Sara – An Example Of Working With Fears
Excerpt from: Who’s REALLY Driving Your Bus?
By James O. Henman, Ph.D., Psychological Associates Press, 2003, p. 79.
As you begin to experience this reflection on your life, how are you feeling about what you are noticing? Remember that you have feelings about what you are feeling? These “Second-Order feelings” are often much more powerful than your original feelings. You may feel angry about feeling hurt, anxious about feeling anger, or afraid of feeling anxious. Most people are not aware of this Second-Order process in their feelings. They tend to lump all their feelings together under a single label. They then assume their “feelings” are the direct result of the situation they are struggling with at the moment. This can easily lead to misunderstandings and confusing reactions within Adult Children. What kind of patterns do you notice as you reflect on your “Second-Order feelings?” Jot these patterns down in your journal, feeling good about noticing more accurately where you are starting.
I was recently working with a bright, capable woman named Sara who wanted help dealing with an intense fear of driving on the freeway because of trucks. She reported it had been a problem for years. Even thinking about being near a truck would produce strong anxiety feelings. She had learned to avoid driving on the freeway most of the time, but recent changes required her to drive on the freeway regularly. She would be nearly sick after a short, 20-mile drive on the freeway.
When I had her imagine being in her car on the freeway right now, seeing the trucks around her, the anxiety went off the charts. She had very good visualization skills and when I had her breathe into the fears and move toward the signal of the anxiety as a way of finding the core of the reaction, she was able to see a scene from seven years ago, when she was traveling with her father, and mother and her young son. Her father was driving recklessly on the freeway and there were trucks everywhere. She knew that her father would not listen to her and would just put her down for being so stupid. She hated herself for being afraid of him, and for letting that fear put her son in danger.
The freeway, the trucks, and the feels of shameful powerlessness all came together at that moment. She had not consciously thought of that painful experience for years, and had not tied it with her fears of trucks and freeway driving. The freeway/truck association would trigger off these painful feelings, and as the feelings would flood over her, Second-Order feelings would make the anxiety even more unbearable.
Sara learned to comfort the 30-year-old part of herself that was feeling the overwhelming shame and fears, and remind herself that she would never let something like that happen in the future. She was able to learn how to release the tremendous pressures of emotion, that had been frozen in Tupperware, in healthy ways, and forgive herself for not being able to take action at the original time. Remember that Tupperware can hold scenes from any age, childhood or adult.
We walked though her experience of driving on the freeway a frame at a time, noticing what she was saying to herself, and what she was picturing in her mind while driving. It was apparent that Sara was very upset with herself, and was giving herself a hard time for feeling so anxious. These Second-Order feelings were increasing the overall intensity of what she was experiencing. She practiced seeing herself driving on the freeway, following trucks, passing trucks, and having trucks follow her. When she had the scene in focus, she would step into the scene, experiencing it as if it were happening in the present. As she experienced driving next to trucks, she practiced hearing her relaxation tape in her mind while driving.
She practiced talking to herself in a gentle, comforting voice, respecting the truth that trucks can be dangerous, and appreciating that it is natural for her to feel some nervousness. By accepting these feelings and respecting her need to keep as far away from trucks as possible, she began to respond to the anxiety differently, with slow, deep breathing, releasing the tension with each exhalation, and giving herself credit for learning to cope with this difficult situation. She learned to stay in the present. With practice, Sara has become more comfortable driving on the freeway, although she still doesn’t like trucks. She only needed a few coaching sessions to gain freedom in this area of her life. She may need an oil-and-lube at some time in the future, time will tell.