Forget About Fear

By Tatjana Poznakova, EEB4, S7 ENA

Fear is just that kind of emotion that activates our fight-or-flight instinct. It makes us want to do either everything or nothing, but the reaction never seems to suit the situation. Paralyzed by fear when one ought to have done something, or unable to keep still when collectedness is needed, it’s like glitter – so easy to spill, so hard to get rid of. There are many ways that professionals (and the internet) advise to treat fear, Freudian psychoanalysis being among the most popular. However, one psychiatrist considered that a better way to fight fear is to forget about it. I can already hear you saying that it’s easy to say, but what about actually working with it? What about solving the problem? You can’t just forget an emotion; you can’t forget a seemingly natural response to potentially precarious situations. I get it, but sometimes the solution one never has considered, works the best. Let’s get into it.

Joseph Wolpe, born in Johannesburg in the beginning of the 20th century, served in the South African army, where he treated soldiers with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Wolpe was not a fan of Freud’s psychoanalysis, which consisted of the patient talking about their experiences and trying to uncover clashing thoughts within the psyche. The reason for this, he found, that it simply did not solve the soldier’s issues or decrease their stress levels.

Wolpe decided to address his patients’ deep-seated anxiety differently. He did not go the Freudian way, but instead was inspired by the experiments of Pavlov’s dogs. He assumed that if a reflex can be learned, it can be unlearned, thus solving stress-related reactions. He went on to shine light on the fact that individuals cannot feel two opposing emotions at once – one cannot be relaxed and scared, angry and pleased, happy and sad (although… what about bittersweet? Let’s leave this topic for another article, dear reader), it is simply not in our nature. Wolpe used this information to create his own approach for treating patients. He combined relaxation with synchronized exposure to anxiety-inducing stimuli. This later become known as ‘reciprocal inhibition’. So far, it sounds impossible, since how can one continue to be relaxed while their fears are literally in front of them? It gets more comprehensible, let’s continue.

Here is a play-by-play of how Wolpe carried out his method:

  • The patient starts to imagine the object/person/event which they feared.
  • Once they start feeling an increase in stress levels (put simply: start to become scared), Wolpe asks them to ‘Stop imagining the scene and relax,’ the patient switches their mind to a much more pleasant situation.
  • The patient becomes conditioned to ignore their anxiety, focusing instead on the opposing feeling of being relaxed (relaxation blocks out the fear).

The reason why this approach was so novel and different is because contrary to the time period in which it came to be, it did not analyse the patient’s past, but rather, focused on the now and trained the patient to consciously fight their fear and anxiety. This way, the patient could use the tool whenever required, immediately, as opposed to the more time-consuming psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is also a very powerful method, no doubt, however it cannot be useful in treating cases such as post-war PTSD, and as most, if not all of Wolpe’s patients were suffering from exactly that, he could not use the celebrated approach. 

Put differently, a person fights their anxiety by immediately imagining a directly opposite scene. If hard at first, it becomes easier with practice. After some time, it may even become a reflex, a subconscious reaction to stressful situations. Wolpe’s method proved to be a success and went on to influence new practices in behavioural therapy. Its creator used it as a base to create a desensitisation programme to combat phobias, which continues to be used today. 


The Psychology Book, Catherine Collin

Front Image by Rafael Javier from Pixabay