It’s that time of year again, the nights are drawing in, Strictly is back on TV and the shops are full of oversized pumpkins, ghoulish masks and monster shaped confectionary.
When I was a child, Halloween meant bobbing for apples and ghost stories told in the dark. Today’s children expect a more sophisticated approach to terror and mimicking their transatlantic cousins will dress up in the scariest costumes they can find to go ‘trick or treating’ around the neighbourhood.
As a species we have a fascination with fear, finding the adrenaline fuelled rush of terror from a horror film or scary story strangely thrilling; we can’t bear to look, but neither can we look away! I wonder if this strange love/hate relationship exists because fear is the most primitive of emotions and is hard wired into our psychology and physiology. In fact you could say that fear underpins all of our negative emotions: fear of failure, fear of not being loved, fear of the unknowns, fear of not being good enough.
Of course fear is a basic survival mechanism, described by Wikipedia as “an emotion induced by a perceived threat which causes entities to quickly pull far away from it and usually hide.” The interesting thing you may have noticed about that definition is that the threat does not need to be real to trigger that urge to run and hide (also known as the fight-or-flight response) As long as your brain ‘perceives’ a threat, the whole chemical reaction will occur that triggers a rapid heartbeat, dry mouth and the overwhelming desire to escape!
Although fear has kept us out of danger for thousands of years, it has also been responsible for a huge range of anxieties and phobias. Babies are born with only two inherent fears: loud noises and falling. All the rest are learnt, and unlike Algebra, once a fear is learnt we don’t easily forget it!
Thankfully, most of our learnt fears are useful; a child who burns her finger on a hot stove won’t make that mistake again, and she will quickly make the connection with pain and heat that will enable her to avoid other potential threats. Often though, the things we learn to fear hinder rather than help our survival. In evolutionary terms this ‘one trial learning’ (we only need to burn ourselves once to learn the lesson) makes perfect sense. If we had to repeatedly hammer this dangerous lesson home (as I did with Algebra) we may end up with no fingers left to count on at all! However, in our modern, stress filled world, this tendency to perceive a threat and become instantly fearful, even if, at a later date we recognise the threat only existed in our head, can lead to problems. A child that is nipped by an overexcited poodle may develop a fear of dogs. The child then avoids all Dogs, giving rise to a Phobia. The brain, ever quick to match one scary hairy animal with another, may soon starts to classify cats under the “scary animals to be avoided category” and before long, that child is avoiding all domestic animals. Fear breeds fear, and avoidance means that fear will remain unchallenged.
Often, the most effective way to overcome a fear is to face up to it. When my young nephew started to avoid bedtimes it was because he believed monsters were hiding under his bed. My sister, ever practical, pulled the bed frame back so that he could see his fears were irrational, and armed him with a flashlight so that if he ever awoke in the night suspecting the monsters had returned, he could shine the light of truth into the darkness!
We can use this same metaphorical flashlight to help us face up to our emotional fears. If we cast some logical light on those niggling doubts and worries that keep us awake at night, we will probably find that most of them are just dark specters that we have conjured up ourselves and projected into our imaginary future, where we envisage the worst possible case scenario! By simply focusing on the reality of the situation we can begin to figure out ways of dealing with our problems instead of obsessing about them. By trusting ourselves and our innate ability to adapt and survive, we can eradicate fear, because at the root of all fears is the belief that we won’t be able to cope. Once we recognise that we can cope with just about anything, fear evaporates and we can take positive action.
Sometimes however, when it comes to Phobias, even though we know our fears are irrational, they have become so deeply embedded inside our subconscious that even the most powerful flashlight can’t help us see a way out. That’s when hypnotherapy can be the perfect tool to use. Many of the clients I see at Lynn Ward Hypnotherapy suffer from immobilising fear, often triggered by seemingly innocuous things, such as clowns, speaking up at a meeting and even in one case I worked with, buttons! To help these clients face their fears I guide them through a series of imagined scenarios, gradually exposing them to the object of their fear. Because this exposure therapy takes place in trance, they remain safe and relaxed at all times. As your brain doesn’t differentiate from what you imagine and what is actually happening, the phobic response will rapidly become extinguished. It’s impossible to be relaxed and terrified at the same time, and it’s just as easy to learn to be comfortable around dogs as it was to be fearful of them.
So this Halloween, why not try facing some of your fears? You may find that those monsters hiding under the bed were nothing but dust bunnies after all!
From ghoulies and ghosties. And long-leggedy beasties.
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!