How 5 Women Overcame Their Biggest Phobias

By Nicole Pajer
Reviewed by Rebecca Thurston, Ph.D.
September 22, 2023

Are you afraid of spiders? Hate to stand near the edge of a cliff? Terrified of public speaking? You’re not alone. An estimated 12.5 percent of American adults experience a phobia at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

4 Ways to Overcome a Phobia

The good news is that “fears can be conquered, even later in life,” says Puja Aggarwal, M.D., a board-certified neurologist in Orlando, Florida. Aggarwal shares four strategies for overcoming fear:

  1. Identify your phobia. Name it and recognize it.
  2. Write about it. Record how you feel about your fears and its impact on you. Jot down alternative thoughts you’d like to have about your fear or phobia.
  3. Visualization with relaxation. Relax your body through progressive muscle relaxation or another method. Visualize yourself facing your phobia. Can you face that thing you’re afraid of? What would that look like? Visualize yourself living without your phobia. What might that version of your life look like? How would you feel? Can you calm your body as you do this? Keep breathing. Practicing relaxation with visualization can decouple the body’s fear response from the object of your fear and make it easier to face in real life.
  4. Seek out the help of a therapist. Look for a licensed mental health professional who specializes in helping people overcome phobias. You may also want to consider attending a support group that’s led by a therapist who’s professionally trained to educate around specific phobias and fears.

You have more choice in the matter than you may think. “Developing the awareness that most of the time fears are about knowing the difference you make in your head, and whether or not to react or respond to them, is an important factor that can be a simple place to start,” says Catherine Lenard, a life coach and author of Your Divine Riches: Your How To Guide for Creating the Life You Want.

5 Phobias Conquered by Women in Midlife—and How They Did It

Ready to be inspired to ditch your fear and move on? Here, five women share the fears they overcame in midlife.

1. Fear of Elevators

For as far back as she can remember, Sally Gibson, 57, of Reading, England, was terrified of using “the lift” (elevators).

“It was to the point where I would choose to go up or down a huge number of steps and be gasping for breath at the end just to avoid using them,” she recalls. Sally thinks her fears began with a slight claustrophobia. “The thought of being stuck and left in such an enclosed space still makes me shiver,” she says.

In her mid-40s, when one of her family members developed a health issue and she had to go to the hospital frequently, Sally realized that her phobia had become a problem. “The last thing a sick family member wants when going to see a specialist is someone taking forever to drag themselves up 20 flights of stairs or looking for different ways to reach the fifth floor,” she says.

That’s when Sally decided to tackle her elevator fear. “In the end, it came down to just forcing myself to use them,” she says. “I started small, just going up one or two floors, and built up from there.”

Over time, and with nothing going wrong or getting stuck, she became less terrified. “That and the motivation of my unwell relative meant I've got to the point where I can use them now,” she says.

2. Fear of Heights

Since she went on a tall amusement ride as a child, Maureen Frank, 68, of Corvallis, Oregon, has lived with a paralyzing fear of heights. “All my life I missed out on anything that involved heights, like rides at amusement parks and visiting the original World Trade Center,” she says. Once during a trip to New York City, she froze on the steps of the base of the Statue of Liberty.

When she turned 42, Maureen and her husband planned their first trip to Europe. “I was so tired of missing out on things because of my fear of heights that I made it my goal to be able to go up the Eiffel Tower without fear,” she recalls.

To make that happen, Maureen saw a hypnotherapist for six weeks and learned that her fear was rooted in a trauma from the past, which she spent some time working through. “When it was finally time to go up the Eiffel Tower, I was nervous but not terrified,” Maureen says.

She actually enjoyed looking out in all directions from the top of the tower and even ran up the stairs to get there. “In Ireland, I kissed the Blarney stone with ease,” she says, a feat for the height-fearing, since it requires climbing 128 stone steps. “Since then, I’ve been riding and loving roller coasters, the higher the better,” she says.

Her next test for herself is to hop on one of the roof rides atop the Strat hotel and casino, on the Las Vegas Strip.

3. Fear of Dogs

Tasha Holland-Kornegay, Ph.D., 48, a mental health therapist in Sanford, North Carolina, spent 43 of her 48 years being terrified of dogs. When her son turned 3, she realized she didn’t want to pass that fear on to him and wanted to get him his own canine.

“I got over my fear by using a dose of my own medicine that I’ve suggested to hundreds of people throughout my career,” she says. “I used exposure therapy.”

Tasha says she started with reading everything she could about the animals. The more she educated herself, the less fearful she became. “I binged hours on reading and watching cute doggie videos, and instead of avoiding dogs, I made sure to be around friends and family members who were dog owners,” she says.

After a lot of research and help from family and friends, Tasha finally found herself more comfortable around pooches. “I am now a proud owner of a beautiful goldendoodle.”

4. Fear of Sharks

Rita Tennyson, 50, of Los Angeles, was 4 when the movie Jaws was released, and the trailer for the film alone made her terrified of sharks.

“I couldn’t walk close to the TV when it was on,” Rita says. “I couldn't go in a pool alone and even had trouble taking showers, always wanting to keep my eyes open! And I couldn't touch photos of sharks or toy sharks,” she says.

When she tried going snorkeling on her honeymoon, putting on the mask and listening to her breath made her think of Jaws, and she froze. But she was determined to work through her fear and made herself go snorkeling anyway.

Over the years, she dabbled in other shark-related adventures, eventually working her way up to watching the movie she feared, and then the ultimate test: swimming with lemon sharks off the coast of Catalina Island in her mid-40s. “I'm now 50 and have a Jaws poster hanging behind me at work,” she proclaims. “I am obsessed with sharks.”

5. Fear of Public Speaking

Julie Neale, 50, of San Mateo, California, was afraid of being in the spotlight. “For almost two decades, I was a behind-the-scenes person who supported leaders in nonprofit organizations and young people to step into their voice,” she says. But when she reached midlife, she realized she was losing herself in motherhood and wanted to speak out more about issues important to her.

“On my 45th birthday, I launched the Mother's Quest podcast and community and began using my voice to share my story, to inspire other mothers, and to interview mothers making a variety of changes, especially those involved in social justice issues,” Julie says. She began speaking out about police brutality at community meetings and conferences and urging officials to take action.

“One thing that has provided me some additional inspiration to step beyond my comfort zone was reconnecting to my grandmother's legacy,” Julie says. “She dedicated her career as a voice and elocution teacher to help women of all ages to use their voice. I now often look at a photo of her [for inspiration] when I'm getting ready to take on a particularly challenging podcast episode.”

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