Fear can provoke us to make positive change, but it can also hold us back from achieving our goals. This article examines what happens when fears become irrational, taking a look ‘behind the scenes’ to see what is really going on. Irrational fear of a particular object or situation may in fact be a phobia, and needs to be dealt with differently to achieve a successful outcome.
We often think of phobias as being a fear about a particular object or situation. We have all experienced fear, and can relate to how it helps us keep safe when facing a threat. The physiological stress response we are so familiar with – fight or flight – enables us to get away from the danger and go back to feeling comfortable and secure. Actually, phobias have been separately identified as a form of anxiety1. Anxiety is distinct from fear, and creates behaviours that are designed to move us closer to a person or place that makes us feel safe. One of the reasons the two are confused is that the physiological fight or flight response is activated by both mechanisms, even if the ultimate aim is different.
Both fear and anxiety can be understood as evolutionary impulses designed to keep us safe. From birth we experience fear of heights and loud noises, wanting to get away from them. Then we experience anxiety when separated from our caregivers. Human infants depend on external care to survive, and adults are hard-wired to respond to an infant’s signs of distress. The consistent presence of the responsive adult alleviates the distress, but for infants who suffer from traumatic or prolonged separation patterns of anxiety can last well into adult life.
It is very normal for young children to be overwhelmed by such circumstances, as they often cannot make sense of what feels to them to be very painful. Further, mixed feelings about the absent person can create intense guilt and confusion. To protect themselves, the distress may be tucked away into the recesses of the unconscious, allowing the individual to feel very little distress about the loss of the person they needed the most. Unfortunately, the anxiety will always come out in other ways, usually in ways that seem irrational. This anxiety may become fixed to a particular object or situation and it is often only through deep unconscious exploration that the connections can be made2.
Hypnotherapy is an excellent tool for safely uncovering such connections, but in fact many individuals do not want or need to dig so deep. For most people, it is enough to deal with the symptoms of anxiety and to gently build up their confidence in their ability to face the situation. Not only can hypnotherapy help you soothe the physiological stress response, but you can also learn to increase your tolerance of discomfort. Once you know you are able to manage the resulting internal tensions, you can be supported to safely experiment with the things that caused anxiety in the past. Using visual-emotive strategies, just like top athletes rehearse their game, you can also experience yourself as successfully dealing with the focus of the phobia.
Of course the next step is up to you. Once you leave the therapy session it is up to you to take that next step and go out and face the previously avoided object or situation. Getting support from a loved one can be especially useful at this stage. As we saw, the cause of anxiety is separation from a caregiver. To alleviate the experience of separation as an adult, you do not need the same person, just someone who you feel connected with. If you still struggle, it may be that you do need to explore the deeper issues of separation and relationship within the supportive and more long-term experience of counselling. The therapeutic relationship can help you to restore the experience of connection, and to enable you to seek deeper relationships with others in your life. This relational foundation can alleviate many symptoms of both anxiety and fear, and allow you a freedom you may never have known before.
Take some time to consider the following questions for yourself. Take care of yourself as you do so, as uncomfortable issues may arise. If you would like some support in sorting through your discoveries please feel free to get in touch.
- Are you aware of any irrational fears you have or have had? If you have tried to overcome them how successful have your attempts been?
- What was your experience of separation as a young child? Have you any family stories of absent parents or your own separation anxiety?
- How do you feel now as an adult about people leaving? Do you experience distress or else deny it has any impact at all?
- What relationships do you have that help you feel safe? How brave could you be if you knew that person (or persons) were there for you fully?
- John Bowlby (1998) Separation: Anxiety and Attachment, Pimlico, London
- Nemiah, J.C. Am J Psychoanal (1981) 41: 115. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01253715
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