Fear Itself

To release fear through Thought Field Therapy, my therapist told me, it is useful to go back in to the original traumatic incident that began the fear.

I conjure the exact moment easily. A Friday afternoon after I had been teaching all week. At the end of the day I had one of my frequent headaches. Those conditions alone weren’t enough to change my brain and my life, however. It was the fact that I was driving home to my parents house, three and a half hours away, all highways, with the kind of headache that made my eyes feel heavy and could only be helped with a nap in a dark room. I remember merging onto the roadway and being struck with the thought that became lodged in my brain for nearly two decades: It is not safe for me to drive on a highway with this headache.

Panic was immediate. I had the strange cold, numb sensation of being partly outside my body. The road, the steering wheel, my arms and fingers were all tinged with separateness and un-reality. My heart pounded harder and faster than I could ever remember. Through my terror I could identify what was happening: a panic attack. I’d read the symptoms in a psych class, and this was a textbook case. But that knowledge did not diminish the fear. I believed that my headache was so severe that I could possibly pass out at the wheel. This new thought pattern etched its way into my brain like a river cutting through soft sandstone.

As I returned to this time, my new therapist led me through the Thought Field Therapy protocol again. Unlike the first session, I had trouble getting myself back into that state. The feelings of unreality came into my today body, though in reality, I was safely ensconced in my reclining chair. The feeling itself was terrifying. All this time I was not only afraid of the highway, and not only of the sensation that I might pass out, but terrified of experiencing that horrible sensation of panic.

FDR’s insight is often quoted: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Which turns out to be literally true in my case. FDR meant it in a much broader context, of course. And we Americans might consider how dangerous fear is to our actual safety, but that is the subject of some other blog.

So how does one get rid of fear?

Thought Field Therapy allows one to re-experience a fearful situation in the mind while using tapping or gentle touch on certain parts of the body that cause the body to calm down. In this therapy, you don’t try to get rid of the fear, or try to calm yourself down. Instead, you allow the fear to be there and (hopefully) disappear with the specific series of touches and eye movements.

It is different from the classic practices of of behavioral therapy for anxiety such as systematic desensitization or flooding. For years I’ve been been back and forth between complete avoidance (which further cements the fear and absolutely not an accepted behavioral therapy) and unskillful attempts at desensitizing myself according to what I remembered from my textbooks from undergraduate major in psychology.

Staying away from highway driving, I knew, was not going to help. Forcing myself to get on the highway and drive a short distance, however, was not getting me anywhere either. In fact, the practice made me more and more afraid because it always brought my anxiety to an unbearable level. I used to be able to handle half an hour of highway driving at a time. That squeezed down to going a few exits, to only one exit, to not being able to force myself to get on the highway at all. For a period of time I was afraid to drive at all.

A therapist once told me that the key to getting rid of panic attacks was to understand that the body cannot sustain the state of panic. His prescription was for me to drive for an hour right through the fear, which would then, he claimed, (magically) disappear. The advice sounded cruel and perhaps even counter-intuitive, but I later learned it was based on an actual therapeutic technique. The therapy, called “flooding,” exposes a patient to the panic evoking stimulus in its full force until the brain habituates, that is, gets used to the stimulus to the point that it no longer creates panic.

I made myself try “flooding” with my fear of highway driving exactly once. While my experience did play out the theory that my body would be unable to sustain panic for the entire hour, my body cleverly found a workaround by cycling through panic and plain anxiety over and over again. Reading about flooding now, I realize there were a few problems with my protocol. Vitally, there is supposed to be a therapist right there, helping with calming techniques. Flooding is also an extremely painful process which often fails because it can be intolerable to patients. In my case it caused me to give up on highway driving rather than habituate. Systematic desensitization is not only less cruel, but also is more effective and has longer lasting results.

Systematic desensitization exposes one to the fearful stimulus little by little. It’s a slow process, like allergy desensitization. It also doesn’t all have to happen in real life (on the road, in my case). It can happen through mental rehearsal while practicing calming techniques.

I am practicing a combination of the two techniques that don’t require actual driving: thought field therapy and mental rehearsal. Eventually, I know, I’ll need to get a person in the car with me to help me practice on the highway again. I feel hopeful, though, as I’m learning more and more calming techniques both through my cranial sacral therapy classes and with my new therapist. The key is repeated practice. And so I’d better go practice mental rehearsal right now. As much as I’d prefer to avoid it.

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