Our minds and bodies respond to trauma in paradoxical ways. One of the most harmful paradoxes is that the systems set up to protect us often become the means of our retraumatisation. The fear system is an example of this.
After suffering traumatising wounds, it is only natural that our minds and bodies develop a heightened sensitivity to situations that appear similar to those that wounded us and a greater fear of those situations. The increased sensitivity and fear are protection against being hurt in the same way again.
However, the sensitivity and fear which are supposed to keep us safe, typically lead to our retraumatisation. Not only do we often perceive mild threats to be more severe than they are, but we also tend to see threats where none exist. Worse, we are prone to react to these alleged dangers in a knee-jerk manner. As a result, we antagonise other people and risk creating the very situation we fear.
If, for instance, our traumatising wound was caused by being abandoned, and we perceive we are about to be abandoned again, we may become so clingy or controlling that the other person does indeed walk away from us. Something similar might occur when earlier trauma left us with a heightened fear of being bullied, shamed, or attacked. Whatever our fear, our behaviour brings it to pass.
These problematic patterns are activated automatically, leaving us unaware of what is playing out. All we know is that we have been abandoned, shamed or attacked yet again, and so our sensitivity and fear escalate. Viscous spirals ensue.
In short, trauma is characterised by self-fulfilling prophecies, many of which are driven by heightened sensitivity to danger and increased levels of fear.
Breaking out of the vicious spiral
If we are going to step away from these self-fulfilling prophecies, there are three aspects to inner work that we must do:
I will go through each in turn, but this is not a linear process! Healing requires moving back and forth between these three processes, deepening the work with each iteration.
(1) Become aware of the existence of this dynamic
To become aware of this dynamic, we need to read or hear about it. When we are caught up in this dynamic, it is almost impossible to see what we are living without help from the outside. I hope the first section of this essay will have contributed to building awareness.
(2) Become conscious of how this dynamic plays out in us, and learn to differentiate the fear it causes from that which warns us of genuine danger.
Learning about this dynamic in the abstract is not enough to bring change; we must also forge an embodied consciousness of how it plays out in us. In particular, we must learn to differentiate the fear that arises due to trauma from the fear that warns of genuine danger.
Forging this consciousness of our own inner world does not happen overnight, and that is because of the nature of fear.
When the fears laid down as a consequence of past trauma are aroused, the feelings we experience are real. The physiological and psychological changes brought about by the arousal of trauma-created fears are comparable to the changes that arise when we face imminent danger. Fear is fear, regardless of what initiates it.
This makes it difficult to discriminate between fear triggered by past trauma and fear prompted by current danger. Indeed, differentiating between these fears constitute wisdom, and developing wisdom requires patience and perseverance.
Developing wisdom also requires help. We need support from a person (or group) who understands trauma-created fears, has our best interests at heart and is willing to challenge us from a place of compassion.
When we are in the grip of fear, we are typically unable to hear what others are saying, but after the fear has faded, we can reflect on our experience and learn from it. But learning takes courage because it is disconcerting to see how wrong we can be.
I remember a therapy session which took place over 15 years ago. My therapist said something which felt harsh, judgemental and critical. Fear swept through me. I felt I was about to be abandoned. I felt horribly alone. I froze and shut down.
My therapist tried to reconnect, but I was hostage to my fear and could not unfreeze. Instead, I behaved in ways which made things worse. I left the session in a terrible state.
My therapist – who I had been working with for several years – had recently started to allow me to make voice recordings of my sessions. I replayed them between each session to see what more I could learn. The next day, still in a terrible state, I started to listen to the recording. I aimed to gather evidence of how harshly I had been treated, but when I got to the point where my fear had been triggered, I was astounded to hear no criticism or judgement in either my therapists’ words or his tone of voice. The harshness I had heard was not there.
I was shocked by how badly I had misinterpreted his comments and appalled by how certain I had been of my misinterpretation. I was dismayed by how my misinterpretation had catapulted me into feeling judged, abandoned and alone. I was frightened because I saw how my trauma-inspired misinterpretations might cause irreparable damage. Had I behaved that way in a non-therapeutic setting, I might have lost the relationship.
That therapy session – and listening to the recording – was discombobulating, painful, and alarming. However, it was also a turning point.
I was not instantly able to distinguish the fear created by past trauma from that produced by impending danger, but I did become aware of the trauma-created fear which operated inside of me and of its potential to do harm. I also became somewhat more willing to listen to my therapist when he suggested that a particular instance of fear might be due to old trauma rather than current circumstances. And I became aware of just how much work I needed to do.
(3) Work with the emotion of fear and learn how to tolerate it.
If we have been traumatised, we are likely to remain somewhat vulnerable to the arousal of unwarranted fear. Unless we learnt to tolerate this fear, we have no choice but to act it out. But learning to tolerate fear is hard, and requires patience and perseverance. Understanding why this is the case requires some knowledge about the emotion of fear and why it exists.
Fear evolved to warn us of danger. Fear also evolved to be unpleasant because that spurs us to get away from danger. The unpleasant feelings that are part of fear abate once we feel safe. We are primed by evolution to get out of fear, not stay with it. This drive to escape fear causes problems when some of the fear we feel is created by old trauma. Thus we must challenge our evolutionary heritage, which is not an easy or quick thing to do.
That said, learning to tolerate fear is required for emotional health in everybody, not just those who carry trauma. There are two reasons for this. First, the fear system (even when not sensitised by trauma) works on the principle of ‘better safe than sorry’, and life would be impossible if we were to react every time that fear is roused. Second, children are not born with the ability to tolerate fear, so it is something they must learn.
In emotionally healthy environments, children learn to tolerate fear through both implicit and explicit channels. Children in emotionally struggling households rarely get this learning. As a result, they have problems not only with an over-reactive fear system but also with an underdeveloped capacity to tolerate fear. Thus, this something they must learn as adults.
There is no fast and easy way to learn how to tolerate fear; practice and perseverance are vital. Think about building physical fitness: we must exercise at an intensity that pushes us to the edges of our physical comfort zone to get fitter. Similarly, to build ‘fear fitness’ we must work at the edges of our emotional comfort zone.
The safest environment in which to do an emotional workout is in a therapeutic relationship. The great American psychoanalyst Philip Bromberg (1931-2020) wrote that the healing of trauma requires therapy to be ‘safe but not too safe.’
But daily life also presents opportunities for us to develop fitness around fear. For example, I recently needed a minor medical procedure. I arrived at the hospital, filled in the forms and was led to a cubical. I was told I would be called in about 20 minutes. As I waited, I knew it was unlikely there would be a problem; nevertheless, I felt frightened. The feelings were uncomfortable, and I automatically reached for my book. I was not aware of looking for a distraction from fear, but that is what I was doing. However, before I could open the book, an inner voice said, ‘Put the book away! This is an opportunity to practice sitting with fear, and I need the practice.’
We will never like sitting with fear, however, to lead an emotionally healthy life, we need to be able to do so. This is especially true if trauma is part of our past because our fear system will be over-reactive.
Personal postscripts: Life the other side of fear-fulfilling prophecies
These days, after many years of ongoing inner work, I can still be ambushed by the arousal of trauma-created fears, but I generally have more options than I did in the past.
When old fear sweeps through me, I often get an inkling of what is happening and can ask whether the fear is relevant to the current situation. If my answer is that the fear may have come from the past, I try to endure the feelings without acting on them. I do not always manage it: old patterns run deep, and if I am tired or feeling vulnerable, I can still be taken hostage by old trauma-created fears. However, that is no longer my automatic response.
My learning has been slow. It has required the help of trusted others. For me, there has been no other way to grow. But over the years, I have changed, and as a result, my life has opened up and is a lot easier!
(c) Daniela F. Sieff, PhD. 2023
Daniela F. Sieff, PhD.
Daniela is a scholar, author, and speaker who explores emotional suffering, healing, and well-being. Learn about Daniela and her work at: https://danielasieff.com/
This essay stems from a book Daniela is currently writing.
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