This article contains some excerpts from the workbook “Turn Your Fear Into Courage“.
Fear is one of the first and the most common experiences of a baby. Our emotional patterns are stronger, more influential and more difficult to resolve if they are formed at very early ages. Therefore it makes sense that many people have more difficulties coping with fear and resolving it than working with anger, sadness and other emotions that babies experience less often or later than fear.
Children can be temporarily frightened by their own unpleasant experiences, but if they feel supported by their parents, their fear will diminish and probably not become a permanent pattern. If parental support is missing, lasting patterns of fear are far more likely to be created. A child who perceives that parents react in calm, confident ways to unpleasant situations, will learn to trust that (s)he would be able to cope too. Children who receive their parents’ support, learn to feel confident when facing life challenges.
However, if a child perceives parents as fearful and insecure, deep and lasting patterns of fear and worry might be created. From the perspective of such children, if such big, strong, smart people are afraid, than whatever they fear must be truly horrible. If parents, so much more powerful and experienced than children, cannot cope with a situation, how can children feel that they could cope? Some specific fears can be created in such a way, such as fear of poverty, disease or even spiders. Also, a vague, continuous, generalized fear we call anxiety might develop.
Psychologists have noticed that children of anxious, insecure mothers tend to be restless and cry often even as babies. This can easily be a consequence of learning the pattern of anxiety. If anxiety develops so early in life, an adult person who suffers from it might have trouble finding its cause.
Panic attack is a very stressful and debilitating experience. Panic can be expected in life-threatening situations; however, the topic of this paragraph is primarily apparently unreasonable panic attacks, the background of which can be unrealistic or difficult to determine.
Neurotic panic attacks can be triggered by mild events or even without a visible reason. They may cause physical and emotional symptoms such as: dizziness, nausea, hyperventilation, shivering, feelings of horror, paralysis, even feeling as if you are about to die. Panic attacks, after a while, can cause developing of a secondary fear of the future episodes, which is an additional emotional burden to people who suffer them.
Although science cannot easily prove subtle psychological causes of panic attacks, it is not wise to ignore them and focus exclusively on physiological aspects of the issue. The fact that panic attacks mostly occur in emotionally uncomfortable situations, for example public speeches, shows that they are not just random physiological reactions. The following story is a good example of uncovering unconscious causes of panic attacks.
A young woman I will call Tanya experienced her first panic attack when a friend she traveled with temporarily separated from her in a foreign city. More panic attacks followed, which became more common after the family house she lived since childhood was sold. Exploring the key aspects of those situations, we uncovered fear of losing control, as well as early experiences of fear of abandonment. A small child who feels abandoned, not knowing that it is temporary or why did it happen, can develop a sense of panic, which in future can be triggered even by tiny, seemingly random reminders.
Similar process can happen during public speeches. Panic is caused by exaggerated, generalized expectations of something extremely unpleasant. This indicates black and white perception which is characteristic for children. Many people experienced moments of helplessness, humiliation and/or loss of control when they were children in a world of seemingly omnipotent and omniscient adults. Children can build permanent patterns of fear on the foundation of such experiences.
How you can help yourself
“First aid” in situations of panic attacks can be:
- distract yourself by focusing on a small detail in the environment (for example a plant, a stone) or your own breathing
- focus on activities which can distract you from fear, such as talking to other people, singing, paying attention to your bodily movements and similar
- conscious thoughts: as our thoughts and expectations, not always conscious ones, direct our fears, it is important to put conscious efforts into redirecting them. Mentally repeat sentences such as “I am safe”, “Everything is all right.”, “This will pass quickly”, “I will be all right” and similar.
These approaches, however, can only bring temporary relief. To resolve the problem permanently, you need to work on its causes. Be aware that the cause of your fear might be in seemingly unimportant events in the earliest periods of your life, which you might not be able to remember consciously. I recommend that you also work on enhancing the quality of your internal dialogue. These topics will be the focus of the exercises in the second part of this book.
Choose a method of relaxation and practice it consistently so that you can apply it quickly in critical situations. Take good care of your body and avoid psychoactive substances such as alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. They can cause temporary, chemically induced relief, but when their effect expires, you might feel even worse than before. Besides, an addiction is never desirable.
Be willing to face life and stressful situations. You might need to prepare yourself up front – perhaps even a few days up front – by practicing encouraging yourself, being friendly to yourself, relaxing and imagining to behave in a way you want to. The more experience you create of successfully facing external challenges, the more you will feel that you can cope with future stressful situations.
Unlike panic attacks, the triggers and duration of which are often not predictable, phobias are usually related to fear of very clearly defined objects or situations, which are not realistically dangerous. Fear arises when facing the object of a phobia and generally dissipates after the object is removed. Otherwise, phobia symptoms can be similar to panic attacks: sudden and intense fear that makes us feel helpless, paralyzed and out of control, even if we are rationally aware that this is not realistic.
There are many theories of what causes phobias, and none are fully proven. It is possible that more than one can be correct, depending on each individual situation:
- Some theories speculate that phobias are atavism (that means, something that was a part of our distant ancestors’ genetic heritage, but was mostly bred out of humanity through evolution and now appears only very rarely). This can explain fear of snakes, heights, perhaps spiders and a few others, but not many other, sometimes bizarre phobias, such as fear of long words, fear of crossing a street, fear of a certain color and many other strange phobias.
- Some authors believe that the object of a phobia might be a symbol for a situation or a feeling that the person subconsciously fears or avoids facing. For example, spider can symbolize a net, which can symbolize a feeling of being stuck, entangled and imprisoned. Birds might symbolize freedom; Freud famously associated snakes (and many other things) with phallus and sexuality. Still, many other variations are left unexplained.
- There is also a possibility that a phobia might develop if a child sees parents expressing panic fear of a similar object. Sometimes, if a child experienced parents becoming ill and/or dying, (s)he can develop agoraphobia – fear of open spaces, often fear of leaving one’s own home – as a consequence of fear of developing sudden symptoms of disease and losing control.
- Sometimes, such as with phobia of dogs or social phobias (fear of public speeches, social contacts, blushing and similar), the object of a phobia can be the same or similar as the situation that originally caused fear. The original fear usually comes from early childhood, because childhood perception is characterized by intense emotions and exaggerated interpretations.
- It’s worthwhile to explore the possibility that phobias are based on frightening experiences in childhood, but (because of defense mechanism of avoidance), fear becomes focused on an irrelevant detail in the environment, rather than the real cause. If the real cause of fear is in the relationship with parents, children might find it easier to focus their fear on something that was randomly present in frightening situations, instead of becoming phobic of their own parents. This might not explain all kinds of phobia (such as phobia of snakes, for example), but it might explain many.
The last theory above is very nicely portrayed in an example by Martyn Carruthers. One of his clients was diagnosed with agoraphobia. Careful exploration uncovered the real fear as fear of the sound of chewing! Following this fear into the client’s past, he remembered an experience when he was 5 years old and his father took him skiing. While taking an elevator ride, the boy became scared of the height. To “teach him out of it”, the arrogant father took the child by his ankles and held him hanging upside down through the elevator window. All the time, the father was loudly chewing gum. To avoid being afraid of his own father and the feeling he cannot be trusted, the boy unconsciously focused his fear at the sound of chewing.
Another interesting example comes from a man I will call David. He suffered from fear of heights which made his daily life and business activities difficult. When asked if he was afraid of falling or jumping, his answer was: “Of jumping.”
We proceeded exploring this feeling and uncovered deep dissatisfaction with his own personality. David felt he was not good enough – he was not fulfilling other people’s expectations, especially his mother’s, who expected him to inherit and continue the family business. The unpleasant self-image was also rooted in much earlier, childhood years.
The third example is a young woman who was overly protected as a child. Her mother discouraged her from doing daily tasks and did as much as she could instead of the daughter. The daughter never managed to develop any self-confidence and trust that she would be able to face the challenges of an adult life. She was afraid even to go into a supermarket and do her shopping. She was diagnosed as agoraphobic, yet I would say that such a label was misleading regarding the true nature of her fear.
As you can see from these examples, the causes of phobias are diverse and interesting. It is worthwhile to explore them with a qualified person. As the first aid, you can use the approaches described earlier under “Panic attacks: How you can help yourself”.
A common practical method is called desensitization: slow and long term learning to face the object of phobia through mild exposure at first, followed by gradually more intense challenges. Desensitization does not explore the underlying causes of phobias, though, so it is best combined with methods which explore the subconscious roots of fear.
Anxiety is chronic, persistent vague fear. It is significantly milder than panic, but some people feel it most of the time. Anxiety is often not restrained to a specific object or a recognizable cause. We can describe it as a vague, generalized fear that something bad might happen, often without a specific idea of what or why. Sometimes anxiety might be focused to a certain type of situations, such as social contacts, yet it remains rather non-specific. It can last for years, sometimes intense, sometimes just “lurking” in the background of consciousness.
Anxiety can be logically associated to earliest experiences in life – since birth to approximately the third year of life (but not necessarily limited to that age). This is the age in which children’s perception of their environment is diffuse and foggy, instinctive and emotional, not focused and analytic.
Young children have no clear idea what kind of world this is or what to expect from it; they tend to generalize everything they experience. If they perceive their environment as unsafe, they can create a generic, foggy idea of an abstract, omnipresent threat. Such perceived danger can be even more frightening because it is not clearly defined. If there are no clear expectations, children are free to create the worst possible scenarios in their minds.
Some examples of such frightening situations for young children are:
- experiencing separation and abandonment (for example, babies and toddlers who are often left to sleep alone at night and their cries are not answered);
- emotional tension or continuous conflicts between parents;
- inconsistent, unpredictable parents, or parents who overreact to children’s unwanted behavior
- exaggerated expectations by parents, or any circumstances in which children feel they have to act with maturity and experience that is way beyond their current age (for example, if a parent becomes sick or disabled)
- unpleasant experiences with the world outside of the family (strangers, television programs), especially if parents do not provide adequate emotional support
- particularly important: fearful or anxious parent(s).
Compared to panic attacks and phobia, anxiety is more likely to be “inherited” through several generations – children learn it through imitating parents. If a godlike, strong and wise parent (from a child’s perspective) cannot cope with the world, how could children expect to learn to do so?
While anxiety might be a part of our genetic heritage (it makes sense to assume that fearful, cautious individuals were more likely to notice and avoid danger and therefore survive long enough to have offspring), the environment plays a big role in its development, just like with many other of our genetic potentials.
Here is an interesting example by a woman I will call Mary. She described her anxiety as fear of something that in her mind she perceived as huge, threatening black cloud which was radiating malice. We started exploring for more information, and eventually found out that the black cloud was a dissociated part of herself – she was actually afraid of her own unpleasant emotions and “selfish” urges, which her rigid and uncompassionate early family taught her to condemn and suppress.
Suppressed emotions tend to feel stronger and stronger while striving to break into the consciousness. They might be biological instincts we were never taught how to deal with in constructive ways, or they might be emotions related to childish beliefs and needs, striving to make us pay attention to what those parts of us perceive as important. Many nightmares are caused by suppressed emotions that symbolically “chase” us.
If this is the cause of our anxiety, once we pay attention and listen to these emotions, once we can deal with them in mature ways, anxiety can disappear in a surprisingly short time. Ideally, we should work on resolving emotional impressions from childhood, while in the same period of time practicing new, healthy ways of fulfilling our emotional needs.
While some people fear that their own emotions might hurt others, more people fear that they would be overwhelmed by shame, fear or guilt in unpleasant social situations, or that they wouldn’t be able to stand up for themselves and act in assertive ways. This fear can fuel generalized anxiety related to social contacts and conflicts. If we avoid such challenges, or if we withdraw and allow other people to treat us without consideration, we learn to expect that we will allow it in the future, too. Thus every new experience of avoidance or withdrawal adds to our anxiety.
If this is your problem, you will need to learn supportive inner dialogue. You will need to learn to remain true to yourself and remember who you are (and how old you are) in moments when you are likely to forget it. You also need to find out what are the roots of your fears, so that you can detach those fears from present life situations. Finally, you need to gently start facing threatening situations, so that you can build confidence and be able to deal with them in future.
Pay attention to all the advice in the paragraph “Panic attacks: How you can help yourself”. Long term stress can exhaust your body and influence your physical health, so pay particular attention to balanced nutrition and workout to keep your body in a good physical shape. Amino acid supplements such as tryptophan can support feel-good hormones, while l-theanine, lysine and arginine can lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
The most important goal when dealing with various types of fear is not so much the disappearance of fear, as the sense of confidence that you can deal with any situation life might throw at you. This means developing trust in yourself, that you will support yourself instead of avoiding your own emotions, no matter what happens. In order to develop that kind of self-confidence, it is necessary to develop a close relationship with yourself.