Written by UKCP psychotherapist, Fe Robinson
At 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.
In times gone past, when we farmed the land and lived in inter-generational communities, death was a more naturally accepted part of life. The dead were held vigil at home and many people visited to say goodbye. Death and the dead, both animal and human, were commonplace.
As time has passed, 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, making it seem unnatural and distant. The unfamiliar and unnatural are frightening for many people.
What is fear?
Fear is our natural, bodily response to danger. It is such an important feeling that without it we probably wouldn’t be here as a species.
Danger means a threat is happening right now, right here, and that we are physically at risk. When we perceive danger, our ancient instinctive brain primes us to fight, run away, freeze, or even flop to protect ourselves. These feelings are messages from our unconscious mind trying to keep us safe.
This fight-flight response is quite intense and exhausting, but it keeps us safe from danger. 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. This tension can set up a conflict inside.
What can we do about fears?
When we ignore it, fear can become more intense and urgent. We may end up afraid of the fear itself, as well as still fearing whatever has triggered us. 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 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 expressing your thoughts and feelings. It’s 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.
Once you are clear 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.
For example, if it’s death that frightens you, you may begin 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 your imminent death and of 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 engage in talking therapy to make sense of what is happening in order to lessen the grip of your fears.