01/18/2014 08:09 am ET Updated Mar 20, 2014

How I Conquered My Greatest Lifelong Fears

Sometimes, when you shine a light on your fear it doesn't look so bad. Not always, of course. But I've found that burying my fears seems to fuel them. When I come right out and admit what's scaring me I'm often surprised to find that I'm not alone. And that in itself brings comfort.

For years, for instance, I kept my fear of driving and flying a deep, dark, secret. I had plenty of excuses for not going to visit friends and family in faraway places (the kids were too little to leave and I didn't want to drag them along, financial issues, scheduling conflicts). The bottom line was that I just couldn't bring myself to come right out and say, "I can't get myself on an airplane. I'm too scared." Or, "I just can't drive on that route, it frightens me too much."

Had I been up front about these fears, what might have happened? People might have laughed at me. Ridiculed me. Pitied me, or even worse, crossed me off their friend list as too weird to hang around with. I was too proud and ashamed to tell the truth and so I never found out if they would have admitted, "Yes, I have that fear too, but here's what I did about it," or "Let's find you another way to get there," or even "Here's the number of a good shrink!"

Actually, that is what happened when I confessed one of my deepest fears -- the fear of my then 15-year-old traveling by air alone -- to one of my best friends. She handed me a slip of paper with a name and number and sent me off to a therapist. The woman talked to me about my fears and then suggested I try beta-blockers or yoga. I chose the latter, and thus began my transformation to "fearlessness."

Now, I'm really not totally without fear but things have changed a lot. For one thing, I've realized that everyone has something they're afraid of so there's really no reason to hide. I have a friend who is terrified of airports (problem solved if she could get the pilot to pick her up at her door!). One is afraid of fish (uncooked, that is) so she will not swim in an ocean or lake. Another is afraid of bees, another of spiders. Even my husband who never is afraid of anything freaked out when he once climbed into a little underground cave at the children's zoo. Apparently, being in an enclosed space scared the crap out of him (I was smart enough to know that such a place would cause a panic attack and would have let my son -- who thought it was great fun -- go in solo).

A few weeks ago, I was at a yoga class when we were making introductions and sharing some of our concerns. I mentioned that prior to practicing yoga I couldn't get on an airplane or even drive on a particular highway to get to the center. My throat would tighten, my hands would sweat and clench, and I'd be wrapped in a cloak of terror simply at the thought of getting on that road. Now I drive on that highway several times a week and think nothing of it (I also finally managed to get on a plane and am now planning my next flight). The only thing that has changed in my life is I've gotten older (which I suspect usually makes things like this worse!) and I've learned to breathe slowly and chant mantras. Oh...and trust. That's a biggie.

Much to my surprise, after the class a beautiful young woman who always appears to be very composed told me she too has trouble with driving. She doesn't go on that highway either. She can't drive on any highway, really.

I have hope for her because she's begun practicing yoga and because she was brave enough to let that fear come out of hiding. And I realize that ultimately, it's all about...well... I'll just just say it: Death. I wouldn't even let the "until death do us part" sentence be uttered at my wedding: That's how much I feared it!

Right up there with death is fear of public speaking -- a fear that so many share.

The tricky thing about that one is you really can't hide it. If you must speak publicly there's no denying that your voice and hands are shaking, your knees are quaking and your voice is wobbling. Everyone knows (not just a select few) which makes it pretty embarrassing.

I've found three things that help with this: 1) Yoga, because it helps you find confidence, grace, and balance 2) EFT, or emotional freedom technique (a method that uses tapping on specific meridian points) and 3) Exposure -- the more you do it the easier it becomes. The problem with the third method is that if you hate public speaking you will probably just say no whenever you have the opportunity. I did that for years, but now, with a new book coming out, there is just no running away.

Most likely, I'm never going to overcome all of my fears and I don't really care if I do. Bungee jumping, for instance, or skydiving. I'm just not going there. But everyday fears like driving on the highway, speaking up at a meeting or in a class, or getting on an airplane need to be conquered so that we can live life fully.

The first step, I've found, is coaxing your fear out of the closet. Only then can others step forward to help you help yourself.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

What Are You Afraid Of In Midlife?