Tag Archives: trauma symptoms

Fear of Success

“Why are some people afraid to succeed but not to fail? Why are some more afraid of failure? How can one learn to embrace these two fears? What is the difference between them?”

A young Canadian woman wrote to me recently with these inquiries. I thought they were excellent questions, and decided to share my thoughts and findings here.

We are all so complex, and the way we react to situations and anticipate results is based on many physiological and psychological factors. So many, in fact, that it can be difficult to generalize why different personality types might handle success versus failure in such drastically polarized ways.

As a psychologist specializing in trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) I’ve had firsthand experience coaching clients whose past experience feeds their current fear of success. For them, the excitement of success feels uncomfortably close to the feeling of arousal they experienced when subjected to a traumatic event or multiple events. (This feeling of arousal can be linked to sexuality, in certain cases where trauma has been experienced in that realm, but that is not always the case.) People who have experienced trauma may associate the excitement of success with the same physiological reactions as trauma. They avoid subjecting themselves to excitement-inducing circumstances, which causes them to be almost phobic about success.

Susanne-Babbel_Fear-of-Success-Q1There is another layer to the fear of success. Many of us have been conditioned to believe that the road to success involves risks such as “getting one’s hopes up” – which threatens to lead to disappointment. And many of us-especially if we’ve been subject to verbal abuse-have been told we were losers our whole lives, in one way or another. We have internalized that feedback and feel that we don’t deserve success. Even those of us who were not abused or otherwise traumatized often associate success with uncomfortable things such as competition and its evil twin, envy.

In order to have a healthy relationship with success (and it’s flip side, failure, or disappointment), the first step is to learn to differentiate between feelings of excitement and a “trauma reaction.”



Here is an easy exercise:

  1. Recall an event where you were successful or excited when you were younger, and notice what you are feeling and sensing in your memory. Stay with the sensation of for 5 minutes.
  2. Recall an event where you were successful and excited recently in your life, and notice what you are feeling and sensing. Stay with this sensation of for 5 minutes.
  3. Now tap into the sensation of a memory of an overwhelming situation. I suggest not to start with a truly traumatic event, at least not without a therapist’s support. Start with something only moderately disturbing to you.
  4. Now, go back to visualizing your success story. Do you notice a difference?

While corresponding with the young Canadian woman, I asked her to do look up bodily response to fear and excitement and let me know what she found. This is what she wrote back:

“I was looking up how the body responds to fear, and it said that when we sense fear the brain transmits signals and our nervous system kicks, in causing our breathing to quicken, our heart race to increase… we become sweaty, and we run on instinct. When we get excited or enthusiastic, doesn’t our nervous system work the same way?”

I assured her that, yes, the physical reactions to stress and to excitement are very similar. So, when we experience a traumatic event—such as a car accident or a school bullying incident—our body associates the fear we experience with the same physiological feelings we get while excited. Once we have been through enough trauma, we start to avoid those types of situations that trigger memories of fear. For this reason, trauma victims can tend to avoid excitement, and that can lead them to avoid success.

I work with trauma victims to get past their fears and associations and help them embrace and follow the path to success and healthy recovery.

Your original perceptions and filter of your world may have been altered through an overwhelming experience. In the absence of full processing of the experience you continue to have mental and physical manifestations of unresolved stress. Some of these symptoms begin shortly after the trauma; some develop later. Reactions you might have are:

Emotional Reactions:

_    You feel shame and not worthy
_    You overreact or are overemotional
_    You feel great sadness or anxiety on a regular basis
_    You have a very strong inner critic
_    You are afraid to be abandoned and feel lonely
_    You avoid certain situations
_    You can not feel emotions and are often numb
_    You lack confidence and self esteem
_    You have mood swings

Physical Symptoms:

_    Your body may stay in alert and stress mode until it knows it is safe (Hyperarousal)
_    You have a hard time relaxing and do not know how to settle down (Constriction)
_    You have difficulty sleeping and have nightmares
_    You have body image and weight problems
_    Your memory is not fully functioning
_    You feel numb and cannot feel your body (dissociation)
_    You are suffering from chronic pain
_    Skin disorders
_    Constipation

Relationship Patterns:

_    You may have developed specific patterns that you keep repeating
_    You try to control your partner, friends and family
_    You have a hard time saying no, setting limits or boundaries
_    Relationships can be difficult for you
_    You feel disconnected and detached

If you recognize yourself in these examples, you might have an unresolved traumatic experience.

Trauma symptoms can be expressed days, months, or even years after the traumatic event. Symptoms may suddenly arrive through a trigger in the environment and might appear as emotional, cognitive, or physical reactions. Sometimes the mind is not able to make sense of the internal signals, especially when the person has experienced an overwhelming event or stressful situation. The mind might continue to communicate to the nervous system the necessity to prepare to flee, fight, or freeze. Adrenaline is disbursed and the cycle might perpetually continue until the body-mind perceives that it is safe and recognizes it can rest.

If not addressed these can turn into long-term symptoms such as:

•    Panic attack
•    Avoidance behavior
•    Addictions
•    Risk taking behavior
•    Constant dissociation
•    Memory loss
•    Midlife crisis and fear of dying
•    Self-harming behavior
•    Obsessive or lack of sexual feelings
•    Feeling disconnected

Trauma leaves memories not only in the mind but also in the body. Sapolsky explains that PTSD is a physiological reaction to overwhelming and ongoing stress and is a fight or flight response. As a result, specific hormones are released that alter such things as skin sensitivity, alertness, heart rate, digestion, and learning skills. Additionally, hormones such as cortisol are excreted to expand pain tolerance. Cortisol can also cause hypervigilance, preparing the traumatized person to act at a moment’s notice.

Other physiological reactions include an adrenaline rush which can raise heart rate, cause heart palpitations, produce pupil dilation (increasing visual changes), and stop digestive physiology. Due to a disbursement of glucocorticoids, the body may react with constipation, diarrhea, headaches, and sleep disturbances. Epinephrine and norepinephrine slow down the blood flow to the digestive system and extremities. These hormones can even inhibit learning skills and cause attention deficit or confusion.

Studies have found that sexually abused women and veterans show a decrease in the size of the hippocampus, causing learning and memory loss.

PTSD affects parts of the brain that are associated with language, visual, and motor responses. During flashbacks, the Broca areas of the brain (responsible for verbal functions) slow down which may cause an inhibition of verbal expression of feelings while sensorimotor memories including visual images, tastes, sounds, smells, anxieties, fears, and pressures can still be recalled.

All non-verbal messages (such as those perceived by our senses) are collected in the implicit memory (subconsciously) whereas verbal messages are processed by the linear language centers of the brain and are stored in explicit memory (consciously) for easy access. Rothschild explains, “When PTSD splits mind and body, implicitly remembered images, emotions, somatic sensations, and behaviors become disengaged from explicitly stored facts and meanings about the traumatic event(s), whether they are consciously remembered or not.” van der Kolk emphasizes that contemporary research on the biology of PTSD affirms that stress hormones and memory processing are altered by traumatic events. It is now thought that people hold an implicit memory of trauma in their brains and bodies.

Candace Pert, author of Molecules of Emotions: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, suggests that not only does the brain carry memories but that cells and proteins (referred to as neuropeptides) hold and transport them throughout the entire body. Levine points out that memories are not literal recordings of events but rather a complex of images that are influenced by arousal, emotional context, and prior experience. Memories may even transform over time as new experiences add layers of meaning to the images.

Levine asserts that psychological wounds are reversible and that healing comes when physical and mental releases occur.