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Overcoming fears this Halloween

Happy Samhain! According to Pagan tradition, today we celebrate the ending of the summer and look forward to the coming winter. Traditionally, as crops and livestock were burned in this festival the dead were honoured, a time in the year to pause and celebrate the lives we had with them. Today Samhain has morphed into Halloween, but why is it so very scary?

As we celebrate Halloween, it seems the more gruesome and ghoulish the costume the better. Ghosts, skeletons and zombies abound, and while intended in good fun, it’s all a graphic reminder of the closeness of death to us all.

So what? In times gone past, when we farmed the land and lived in inter-generational communities, death was a natural and accepted part of life. The dead were held vigil with at home and many people visited to say goodbye. Death and the dead, both animal and human, were common place.

As time has passed, for many of us death has become somewhat more abstract, until it happens to someone close to us. It’s possible to live a life somewhat disconnected from death, and when this is the case death seems unnatural and distant. The unfamiliar and unnatural are for many people frightening.

What is fear?

Fear is our natural, bodily response to danger. Without it, we’d not still be here as a species. It’s important!

When we perceive danger, our ancient, instinctive brain lets us know, and primes us to fight, run away, freeze, or even flop to protect ourselves. This fight-flight response is quite intense, and exhausting, but at least it keeps us safe from danger.

Danger means a threat is happening right now, right here, and that we are physically at risk. The trouble is, sometimes our messages get a bit scrambled, and we can be left with feelings of fear, or even panic, when there is no physical danger to be afraid of.

Added to that. sometimes we feel afraid without the intensity of a full bodily reaction, we may experience discomfort and unease and find ourselves acting on it, without recognising what is happening. The longer this goes on unnoticed, the more intense it can become.

Feelings of fear are messages from our unconscious mind, trying to keep us safe. However much we may detest feeling this way, and may want them to go away, the part of us that feels is working hard to try and help. This tension can set up a conflict inside.

What can we do about fears?

In simple terms, the therapeutic advice about fear is to bear it. When we turn away or avoid fear, when we try to squish it down or ignore it, then to be heard, the fear will have to get more intense and urgent. We may end up afraid of the fear itself, as well as still fearing whatever has triggered us.

On the other hand, when we are able to turn towards how we feel and truly notice fear, it somehow loses its power. When we are no longer afraid to feel it, we can begin to look at the fear that is there, and to find out what messages it is trying to share.

So how do you do this? It’s about taking some deep breaths, sitting still, and with whatever support you need, beginning to express what it is you feel and think. It about hearing yourself, and making sense of what comes up. It’s about finding compassion for the part of you that is scared and worried, and giving yourself enough comfort to be with what you notice.

Then, once you are clearer about what is happening, it may be useful to look at treatment options. If you’re overcoming a fear unaided, you may begin to expose yourself to what you fear, slowly, and gradually.

As an example, if its death that frightens you, you may begin with being with the written word death, moving up to pictures that represent death to you, to noticing the death of insects or small creatures, to eventually contemplating the coming death of you and your loved ones. The path of exposure for each person is different, depending on your individual fears.

If you’re working with a psychotherapist, you may use an approach like Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), or to engage in talking therapy to make sense of what is happening and to lessen the grip of your fears.

Coping with the fear today

So what can you do if your fears are at risk of overwhelming you this year? First of all, acknowledge how you feel. Say it out loud – ‘I am scared’ or whatever is true for you.

Next, take action to help your body to calm. You might:

• breathe deeply

• look up, away from your body,

• tap slowly on alternate sides of your body to stimulate the part of your nervous system that calms you down.

• wrap your arms around yourself to contain your body and help it to feel held

Finally, soothe yourself with words, for example reminding yourself that this fear will pass, and that right here, right now you are safe. After all, there is likely a young part of you that is suffering this fear, if you can keep your more resourceful parts in awareness you may be able to take care of this scared part of yourself in the moment.

If you’d like support to overcome fears that are limiting you, why not search UKCP’s Find a Therapist for someone local to you who can offer support?


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