woman who needs confidence (Photo: Dornveek Markkstyrn; Getty Images)

Ready to kiss your fears goodbye? A positive attitude toward whatever you're afraid of, combined with exposure therapy (where you confront the source of your anxiety head-on), may help you overcome your fears for the long haul, according to new research out of Ohio State University. For the study, 40 adults with a fear of public speaking received exposure therapy that required them to prepare and deliver multiple five-minute speeches in a short amount of time. Researchers assessed the participants at different points throughout the study by taking several measures, including their heart rate and self-reported anxiety level. The researchers also used a test that showed how strongly participants associated public speaking with things they liked or didn't like.

"That measure of associative strength gives us a snapshot of their attitude," says Russell Fazio, PhD, a coauthor of the study.
When the participants came back for follow-up tests a month later, the ones who relapsed tended to be the people who associated public speaking with negative objects--while those with more positive associations maintained their progress.
Fazio says further research is needed to figure out why some people's attitudes toward their fear changed. One theory, however, is that the people with improved attitudes were the ones who gave themselves credit for mastering public speaking, rather than chalking up their initial successes to therapy or a therapist.

Have a fear of your own? Here, four tips for conquering it:

Ease Into It
If you have to give a presentation to an auditorium full of people--and you're terrified of public speaking--put in some prep work before you hit the podium. Build yourself up to increasingly difficult situations, says Peter Norton, PhD, a professor of psychology and director of the Anxiety Disorder Clinic at the University of Houston. "Start off at a level that's not going to be overwhelming for you but is still challenging," Norton says. "Stay there until you know you can handle it, that you're OK with it, and then move forward." So if public speaking gives you the heebie-jeebies, try talking into a mirror, move on to performing for a trusted friend, and then rehearse with a couple of colleagues. Giving the big speech will likely still be nerve-wracking--but you'll have put in the necessary legwork to overcome your stage fright.

Make a Game Plan
Coming up with a strategy can help you regain some control over the things that make you most anxious. If the thought of confrontation makes you nauseous, for example, figure out what exactly you want to say before you tell your roommate that, no, her boyfriend cannot set up permanent residence in your apartment. Envision your roomie's likely reactions, and prepare responses to them. If your fear is of flying--not fighting--brainstorm ways to put yourself at ease way before you pack your bags. Just making a plan of attack will help diminish that powerless feeling--and if you're able to follow through with it successfully, so much the better.

Hit the Gym
Distractions can be a major source of comfort when you're facing something scary--"anything you can do to keep your mind from going off in a bad direction helps," Norton says. One of the best ways to get your mind off of what ails you? Working out. Plus, research shows that people who exercise are more immune to stressors, says Jasper Smits, PhD, co-director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and coauthor of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety.

Call for Backup If Necessary
If the sight of cockroaches or needles makes you squeamish, it's not necessarily a big deal. (Really now: Who does like insects and shots?) But if your fear is preventing you from hanging out with friends, leaving your house, or following your normal routine, you might want to consider visiting a mental health professional for help. "It's when a fear really becomes disruptive to one's day-to-day life that it becomes valuable to seek out treatment," Fazio says.