Learning to be anxious: the conditioning of fear

Cartoon scary ghost

In one of Psychology’s dark moments, an 8 month old baby was taught to have a phobia of harmless furry things.

These unethical experiments, conducted in the 1920s by psychologist John Watson, were seen as evidence of how fear of harmless things can be learned through a process called classical conditioning. A careful observer will note numerous problems in the above video with how Watson conducted his research. However, better-controlled studies have since confirmed that fear, or anxiety, can indeed be learned through clasical conditioning.

What is classical conditioning?

Classical conditioning is a process by which we learn to associate an automatic response (such as fear, hunger, sleepiness) with a particular cue (a sound, object, sensation) because that cue has repeatedly been experienced to coincide with something that already caused that response. In the little Albert experiment, poor Albert was repeatedly distressed by a loud sound, causing fear, at the same time as he was exposed to a white rat. With time the rat (or more probably Watson himself) became a trigger of fear.

This is one way that we can learn to fear a thing – by its coincicidence with something scary. If I happen to be watching The Wiggles on tv at the moment a car crashes into my lounge room wall it is possible I might experience trepidation when I next hear a Wiggles song.
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It gets worse before it gets better

There is a common paradox for psychological therapy: many times the strategies we have found to provide us relief from our problems are at the same time perpetuating our problems. For example, a man suffering depression may find that staying in bed all day is the only way to get some slight relief from his persistent sadness and guilt. Yet, at the same time, staying in bed is keeping him isolated from social supports that could play an important part in his recovery. It is also feeding back into his guilt when, at the end of the day, he reflects on all the things he “should” have done instead of being in bed.

A woman with a phobia of mice may find running and hiding in another room if she sees a mouse gives her relief from her feelings of terror – yet in doing so she has unintentionally reinforces her automatic fear response to seeing mice.

Therapy generally involves, at some point, changing unhelpful patterns in one way or another. Initially this means stopping use of strategies that have had at least short-term benefits. Consequently, therapy can at times be very uncomfortable: you make a choice to confront difficult feelings and experiences that you have developed a range of strategies for avoiding. Because of this I often caution clients that “it gets worse before it gets better.” It is often necenssary to sit through discomfort, sometimes considerable discomfort, to experience the reward of mastering a problem.
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