that week, he might never fly again.

He knew that fear could set in and possibly cripple him, but he wasn’t willing to let that happen. He did say though that when he boarded his first flight after the incident, he was a little on edge. So much so that he thinks the lady next to him could pick up on the fact that something was wrong. She sensed he was nervous, and proceeded to talk to him to get his mind off of whatever it was he was thinking about. He talked about how that helped him, but the big thing for him was that he was back in the saddle of flying.

It was at that moment, I sat there in complete awe of his bravery and realized I had made such a big mistake by not just getting right back on a plane. I promised myself there in that moment that I was going to overcome my fear of flying. I had let the fear go way too long and it was time for me to recognize that I had a fear that was significantly impacting my life. It was only by chance this guy was the keynote speaker at my conference, but he 100% opened my eyes to what I needed to do. He has no idea how influential his speech was on me, but I’m forever thankful for him telling his story that day. Telling my story is a way of paying that forward.

Steps to Overcome Fear

  1. Acknowledge You Have a Fear
  2. Assess How Your Fear is Impacting Your Life
  3. Internalize a Desire to Overcome Your Fear
  4. Find an Expert To Help You Overcome Your Fear
  5. Build Your Fear Tackling Toolbox
  6. Give Up Control

Disclaimer: These steps are based on my personal experience. These are simply the steps I took to overcome my fear. If you would like another perspective on fear, you could check out this mentalhealth.org article I came across.

Acknowledge You Have a Fear

Acknowledgment is typically the first step toward solving any problem. It was pretty easy for me to acknowledge the fact that I had a fear of flying, because I had many opportunities to fly and was fearful of flying as a result of my incident.

At first it started out as a fear that something worse might actually happen to my inner ear the next time I flew, but then the fear started to turn into a fear of being 30,000 feet up and no way to get off the plane IF something did happen. I didn’t learn until later that this was actually a form of being fearful to give up control.

Once my expert helped me pin down exactly what the fear was, it made it a lot easier to come up with a game plan to attack it.

Assess How Your Fear is Impacting Your Life

Once you acknowledge you have a fear, it’s important to be fully honest with yourself about how it’s impacting your life. Analyze everything you have missed out on as a result of your fear and how it has impacted your friends and family. It’s very possible their lives are also being impacted by your fear.

Personally, I knew my fear of flying was severely impacting my wife’s ability to travel the country with me. That’s just one of many examples of how it was impacting me and the people around me. It was important though for me to make a mental list of everything it impacted. I’d encourage you to do the same. Be honest with yourself and try to make as expansive and complete of a listing as possible.

Internalize a Desire to Overcome Your Fear

One thing that really held me back from actually overcoming my fear and getting back on a plane was the fact that I could just drive places. I had an alternative that got the job done, but then my travel became more frequent and further away from home. My alternative was becoming near impossible.

As mentioned earlier in this article, John Howell and his story about getting right back on a plane immediately after his traumatic plane landing in the Hudson really sparked something in me, which resulted in a burning desire to overcome my fear from that point on. You have to find that spark for you!

One other thing that helped me was understanding how real regret is for many older people and how miserable it can make some of them. There are endless reasons as to why some have regret, but minimizing the potential for regret in life is key. I actually watched an interview of an older gentleman who had a fear of flying, and I could tell he had serious regret due to his lack of flying. I wasn’t going to let that be me. If you’re having trouble internalizing a desire to overcome your fear, just go talk to a bunch of senior citizens and ask them how heart wrenching regret is at their age. You don’t get a second chance. Make this one count.

Find an Expert To Help You Overcome Your Fear

By random chance, my wife met a lady by the name of Dr. Catherine Capelli at a women’s conference. During their small-talk, she told my wife she specialized helping people with fear. I can remember my wife coming home from that church conference telling me all about this woman and how she thought I should reach out to her.

One of the most important things I’ve learned in life is seeking advice and services from specialists fast tracks anything you’re trying to accomplish. I knew it was in my best interest to contact her and see how she could help.

As soon as I internalized my desire to overcome my fear, I reached out to Dr. Capelli and scheduled an appointment. You should be aware that your first couple meetings with a specialist are typically fact gathering meetings to help them diagnose exactly what is going on. They will want to know your entire life story and your family history. All of that will help them pin point why you might have your fear. For me it was pretty straight forward. I had that traumatic vertigo/starting to pass out event on the plane, which was caused by some inner ear issue at the time. However, your root cause might be tucked away deep in your past history and you might not even realize it.

No matter what fear you are struggling with, I highly encourage you to reach out to an expert. I understand that might be the last thing you want to do, but it can be extremely powerful. That said, I would recommend Dr. Capelli to anyone. She is a HUGE reason why I was able to overcome my fear and start flying again. She’s the one that explained to me exactly what fear is, how the fear cycle works, and provided me all the guidance needed to get back on a plane.

Build Your Fear Tackling Toolbox

Support System

Dr. Capelli always talked about building my toolbox to help me face my fear. If you have a fear that’s been lingering for quite some time, you are likely going to need some tools to help you face your fear and remain calm while doing so. That said, in my opinion, the expert you seek advice from will be your most important tool in that toolbox. Whether you have a fear of flying or putting yourself out there as the public face of your business, the expert you have in your corner is by far the most influential tool on your path to overcoming your fear. They are the ones, based on their expertise and experience, who will be giving you all the smaller tools needed to face your fear.

You also should have a close friend or family member that can be your rock during your attempt(s) to overcome fear. You need someone in your life encouraging you and being your sounding board for when you have doubts. Not someone who tries to use reverse psychology on you, but someone who truly encourages you.

I had my wife in my corner for sure, but I also had a college teammate who I used to fly with that constantly was encouraging me to fly again. He never once was anything but understanding. He never said my fear was ridiculous, never questioned anything, and most importantly, never game up on trying to encourage me. He even booked me a flight once and called me about every week for a couple months leading up to it. Unfortunately, due to family reasons, that trip had to be canceled, but he played a big part in my process of getting back in the air. Try and find that person for you. Hopefully it just comes naturally. I got lucky as could be to have such a supportive friend.

If you’re reading this and you too have a fear of flying, I’ll tell you exactly what else I had in my toolbox.

Understand the Mind

It’s key to know your toolbox will be very diverse and a massive section of that toolbox is having an understanding of how you should be thinking vs how your fearful mind thinks. For example, until meeting with Dr. Capelli, I didn’t even realize that when I thought about flying my mind automatically went to all the “what if” scenarios instead of focusing on all the fun I was about to have in whatever location it was I could be flying to. As soon as you have an opportunity to fly somewhere, don’t let your mind think about all the “what if” scenarios. Focus on the fun you’re going to have when you reach your destination.

Relaxation Strategies

There are some really good relaxation methods to keep you calm as you’re waiting to board your flight. From my experience, staying calm is the number one key. Dr. Capelli and I worked on a specific relaxation routine that could work for anybody trying to remain calm prior to doing anything. If you had a fear of public speaking or really anything, this type of relaxation routine would be very beneficial. It typically lasted about 8 – 10 minutes and was led by Dr. Capelli. Since she was not going to be there with me, before or during the flight, we recorded our last session going through that routine. That way I could have it stored in my cell phone and available to me as I was sitting and waiting to board my flight. It worked like a charm the morning of my flight.

Planning

You also want to make sure you have everything related to the flight planned out well in advance. You certainly don’t want any surprises. Have all your flight information ready to go; know where you need to go when you get to the airport; have your bags packed the night before; have all your electronics fully charged; etc. Just be as prepared as possible.

For me personally, I knew that I’d be much more comfortable sitting toward the front of the plane and in an aisle seat. I’m not sure about all carriers, but with Frontier Airlines I was able to select exactly what seat I wanted. Having been on really crowded planes in the past, I knew how crowded they can get and how much more relaxed it feels sitting toward the front. For that reason, I’d recommend sitting somewhere in the first 5 rows.

Devices

A HUGE tool in my toolbox was my pair of Sony WH-1000XM3 Wireless Noise-Canceling Headphones. Prior to my incident that caused my fear of flying, the only point during a flight that made me noticeably nervous was immediately before take off when the jets fired up and began to roar. For some reason, that always made my heart beat quite a bit faster. I suppose because it meant go-time. Either way, Dr. Capelli helped me identify that and come up with a game plan to reduce that nervousness caused by the jets firing up. The solution was noise canceling headphones.

I’ll be the first to tell you good noise-canceling headphones are expensive. I really didn’t want to spend that kind of money on headphones, BUT I was ultimately willing to spend a ton of money to get over this fear. I was looking at all this as an investment into my future and overall quality of life. Purchasing those noise-canceling headphones was one of the best decisions I made. They are incredible and helped a TON! When I turn on the noise-canceling feature and play music, I can’t hardly hear anything. I couldn’t hear one voice from other passengers talking and I could barely hear the jets fire up.

If you think this might help you too, you should know I tested all the best “noise-canceling” headphones that were on the market. In my opinion, the Sony WH-1000XM3 were by far the best. You can find other options that are cheaper, but you likely won’t get near the noise-canceling capability.

I personally had two sound tracks on repeat for the entire flights down and back. The first was the Burn the Ships album by for King & Country. The second was Essentials on Apple Music by Hillsong Worship. I downloaded both via the apple music app on my iPhone. The key is having them downloaded so you don’t need wifi to play. I just blue-toothed my iPhone to the Sony WH-1000XM3 Wireless Noise-Canceling Headphones. However, make sure to test everything out a few days before your flight incase you have technical troubles.

I tried playing a movie on my iPad in the beginning of the flight to occupy my mind, but that wasn’t working. For me, music was key.

Other Important Items

This next item is a bit of a controversial one. I talked at great length with Dr. Capelli about the fact that I don’t like the idea of relying on medicine, but she recommended Xanax (Alprazolam) be taken 30 minutes before the flight and potentially once during the flight, depending on how long the flight was. Unfortunately, Xanax is abused by many people and your doctor may or may not prescribe it to you for flights. If your doctor denies your request, you could talk to them about only prescribing enough to get you through both flights. That’s typically just 2-4 pills. That way, the doctor can be confident you truly do just need them for the flight and that is it. The bottom line is that Xanax worked wonderfully for me. You should speak with your doctor about whether it might be a good thing to have for you when you fly. At least for the first couple times.

Also, your diet and exercise are really important. I know that’s not what many of you want to hear, but diet and exercise are both really influential on the mind. Try your best to be making good choices in that department.

Give Up Control

At some point, when you DO face for your fear, you have to somehow get comfortable with giving up control. Flying is unique in that you have to completely give up control, because you have absolutely no influence on the plane whatsoever. This is something Dr. Capelli and I spoke about a lot leading up to my flight.

I thought I was prepared, but then I was thrown a curveball. Less than 48 hours from my scheduled flight time, I was having a sensation of water in my ears. Similar to what you feel when you get done swimming, but I had not swam in over 6 months. Keep in mind my original incident was caused by an inner ear issue and I had been warned that my next flight could have serious consequences due to the dynamic of my inner ear.

Luckily, I was able to book an appointment with my doctor that day. I had my ears checked out, and, sure enough, there was fluid in my ears. They say it’s not fun for anyone to fly with fluid in the ears. Not to mention, someone who has had inner ear issues in the past. That really threw me for a loop and had me seriously considering backing out of the flight and just driving.

My flight was from Nashville TN to Orlando FL and I was only supposed to be in Orlando for 2 days related to a work conference. If I wasn’t going to fly, that was going to be one heck of a long drive. That said, my wife and I had recently had our first child. At that time, he was about 4 months old. Up until that point, I hadn’t thought much about the general safety difference between flying and driving, but statistically flying is much safer than driving. As I was looking at my 4 month old, I decided I was definitely going to fly no matter what, because I didn’t want anything to happen to me while driving. That said, even though I was having fluid issues with my ears, I decided to fly.

As I was sitting on the plane waiting for take off with my noise-canceling headphones on, I was extremely nervous, but then the most amazing thing happened. As soon as the jets fired up, by chance, the song Control by for King & Country started to play from my playlist. When the thrusters were hit and we started to accelerate faster, the chorus to that song kicked in. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I never thought that would be my take-a-way from the experience, but boy was it ever.

I’m religious, and I can’t help but think that song coming on when it did was absolutely a God moment. He was speaking to me through music telling me to just give up control. There is even a line in that song that says “won’t you make my eyes your eyes, my ears your ears…” Don’t forget about all the inner ear trouble I had and that fluid in my ears that started just 48 hours before the flight. I couldn’t have been listening to any more of a perfect song during take off.

I’ve included that song below, but before you hit play, I’d encourage you to sit back and imagine having a decade long fear of flying due to an incident caused by inner ear issues. Having had 10 years to wonder what would happen the next time you flew and really struggling year after year with the fact that you weren’t back to flying yet. Then close your eyes and really imagine being on that plane with the jets firing up, your eyes closed, and this song coming on for that take off moment. Like I said, it was just an unbelievable feeling to finally give up control and just “let go.” Maybe this song will help you too.

Final Thoughts

I was able to overcome my decade long fear of flying with specific steps outlined above. I understand it’s difficult to conquer fears alone and some people just have no idea where to start. That’s the primary reason I wrote this article. I had no idea where to start and it wasn’t until after I had been through the entire process that I was able to look back and see what it takes to overcome fear.

I’m very hopeful this article helps at least one person who is struggling with some sort of fear. If telling my story changes at least one life for the better, then I’ve accomplished my goal. I wish you the best of luck!

BY BRANDON VAGNER, CPA, Ph.D., & WALLET WIT FOUNDER