In and out of the counselling space, I keep on hearing the terms ‘irrational fears’ or ‘irrational anxiety’. Through my life and the life experiences I have witnessed both professionally and personally, I came to strongly believe that, - besides cases of people suffering from mild to severe psychiatric issues - there is no such thing as irrational fear or anxiety. Not knowing where the rational lies - and it’s often a network of implications, causes and repetitions more than one single event (although this can occur too) - doesn’t mean that there is no rationale at the source of someone’s fear or anxiety.
Often, what makes the anxiety or fear appear to be irrational is that the present experiences have evolved away from the past lived experiences that created the anxiety, but the embedded and embodied emotional triggers, responses, behaviours and internalised beliefs at play haven’t changed.
I use the word “experiences” a lot because we are made of them. They create our knowledge and beliefs, whether they are our own, inherited or learnt. By inherited and learnt, I mean what is transmitted on both conscious and unconscious levels within our family, our cultural, political & societal environment and history. Everything that influences us comes from a place of experience, and from birth we are transmitted a number of beliefs and experiences, - as proven notably through psychogenealogy, psychoanalytic and social researches.
We develop our strengths, skills, relationships and beliefs through experience over time, and this is no different with anxiety or fear.
I also the word “beliefs” a lot because this is what consolidates most of our feelings. An experience isn’t enough in itself to create anxiety or fear beyond the moment it occurs in. It is the belief created with the experience, or the belief damaged by it, that will feed the anxiety.
If we believe that we will not be able to cope with a job, a relationship, or any other personal circumstances, or if we believe that something bad will happen to me in a specific context or if we do a certain thing, then we will stress about it. If we stop trusting that we are safe in a particular situation or that we can manage it, again we will stress about it; potentially to the point of panicking just with the idea of it.
The belief creates a preventive anxiety supposed to protect us, because fear and anxiety at their core have the quality of intention to protect us from harm. From very pragmatic fears like the fear of fire from being burnt, to more emotional or intellectual fears like fear of intimacy or failure, that core intention is noble and potentially essential. But the way it is acting on us and/or expressing itself is often dysfunctional, disproportionate and/or unhealthy.
Any anxiety related belief comes from a rationalised experience. Anxiety and fear - among over emotions - often emerge when on a conscious or unconscious level we start feeling and believing that we are unsafe; whether it happens through abuse, neglect, trauma or else.
If we think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, security and safety come right after our physiological needs. If you google the definition of safety, you will find definitions such as “the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury”. I am wondering: how can anyone feel safe when they have no guarantee that their physiological needs will be met, and even worse, when they repetitively experience that they aren’t?
A need is something essential, crucial, required. The repetitive experience of not having our physiological needs met (breathing, food, water, homoestasis) creates a belief that they won’t be met, and that belief is in constant conflict with the craving requirement to satisfy a need. That conflict is a gold mine for anxiety. Being able to breathe, to drink and eat is I believe the primal form of safety and security. Furthermore, the physiological needs also include the need for shelter; and what is the definition of shelter if not a protection offering safety.
Then, in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we find secondly the need for safety and security, whether it is financial, safety from accidents or injury, emotional or health wise. If we don’t have security and safety in one or more of those areas, we will develop a fear in response to the unmet need and the belief that it won’t systematically or ever be met.
Note that I am including the emotional safety in this second level of core needs though it is also part of the third level of social needs, and those first three levels will have determining impacts on self-esteem and self-actualisation which are at the top of the pyramid of needs. Nothing is completely separate and there are many interactions between our different levels of needs.
I am insisting a lot on needs here because I trust that whatever the unmet or unguaranteed need is, this will prevent grounding, serenity and wellbeing. Safety and security won’t be permitted or fully stabilised, and that lack of safety will either facilitate, provoke or feed our anxiety or fear.
'The more irrational we believe our anxiety to be, the more we will have the impression of being powerless to escape it'
I said at the beginning that often what makes the anxiety or fear appear to be irrational is that the present experiences have evolved away from the past lived experiences that created the anxiety, but the embedded and embodied emotional triggers, responses, behaviours and internalised beliefs at play haven’t changed. So, what does it mean?
It means that if we have associated a certain field with being unsafe - and I just uncovered some of the complexity of that feeling at the origin of anxiety - even if our circumstances have changed, our preventive and reactive triggers and responses may have remained the same. Note that those will operate through all channels: physical, emotional and intellectual.
Let’s have few examples. If we have internalised in our upbringing that we will be loved and cared for only if we are pleasing and devoted, then we will most likely behave in a pleasing and devoted way in our relationships in order to seek validation and love. Through that experienced conditional loving, we will expect nothing else from any new relationship, and we will restrict what we can say and do, creating an anxiety about all the things we are repressing, and the fear that if we were to be fully ourselves, we would get rejected, abandoned, bullied or abused. This will anchor a sense of being not enough or too much - in other words not loveable. As we all need (coming back to our needs) to be accepted, cared for and loved for who we truly are, anything less will be consuming. Such an all-you-can-eat buffet for anxiety.
Similarly, if the only way we had to avoid domestic abuse was to be sexually compliant, we might develop overly sexual behaviours in any of our future relationships because on an unconscious level they are associated with safety - and it bears repeating that safety is at the core of our three primary levels of needs.
If we have been told at school and/or at home that we are worthless, stupid and that we won’t achieve anything, we will internalise that we won’t succeed in any way, and that if we do that we are a fraud, an Imposter. We will then be terrorised both with the idea of failing, and the idea of being found out for the worthless us that we came to wrongly assimilate with our real self. Both our achievements and our failures will perpetuate anxiety - with an impression that we can’t escape it. The more irrational we believe our anxiety to be, the more we will have the impression of being powerless to escape it and change things. It is a vicious cycle that needs breaking as the most powerless we feel the more anxious we become.
In those three examples among millions I could have come up with, there is a stressful internalisation not only of the wounding but also of the harmful/abusive/wounding element itself. By fear of being confronted again to the same wounding, we will adopt self-abusive, self-harming or self-restrictive behaviours to “protect” us. Hope becomes a danger, a risk. The hope that something different will happen might be associated with leaving ourselves open and vulnerable to a wider and deeper deception or harm. We then create a form of wounding “comfort” zone that is experienced as safer than taking the risk to want more and failing to get it.
'Powerlessness starts to dissipate when we identify what to work on, which starts lightening the weight of anxiety.'
As anxiety itself, the therapeutic work will become multi-layered.
We will initially facilitate exploring and understanding the rational behind the anxiety by creating awareness about the client’s wounding, how this has created unsafety and what beliefs and responses emerged from them. If it is rational, it can be faced, fought or changed. Powerlessness starts to dissipate when we identify what to work on, which starts lightening the weight of anxiety.
That exploration will be done meticulously and carefully, holding with empathy and compassion the client’s responses and process as much as paying attention to their resistances, blocks and triggers. Anxiety and fear - like notably depression and anger -are very attached to defend the beliefs they are feeding on and to hide and protect the wounding they have emerged from.
This will facilitate the reconstructive part of the therapeutic work: reframing dysfunctional beliefs, eliminating toxic ones and/or restructuring/re-strengthening healthy beliefs, - while trying to understand what the client seeks protection from or for, and how to achieve that through healthier behaviours.
'Realising that they can be their own protector ..will invite a re-assessment and rescaling both of their emotional triggers and of their choices in how they want to respond/react.'
That facilitation will require to make constant links between past and present situations. The point will be to uncover the dynamics at play, and to highlight the differences between past and present situations in order to invite new dynamics to emerge. It is about realising that though there was a rational once upon a time, this rational is no longer in adequacy with the current reality. This is where, - in my opinion -, lies the irrational fear or anxiety I hear so much about: our inadequate emotional triggers and responses toward certain people and/or situations. That search for a re-actualised adequacy is crucial to reduce present and future anxiety, and also build stronger skills in anxiety management.
So, we will help the client re-assess the experienced threat of a situation versus what the real intensity of that threat is. Someone bullied or abused by men might be violently triggered when being in a pub and witnessing men arguing about a football match, for example. It is about realising that this isn’t the same situation that caused the traumatic anxiety. This may be entirely different both in shape and depth. Often, the intensity we feel in certain situations is determined by the historical emotional content triggered. Our past lived experiences haunt us in scaling how we experience the present ones, creating more anxiety than needs be.
There is also the realisation that the client too is different than the person they were in the past traumatic experience. They no longer are the child who is powerless to flee or fight and had to find other ways to survive. Those ways are the ones that became dysfunctional, inadequate or irrational over time as situations changed.
Realising that they can be their own protector, whether protection needs to be through fighting or fleeing, or simply through keeping an appropriate distance, and rescaling a situation adequately will invite a re-assessment and rescaling both of their emotional triggers and of their choices in how they want to respond/react.
Finally, through empathising their will and power of choice to respond/react differently, this will create a very soothing sense of control and power, feeding serenity and confidence.
Lucas is a qualified and registered (MBACP) humanistic Psychosynthesis Counsellor, working with clients in Bristol and online from anywhere; offering counselling in English and French. While providing a safe and nurturing therapeutic relationship that honours the life experiences, difficulties and goals of individuals, Lucas is dedicated to facilitate awareness and will to develop their understanding of themselves and help them cultivate self-love & healthy relationships.
Lucas works notably with stress, anxiety, depression, loss, addiction, self-development, body image, gender and sexual identity, relationships, sexuality, cultural diversities, family dynamics, career, and existential crisis.