Overcoming Fear by Learning how to Eat the Rat

Written by Rita Schulte

I’ve spent the last few years eating rats.

No, I don’t live in a third world country, and I don’t have some weird rat fetish. “Eating the rat” is a term I coined after reading a book by J. Gordon Liddy years ago. He was terrified of rats, so to overcome his fear he caught a rat, cooked it, and ate it! End of story— and end of fear.

Some of the rats I’ve had to eat over the past few years have included the fear of flying in a small airplane, the fear of tiny spaces, and the fear of having panic attacks. These fears were making my life miserable.

overcoming_fear_by_learning_to_eat_the_ratMy husband became a pilot and bought an airplane, so I couldn’t travel with him. I’d freak out in small spaces, and because I once had a panic attack, I was convinced I would have more.

If any of this resonates with you, and you’ve been living a sub-par life because of your fears, it’s time for you to “eat the rat.”

How do you do it?

The first step is to identify your specific fears and the beliefs driving them. The experience of anxiety for any fear goes past a feeling; you believe it’s in stone that something bad will happen.

For example, my fear of small planes was centered on a belief that they weren’t safe. The anxiety I experienced at the slightest noise or unpredictable sound meant danger—we were going to crash.

I was afraid to get into small spaces because I believed I would be trapped and suffocate. I climbed a lot of stairs to avoid elevators.

People who are afraid avoid. That’s the worst thing you can do. Avoiding will only strengthen your fear! Using what counselors call exposure with response prevention, you can conquer your fear and “eat the rat” too.

Here’s how to begin:

Make a subjective units of distress list

List the least anxiety-provoking situation related to your fear, and then work up to the greatest. Here were mine relating to the fear of small spaces:

  • Seeing the elevator
  • Knowing I have to get in the elevator alone
  • Standing in the elevator with the door open
  • Getting in the elevator and seeing door close
  • Riding in the elevator with a support person
  • Riding in the elevator alone

Start “eating the rat” one bite at a time

Start with the least anxiety-provoking task. Exposure requires putting yourself in real life situations, so your first step will be to stand at the elevator door and feel the anxiety. Don’t avoid it. Sit with it. Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen if you get in (being trapped, suffocating) and how could you deal with it. You may have to do this for a few times before you move to your next task.

Take the next bite

Once your comfortable with standing at the elevator, move up your anxiety hierarchy list, making sure to prevent avoidance. Continued exposure to the feared stimulus (elevator) will eventually cause you to become accustom to your fearful feelings. Eventually, being in the elevator alone will become more and more normal.

Over estimating danger is at the root of many fears. My belief that small airplanes are unsafe is contradicted by statistics that show small planes crash significantly less than cars.

In addition, recent statistics show that 85% of what we worry about never even happens!

But what about more abstract fears like having a panic attack for no apparent reason. How do we handle that?

Through imaginary exposure.

Start by thinking about panicking. Create a scenario in your mind where you panic, and sit with the anxiety. Imagine every terrible outcome you can.

Now ask yourself: How would you handle it? What could you do? Then consider these options:

  • Practice deep relaxation breathing
  • Practice muscle relaxation
  • Stop negative self-talk
  • Use positive counter-statements to deal with your anxiety
  • Learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable
  • Talk with your doctor
  • Talk to a therapist
  • Go to an anxiety support group

To overcome an abstract fear there is really only one solution—acceptance. If you’re fighting against your fear, you’re fighting the wrong battle. Accept yourself fears and all.

Once I was willing to have a panic attack, I could shift my focus to how I’d get through it, and not the fear—rat eaten!

You may want to see a licensed therapist if your fears are extremely debilitating. Doing exposure is hard work, but the payoff is well worth it.

How about you, what rats are running around in your life that you need to start thinking about eating? What steps have you taken to conquer the fears in your life?

Some Amazing Comments


About the author

Rita Schulte

Rita A. Schulte is a licensed professional counselor in the Northern Virginia/DC area. She is the host of Heartline Podcast and Consider This. Her shows air on several radio stations as well as the Internet. They can be downloaded from Rita writes for numerous publications and blogs. Her articles have appeared in Counseling Today Magazine, Thriving Family, and Christianity Today, Kyria. Her book on moving through the losses of life will be released in Fall 2013 by Leafwood Publishers. Follow her at


  • Reminds of a Napoleon Hill quote, ‘Fear, the worst of all enemies, can be effectively cured by forced repetition of acts of courage’
    And they will be FORCED at first because every emotion in your body will be telling you to run. Stick with it, though, and you’ll find that even your greatest fears will subside. As Rita says, DON’T avoid the things you fear.

  • Thanks for this informative post. What usually happens is that whenever we are faced with a situation we don’t like, what is termed as fear, we tend to avoid it… resist it. As the LOA says, “What you resist persists”, so with fear. The moment you “accept” the situation, half the battle is won, the next being overcoming it – that’s when the “EAT THE FROG” part comes in. While J. Gordon Liddy literally cooked and ate that rat, to overcome his fears of rats, what he in fact did was to tell his sub-conscious rats are not to be feared. Something which you did with your elevator space phobia. It’s all a creation of the mind, and what the mind creates, it can as well destroy. Use your powers of creative visualisation to do it!

  • Hey Rita,

    Great post about overcoming fears.

    I believe most fears came around simply because our minds assumed things and we believed them. Looking back at our assumptions and challenging them in tiny little steps is definitely works. A good plan with a series of small steps is definitely the way to go!

    Time to work on eating up my own rats now.

  • This was a very straight to the point solution to handling fears!!! It allows me to both visualize actually eating the rat and walking through the steps. It reminds me of the term used by Brian Tracy to help individuals stop procrastinating “EAT THAT FROG”. I have used this term for many years and I believe I may have to add “EAT THAT RAT” to my repertoire as well. Thank you so much for the post.

  • Okay – how about losing your job, becoming homeless and living under an overpass with only a thin piece of cardboard between you and the hard, dirty concrete? How about freezing and starving to death due to being homeless? – this is a constant fear that no amount of “self-talk” or what have you ameliorates because people DO become homeless and they DO live under overpasses and they DO die on the street!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Oh my gosh yattwood I can’t even imagine. Your story is heartbreaking. I am so sorry for all your losses. But don’t give up! Surely there is a shelter or a church or someone that can help you. If you want to email me, i can maybe do some research on somewhere in your area, providing your in the US. As a counselor, i talk with people all the time that have gone through unspeakable loss and tragedy, so please don’t think this was meant to minimize your struggle. Life is hard and sometimes unfair, but I believe that you CAN overcome. There is a book by Andy Andrews called The Noticer. If you can get it read it. It will offer you hope.

      • I appreciate your concern; I am not currently homeless; I am employed as an Oracle Database Administrator; and I’ve been employed since 29 August 1979…what I was describing is my FEAR of becoming unemployed and homeless and dying – a visceral fear that is not diminished by the stories in the media about those who ARE currently homeless – because it does happen to people – and I don’t know how not to have it happen to ME…

        • Fear is a powerful force Yattwood. I personally struggled with anxiety issues a number of years ago and I know. The key is not to avoid your fear but face it. I have a lot of free helps on my site. I even did a podcast on fear with Grace Fox. It is from a faith based perspective, so if you don’t mind that take a listen. I am also going to be putting up a webinar on cognitive distortions this week for subscribers. It will talk about thinking errors we all make that contribute to our fears. I hope some of this will help you. Blessings

  • Rita, outstanding post!

    I’m forward the link to all my friends!

    Thanks for your perspectives, and thanks for making this accessible and attainable to me and so many other men and women!

    Norm III

  • I’ve found one of the most effective ways for me to deal with a fear or avoidance is to simply remind myself to switch off the emotions for a little bit and just get to work chopping wood so to speak.

    Emotions are irrational and when it comes to dealing with a fear or something we don’t want to do emotions aren’t often our friends. I really just mentally say “I have to do this – stop thinking/feeling”, it sounds silly but I sort of just imagine myself as a stoic during those times.

    • Feelings aren’t facts Aaron, so you’re right we can’t always trust they are bearers of truth. sometimes we have to just forge ahead and do something “afraid” in so doing it becomes less and less fearful and has less control over us. Thx for commenting

  • Rita, this article will have a great impact for anyone suffering from fear. I love how you laid out therapeutic methods so simply! And, you were so transparent. I’m glad God has showed you how to “eat the rat” and pass on this way of handling fear to the rest of us. You are such an excellent therapist. Your clients are so blessed. I am going to share this one! Love you!

  • Hi Rita–

    Great suggestions for overcoming fear. Like they say in Toastmasters…the point isn’t to eliminate the butterflies….but to at least get them to fly in formation! And the idea of eating rats is certainly catchy…but it did remind me of the quote by Lily Tomlin who said,, “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat!” Thanks again for the ideas!

  • Such a good message Rita! My “eating the rat” became “facing the dog” after being attacked by a german shepherd three years ago. The scars on my hand have healed, but the wound to my soul has taken all this time to mend. I have other rats too. This past weekend, my husband and I stayed on the 30th floor of a hotel with one full wall of glass. Living in California, I get nervous being that high for fear of earthquakes. But, I stayed there for three nights and, thank God, here I’m safe and sound. Thank you for your wisdom and encouragement.

  • Loved the “Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Funny, I just had a radio interview and felt a panic attack coming on. Speaking on a platform to large audiences is fun to me. Speaking into a telephone to one unseen interviewer is uncomfortable. Yet, my interviews go well. Tomorrow my interview is with you on Heartline. Looking forward to being comfortable with the uncomfortable.

    Blessings to you Rita! Talk to you tomorrow. I really am looking forward to our time together.

  • Hi Rita,
    This is so true about fears. When I was young I had fears about certain people, especially authoritative types. With time, and exposure these limiting beliefs about people began to diminish.

    Fear starts and ends with the mind and when can get a grip on that we can get a grip on our fears.

    Take Care.

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