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Excessive guilt moral code

Excessive guilt

Excessive guilt

Excessive guilt: Whether by intention or by accident, feeling guilty about something that you’ve done wrong is a natural emotional response. What causes your excessive guilt? Was it something that you said or did that caused offence? Did you neglect to invite someone to a social occasion? Or maybe you didn’t respond to someone’s message after saying that you would get back to them. These are common mistakes that everyone has made at some point in their lives. Your moral code will set the agenda for what constitutes that wrong, how intensely you feel guilt and for how long are likely to dwell on it.

Excessive guilt moral code
Your moral code will determine your potential excessive guilt

Feeling guilty in the short term isn’t necessarily unhealthy. The unease you feel in your stomach can contribute to your human growth by helping you consider how to temporarily resolve a situation e.g. by apologising for your wrongdoing. In your re-evaluation of your guilt and from the responses of those involved, it can also motivate you to make better choices if the situation was to happen again. However prolonged and excessive guilty feelings (sometimes called a guilt complex) can be unhelpful. Suppressing your guilt may offer some temporary respite, but like other unaddressed emotions, it can intensify over time, influencing you to feel worse about your actions and the past. Fixating on your “wrong” long after others have forgotten or forgiven what happened can damage your self-confidence and your self-esteem. It can influence feelings of inadequacy and shame. Feeling excessive guilt can be a factor that maintains symptoms of OCD, anxiety, depression, PTSD and prolonged grief.

Understanding your guilt, the background to your excessive guilty emotions and why these feelings persist can help you change the intensity of your emotions, change your reactions and improve your future behaviour.

Excessive guilt: What is guilt and what are the various types of guilt?

There are various “self-conscious” or “self-awareness” emotions that affect how you see yourself and how others might perceive and accept you e.g. pride, embarrassment and jealousy. Personal (and cultural) morals, rules and goals influence how these emotions develop. In its “appropriate” form, guilt can help develop empathy and regulate your social behaviour, acting as your “inner critic” or “guilty conscience”.

You can feel guilty when you imagine (perceive, believe) or become aware that you have undermined your own or somebody else’s moral standards. The guilt may be connected to the “wrong” that you did but (rightly or wrongly) you feel responsible for those actions.

You can similarly feel guilty for your omissions where you believe that what you didn’t do has broken your (or someone else’s) moral code e.g. feeling guilty because you did not intervene when witnessing another person being bullied but justified it at the time since you feared being targeted by the instigator (a form of compassionate guilt).  Or when you are unrealistically trying to care for too many people and ultimately believe that you are failing your own expectations.

Some people can experience a “false guilt” that is irrational or connected to other emotions e.g. you can feel guilty for having a “guilty pleasure”, which is connected more to a fear of disapproval. Additionally, you can feel guilty for wishing harm on others, which can derive more from anger, jealousy or envy. Some people can feel guilt accompanied with overwhelming feelings of responsibility for something going wrong even when they played no active part in predicting or contributing to that wrong (also known as maladaptive guilt).

In some cases, you can feel guilty for (what you believe to be) exceeding the moral expectations of your group. Compared to your family or peer group, your route to success and achievement can attract too much attention that you believe others in your social group deserve. To displace the guilt that you are doing better than others “less fortunate than you”, you may “protect” them from feeling worthless by sabotaging your own success and engage in self-destructive achievement-behaviours e.g. not sitting exams or by underperforming in exams. This type of guilt in which you believe that are doing better than someone else is related to “survivor’s guilt”, when you have survived a tragedy or disaster in which others have died or been seriously hurt. With survivor’s guilt, you are not directly responsible for the situation that has harmed others. This type of guilt is very common with combat veterans suffering PTSD who have survived a trauma when many of their troops have died.

Survivor’s guilt can fall into the category of existential guilt, a type of guilt rooted in feeling guilty about your existence rather than specifically doing something wrong. For some people, this type of guilt may surface when confronting the fear of death and reviewing the life that you have led.

There are many other forms of existential guilt such as feeling guilty for leading your life inauthentically (or when you are not achieving your full life potential), feeling guilty for who you are as a person with reference to human nature (and the responsibility of human nature), and feeling guilty within existential boundaries of human belonging, freedom, will and justice. Many of these existential guilt examples can be experienced when someone has set a (direct or indirect goal) to have children but your life partner does not share these procreative goals.

Knowing how much guilt has gnawed at your emotions from past events, you can also suffer guilt anxiety. Guilt anxiety is experienced when your moral code is compromised when you are preparing to deal with a future stressful situation e.g. when needing to break up a relationship or needing to fire subordinate staff due to company redundancies. Viewing it disproportionately from their perspective, guilt anxiety may cause you to delay or completely avoid taking assertive action.

Excessive guilt obsession
Excessive guilt can leave you obsessing over past wrongs

Guilt is closely associated with regret, remorse and shame. In its severe form, guilt can influence deeper feelings of unworthiness. When combined with low self-esteem, you can ruminate or obsess over past “wrongs” in which you believe that you are responsible and don’t deserve to move on from these wrongs. Sufferers of excessive guilt are prone to social isolation to avoid burdening others with your problems. However, you can then feeling guilty for not being sociable. Acts of self-harm or other damaging behaviours are also common with depressive modes that seem to have no solution.

With excessive guilt, you can be convinced and even paranoid that you’ve done something wrong, despite the evidence pointing to the contrary. With fear of harm OCD, your own senses can betray you, overestimating your actions as being serious in a situation in which your mistake only had minor consequences, if any at all.

As a psychological defence mechanism, some people suppress or repress guilt when having forbidden and taboo thoughts (common with guilty thoughts OCD). However the act of suppression or repression can strengthen those negative thoughts and keep them active often intensifying the guilty emotions and keeping the sufferer in a recurrent cycle of excessive guilt. Another defence mechanism is guilt denial. When you deny your feelings of guilt, you do not acknowledge responsibility for the wrong. Instead, you may project your guilt onto others by blaming the victim for the “wrong” in the form of a guilt trip.

When you are conditioned to use guilt trips to communicate needs, it can become habit-forming, as a natural way trying to get what you want from others (and vice versa). Guilt trips can take various positive and negative forms. In some cases it can be used to morally try to educate another person, to avoid conflict about the issue in hand or draw sympathy from the harmed person by appearing to be the victim. As a more devious form, a guilt trip can be manipulative, forcing another person to do something that they don’t want to do. In this extreme form, guilt denial can be a feature of psychopathy.

Excessive guilt vs. shame

It’s worth distinguishing between guilt and shame as it’s easy to confuse these emotions when you are reacting to feelings of distress. Both emotions can create similar symptoms, but they are not the same.

Guilt is a feeling of remorse and responsibility connected to the perceived wrongful act (or omission). You would probably say something like “I handled that badly” following the situation. Despite the perceived wrongful act, you believe that you are fundamentally a good person. You can appreciate that there are potential constructive steps to make amends for the wrongful act.

Shame, on the other hand, is related to your self-image. It is more connected to a violation of social norms or ideals that are focused on your character as a whole, rather than a specific behaviour or event. It is far more toxic and destructive to your self-esteem than guilt. You are convinced that “you” are what’s wrong and believe that there is no solution available to redeem your worth. You would probably say something like “I’m a horrible person and I don’t deserve good things” following the situation. As a reaction, you are more likely to self-destruct by punishing yourself (e.g. with isolation or self harm) or suppress your shame and be aggressive towards others.

What causes excessive guilt?

Core emotions such as guilt can develop as early as three years old. There are various factors that can contribute to excessive guilt. Whilst guilt can be shown in MRI studies, it is considered a reflection of that person’s learned social standards rather than what might be genetically inherited.

Causes of guilt can include:

Childhood experiences:  Parents who have grown up with a “guilty” belief system are more likely to use language patterns that will further embed guilty beliefs into children. Guilt can also be exacerbated within families in which the authority figures value harsh discipline, excessive punishment and additional responsibility for the young children. A child who is unable to communicate their guilt can live in fear of being discovered and severely punished. This may intensify their guilt and create further attempts to hide (or suppress) their wrongs, only to be caught at a later stage. In addition to this, a child will continue feeling guilty when parents maintain their disappointment and are unable to assert their forgiveness.

Low self esteem
Guilt has strong connections with low self esteem

Low self-esteem: Connected to childhood experiences is the early development of your self-esteem. Guilt is a potential symptom of low self-esteem. With low self-esteem, you doubt the value of your thoughts, emotions, beliefs and behaviour. You have a negative opinion of yourself and are more likely to value the authority of others’ opinions. Rarely feeling good about yourself, these recurrent inferior belief patterns will direct blame inwardly. You are more susceptible to accepting others’ judgements of you and are thus vulnerable to those who are blame averse. You often believe that you deserve blame and don’t deserve to be forgiven.

Anxiety: There is a strong connection between anxiety (the feeling) and guilt (the effect). Feeling guilty then causes more anxiety and continues this emotional cycle. This mutual cause-and-effect relationship can be a feature of OCD and depression.

Social anxiety: Having social anxiety as with low self-esteem, you are more likely feel social pressure to give authority to other people’s judgements that you are responsible for the wrong. You can then fear being excluded if you are deemed responsible for the wrong. With social anxiety, you may also isolate yourself because you fear doing something embarrassing. Being questioned about your absence (to a party for example) can influence guilty feelings because you fear offending other people.

Culture and society: Cultural norms can create deep and (often unrealistically high expectations) of how you should lead your life from the society’s perspective against how you personally want to lead to your life. You may be told from individuals that your behaviour is bad or imagine that “culture” will tell you that your behaviour is bad. Without conforming to these norms you can feel isolated, disrespected and disgraced. Your guilt can be heightened when the norms that you adopt from one social group may be in conflict with the norms of another social group e.g. teenage deviance may be admired by your teenage peer group culture but despised by your family culture.

Religion: Some religions (and their interpretation) can give more emphasis to guilt when your behaviour is not synonymous with the teaching of the religious values. With some religions, it is believed that your wrongful thoughts and actions are known to the religious deity and it is often necessary to confess, repent and atone for these wrongs to be forgiven by the religious deity.

Excessive guilt: Symptoms of guilt

Many of the symptoms of guilt are connected with anxiety, OCD and depression. They can include:

Physical symptoms: general muscle tension, diaphragmatic tension or “butterflies”, sleep problems, headaches, nausea, fatigue, upset, distracted, concentration problems, anxiety-related IBS etc.

Emotional symptoms (as a consequence of anxiety): feeling tense and irritable, oversensitive to the effect of your actions, feeling tearful and remorseful, feeling responsible to make life better, feeling overwhelmed by own mistakes, feeling inadequate etc.

Behavioural symptoms (as a consequence of anxiety): being indecisive, defensive, desperately apologetic, being preoccupied with past mistakes, trying to make amends for the wrong, blaming yourself, trying to gain other’s approval, overreacting to criticism, being deluded that you did something wrong, favouring other’s needs to the detriment of your own needs, isolating yourself from others, being fearful that you made the wrong decision etc.

Common treatment approaches

Excessive guilt can affect your mental well-being and quality of life. If the above symptoms are interfering with your life on a frequent basis, there are various treatment options available to you.

Medication: Your doctor may prescribe anxiety medication or anti-depressants to help with your symptoms. They may additionally suggest having therapy.

Therapy: CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) can help you confront the negative thoughts and behaviour that are contributing to your guilt.

Self-help: There are various self-help methods to cope with guilt including venting your guilt to a good listener, reading self-help books and online articles, engaging in online forums, etc.

How can hypnotherapy help excessive guilt?

Hypnotherapy can reframe your guilty event

Hypnotherapy excessive guilt treatment
Hypnotherapy can help you reframe a guilty event

There are many hypnotherapy techniques available to treat your guilt. Regression can be used to establish any underlying patterns of “guilt learning” that you’ve experienced in your life. Regression can also be used to access the initial sensitising event (ISE) and access the most immediate source of the emotion, also known as the symptom producing event (SPE). These events can then be reinterpreted by enabling the adult mind to heal the “inner child’s” perspective of the guilty trauma.

Hypnotherapy can facilitate your (self) forgiveness

As part of the reframe from above (and where it’s possible and appropriate), self-forgiveness can be explored to release you from the “grip” of the past guilty event. It can be difficult to apply this process for yourself when your excessive guilt is directing you to replay the guilt.

Many people know which event that is triggering the excessive guilt. Its constant “replay” may feel like you are absolving your guilt, but instead you are reliving the process, creating an unnecessarily long-term suffering without applying a therapeutic intervention. In hypnosis, you can gain a partial release of your guilt by acknowledging and accepting the accountability for the past behaviour. Anger and resentment can be further explored to continue this release.

As you work through your guilt, you can reappraise the motives of your original behaviour without excessive judgement. Then, by establishing potential changes for the future, you can facilitate an openness for relearning and continued self-compassion.

Using this dissociated reframing process in the focused hypnotic state, many clients can feel like the internal burden of guilt has been lifted from your shoulders.

Hypnotherapy can interrupt your guilt obsession

In many cases of OCD, guilt and anxiety play a dominant role in locking you into your rumination. You are desperately trying to liberate yourself from a negative thinking cycle, but those thoughts keep coming back. Thought suppression has a limited short-term effect and will swamp you when you are not distracted or at night when you are settling down to sleep. Hypnotherapy can give to effective techniques to eliminate this guilt obsession cycle.

Hypnotherapy can build your self esteem

When you suffer with low self-esteem, you have a low opinion of yourself and your beliefs. You give more authority to the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of others. When people blame you, you are likely to accept their judgement of your wrong as the “fact” of the matter, as if you deserve it. Hypnotherapy can be used to build your self-esteem and treat these associated issues that exacerbate your excessive guilt.

Hypnotherapy can release the physical sensations of guilt

The mind-body connection can be strong, influencing physical (psycho-somatic) symptoms of tension and postural changes derived from thoughts, emotions and beliefs. If you sense that you are “carrying” your guilt or it is “weighing you down”, these metaphors can create an embodiment of your guilt, as if acting like an emotion with “real” weight on your body. For those clients who bring this embodied cognitive framework into the treatment process, hypnosis can be used within this metaphor to release the “heavy” sensations that guilt is generating on your body.

Hypnotherapy can access your attachment to past judgements

(Existential) guilt can create a constant feeling of wrongness about who you are and taint everything that you do (or don’t do). You may be able to identify the source of this judgement before treatment and work through this in the treatment process e.g. with family or religious values. Sometimes, the source can be unconscious, leaving you confused about your authenticity and feeling responsible for events that are not your fault. You can fear the future, anticipating blame for something that you believe will go wrong. Hypnotic regression techniques can help you access the source of your previous judgement, releasing feelings of (over) responsibility. It can be used to realign your accountability for your past and feel more positive about your future.

Hypnotherapy can help you re-imagine an apology

Release with reimagined apology
Hypnotherapy can help you reimagine your apology

Not having the opportunity to apologise for the way you handled a situation at the time of the event can leave you with feelings of guilt. The situation may have passed a long time ago. Sometimes this feeling of guilt is connected to a negative grieving cycle in which you were unable to absolve with the deceased before they died. In a deep state of hypnosis you are more receptive to hypnotic suggestions. Hypnotic suggestions can be used to help you to visualise the apology and any helpful accompanied forgiveness (and self-forgiveness) to give you the much-needed closure that was unavailable at the time. This can enable you to be a peace with the event and with those people connected to it.

Hypnotherapy can help you identify why you don’t deserve to absolve your guilt

There may be deeper reasons behind your need to maintain your excessive guilt. These reasons are not always rational but can be a reaction to  background trauma or excessive conditioning. Being blamed with excessive punishment can engender a general self-blame perspective in which you then anticipate blame. Accompanied harsh criticism can then damage your self-esteem in which you form beliefs that you are not good enough to be free of blame. Hypnotherapy can help you identify these accumulative patterns of negative conditioning and any unrealistic standards of behaviour that felt controlling or abusive. The meaning of these events can be reframed to release your repressed feelings of blame, responsibility and guilt.

Hypnotherapy can help you reduce anxiety connected to your guilt

Having felt the distress of guilt in the past, anxiety can give you the warning to avoid this overwhelming sense of wrongness again in the future. How you stored, reacted to, and even suppressed the event can provoke confusion about how to cope with the way forward. You can then fear making an even bigger mistake again and intensifying your guilty feelings. For example, if you have made numerous mistakes in work that have needed other colleagues to rectify them, you can feel anxious about this chain of events happening again. You will then doubt your ability and worry about the potential burden on your colleagues.

Regression techniques are one of the many hypnotic strategies () that can be used to identify what events are suppressed or they can be used to reinterpret these events to release your guilt.

Excessive guilt: Summary

Feeling guilt is a natural emotional response to doing something wrong.

Obsessing on the guilty act long after the event can have a detrimental effect on your well-being. The need to fixate on your guilt may indicate a more traumatic background or other mental health issues. Hypnotherapy can offer many strategies to help you overcome your excessive guilt.

You can access treatment for excessive guilt in person and remotely by completing the Contact Form. There is more information about hypnotherapy in the hypnosis test.

For more information about treating your excessive guilt, contact
Richard J D’Souza Hypnotherapy Cardiff

Fear of losing control rage

Fear Of Losing Control

Fear of Losing Control

The fear of losing control is a common fear that can be associated with many other anxiety-related conditions e.g., phobias, panic attacks, OCD, social anxiety and PTSD. You may not communicate this fear as an initial treatment goal, yet it can emerge as an important secondary issue that demands attention. Exploring your beliefs connected to “control” and what it means to “lose control” can be extremely beneficial to treating your main presenting condition and associated anxiety symptoms.

Fear of losing control rage
How do you define your loss of control?

What is a fear of losing control?

A fear of losing control can mean different things to different people. We all want to be in control of our lives, in the same way that we all want to pursue our model of happiness. However, there is a huge difference between wanting to be in control and living in fear of losing control, in whatever way that you define that negative reality coming into existence. As that negative reality threatens to materialise, you can anticipate your symptoms and you may become over-controlling with your emotions and behaviour to prevent it.

In more general terms, the prevention of this negative reality is characterised by an intense and irrational fear of losing control over:

  • Yourself – This can include your mind, emotions, memories, reactions, behaviour, bodily functions e.g., bladder or bowel,etc. You might fear losing control by making a fool of yourself, doing something irrational after drinking too much alcohol, being rash or aggressive (losing your temper), being emotional (crying), or saying something that you might regret. “Freaking-out” and “going crazy” are terms commonly used if you were to lose control or be “physically or mentally incapacitated” in some way. It often refers to having a panic attack and the struggle to breath associated with the panic attack. As a consequence of losing control, other secondary feelings of distress (blame, guilt, shame, embarrassment etc.) may also be related to the initial (primary) loss of control or panic attack.
  • A situation – This can include a work meeting, presentation, formal social occasion, or performance situation. You fear that the situation won’t go as planned, so you over-plan it, obsess and overthink it. You spend an excessive amount of time in your preparation and rehearsal. Your fear of something going wrong in the situation can overwhelm you and distract you from your ability to cope with the demands of the situation like listening and responding to questions.
  • Property – This can include items of financial and sentimental value. You fear that the item of value might be damaged or lost. For example, when you buy a new car, you then become possessive over it, fearing that it will be damaged or stolen if it is parked in a precarious place. To control this fear you then leave the car in your garage where it’s safe, rarely enjoying your “precious” new vehicle. Losing-control fear can also dominate how you maintain your property. It is prevalent with types of OCD including contamination behaviours, cleanliness, orderliness and hoarding compulsions.
  • Other people – This can relate to how you expect others to comply with your expectations to lower your anxiety because you worry about them. If others don’t comply, you fear that they might be harmed in some way. It can also include being controlling over others to prevent them from showing your potential incompetence.

The term “Control-Freak” is coined for those who obsess over things being done in a perfect way or be left with feelings of inadequacy or failure. As a phobia it is also known as atychiphobia or kakorrhaphiophobia.

Perfectionist controlling lawn
Perfectionists are more prone to losing-control fears

“Control-freaks” are often perfectionists who battle with intense self-criticism, hopelessness and stress. They struggle to delegate to others as they are intolerant of those who don’t share their same flawless standards.

Unhealthy (or neurotic) perfectionists are more prone to losing-control fears as general trait or in specific areas of life. They can be distinguished from the healthy form of perfectionism, in which pleasure is gained from one’s efforts and the outcomes do not compromise your self-esteem.

What situations can a fear of losing control affect?

Family relationships – Parental fears of their children being harmed is very common. The parent’s protective behaviour can reduce their own worries, but it can damage a child’s confidence particularly when the behaviour is controlling. For example, if a parent suffers with social anxiety, they can inadvertently instil socially anxious fears into their child by controlling who they should be friends with and when they can see them.

Parents can also be over-controlling of their children to prevent themselves being labelled as an incapable parents. Controlling the child’s homework to help the child’s success can be a sign of good parenting but controlling all their free time to make them study (just to calm the parent’s fears) can overwhelm them. Some children can become averse to studying because of parental pressure.

Workplace – The fear of losing control at work can present itself in many ways, usually as a fear of failure. For the individual who wants to achieve high standards, the extra time and energy to revise completed work just to “cross every T” can take its toll on your productivity-efficiency with potential burnout. When you can’t perfect something, you may become defensive of it, procrastinate over the task or avoid it altogether since an “adequate” outcome (rather than a perfect one) can be viewed as failure. Other perfectionist behaviour can include hiding your errors from others for fear of criticism, then finding it’s too late to correct these errors before the deadline. You may also be very critical of others who don’t have the same perfect standards as you.

In some cases, being managed by a perfectionist boss who fears losing control of their staff can amount to bullying. Bullying behaviour includes being humiliating, insulting, offensive and intimidating towards subordinate members of staff. Bullying behaviour is not always “downwards” in the chain of command, it can extend to colleagues at a similar level, and “upwards” towards superior staff. The latter can apply when a junior member of staff is envious of a superior’s position and will reject their “control” by failing to complete requested tasks, being disrespectful and spreading rumours about them to colleagues.

Relationships – losing-control fear in relationships can take many forms. Perhaps the most obvious is the fear of a relationship breakdown and the potential rejection, isolation, worthlessness, and abandonment that can accompany it. To suppress these fears, partners can display many dominating and controlling behaviours like anger, jealousy, guilt-tripping, shaming, possessiveness, being critical (to avoid blame), “gaslighting” and being excessively inquisitive (snooping on your partner’s phone/emails).

Education – Similar to the work situation, fear of losing control in your education can be related to perfectionism. To under-achieve and attain low grades would generate intense feelings of self-criticism worthlessness. Perfectionism due to high expectations can cause conditions like writer’s block, burnout, depression and anxiety. Some students may resort to cheating and plagiarism due to the pressure to achieve high standards when completing assignments and exams.

Physical activity (exercise) – You would expect a degree of perfectionism to become an elite performer, but as with other situations, the pressure to perform can generate a losing-control fear. The pressure at elite competitions can generate sports performance anxiety, self-doubt, anger and fear of failure. Self-criticism can encourage the performer to dwell on mistakes and get distracted during the competition when the competition-performance demands are relentless. For the amateur (and elite performer), cheating using performance-enhancing substances can be appealing to reach the next level of achievement. Even for the informal fitness enthusiast, you can be susceptible to training compulsively.

Other performance situations – Fear of losing control of the performance can impact on other performance situations including driving tests, interviews, musical and stage performances and presentations. It can also affect informal performance situations like dating, sexual performance (premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction), and other social situations. A lack of control may be experienced as a fear of embarrassment, humiliation, judgement, and failure.

Home cleanliness – Devoting time and attention to something that is your pride and joy can become progressively controlling, preventing you from actually relaxing in and enjoying your own home. As with other situations (and objects), perfectionism can influence the achievement of high standards. DIY and gardening projects, tidying and cleaning can become compulsive (as a common type of OCD), continuously finding yet another job to do in an already-busy daily schedule. Your loss-of-control fears can relate to who might see those flaws and criticise something that could be cleaner. The expectations you have about your home can influence you to take those imagined judgements personally (i.e. that you aren’t good enough to keep a perfect home).

Your body – the pursuit of high standards (ideals) and self-criticism directed towards your body can be displayed in many ways.  Body-perfect behaviours can include compulsive exercising (e.g. bodybuilding outside of competitions), body treatments (plastic surgery and implants, beauty treatments, having numerous tattoos and body piercings), excessive dieting (to lose weight or to prevent health conditions) and eating disorders (e.g. anorexia and bulimia etc.). Body dysmorphia is the mental health condition that can be associated with many of the above behaviours. Comorbid conditions like addiction, self-harm, drinking excessive alcohol, depression and binge behaviour etc. can accompany this condition.

There are some situations in which this losing-control fear can be beneficial to your overall health, particularly when connected to making poor lifestyle choices. If you define the fear of losing control as developing chronic health conditions (e.g. diabetes, coronary artery disease, stroke, some types of cancer, etc.), you may make better lifestyle choices to try and prevent these chronic conditions from developing. These self-care behaviours can include having a mild form of heath anxiety that can encourage you to stop smoking, eat a healthy diet, exercise, reduce alcohol intake, sleep better etc. Similarly, those who already have chronic physical and mental health conditions may maintain their habit of taking medication to control and prevent their symptoms becoming worse.

What causes a fear of losing control?

Fear of losing control can be caused by a variety of factors related to the causes of phobias, including:

1. Genetics: Some people may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders, which can increase the likelihood of developing this fear.

2. Traumatic experiences: People who have experienced “survival anxiety” (e.g. abandonment or separation fears) or traumatic events such as abuse, accidents, or medical emergencies may develop this fear as a reaction to these traumas.

Mother controlling teenager’s behaviour
Controlling behaviour can be a reaction to retrospective feelings of control

3. Learned behaviours: This fear can be learned through observing others or through your personal experience. If a person has seen someone else lose control in a situation and had a negative outcome, they may develop a similar fear. Feeling like you have experienced being controlled in your life may generate a deep need to balance (or take back) that control in a direct or disconnected way. When the reaction is unable to be asserted, it can generate losing-control symptoms.

4. Personality traits: People who have a tendency towards perfectionism may be more susceptible to developing this fear.

5. Mental health conditions: This fear can be a symptom of other mental health conditions such as panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or bipolar disorder.

In many cases, a combination of these factors may contribute to the development of a fear of losing control.

The locus of control

The concept of the locus of control is not a cause of how some people have more control in their lives compared to others; it is more of a way of understanding the beliefs about “where control exists” in some people and not in others.

The locus of control is a concept that refers to the degree to which a person believes that they are in control of their own life. People with an internal locus of control tend to believe that they have control over and are responsible for their own fate e.g. “the reason I am successful is because I have worked hard”. However, people with an external locus of control tend to believe that their fate is largely determined by outside forces e.g. “I am successful because I was lucky”.

In relation to the fear of losing control, it is likely that those with a strong internal locus of control are less likely to experience this fear, as they believe that they have more power over their own lives and can do more to influence their outcomes. Those with a high external locus of control are more likely to experience this out-of-control fear, believing that they are helpless to the stronger authority of the outside world.

Another term associated with the locus of control of one’s thoughts and actions is personal agency.

What are the common symptoms?

The symptoms of a fear of losing control, can vary from person to
person, but common symptoms include:

  1. Intense anxiety or panic, especially in situations that are perceived as threatening.
    2. Avoidance behaviours: avoiding situations or activities that you associate with the fear to limit the feelings of panic and anxiety.
    3. Physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate, sweating, shaking, and muscle tension. Periods of insomnia is also common.
    4. Mental symptoms including racing thoughts, confusion, dread, disorientation, and a sense of detachment from reality.
    5. Emotional symptoms of distress such as feelings of shame, embarrassment, anger and hopelessness.

How is a fear of losing control commonly treated?

This fear is commonly treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Some common approaches to treatment include:
1. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): This type of therapy helps individuals
recognize and change negative thought patterns and behaviours associated with
their fear.
2. Exposure therapy: This involves gradually exposing individuals to the feared
situation or trigger. It is done in a controlled and safe environment, in order to help reduce anxiety and panic.
3. Medication: Anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, and
antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
(SSRIs), can be prescribed by your doctor to help manage symptoms of anxiety and panic.
4. Relaxation techniques: Practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing techniques, self-hypnosis, mindfulness and progressive muscle relaxation, can help reduce anxiety symptoms and improve emotional regulation.
5. Lifestyle changes: Making lifestyle changes, such as reducing caffeine and
alcohol intake, having regular exercise, and practicing good sleep hygiene can
also help manage symptoms of anxiety and improve overall well-being.
The most effective treatment plan will depend on the individual's specific needs and circumstances, and it's important to work with a mental health professional to develop a plan that is tailored to your needs.

Treating your fear of losing control with hypnotherapy

There are many ways that hypnotherapy can help you to treat your fears and phobias. Hypnotic techniques include using hypnotic suggestions to reduce your anxiety and anticipatory anxiety symptoms, assisting controlled exposure, regression techniques to identify sensitising events and visualisation of your desired outcome.

As mentioned earlier, a fear of losing control is related to your beliefs associated with control and what it means for you to lose control. In the initial stages of the treatment, it is essential to engage in a discussion about your beliefs to individualise your treatment. These strategies are commonly used in cognitive behavioural therapy. The treatment can then help you to confront your losing-control fears that “sit underneath” your treatment goals, enabling you to think and act positively towards them. This can include overcoming a phobia, treating specific issues within your OCD or social anxiety.

Some of the losing-control fear discussion points are listed below:

  • Clarify your domain of fear. The domain of fear is discussed earlier in this article. You will already know the significant areas that your losing-control fear is affecting e.g., if it relates to a loss of control over your body, your emotions (e.g., anger) or your trust in other people’s behaviour. You will also be aware of the sphere of your life that it affects (work, relationships, diet etc.).
  • Discuss whether your losing control fear is a primary issue (from the
    Fear of losing control humiliation
    It can seem like there is no recovery after the losing-control event

    domains listed above) or a secondary issue. Many clients over-focus on the primary issue, as if there is “no life” or recovery after the losing-control event. You can neglect to value the secondary issues that drive you to the primary issue and leave you ruminating over it long after it has Secondary issues can include feeling embarrassed, humiliated, responsible, blame-worthy, guilty, regretful, ashamed, angry etc. Consider anxiety-related overactive bladder syndrome for example. Having an accident may be the primary issue for most people who have the condition. You feel humiliated and believe that you will never recover from this experience. You now double your urinary urge to prevent your primary loss of control but until you validate and confront the beliefs related to your humiliation, it will continue to dominate your fear. Validating the emotion and giving it the attention it deserves will help dissolve your primary issue.

For some clients, these secondary feelings are the primary issue, but you mistake these feelings as the secondary issue. Ignoring these emotions can deepen your fear of losing control, since you get stuck in a situation that is in the middle, rather than at the top of your fear hierarchy. Feeling over-responsible is considered to be a major contributor to a loss-of-control fear.

  • Describe specifically what would happen when you lose control. When closely examined, many clients acknowledge the low probability and irrationality of the fearful “bad event” transpiring. Your description is meta-analysed in the session. This can enable you to acknowledge its improbability and give you the opportunity to rationalise the pathway of losing-control events.
  • Help you appreciate the boundaries of your control. Following a bad experience, it can intensify the belief that you have to try harder to be in control next time. You overthink and over-prepare yourself, trying to control what is realistically outside of your power or ability (rather than what is inside your ability, like mental attitudes). Your perfectionist mind is reluctant “to give up” on the situation and those unspent fearful urges convince you that you can really do the impossible. For example, after a flying trauma, you want to be in control of the flight. You struggle to delegate (or trust) the pilot and think that you can do a better job if you were in charge. Or due to your claustrophobic tendencies, you convince yourself that you can force the plane door open and flee the plane when you are in mid-flight. Maybe in the movies!
  • Establish what you are really trying to perfect in such an over-controlling way. This is another way of approaching your boundaries of control and identify what you fear if the perfect situation was not achieved. Many OCD behaviours are significant here when perfecting the locking-up routine at night to secure the house before going to bed for example. The routine has now become over-ritualised and cumbersome, taking nearly an hour to lock up. Would you feel guilty because you have not done the routine in a set way? Would your anxiety then influence you to stay awake because you struggle to control the uncertainty of another break-in? Would you struggle with the feeling of responsibility if the house was burgled? Are you trying to perfect behaviours or perfect feelings connected to those behaviours?
  • Reconsider the alternative view that “all responses are controlled”. This discussion can help you to challenge the concept of “control” and “being-out-of-control”. From a functional perspective, there is the view that panic attacks for example, are “controlled reactions” to the perception of danger; you are never really “out-of-control”, so this fear does not need to be pursued. Only those people who believe that you can be “out of control” and assign too much significance to the concept of being “out of control” are likely to be affected by this fear in the first place. If you tried to lose control right now, could you make it happen?
  • Examine any safety behaviours connecting to your fear. Safety behaviours are also known as avoidance or coping behaviours. They are used to help you temporarily feel better (your emotional control) when you feel anxious or threatened. You might do something that is unrelated to the threat, but the diversion feels more pleasant than the alternative. If you have an assignment due to be completed but are dwelling in the fear of failure (your loss of control), watching television (your procrastination or safety behaviour) can momentarily distract you from this fear. When the panic of submitting nothing and failing the assignment “screams at you”, you kick into action and start working on the assignment. The delay keeps you anxious through the experience and anxiety is likely to accumulate into the next assignment.
  • Identify your retrospective loss of control. You may have forgotten the previous situation in which you lost or nearly lost control. The trauma of that situation is exaggerating your fear of it surfacing again. What happened in that situation? Did your panic attack convince you that you are going “crazy”, or you’re going to pass out, have a heart attack, stop breathing and suffocate? What did you know about panic attacks when you first had one? What was your belief system before and when you lost control? How did your interpretation of the event reinforce this fear that you could lose control again? When a discussion is unable to recall the event, regression can be used to uncover the experience and the beliefs you held from your past. Further analysis can then be made to reframe the meaning of the event, and its significance to your future fear of it happening again.
  • Reframe your perfectionism. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) strategies integrated with hypnosis can help restructure your perfectionist  perspective in numerous ways. They can include helping you to reassess the “black-and-white-thinking” of your unrealistic standards; examine the perfectionist principles from another broader perspective (what is the worst case situation that can happen?); reconsider your catastrophic thinking of the situation being imperfect; compare your standards to “the bigger picture” (i.e. whether “it really matters” now or 2 years from now or whether the consequences of it not being perfect are survivable); and retrain your ability to compromise or be flexible with your own high standards.
  • Reappraise your unrealistic demand for certainty and fear of the unknown. In a world that is dominated by uncertainty, it’s natural to want to believe that you can cope with the outcomes of future events. Some people constructively prepare towards those outcomes, like when planning a presentation. With confidence, you can moderate your planning as you trust your previous experiences to guide your handling of future public speaking situations. You can then “think on your feet” without needing to be overprepared. You can focus on reasoned probabilities of hope and the potential to learn from those displeasing situations. You keep what you can control within your power. However, those with a fear of losing control are convinced that if the preparation is not perfected, something bad will happen. It is this perfectionist, “must-do” approach to meticulously predict and command the future that maintains your state of worry and hypervigilance. When you can’t control this certainty with perfectionist preparation, you ruminate over it. Those with a fear of public speaking can get stuck in the powerlessness of not being able to control your audience’s responses. Since you demand that certainty, you over-prepare answers to every possible question, then worry about the other questions that you haven’t prepared answers for. Developing a tolerance for uncertainty can help you
    Fear of losing control uncertainty junction
    Tolerating uncertainty can help your fear of losing control

    reduce your fear and promote courage to face the unknown. It can enable you to develop habits to act on the evidence that what you are doing is good enough, rather than using your feeling of disappointment as the outcome. The latter only serves to keep you locked in perfectionism. Developing a tolerance for uncertainty can help you forgive your mistakes and liberate you from the need to be perfect.

Fear of losing control: summary

If you are seeking treatment for a fear of losing control, then these discussion points will help identify your individual definition of fear. It will acknowledge specific or generalised perfectionist traits that are exacerbating your distress. Outside of this losing-control fear, these discussion points can help you identify invaluable secondary issues that are blocking your main treatment goal.

You can access treatment for your losing-control fear in person and remotely by completing the Contact Form. There is more information about hypnotherapy in the hypnosis test.

For more information about treating your fear of losing control, contact Richard J D’Souza Hypnotherapy Cardiff