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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 12-Aug-11


Friday 12-Aug-11

Becoming fearless

In London this week there were anarchic riots, with violence and looting that probably cost the country far more in lost tourist revenues than the actual damage done, though the physical restoration costs will no doubt run into millions. One reason (amongst others) that people engage in such activities is the excitement created through fear of being caught. One of the riots happened right outside my daughter's apartment and she was beside herself with fear, but thankfully was not harmed, though I fear it will create a persistent anxiety in her. My son also has had his share of fear and was recently in Syntagma Square in Athens with protestors all around him.

One of the distressing things about being human is the way that our fears can effectively take control of our actions and ruin our lives. We fret about jobs, money, anarchists and more.

Fears can easily become conditioned into us from a single incident, and not just in childhood. A person hit by a swerving car may become terrified of crossing the road. A person who is mugged may hate going out alone. A riot can bring home the lawlessness that is just beneath many apparently civilized societies.

One way to alleviate these event-driven fears is to use beta-blockers such as propranolol. Another way is to modify the memory of them, working to to drain away the emotion. This is easier than it may seem: think of how easily interrogation and leading questions by police or lawyers can muddle and create false memories in witnesses.

'Extinction' methods are based on conditioning and work by presenting the person with the fear stimulus, but with no negative consequences. In time, people re-associate the stimulus with no-fear. A problem with this is that fears can creep back when the extinction is incomplete.

A particular principle is that memories are vulnerable to modification just after they've been recalled. Elizabeth Phelps and colleagues used this principle in an experiment where participants were first conditioned by associating a coloured square with an electric shock. Later, extinction therapy was used, but with one sub-group being reminded of the fear event six hours before extinction work and another ten minutes beforehand. In the six-hour group and for the no-reminder group, the effects of extinction were showing signs of the fear returning. Notably, however, those who had been reminded of the fear event ten minutes before the extinction work showed no signs of fear returning, even in a subsequent test one year later.

The explanation is that the reminder of the fear event brings it to working memory and puts it into a 'labile state' where it is vulnerable to modification.

There are already therapeutic methods that do similar things in changing distressing memories, for example the approach that asks the client to describe an incident and then confuses the memory by pretending misunderstanding in reflecting back distorted variations. It can also help by recalling incidents and then immediately switching to safe thoughts. The secret, as in the research, is not to do it just once, but to persist until the fear is extinct.

Schiller, D., Monfils, M-H., Raio, C. Johnson, D., LeDoux, J. and Phelps, E. (2009). Preventing the return of fear in humans using reconsolidation update mechanisms. Nature.  

Your comments

In NLP there are 'extinction' methods which are reputed to be very powerful in removing trauma. I have experienced one of them at first hand. It didn't remove the memory that the incident occurred but the connected emotions that followed. They also taught me how to run the method for myself.

For sure, as with most things, it requires a well qualified and experienced person to decide which approach is appropriate and then to apply it properly.

Best wishes to your daughter and son. In today's world, and with your guidance, I think that there is every reason to believe that, not only can they be successfully treated for any trauma, but also that they might find added value in the treatment.


Graham J

Dave replies:
Indeed, Graham. I've trodden the NLP boards and understand the extinction patterns. NLP is largely a collection of 'things that work' with a core process of 'modeling'. Extinction as a method originated in the field of conditioning, on which NLP at times leans heavily.

Most fears come from "MSU" (Making Stuff Up); i.e., we make up what we think will happen, what the other person will say, etc. Research dictates that 95% of what we worry about never, ever, happens.

-- Bill M

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