What are they? Where do they come from? Is there anything we can do about them?
This blog has come about because of Dax, one of the horses who lives with us. I’d noticed that he wasn’t himself during this last week, not rushing in for his food as he normally does and seeming to be distracted by something in the distance.
He was still eating and seemed to be well in himself, but something was obviously bothering him. At first, I couldn’t work out what it was. I couldn’t see or hear anything myself, so I couldn’t understand what was holding his attention to such a degree. Then yesterday morning I followed his gaze and saw that there are some new neighbours in a nearby field. The farmer has put some cattle in a field that joins onto one of ours. The cows have a large area in which to wander so they are not always visible from our land, but Dax was clearly acutely aware of their presence. His owner had told me that he isn’t comfortable around cows and now I was seeing just what effect they have on him.
This got me thinking about fears, specifically the ones that seem to trigger us into ‘excessive’ behaviours. These could be severe, ‘phobia’ type responses, or simply going out of our way to avoid whatever is unsettling us. Common triggers can be spiders, heights or enclosed spaces and these can be easy for others to understand, however sometimes the cause of our fears can be simple everyday objects such as buttons, beards or cats.
So where do these fears come from, and why do they affect our behaviour in ways that sometimes seem to be out of our control?
I believe that these fears have come from some form of ‘trauma’. This can be ‘Big T’, or ‘little t’ trauma, and will be very subjective, but it will have been sufficient to have appeared to cause some form of threat to the person’s safety. Remember, though, that many of our ‘irrational’ fears have been held for a long time and are very deep seated. We might even feel that they’ve always been there. This probably means that they were created when we were very young, further back than our conscious memory. The perceived threat would therefore have to be understood from the viewpoint of that younger self. Rationally, it might be hard to understand why someone is scared of spiders as an adult – after all they’re so much smaller than we are and, in the UK at least, they’re unlikely to cause us serious harm – however, from a child’s perspective they could look quite scary.
We can also inherit fears from others; for example a parent who hates spiders, or who has experienced a dog attack, might pass on their fears to their children.
Another important point to be aware of is that when we experience a trauma, our brain takes a snapshot of the moment, in an attempt to avoid any similar situations in the future. The downside of this is that the snapshot captures all the details of that instant, even the ones that weren’t part of the trauma. This is why we can develop phobias about innocent objects such as buttons, and why animals can react to very specific things such as people wearing a red coat.
Triggers can bring on huge anxiety, resulting in ‘fight or flight’ type responses, ie adrenaline, fast heart rate, sweating palms, dry mouth, shaking, a need to run away or even burst into tears. Rational thought can be lost and our ‘survival instinct’ takes over. When someone is in this state it can be difficult, or even impossible, for them to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘get a grip’ on their feelings. If you find yourself in this situation – or you’re supporting someone who is feeling this way – find a way to help yourself (or them) to feel safe again. This might mean moving away from the situation, if possible. Take some slow, deep breaths, and focus on feeling the air going in and out, perhaps counting along with each breath, for example: breathe in 1-2-3-4, breathe out 1-2-3-4. Bring your awareness back into your body – you can try focusing on your feet, becoming aware of them on the floor; or of your body sitting in the chair; or of the feel of your clothes against your skin. This will also help to bring you into the present moment and away from any racing, fearful thoughts and images in your head.
This practice can help you in the moment. If you would also like to explore more long-term ways to support yourself you could try:
- mindfulness and meditation – these allow you to explore your feelings and to regularly practice relaxation so that it becomes a part of your muscle memory and is therefore easier to recreate, even in moments of stress
- journaling – this is a great way of exploring feelings and the thoughts that underlie them. It often brings deeper understanding which is a great way of developing self-compassion and insight into our deeper needs and how to provide for these
- EFT (emotional freedom techniques or ‘tapping) – this is a very effective way of releasing traumas and deep-seated fears that are no longer serving us. EFT is easy to learn, in order to practice on yourself and is something that you can use any time, anywhere. It’s good to start off working with a practitioner until you are familiar with the technique, and for some issues it can be best to work with someone subjective and experienced.
- Reiki – again this is something that you can learn to practice on yourself, or you can book a session with a practitioner. It helps to rebalance your energy, grounding you and enabling you to release long-held tensions.
- Hypnotherapy – another great therapeutic tool for helping us to deal with issues that can be buried deep in our subconscious.
- Trauma release exercises (TRE) – when we hold a trauma over a long period of time it actually becomes ingrained into our muscle memory. One of the main muscles for holding emotional memories is the psoas, however it is deep within our body and often cannot be released with simple massage. These exercises allow the psoas, and other muscles, to let go of tension which in turn helps us to release trauma.
If you would like to know more on any of the above, please contact me. I offer sessions which draw on some of these techniques and can refer you to some wonderful colleagues for the areas that I don’t cover myself.
As a first step, you might like to take a look at this article on Mindfulness.
I’d love to hear from you. Please post any comments or questions below.