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Fear Can't Be Controlled with Behavioral Suppression

Behavioral techniques are no match for threat physiology.

Key points

  • Many people are focused on controlling anger and anxiety with behavioural techniques.
  • Anxiety and anger are powerful physiological reactions; suppressing them only fires them up.
  • We all need to be heard, supported, and taught methods to regulate and lower these threat responses.

How many of us have heard the phrase, “children should be seen and not heard?” Or what about, “spare the rod and spoil the child.” How often were your parents not really there for you when you were upset?

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Anxiety is the sensation generated by your body when you sense danger, and your body reacts with flight-or-fight chemistry. It is powerful, hardwired, automatic, and evolved to be incredibly unpleasant, so as to compel survival action. When you cannot escape the threat, your body experiences a more intense reaction that humans call anger.

Neither reaction is subject to rational control and the correct approach involves learning to calm down the nervous system and diminish stress physiology (how your body functions). Instead, we tend to control behaviors. It can’t and doesn’t work.

Kari is a woman I met in 2018 when she asked me to speak at her company’s annual disability conference. I presented on the nature of chronic pain and approaches to resolve it. She personally learned the concepts and, over the course of a year, experienced a marked improvement in her quality of life. We remained in close touch.

Below is an email she wrote in response to a compelling success story I had shared with her.

Her letter

Hi David, is this the young man with Bipolar you mentioned during our call? What an incredible transformation!

You know what hit me the other night, few children are taught how to process anxiety, so they do the best they can on their own and usually create inaccurate perceptions of themselves and learn ineffective and often damaging behaviors to deal with it (the 7-year-old creates the 50-year-old). Parents should be doing this, but many parents are trapped in their own heads with repetitive negative thoughts and don’t know how to teach their children these skills, as they haven’t learned them either. And the cycle of dysfunction continues….

A little personal story here….My aunt gave me my grandmother’s book of prayers. My grandma was an extremely anxious woman and pretty OCD. I was thumbing through her book and noticed my grandma had written in the margins, underlined certain passages, etc. In the section on anxiety, she had underlined several times that “anxiety is a sin.” My poor grandmother thought she was a sinner her entire life because she was anxious! How awful!

My mother was also very anxious—no surprise there. In 6th grade, I had a boyfriend, nothing very serious at that age, of course, but I went to school one day and here my best friend was now with my boyfriend. I came home and was crying in my bedroom, mostly because my best friend had stabbed me in the back over a boy. My mom came in and asked me what was wrong ,and when I told her, her response was, “get a real problem”.

My mom was very stressed at the time with my two younger siblings and my dad always being at the bar—he was no help. From that moment on, I never told her anything about my life that wasn’t positive, and I became very depressed all through junior high and high school. Not having a parent to support me emotionally really messed me up and caused me to create all these negative perceptions about myself that took me 40 years to get over.

I am grateful that I have broken the cycle of dysfunction with my son. We talk openly about these things, and he is a very high-functioning and happy person.

It’s all just so insane and sad. Anyway, thanks for letting me share. It was the sequence of concepts you presented that broke the cycle for me. Kari

Anger and love

Anger, which intensifies threat physiology, diminishes activity in the neocortex (thinking regions) of your brain) and activates your limbic system (fear centers). Frustrated people are not generally rational. Your thinking brain is offline, and openness and engagement with rational interventions are blocked. Discipline will fire up the nervous system even more. More disturbing is that you can become cross-wired and these reactions can be connected to love.

A friend was standing in the checkout line at a grocery store when she heard a young mother screaming at her young 5-year-old daughter to put something back on the shelf. She suddenly hauled off and slapped the child with a full swing. Almost at the same time, the young girl began to cry, she held out her arms and turned to her mother to comfort her. Who else was there to console her? Talk about becoming cross-wired: The girl’s source of pain was also her bastion of love and protection.

What is your concept of love?

A stressed mother creates in her child a much different neurochemical environment than one who is calm. If your symbols of love and protection are combined with mental or physical neglect or abuse, your concept of love will be much different from that of someone who was raised in a warm, caring, nurturing, and loving environment.

Source: Sviatoslav-Kovtun/AdobeStock

We all need to be seen and heard

The common theme in these scenarios is that a child was anxious and upset. The interventions took the form of suppressing and attempting to extinguish behaviors caused by powerful, unpleasant survival reactions. The root problem causing the reaction is usually not addressed. You don’t feel heard, and you quickly learn that suppressing your feelings is better than having to deal with them. Except that suppressing thoughts and emotions is similar to blocking the release valve on a pressure cooker. The consequences are usually severe, including that the hippocampus of your brain (memory center) both shrinks and malfunctions.1

Is your child acting out? What is your typical response? Are you teaching him or her to calm down? Are your actions soothing? Could it be that you were stressed first? Are you asking what is at the core of the problem? It may seem that doing so would take too much time. Really? It is a lot quicker and more rewarding to teach your child how enjoy life than to keep trying to control their behaviors. How do you feel when people try to control you?


1. Hulbert JC, et al. Inducing amnesia through systemic suppression. Nature Communications (2015); published 3.15.2016. 7:11003 | DOI: 10.1038/ncomms11003

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