Managing Fear - Setting aside the burden and becoming free
Some time ago, I was returning home to Minneapolis, Minnesota from a conference in Denver. I had just gotten through security.
I was putting my shoes back on after having passed through the metal detector, putting my luggage back together, etc. This included my
satchel, which (not by accident) had a National Guild of Hypnotists logo prominently visible. Suddenly, amid the flow of people, a man stopped
me with an "excuse me, sir, could you hypnotize my wife?"
I followed his gesture to see a woman sitting at a nearby departure gate. She had a frightened look on her face. I asked her how I could help her and she answered that she was afraid of flying. She had never been on an airplane before and wanted to know if I could help her get over her fear.
I asked her if she had ever been hypnotized before. She hadn't. She knew about it, though and had always been interested in it. I asked her if she had ever daydreamed, gotten lost in a good book or movie, lost herself in something she was doing, etc. Her answer was a resounding yes, so I invited her to sit comfortably (as much as possible in an airport waiting area) and close her eyes. She went immediately into a light trance, enough to do some useful NLP work. I asked her to recall a few times in her life when she felt strong, confident, in control of her world. She easily slipped into some positive scenarios. As she experienced the emotion of each, I invited her to touch a finger to her thumb - anchoring a tiny reminder of these moments.
I then asked her to imagine walking down the jetway, hand in hand with her husband, (who was sitting right next to her with us in the airport). She tensed up for a moment until I again asked her to touch her finger to her thumb. Instantly this reminded her of her previous positive moment. She relaxed, a smile crossing her face as in her mind, they were walking happily down the corridor to board their plane. I counted her out of trance with a few reinforcing suggestions and they were on their way. I never saw them again so I have no idea what happened after that. All I know is that in an instant, she had gone from abject terror to the happy anticipation of traveling on vacation with her husband.
This wasn't the first, nor was it the last time someone would approach me to ask for help. Airports are particularly stressful places and often bring out the worst in personal fears. But there are plenty of other times and places that bring out our fear, as well. There is a truly endless list of them in our environment. Fear of heights, public speaking, water, snakes, the dark - these are just a few that come to mind.
To some degree, fear can have a healthy role in our lives. It keeps us out of danger. It protects us from saber toothed tigers, heavy traffic and crooked financiers. It helps us avoid falling off cliffs or drowning in fast-moving water. Yet when fear goes beyond its useful role, it becomes a burden. It can limit the daily activities of life, preventing us from enjoying the many things our world has to offer.
What is fear? It is a negative emotion, an avoidance reaction to an event in the future. The event has not actually happened, at least not yet. It is merely anticipated based on what the brain has learned about similar events in the past - learning that may not be the correct one for the present day (I haven't seen too many saber-toothed tigers, recently).
Frequently, events in the distant past, even in early childhood, can create the initial thought pattern, the beginnings of the subconscious programming that will later turn into a fear response. A number of clients have described fear of certain types of people, ethnic groups, work situations, social situations, etc. This might happen when deep within their subconscious, the present situation reminds them of a time when something negative happened to them in the past - perhaps even before they had begun to remember. Several female clients have described being unable to date, or even associate with men due to an event such as childhood abuse, which happened to them early in life. Far beyond healthy caution, the reaction had become crippling, preventing interaction with males in nearly any situation.
Another experience, occurring to a friend of mine, occurred when she was on a train in Europe. Suddenly, out of the blue, her heart began to race. She felt short of breath, etc. - the beginnings of a full-blown panic attack. On returning home, she quickly made an appointment for hypnotherapy. It turned out that sometime around age two or three, she had been left waiting (for only a few minutes) at day care. To a young child, a few minutes can be indistinguishable from 'forever' and for just a moment, she had been 'abandoned.' Even though Mom showed up a few minutes later, deep in her subconscious the seed had been planted - to emerge years later as she sat alone on a train several thousand miles away from home.
There are as many ways to deal with fear as there are forms of fear, itself. One can simply try to understand the source of the fear and rely on the rational mind to reason through the underlying problem. Or one can dig deeper, unearthing the complexities of the deep subconscious.
Confrontation - getting back in the saddle
While rock climbing about twenty years ago, I took quite a fall, being caught up by the rope after about twenty feet of 'air time.' Needless to say, the event scared the willies out of me. Yet at the same time, the other climbers I was with urged me to get right back on the rock - and it was good I did. I was able to get back on the rock and keep climbing, pursing climbing as a hobby for many years after that.
The expression, 'getting back in the saddle,' is a powerful reminder of the usefulness of confronting the source(s) of fear. Getting back on the horse and riding once again can prevent the experience from fixing the fear response into your brain's neural circuitry. Getting back on the rock helped me get over my fear response after my 'air time.' Similarly, we can ease fears of the dark by turning the light on - there really is no monster in the dark. Reason, logic and renewed success can all help dispel the fear, preventing it from becoming ingrained in the psyche.
Sometimes, when confrontation is not possible, it may be possible to ride out the fear response - the immediate panicky experience - in the moment, using techniques such as meditation, deep relaxation breathing, etc. During graduate school, as I prepared for exams, I sometimes found this helpful. In the short time just before an exam, I found it helpful to take deep breaths, holding my chest steady while breathing with my diaphram. I found this relaxing, allowing a moment's respite from the stress of the upcoming test.
Other techniques, such as focusing on a wiggling a fingertip or toe, counting backwards from one thousand, or reciting a prayer, can also be helpful. Anything that provides concentration and relaxation in the moment can prove to be a useful tool to help the mind and body relax.
Desensitization using NLP
For many fear responses, it may be too late to get back in the saddle and there is no opportunity for relaxation. The source of the fear may be something that occurred years before. Yet in many cases, it is possible to reduce the level of the response through limited exposure, along with the assurance that one is still safe.
A few years ago, I learned a particularly interesting NLP (neuro linguistic psychology) technique from a senior member of the National Guild of Hypnotists - something I have found useful with clients again and again. The person experiencing the fear is invited to imagine he/she is observing the event on a movie screen while sitting safely in a theater. While being assured of his/her own safety, the person can watch the movie, always remaining safe from the fear. In the most extreme cases, when the fear being addressed is particularly severe, the person can even imagine watching his/herself watch the movie screen - a double dissociation from the feared scenario.
Gradually, we can replay the movie, more closely associating to the picture until it is no longer scary. In this way, the person can associate - or move closer - to the whatever has frightened them, while still assured that they are still safe and secure. After multiple passes through this pattern, it is often possible to effectively turn off the fear response.
Hypnotic regression and release
In many cases, the disproportionate fear response may be associated with an event early in life. Many clients have seen me for help with fear issues surrounding such events, buried deep within the subconscious. One of the most successful ways I have found to reduce the fear is through hypnotic regression.
As in the NLP procedure above, we first create the assurance of present safety. The client is in the here-and-now. No harm can come to them. We then recall positive events in the past, where they have felt safe, secure and in control, anchoring the positive memories to reminders such as touching a finger and thumb together.
Once we have established their core of strength and safety we then return to the circumstance(s) where the fear is present, briefly re-experiencing the fear scenario and emotion. We can then return via hypnotic regression through earlier similar experiences, back to original event, the source of the fear deep within the subconscious mind. The original event, what hypnotists call the Initial Sensitizing Event (or ISE) is usually something that occurred early in life, the nucleus of the fear-related thought complex in subconscious.
During hypnotic regression, the event is often seen through the eyes of a little child. We can assure this 'inner child' that it is safe, re-invoking the previously established memories of strength and safety. We can then re-visit the initial childhood scenario with imagery of confidence and safety, seeing that the fear is no longer needed. This helps to resolve the core issues within the subconscious that gave rise to the present day fear response.
Once we have resolved the fear complex deep within the subconscious, we then revisit the present day scenario, re-experiencing it with the newly discovered resolution, safety and security. I have frequently seen clients return to recent fear episodes, such as that train in Europe - this time without the fear.
In this article, we have seen a number of ways to reduce or release the burden of fear. How can we use these in the immediate term to free us - even temporarily - from fear.
Head on confrontation - As we saw above, we can examine the source of the fear in a new light. We can turn on the light to confirm there really is no monster in the closet.
Relaxation/Meditation - using the techniques such as concentration, relaxation breathing or other means we discussed earlier in this article, we can unwind the stresses of the day. Such immediate tools can be a tremendous help and we can further extend these to techniques such as mindfulness meditation, progressive relaxation, etc.
Self Hypnosis - regular use of guided imagery, stress management, etc. can further guide you toward resolution. I suggest self-hypnosis recordings such as The Path to Confidence, or Strengthen you Aura, both available in the Hypnosis Store as tools to help build confidence in the face of challenge.
In the longer term, it can be helpful to return to the cause of the fear, resolve the core issue and throw off the burden once and for all. Hypnotic regression, guided imagery and desensitization can help you release the burden of fear.
It is a joy to see a lifetime of fear suddenly released. When clients let go of the burden of fear, I often see their shoulders square up. They sit taller in the chair, as if a heavy weight had been lifted from their shoulders. And indeed, it had. For the first time in many years, they could cast that weight aside. They could set aside the burden of fear and become free.