Updated: Oct 13, 2021
Today is Face Your Fears Day. Fear often triggers anxiety, a psychological, physiological, emotional and behavioural state to keep ourselves safe from danger. It is induced by a sense of threat, whether perceived or real. It’s a well-honed survival mechanism that readies us for fight, flight, freeze or fawn. Stress and anxiety are often the result of our fears being triggered. A trigger could be anything that sets off our internal alarm bells ringing.
Once triggered, we may experience a physiological response such as getting hot or flushed, heart palpitations, feeling nauseous or fluttering in the chest or stomach. Once we become aware of what’s happening in our body, we may start to have distressing thoughts and feelings. This may then result in our conditioned fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. We may become angry or aggressive, start shouting or arguing; we may lash out (fight); or we may leave, put distance between ourselves and the situation (flight); we may faint, have a seizure or just stand as if frozen in the headlights (freeze); or we may revert to joking around or people pleasing to avoid any unpleasantness (fawn).
These are all common responses to a threat, whether real or perceived. Importantly, these responses are often developed during our developmental stage of childhood. Our individual triggers and our individual responses to them developed within the systems in which we were raised (family, social, religious, education, environmental) where we learned very quickly the most effective way to keep ourselves safe, not just physically safe but also emotionally and psychologically safe. We developed conditioned, automatic responses upon which we depended and continue to depend to keep ourselves safe.
The issues arise when our conditioned responses which kept us safe as children and young adults continue long into adulthood. Rather than flexing and adapting to new or different circumstances as adults, our conditioned fear responses can keep us trapped by our childhood triggers and conditioned responses. We may be conscious of our fears and yet feel powerless to change our responses, or our fears may be lurking below conscious awareness, so we may feel anxious but have no idea why.
It may be that we just accept our anxiety, that we can manage our familiar struggle with it. Or it may be holding us back from achieving what we want to achieve or being who we want to be, so we may wish to do something to change it. There are very practical ways we can start to identify our personal triggers and find alternative ways of responding to these in order to overcome our fears and achieve our dreams and ambitions.
***STOP! If you’re likely to experience significant distress as a result of reflecting on your personal triggers and fears, it may feel safer to do this with professional counsellor.
Identifying your triggers
1) Have a mood-tracking system: you can download our free mood diary, download an app or just keep a note on your phone or you can buy a mood tracker. The important thing is that, whatever tracking method you use, it's simple and easy and becomes second-nature to keep tracking your mood.
2) Monitor your mood: start with how you feel on waking up in the morning – on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being low and 10 being great, rate your mood. Along with a rating from 1 to 10, use a word to describe how you’re feeling (tired, low energy, anxious, ok, fine, brilliant).
3) Notice any mood changes: when you notice a mood change, try to notice other changes – physiological (what have you noticed in your body), psychological (what thoughts are you having), emotional (how you are feeling), behavioural (what are you doing e.g. tapping your foot, wringing your hands, rubbing your forehead.
4) Notice any triggers: when you notice a change, try to think about what may have created that change in state. It may be helpful to download our free trigger tracker. What was going on around you or what were you imagining or thinking about at the time? What were others doing or saying (either actually or in your imagination?) Use all of your senses to reflect on what was happening just before your mood changed. What could you hear, see, smell, taste and touch? These could be big things such as a real or imagined argument with a friend or loved one or something almost imperceptible such as a faint tune on the radio in the background or a scent drifting on the breeze or a memory. It could be something someone said, a facial expression, a behaviour. Don’t worry if you can’t immediately identify the specific trigger. Note down the feelings you were left with or the thoughts you were thinking.
5) Notice patterns: are there any regular patterns that can help you to identify your specific triggers? It may be at certain times of day, during certain types of conversations, during specific activities or just scrolling through social media.
6) Name the triggers: start to notice and assign names to the triggers, write them down. My specific trigger is…….I’m triggered when………..It normally happens at………….time of day.
7) Understand the triggers: reflect on why this might be a specific trigger for you. Do you have any sense of underlying memories, feelings or fears associated with this trigger? What thoughts, feelings or memories does it bring up for you?
8) Name your fears: If it feels safe to do so, think about what these may mean to you. You may wish to do this exercise with a professional counsellor. There is often an underlying existential threat to our fears, sometimes associated with the fear of being rejected, humiliated, abandoned, hurt or left alone, or of being powerless or helpless. Reflect on what associations come up for you. Are these triggers associated with any frightening or unpleasant memories? Don't worry if you can't recall anything, that's not uncommon, just simply notice your responses.
9) Be kind and thank your Safekeeping Self: it is completely understandable why your fears feel so very real to you now, here, today. This part of you is responding in the only way it knows how, to try to keep you safe, psychologically, physically and emotionally. Thank that part of you that tries its best to keep you safe.
10) Be kind to other parts of your Self and thank them too: other parts of you may feel frustrated with the Safekeeping part of you. It may be that other parts of you want free expression and your Safekeeping Self is holding those parts back. It’s completely understandable why those parts of your Self feel frustrated. Those other parts of you also have needs that are not being met. Thank those parts of you for having the courage to show up and be heard. We may not like the way in which those parts show up (stress, anxiety, depression), but they are letting us know that there are parts of us that feel unfulfilled and may be being held back by Safekeeping Self.
11) Build a dialogue between the different parts of you: all parts of you have valid needs and wants. Each of the parts of you need to be heard and understood, and to understand the needs and wants of the other parts. The Safekeeping part of you has safeguarding needs, the need to keep you safe, but that part may not recognise that the threat is not as dangerous as it perceives it to be. Other parts of you have other needs. What are these? What would those parts do if Safeguarding Self weren't there to hold them back? If you had no fear, what would you do? Really reflect on what you would do if you had no fear. What are you missing out on? How could those other parts of you reassure the Safekeeping Self that it’ll be ok? That you've got this?
12) Agree to disagree: You most likely often allow Safekeeping Self control of the on/off switch and stay in your comfort zone, staying safe. Doing otherwise would just feel unsafe or uncomfortable. But what if you are missing out? What if the other parts of you were allowed control of the on/off switch? Would you just throw caution to the wind and, in the famous words of Susan Jeffers, feel the fear and do it anyway and consequences be damned? Well, it is possible to agree to disagree and come up with 'the third way' a compromise that meets all of the needs of all of the parts of you. You can figure out a way forward that reassures all parts of your Self with a little compromise. What are the minimum safeguards or compromises that your Safekeeping Self will settle for? What contingencies can you put in place that will satisfy all parts of you? What is that 'third way' for you?
Our relationship with our individual fears is very personal to each of us. We developed our safety responses to our specific triggers for very good reasons, to cope or even to survive within the situations and with the people in our life that felt unsafe. The great news is that we don’t have to be a slave to our fears. It is possible to grow and find alternative responses that fit each situation as it arises. So what would it take to reassure the Safekeeping part of your Self that you can face those things in your life you most fear? That they may not be as much of a threat as your Safekeeping Self perceives them to be? That you can trust that the other parts of your Self have got this? For me, I'll be working on finding that 'third way' in order to overcome my fears and move forward with my plans. How about you?