What could a ladder, a horse and a hiking path in the Pennsylvania Hill country have in common? Well, it is a fear of heights. In our last blog article, we talked about the fear of flying and how to effectively deal with it. There is a lot you can do for yourself about most fear with the techniques described in our book. The coming holidays may also be stressful for some people. You could consider the book as a gift. Amazon is selling it now at a great discount, half-off.
What could lie behind the fear of heights in those three situations, on a ladder, on a horse, and on a hiking path in the hills? What could make one individual fear common everyday situations, which do not bother most of us? This case will reveal the layers of fear, how our brain creates them, and what is at the root of your fears. It sounds all a little complicated but in truth it’s quite natural. You will be able to follow this exploration easily. Quite likely you’ll learn something about how our human mind functions. Now, will you go with us on this expedition exploring the mind of fear?
The story starts with the therapist we are training in the SciStress methodology. This social worker is delighted using the techniques and reports many successes. Recently she worked with Bethany, a lady who had a strong fear of heights. Bethany couldn’t climb a ladder out of fear. Our therapist was able to reduce that fear with Bethany in a very short time. Her client was ecstatic being able to climb a ladder and do some work around the house without that fear which had plagued her for decades.
A horse of course
Bethany and her husband live out in the country and have two horses. Her husband is an expert horseman and loves to ride sometimes for hours through the neighboring fields and forests. He loves to have his wife come along for these rides. But Bethany was still somewhat uncomfortable on the horse even after her fear of a ladder had been relieved. Since I happened to be in town at the time, the social worker decided to refer Bethany to him. For the next part of this blog it will be I, Fred, speaking.
Unraveling layers of fear
When I met with Bethany, I had to first explain a little about how our brain works. She had not yet read my book. The SciStress approach can be so effective because it explains how our brain creates the problems we have to deal with. Therefore, with a little bit of neuroscience, Bethany could much more easily find the root cause of her fears of heights.
She told me that it was now easier for her to get on her horse and ride with her husband. Eliminating her fear of climbing the ladder had transferred to some degree to riding her horse. But still she was somewhat uncomfortable and didn’t like to plan ahead for a ride. She wanted to know what caused that discomfort.
A quick excursion into the brain
Do you really want to understand what is going on? Then we will need to take a quick trip into the SciStress understanding of how the brain works. Most fears and feelings of discomfort have something to do with the basic survival function. If our ancient survival brain spots anything which it thinks might threaten us it will send a signal in form of a stress feeling, discomfort, or even fear and panic to our conscious awareness.
At the same time, our survival brain switches our autonomic nervous system within split seconds from relaxation to stress mode, in the language of neuroscience from parasympathetic to sympathetic mode. This response may be mild or extreme depending on the level of the survival threat perceived. Correspondingly our feelings may be slight irritation or discomfort for example, going all the way to full panic or rage. If you want to learn more about the typical stress reactions, get our free report on the "10 Top Dangers of Stress”.
Memories of past survival threats
The root cause of most stress reactions are memories of past experiences which our subconscious survival brain judged as being a danger to us. These memories are tucked away in a part of our survival brain, called the hippocampus. The hippocampus manages all our long-term memories. This means our long-term memories are stored in the subconscious emotional part of our brain. Talking with friends or family may trigger some of those subconscious memories one after another for a “walk down memory lane”. Also a drink or two may loosen access causing a typical talk about “the good old days”.
Bethany’s layers of fear
Her case is an illustrative example of how layers of fear are being built and how they can be stepwise neutralized. Bethany is very aware of her feelings and it was easy with a few questions for her to find those memories. The general fear of climbing up the ladder had already been reduced with our social worker. That had also improved her fear of sitting on a horse. Still some discomfort riding remained when Bethany met with me.
A dangerous Alpine trail
Now she remembered a fateful hike in the Rockies. She was a young woman with her husband and one of his friends ascending a peak on a steep ridge trail. The path was narrow with steep slopes on each side for many hundreds of feet. Falling down would mean certain death. Halfway up to the summit, they had to carefully pass a group of hikers coming the opposite direction. At that point feelings of panic seized Bethany. She sat down on a rock and could not move forward or back. After some talking and resting, she was able to be guided down the trail holding on to her husband’s friend.
With SciStress, levels of stress are judged subjectively just like pain in the doctor’s office on a scale from 0 = no stress, to 10 = intense stress, nearly unbearable. On that scale, she rated the stress level of that memory initially as 8. But getting fully into the past feelings it quickly climbed to 10. Using the SciStress technique several times she was able to reduce that stress to a much more comfortable level of 2. I could see relief in her face.
Holding a little girl out a third-floor window
The stressful memory of the mountain path had been neutralized. I asked her whether she had any other fearful memories maybe at an earlier age. Now the old survival brain was ready to permit access to another traumatizing memory. Yes, there was one. When she was about six years old a somewhat “crazy” uncle had played with her and at the spur of the moment took her and held her outside a third-floor window. Although it probably was just for a few seconds, it seemed an eternity to her. She didn’t scream or struggle for fear of being dropped. We now used the SciStress technique again a few times. She was able to reduce her stress level of that experience to zero.
Bethany felt great. She had managed to gain control of her stress level for two scary memories relating to fear of heights. She felt confident that now the root cause of her fears had been eliminated.
Sliding down an avalanche chute
There was still one more issue lurking in the depths of her survival brain. A couple of days later I received an email from Bethany. She was still delighted with her work from our session and reported that she found an additional trigger memory. Many years ago, hiking again in the mountains, she had slipped crossing the path of a previous avalanche. She remembered sliding down that chute at increasing speed and getting buried in the deep snow where the avalanche had come to a rest. Now that she was familiar with the procedure, she told me that she was able to quickly defuse the fear of that memory too. She was especially excited that she could now find and deal with such a significant high stress memory completely on her own.
Results: Comfortable on horse and path
For me the great achievement was, that her training had empowered Bethany to identify and resolve a significant stress problem quickly by herself. She was happy and relieved that now she could sit on a horse free of fear and look around, behind her and down to the ground without any anxiety. This was something she could never do before.
Next, she sent me a picture from the beginning of the path she was hiking with her girlfriend. In the past she had been afraid to walk up that path. The path wasn’t dangerous, but the hillside appeared steep to her. It had triggered the old memories of fear in the mountains. She sent the picture because she discovered that now all fear of that path had disappeared.
Want to experience similar results?
If you or someone you love have issues to resolve, we would be happy to help. Our coaching may not “fix” all problems, but we have helped many people reduce stress in most situations. Check out our free initial consultation. They also will learn the techniques to help themselves any time and any place. You may recommend our book, which explains the brain science in easy to understand terms and teaches the techniques thoroughly.
With warm regards, Fred & Judy
Fred George Sauer, MS, MS Eng., Chief Stress Coach, Performance & Productivity Specialist
Judith Lynch-Sauer, PhD, RN, Scientific Advisor, Clinical Professor of Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing
PS: Create a daily routine of managing stress. Check Appendix 2 of the book for quick help with stress
Fred George Sauer Founder of SciStress
Find Out More
PO Box 396 Ann Arbor, MI 48105