A few years ago my sister spilled boiling water on herself accidentally, severely burning her thighs. Since then she is petrified of using a kettle or going near boiling water. My family has tried our best to help her, to no avail.
At the point of experiencing a physical trauma, the brain activates its fear response as a mechanism to try and get us away from the threat. This chain reaction starts with the fear stimulus, in her case the boiling water, and ends with the fight-or-flight response. More often than not it’s flight that wins the day.
What has happened in your sister’s case is that the response keeps replaying. So every time she encounters a situation involving boiling water, her automatic responses kick in to run away. In simple terms, her fear reaction has gone into overdrive. At the moment, she’s working on instinct, but she can learn to take control through a number of strategies.
You’re clearly a supportive family; I recommend you gently suggest to her that she seek out some talking therapy to help her explore and come to terms with what’s happened.
Physical scars are often more apparent and that can help us to start dealing with them, but mental ones can end up being buried deep in the subconscious and have an impact on our behaviour for years if left unexamined.
Talking through her feelings associated with the accident will almost certainly help her to heal those hidden scars.
To deal with that uncontrollable anxiety she feels when she comes into close proximity of boiling water, cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy is one of the most effective methods I know. Through this approach, your sister will learn to climb the ‘fear ladder’ one step at a time. This means she will be sensitively guided through a series of small steps, which cumulatively build up her tolerance to the object of her fear. For example, she might start by looking at a picture of a kettle and then be helped to bring her feelings of fear under control.
Equally as important, she will also be taught a range of relaxation techniques to regain control of her fear when she feels the panic rise. Deep breathing, self-hypnosis and muscle relaxation can all help.
Finally, she will learn how to challenge those negative thought loops that keep her stuck in the same patterns of behaviour. This means she will learn to ask herself a series of key questions when those thoughts push their way to the forefront of her mind. In turn, this helps to undermine the powerful hold they have on her.
Fear can cause a person to live in a catch-22 state of paralysis. In order to overcome it, it needs to be challenged, but we are often too scared to do that. With your support and some professional guidance, I’m sure she’ll be able to break those chains.