Why Order Your Fears Into A Hierarchy?

Why Order Your Fears Into A Hierarchy? Think back to first grade, if you can. Alphabet posters on the wall, Dr. Seuss books, and simple math.

You were probably pretty comfortable with counting to ten, twenty, thirty, and beyond. In first grade, you probably began doing some easy addition and subtraction problems, too.

Maybe you used flashcards. Maybe you remember your teacher using beans or pasta or coins to illustrate the concept of adding something more or taking something away.

And then, you feel like a genius when you master 7 + 2.

And then, you move right into long division. Right?

No. Come on. Of course not. You can’t jump right to long division right after learning how to add. It just doesn’t make sense.


And likewise, it doesn’t make sense to dive right into treating your worst fears when you’ve got some minor and mid-level fears that you need to work on first.

In The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, author Edmund Bourne suggests ordering your fears into a hierarchy so that you can approach them in a way that makes sense. You should order your fears from least to greatest, much like the study of mathematics is divvied up in order of difficulty from 1st grade through 5th grade in elementary school.

You start with the basics, and only challenge yourself further once you’ve mastered a level. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division.

Why should approaching anxiety and phobias be any different? It shouldn’t be!

Here in our grown-up lives, we’re talking about fear of heights or highways, or fear of public speaking, or the fear of social interaction. These too can be divided into levels that can be transformed into thinly-sliced targeted and workable goals.

And I’ll help. Go grab a sheet of paper.


First, start by thinking of a situation that involves your fear in some way, but barely bothers you. If you’re afraid of spiders, maybe picturing a cartoon spider is okay. If you’re afraid of heights, maybe looking out of a 2nd-story window is fairly benign. You’ll write this scenario down at the very top of your paper.

Then, think of the most frightening or challenging scene that involves your fear — say, holding a tarantula or riding a roller coaster. Write down this fear somewhere close to the bottom of your sheet of paper.

From there, you’ll work in additional scenes — at least 8 more — and write them down in ascending order between your most mild fear and your most intense fear.

To continue with the spider example, you might follow up your initial “picturing a cartoon spider” with “picturing a real spider”, and then perhaps “looking at a cartoon spider”. Then, later on down the page, perhaps “looking at a spider that’s trapped in a jar”, “holding a closed jar that contains a live spider”, and so on.

Be creative and honest with yourself in this exercise!


Unwittingly, you’ve just created a plan of attack — a war plan for facing your fear.

Now that you have your list in front of you, re-word each step in your hierarchy into a goal. I’ll give you an example of one that I created for myself based upon my results to the above activity. The fear I used was grocery shopping:

1. Drive to the grocery store and park. Just sit there for awhile, and go home. (This is the idea from above that “barely bothers me”.)

2. Drive to the grocery store, get out of your car, and just sit by the entrance for a few minutes.

3. Drive to the grocery store, walk into the entrance for a few moments, and then walk out.

Now, this might seem like overkill so far. But Bourne encourages these teeny-tiny steps — they make it fairly easy to progress from one level to the next, and don’t leave you too nervous about the next step being too big a jump from the last one.

Let’s go on:

4. Drive to the grocery store, walk inside for several minutes, but don’t buy anything. Then, leave.

5. Drive to the grocery store, walk inside, find a single item that you need, and buy it. Then, leave.

6. Drive to the grocery store, walk inside, and find two or three items that you need. Buy them, then leave.

If you’re not afraid of grocery stores, these steps probably look painfully redundant to you. But if you truly have a phobia of grocery shopping (which isn’t uncommon in agoraphobia!), these small steps might be the perfect pace for you.

Continue translating your scenes into tangible goals — all the way to the bottom of the page. All the way to your “biggest” fear.

As unthinkable as tackling that fear might seem right now, it won’t be all that unthinkable once you put step number 5 or 6 into practice. Like elementary school math, one step will slowly and eventually lead to the next.

There’s no need to stare at a long division problem with a dumbfounded face when you’re still adding with your fingers, so let go of your focus on the bottom of the page right now. That will come in time.

Just focus on accomplishing the first step.

Photo: Jelene Morris (Flickr)

Why Order Your Fears Into A Hierarchy?

Summer Beretsky

Summer Beretsky enjoys writing about her experiences with anxiety, panic, and Paxil. She had her first panic attack as an undergrad at Lycoming College and plenty more while she worked toward her M.A. in Communication from the University of Delaware. She contributes to the World of Psychology blog here on PsychCentral and has written for the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @summerberetsky.

One comment: View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Beretsky, S. (2013). Why Order Your Fears Into A Hierarchy?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Sep 2013
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.