It’s amazing how long our minds hang on to negative stuff that’s happened in our lives. We know that when something negative happens and it’s distressing to us, our mind tends to create an unconscious plan to avoid it (the distressing emotion – fear) from ever happening again. Psychology calls it a defence mechanism.
Sometimes it can be as simple as the development of a “protecting” self talk. One example from my life was an experience of falling off my bike a few years ago. That week I’d experienced some of the best rides ever. Psychologists call it flow, you know those times where you feel at one with the activity you’re undertaking. That’s how it was that week. I’d been getting braver, trying new things, riding in the bush, with my son who loves to do death defying jumps over rocks in the air. While I knew my limits and planned to keep my bike on the ground, not the air, I’d decided to challenge myself, with a steeper downhill. Unfortunately, during that challenge I hit a rock abruptly and flipped sideways, landing mostly on my knee. and eventually fainted from the pain! Not my best moment.
What does our mind do with such an experience? Perhaps more daring people than I, hardly notice it, and just remember the thrill of the ride. However, more often the mind chooses to remember the painful part, and replays it on repeat, at any time you come into contact with a reminder.
- Your mind replays the scary parts, just to remind you how much you didn’t like it, and that you don’t want it to happen again.
- This can cause your mind to experience physical sensations, similar to what you experienced at the time, or a version of anxious physical sensations.
- The mind proposes that you should either play it safe (e.g. go slow on the bike and stick to flat ground), avoid doing the activity altogether (“I’d rather walk anyway”) or engages in checking behaviours (in this situation it might be inspecting each rock you approach to make sure you are safe).
Each of these defensive types of behaviour are to keep you safe in the short term. I call them the, “hide under your bed” approaches. It can feel really safe hiding away, but it eventually gets really boring when you only have the spiders to chat to. Meaning, your life becomes really limited.
As well as a limited life, the other difficulty is that you are more likely to decrease your skills and abilities. Meaning the longer that you stop riding your bike, the more difficult it may be to, in this example, to ride in the dusty gravel bush tracks of the Perth hills. This also gives your mind more ammunition to reinforce it’s strategies of avoiding, playing it safe, or to keep checking for the next calamity.
Step 1: The first step to letting go of fears is to map out the links between experiences and the development of your negative beliefs or thoughts. By understanding how your map fits together, you may begin to dispute the beliefs you have developed or the unhelpful thoughts that may be “defending” you.
Step 2: Processing old hurts and negative experiences. Psychologists help people overcome the original feelings and negative beliefs associated with the “traumatic” event. Therapies like hypnosis and EMDR (eye movement desensitisation reprocessing) are used by psychologists to process the old distress and rearrange how you see yourself to a better, “I believe in myself” way.
- Practise skills – in the case of riding a bike, it might involve gradually trying out easy and then more difficult bike tracks to show yourself that you are capable. In the case of social skills, it might be gradually practising strategies for how and what you’d like to say. Without the practise of the skills, it is easy for your mind to go back to the old default/ negative belief.
There are as many fears and anxieties as there are people, the list is endless:
Whether it be work related including the fear of talking to a difficult customer, the fear of talking to a difficult boss, the fear of talking with a difficult employee, the fear of not getting a promotion, the fear of speaking up in a meeting, or making an important decision or something else entirely.
Or personal fears which may include fears of public speaking, or fears of dancing, fears of walking in the bush for fear of seeing a snake, or the fear of leaving your doors unlocked, the fear of trying and not getting it the first time, the fear of missing out, the fear of being overlooked, the fear of spiders, the fear of confrontation, the fear of being rejected, the fear of going to the principals office, the fear of saying yes to a date, the fear of never having a date, the fear of learning to drive a car, the fear of driving again after a car accident, the fear of having a skin cancer check, the fear of injections, the fear of seeing a dentist.
Psychologists help people overcome fears. Please contact us if you have any questions or if you would like to book an appointment.