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.
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.
“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.
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:
- 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
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
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
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.