How I overcame an embarrassing childhood fear


Some fears are manageable – we may even be able to see that they are irrational – but others can feel insurmountable. The editor, Annie Ridout, shares her (embarrassing) childhood fear – and how she managed to overcome it…

When I was eight years old, my best friend was burgled. For some reason, she knew all the details: he’d climbed into their ground floor flat via the window in her mum’s room. He then walked through the bedroom she shared with her brother and made his way round the flat.

As soon as she relayed this story to me, I started having nightmares about being burgled. I’d go into my parents’ bedroom every night, scared and crying, asking to sleep in their bed. Until they set up a chart on the wall and said that two weeks without waking them would be rewarded by me getting my ears pierced. That was the end of that.

Except it wasn’t, because I hadn’t dealt with the fear, I’d simply internalised it. And so an acute fear of burglars has remained with me throughout my life. It’s embarrassing when ‘fears’ come up and everyone reels off the usual: snakes, sharks, spiders. Then I say ‘burglars’ and feel like I’m eight years old again. Or I don’t say it, because I’m ashamed, and the fear cycle perpetuates as I haven’t managed to articulate it.

The way my fear manifests now is that every time my husband goes away, I’m full of trepidation and so have to stay with family. I’ve been known to desperately jump in a cab in the middle of the night after attempting to stay alone but fear getting the better of me. And it’s annoying. I’m a mother – I need to be able to be at home alone with my children and to not feel scared.

I’ve built a protective web so thick that I’m totally trapped inside

People make suggestions like: get a burglar alarm, make sure the windows have locks, gets bars on the windows, have an extra strong lock, reinforce the front door glass. It’s not helpful – we’ve done all those things. My house could be an impenetrable fort and I’d still be shaking at night, because a true fear can’t be sidelined by the knowledge that it can’t/won’t/would be tricky for it to happen.

So, fed up with feeling useless – and wanting to stay home alone; I love time alone, I just can’t cope in the middle of the night – I set out to overcome my issue(s). I found a therapist trained in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and hypnotherapy and we agreed to meet at Neal’s Yard, where she rents a room.

The first session was an hour an a half and involved lots of discussion about fears, their origin, the science behind it and how it is that I’ve created so much anxiety around spending the night alone. Put simply, throughout life we consciously and subconsciously log incidents of threat, adding to them as necessary.

For example: we’re warned about running out into the road and what might happen, then perhaps we see a car zoom round the corner and it scares us. This is the evidence our brain needs to acknowledge that cars and roads are potentially dangerous.

You probably won’t be able to deal with it without support and guidance, so try to find a therapist to help

If we then know someone who is run over, an additional layer is added to this perceived threat. This layering is necessary so that we’re able to protect ourselves. Our brain then makes our body kick into action (instinct) and jump back when a car whizzes past.

With my fear of burglars – stemming from that friend being burgled – every time someone else has told me a story about it happening to them, or a friend of theirs, I’ve developed more in-depth fear. My brain logs all this information so that it can protect me.

Only, I’ve been clinging on to EVERY piece of information I hear – from TV dramas, films, radio, articles, as well as anecdotes – and built a protective web so thick that I’m totally trapped inside. The web needs to be thinned out so that I can be freed. How? By facing my fear.

So through a combination of CBT exercises, breathing techniques, mindfulness (being present rather than feeling anxious about what could happen) and calming hypnotherapy sessions, I’m learning to take control.

One issue is that if I stay alone, I wake up and panic then can’t get back to sleep, so learning about the general science behind sleep and fears has also helped. I now know that the brain is still logging sounds while you sleep, filtering out unthreatening ones – like wind or rain – and rousing you if a sound signifies danger – like smashing glass.

The first step towards eliminating a fear is acknowledging that it is there, and doesn’t need to be. Some fears are so acute that we simply can’t imagine living without them – but a fear is in the mind; not in reality. Every time you freak yourself out thinking about that thing/person – it’s you creating it.

The second step is seeking help. You probably won’t be able to deal with it without support and guidance, so try to find a therapist to help. That might be a psychotherapist, or a hypnotherapist… Do some research, speak to friends and family, and work out what will be the most effective therapy for you.

Have you managed to overcome a fear? Would love to hear about how you managed it in the comments below, or via email: