Fear, fear reflexes, fright, stage fright

Again, it appears that in some cases a more or less permanent impression may be made upon the subconsciousness by casual suggestions, often related to fear, even though such suggestions be, in some cases, the result of a single experience. A nervous hysterical subject, already far too willing to submit to the guidance of emotion and what he or she fondly believes to be ‘instinct’ or ‘intuition,’ may be so harmfully impressed in this way as to develop any of the many forms of ‘phobia,’ which are, as the suffix correctly implies, forms of morbid terror. These are but two instances of the ‘education’ of the subconsciousness below the reasoning plane, but a dozen others will suggest themselves to the reader out of his own experience.

Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), page 22.

It will be understood, therefore, that the word ‘habit,’ as generally understood, does not apply to the new discipline which it is my aim to establish in the ordinary subconscious realms of our being. The reasons for this are two:

. .  .
2.  The stimuli to apprehension, or excitement of the fear reflexes, are eliminated by a procedure which teaches the pupil to take no thought of whether what he calls ‘practice’ is right or wrong.

Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), page 54.

As an instance of this, I recently had a case of a boy of three-and-a-half years who suffered from fear reflexes. If a stranger entered a room when the child was present, he would cry and cling to his mother or nurse. At the seaside, after asking to be allowed to bathe with other children, he was subsequently afraid to go near the water. And in many other ways he exhibited unreasoning terrors which, according to the general diagnosis common in such cases, were presumed to be the cause of his general backwardness, a symptom particularly marked in his speech, for he was only able to articulate a few words, and those very imperfectly.
My first examination of him revealed the fact that he lacked proper control of his lips and tongue, and of one internal physical function, the latter chiefly at night. And that the lack of control in these particulars was the direct cause of his psycho-physical condition was very conclusively proved by my treatment of him. Treated on a basis of conscious guidance and control, re-educated and co-ordinated, the child made a rapid advancement, and he progressed towards a condition approximating more closely to what one might call normal, than he had experienced since birth. The fear reflexes became less and less subject to excitement, he grew less irritable, his temper was more controlled, and his outbursts of crying were exhibited far less often.

Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), pages 80–81.

At present man is held in bondage by many subconscious instincts which enslave the animal kingdom, the savage and the semi-savage. Let me illustrate this. Animals and savages become immediately unbalanced when they experience the unusual, as for instance when they see an express train dash along for the first time. Such a new experience would cause the bravest animal to become overwhelmed with that degree of fear which momentarily suspends his normal guidance by instinct.

Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), page 111.

When the principles of reasoned conscious control are adopted, the man leading a sedentary life will be able to take up the occupation of ploughman without any fear of cultivating harmful habits.

Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), page 147.

It will be clear from this example that in the consciously controlled stage of psycho-physical development men and women will be able, without fear of mental or physical harm, to adapt themselves at once to any strange or unusual circumstance in which they are placed. They will act in the face of the unaccustomed or the unsuspected at the direction of their conscious reasoning minds, before any promptings springing from the subconscious mind can take possession of them. Just as they will be able by conscious reasoning to change their habits at will, to be today a clerk, tomorrow a reasoning ploughman, so they will meet sudden surprise by that same conscious reasoning and accurate judgement which follows it. I have already drawn attention to the conduct of animals and of men and women in the lower stages of evolution when they are confronted with any phenomena to which they are unaccustomed; how that they stand terror-struck and immovable, and betray themselves.

Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), page 148.

When it is explained to such a pupil that inhibition is the first step in his re-education, that his apprehensive fear that he may be doing wrong and his intense desire to do right are the secrets of his failure, he will invariably endeavour to prevent himself from doing anything, by exerting force usually in the opposite direction.

Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), page 157.

My experience has proved that the pupil at first will act in precisely the same way if I attempt to perform the act for him as if I had asked him to do it without my assistance. He is just as apprehensive as a result of one request as of the other, and in this state of apprehensiveness he is, mentally and physically, impossible to deal with from the standpoint of re-education. He conjures up in his mind all kinds of fears that he will do this or that incorrectly. If you mention that he did a certain thing when you placed your hands on him, he will make an endeavour physically to prevent himself the next time. This, of course, is one of the worst errors a pupil can make. It is usually attended by far more tension and apprehension than when he performed the act which you pointed out was incorrect. The re-education work really begins here, and it takes weeks, nay, sometimes months to bring the pupil to a stage in his co-ordination when he will be really once more in communication with his reason. With these facts before us I feel that my reader will advocate with me the necessity of adopting principles which will create new and correct habits, and eradicate needless apprehension and fear from the souls of human beings.

Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), page 158.

His medical advisers were unanimous in declaring that he was suffering from nerve and digestive disorders, and he failed to make any improvement during many years of treatment. In his own words, he ‘had year by year gone from bad to worse,’ until he was often too nervous to cross a street with ordinary traffic, and his fears in this connection were increased by frequent attacks of giddiness, when he almost lost his sense of equilibrium. He complained of painful distension after meals and suffered much from insomnia.

Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), page 162.

It is probable that this unreasoned conception had its origin in that emotional and confused condition which is responsible for the majority of unreasoned acts and beliefs, and is generally found to be associated with fear in some form or other. The confused state into which man was thrown in his first attempts to find a ‘cure’ for his psycho-physical deterioration was naturally linked up and associated with his original fears. For fear had been man’s constant companion from very earliest times, and whether the fear was a healthy or an unhealthy fear depended upon the conditions involved; in either case it was a form of illness for which the lowly evolved creature could not find a ‘cure.’ The primary law which ordains that one creature should feed upon another, the shock of new experiences, and ignorance of even simple laws of Nature were responsible for this. There was no escape. Every creature, human or otherwise, lived in constant expectation of an attack from its natural enemy. Our little canary, whose great-great-great-grandparents were caged birds, still looks from side to side with anxious rapidity after picking up each seed, just like the earliest of its kind.
It is easy to understand what would be the effect of thunder, for instance, when heard for the first time by the primitive creature, whose very existence depended upon a proper reaction to the stimulus of fear, and to imagine his terrified aspect when lightning first flashed before his eyes. There can be no doubt that from the very earliest stages man’s reaction to such fears as these had been to seek refuge in the supernatural. Indeed, civilized men who have not prayed for years, who may even have ridiculed the practice of prayer, have been known in the circumstances of shipwreck to kneel down and pray instinctively. In such cases fear overrules their convictions, the old primitive subconsciousness holds sway, and they probably fall on their knees without being aware of it.
So it would be with primitive man. Dazed and terrified by the thunder and lightning, he would drop down, and hide his face in his hands, mumbling, incoherently perhaps, to ‘something.’ Sooner or later, when the paroxysm of fear had begun to pass, he would take his hands from his face, and it is conceivable that the first tree or stone to meet his terrified gaze would impress him as being the power which had rescued him from some awful fate. From this there would develop the worship of images of wood and stone, and the various religious rites with which we are familiar.
We will not stop to consider all the intervening stages in this development, but will pass on to the time of the Christian Era, and see in what form the primitive fear now manifested itself.
Here we find that though man’s fears were modified in the case of thunder and lightning, and other terrors with which he had now become familiar, they were no less acute in new and unfamiliar spheres. And beyond this original fear of the unknown, a new form of fear had come upon him, associated with the one-sided development which had taken place in the human organism. For unbalanced psycho-physical development connotes unsatisfactory equilibrium in all spheres, and unsatisfactory equilibrium is ever associated with fear. As we have seen, since man’s entry into the civilized state he had been developing more rapidly on what is called the mental side, whilst on the so-called physical side there was actual deterioration. He had thus been building up within himself two forces, as it were, the one working against the other, until it was almost as if he had developed two separate entities, the ‘physical’ and the ‘mental.’ It was the conflicting demands of these ‘separate entities’ which caused the interference with psycho-physical equilibrium and produced in him the condition of inward fear to which I refer, and which today is too often called ‘nerves.’*
This new fear—actually a fear of himself—gradually developed until its presence was recognized as an urgent problem, and it is in man’s solution of this problem that we are faced with a conception which will be seen to be a most harmful one when considered in relation to his evolutionary progress.
The conception to which I refer is that of the separation of the human organism into the parts which have been named soul, mind, and body.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), pages 47–49.

By way of illustration I will take the case of a person who suffers from some unreasoning fear, and goes to a psychoanalyst for help in overcoming it. We will suppose that in the course of the analysis, long or short as the case may be, the teacher and the pupil together unravel the knot and decide that the origin of the fear lies in some event, or train of events, which took place in the past and unduly excited the patient’s fear reflexes and established a ‘phobia.’ For the sake of our illustration, we will say that a ‘cure’ is made. What does this ‘cure’ indicate, however? Wherein lies the fundamental change in the patient’s psycho-physical condition?
Before we can answer these questions, we must take into consideration the all-important fact to which I drew attention at the very outset of this book—namely, that all so-called mental activity is a process governed by our psycho-physical condition at the time when the particular stimulus is received. This being so, it is obvious that the reason a person falls a victim to some unreasoning fear is that his condition of general psycho-physical functioning at the time when he receives the stimulus, to which the fear is the reaction, is below a normal and satisfactory standard.* For, if his condition of general functioning were normal, his reaction to the particular sensory stimulus would be a normal reaction, not an unreasoning ‘phobia.’

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 60.

They also have very definite ideas concerning the processes which should be involved, in spite of the fact that they have never had the experience that might have justified them in holding these fixed opinions. Further, it occurs to very few of them to consider whether, in this process of ‘education’ (i.e., in certain specific directions), the child’s fear reflexes will not be unduly and harmfully excited by the injunction that it must always try to ‘be right,’† indeed, that it is almost a disgrace to be wrong; that the teachers concerned do not even know how to prevent the child from acquiring the very worst psycho-physical use of itself whilst standing or sitting at its desk or table, pondering over its lessons, or performing its other duties; that on account of the methods of cramming and other means adopted in the act of learning, there is being cultivated a harmful psycho-physical condition—one result being recognized in a loss of memory—which in our time has developed to such a serious point that it has paved the way for the exploitation of educated people by means of various methods, such as ‘memory systems,’ etc.*
In this matter of sending children to school, we must realize that any undue excitement of the fear reflexes in the daily routine of school work has a very serious effect upon the respiratory processes,† which are so closely linked up with the emotions, and when in addition we consider the detrimental effect upon these processes of the defective use of the organism‡ during study at school desks and in school chairs (for in study, as in deep sleep, the respiratory processes are reduced to their minimum of activity) in standing, walking, and, in fact, during the assumption of any ordinary posture, we are faced with a problem which no scheme on a subconscious basis will solve.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), pages 72–73.

The test of man’s advance in this connection demands a consideration of:

. . .
(4) the standard of his ability to hold in abeyance the fear of giving up his job, in whatever profession, trade or calling this may be, and boldly to make the necessary change, should he find that the fundamental principles concerned are defective; and to make the necessary adjustments which are essential to the acceptance and assimilation of new and approved knowledge whilst going on with his job.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), pages 78–79.

Any attempt, then, made by the child that is imperfectly co-ordinated to use its unreliable sensory appreciation as a guide in its efforts to do something in obedience to directions in order to correct a defect, is bound to result in some form of misdirected activity, accompanied by an increase of the original defect or imperfection, and by the undue development of the fear reflexes.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 81.

These misdirected activities manifest themselves in the use of the psycho-physical mechanism in connection with all the general activities of life, and in many varying ways, according to our individual idiosyncrasies. They are influenced by and associated with our incorrect conceptions, our imperfect sensory appreciation, our unduly excited fear reflexes and uncontrolled emotions and prejudices, and our imperfectly adjusted mechanisms. These psycho-physical derangements in the process of formation are the forerunners of a psycho-physical attitude towards the conduct of life in general which must be considered perverted, and because these misdirected activities are so closely connected with this perverted attitude, they present a problem of great difficulty to both teacher and pupil in any endeavour to convey or acquire knowledge, particularly in regard to the satisfactory use of the psycho-physical mechanisms.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 82.

VI. Unduly Excited Fear Reflexes, Uncontrolled Emotions, and Fixed Prejudices

Chapter title, in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 134.

Unduly excited fear reflexes, uncontrolled emotions, prejudices and fixed habits, are retarding factors in all human development. They need our serious attention, for they are linked up with all psycho-physical processes employed in growth and development on the subconscious plane. Hence, by the time adolescence is reached these retarding factors have become present in a more or less degree, and the processes thus established in psycho-physical use will make for the continued development of such retarding factors. This is particularly the case when a person endeavours to learn something calling for new experiences.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 135.

Paradoxical as it may seem, the pupil’s only chance of success lies, not in ‘trying to be right,’ but, on the contrary, in ‘wanting to be wrong’—wrong, that is, according to any standard of his own. In this connection it is most important to remember that every unsuccessful ‘try’ not only reinforces the pupil’s old wrong psycho-physical habits associated with his conception of a particular act, but involves at the same time new emotional experiences of discouragement, worry, fear, and anxiety, so that the wrong experiences and the unduly excited reflex process involved in these experiences become one in the pupil’s recognition; they ‘make the meat they feed on,’ and the more conscientious the teacher and the pupil are on this plan, the worse the situation becomes for both.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 136.

We have seen, indeed, in Chapter III that he asks his pupil not to make any attempt to gain the ‘end’ at all, but instead to learn gradually to remember the guiding orders or directions, which are the forerunners of the means whereby the end may one day be gained. This may not be today, tomorrow, or the next day, but it will be: the pupil will then be able to repeat the act with mathematical precision at all times and under all circumstances, for such retarding factors as unduly excited fear reflexes, uncontrolled emotions, and fixed prejudices will not have been developed in the process just outlined.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 136.

We are told that this is all a matter of ‘nerves’ and so forth. It is undoubtedly a case of the undue excitement of fear reflexes on the player’s part—fear, for instance, that he may miss a shot which he knows he is not in the habit of missing and ought not to miss. As a pupil once said to me at a first interview: ‘I am always coming up against things that I know I can do, and yet when it comes to the point, I can’t do them.’ The fact is that in all our processes of learning things, the fear reflexes are unduly and harmfully excited by the teaching methods employed, according to which demands are made upon us that we are not able to fulfil.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 137.

It is experiences like this which cause disappointment and undue excitement of fear reflexes and serious emotional disturbances, and nothing whatever is done at this later stage of the process to nullify these effects of the psycho-physical experiences cultivated during the earlier stages. These emotional disturbances were part and parcel of an unbalanced psycho-physical condition, of a state of anxiety and confusion, and there can be little doubt that any circumstance that is more or less unusual is likely to bring about a recurrence of the same disturbed psycho-physical condition as was experienced by the subject during his early efforts to make the stroke.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), pages 137–38.

This satisfactory general use is essential to satisfactory specific use. By chance or good luck a man may make a good stroke without having attained to a good standard in the general use of himself, but he can never be reasonably certain of repeating it, and the experiences associated with this state of uncertainty do not make for the growth of confidence, but rather for the development of undue fear reflexes and serious emotional disturbances.*

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 139.

Why should he, seeing that the confidence with which he proceeds with his task is a confidence born of experiences, the majority of which are successful experiences unassociated with over-excited fear reflexes?

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 140.

This matter of unduly excited fear reflexes has been referred to in the chapter on education, and here I wish to discuss processes used in tests made on children in this connection.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 140.

The child, so I was told, was already in a state of nervous dread, and when he received the instruction, ‘Now you must try to touch the centre of each hole, and do not touch the side of any hole or else you will make a flash,’ he at once became so excited through the fear of making a mistake that his hand shook and he stiffened and tensed his whole body unduly in making the first try. He was therefore unable to control his hand to find the centre of the first hole, touched the side and produced a flash. Still more frightened by this, still more anxious not to do the wrong thing again, he proceeded from hole to hole, making flash after flash, realizing that every mistake he made was being noted by the ‘tester,’ against him, as he thought, so that by the time he had reached the last hole his condition was one of undue excitement.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 141.

It must be remembered that during all these ‘trial-and-error’ experiences the fear reflexes are being unduly excited by the fear of falling, and by the general unreliability and uncertainty of the psycho-physical processes which are employed during such subconsciously directed efforts.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 150.

The satisfactorily co-ordinated child on a plane of conscious control will be possessed of a psycho-physical mechanism which will tend to function to the maximum in all spheres in accordance with the standard of co-ordination reached. With such conditions present, the teacher can draw from the child the very best that the particular psycho-physical organism, functioning adequately, is capable of giving, and can also be confident of a more or less increasing improvement, without the undue excitement of the fear reflexes and without undue effort.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 162.

First observe the strained expression of the eyes, an expression of anxiety and uneasiness, denoting unduly excited fear reflexes; in some cases the eyes may be distorted, and the whole expression one that is recognized as the self-hypnotic stare. Then turn your attention to the general expression of the face, and pass on to the manifestations of the body and limbs. You will notice that there is an undue and harmful degree of tension throughout the whole organism.

Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), page 169.

On the opening night, a very eminent man was stage-managing for me. He rushed into my room five minutes before the curtain, and said, ‘Alexander, I hear these young people have never appeared in public before.’
I said, ‘That is true.’
He said, ‘You are mad.’
I said, ‘Oh, no, what are you afraid of?’
Stage fright,’ he said.
I said, ‘They don’t know it, trained as they have been trained. It is impossible.’ I said, ‘I am going to call them all on stage and tell them there is no prompter tonight.’ There was no stage fright.

Lecture: ‘An Unrecognized Principle’ (1925) in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London), page 154.

You see, this brings me to another practical experience in my work. When I started to work out the technique, I had such a horror of my school that the remembrance of it was still with me all the time, the remembrance of everyone concerned asking me to try to be right, and of my finding out later on in life that my right was wrong, as I knew, by the sensory consciousness that was within me, was wrong. I was horrified, and I decided that before I could enter the teaching work, I would develop a technique which would enable me to teach the child in such a way that the fear reflexes would never be unduly excited, and we have that technique today.

Lecture: ‘An Unrecognized Principle’ (1925) in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London), page pages 157–58.

I had sent to me a young man of twenty-four, a fine young fellow. If ever you have seen an animal chained up, this young fellow sat in my room with those eyes, frightened out of his life, and yet there was nothing to fear. His mother said to me, ‘Mr Alexander, why is he frightened?’ I said, ‘He is frightened of himself. If you were doing the absurd things with yourself that that boy is doing, you would be frightened too.’

Lecture: ‘An Unrecognized Principle’ (1925) in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London), page 155.

Children particularly are sensitive in that way. While entering into that, first of all it is necessary to look into the child and say, ‘There are fears there. Are those fears the fears of something coming through the demand of the environment of life, or are those the fears coming from the imperfect use of themselves?’
Children particularly are sensitive in that way. While entering into that, first of all it is necessary to look into the child and say, ‘There are fears there. Are those fears the fears of something coming through the demand of the environment of life, or are those the fears coming from the imperfect use of themselves?’

Lecture: ‘An Unrecognized Principle’ (1925) in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London), page 158.

[No mention in The Use of the Self.]

You say it is wrong for the boy to be frightened. I say you are wrong in saying so. I should say it would be serious if he were not frightened when he is in the condition he is.

‘Teaching Aphorisms’ (1930s) in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London), page 197.

The tendency to fixation of the head and neck, which was so noticeable in the cases of osteo-arthritis and torticollis, characterized this case also. In any attempt to move the head there was a spasmodic movement associated with overaction of neck muscles similar to that of the spasmodic torticollis case. Special to this case was the undue excitement of the fear reflexes in response to any stimulus to move or speak.

The Universal Constant in Livingby F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), page 29

We all know that most people keep away from their doctor until they are forced to go to him. Probably this is because of the layman’s belief that the doctor is a person trained to treat disease. In any case, he goes to a consultation with a fear that there may be something seriously wrong. How different it would all be if he looked upon the doctor as a person trained to prevent the development of disorder and disease!

The Universal Constant in Livingby F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), page 65.

A satisfactory technique for making the changes we are considering must be one in which the nature of the procedures provides for a continuous change towards improving conditions, by a method of indirect approach under which opportunity is given for the pupil to come into contact with the unfamiliar and unknown without fear or anxiety.

The Universal Constant in Livingby F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), page 78.

According to my experience, although a pupil may believe or assert that he has reasoned out why he should not give consent to a certain act and consequently desires to inhibit his habitual reaction, he is clearly more concerned at the moment with gaining his end (i.e., carrying out his teacher’s instructions, hoping to be right and fearing to be wrong) than with the inhibition of his habitual reaction to the teacher’s request.

The Universal Constant in Livingby F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), page 80.

In face of any situation demanding a reasoned decision as to the best line of action to adopt, he has the habit of reacting more in accordance with his unreasoned fears than with any balanced appreciation of his fundamental needs and requirements, and in this respect he has been no more successful in the sphere of religion than elsewhere.

The Universal Constant in Livingby F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), page 147.

As the Oxford Group has been much to the fore of late it may be both helpful and interesting to relate some experiences I have actually had with friends and pupils connected with the group who have come to me for lessons. I have found them particularly difficult to teach because of their over-excited fear reflexes and of their habit of instinctively seeking the easy way, even when admitting that it is not the best for their purpose. They are self-hypnotic to a high and harmful degree, and find the inhibition of habitual reaction much more difficult than most other pupils.

The Universal Constant in Livingby F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), pages 148–49.

The projection of messages necessary to the carrying out of new procedures is inseparable from previously unknown sensory experiences of use and functioning, and tends to excite unduly the fear reflexes in all people who are faced with the difficulties of the pupil we are discussing. As we all know, fear is the most fundamental source of human frailty, and in this connection I have just received from a friend who wishes to remain anonymous an Open Letter which gives a most interesting and pertinent instance of the effect of fear development.

The Universal Constant in Livingby F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), page 149.

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