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Anchoring - conditioned responses

What is Anchoring?

Anchoring is quite simply the process of connecting one thing to another.


A ship connects itself to the sea floor with an anchor to stop it moving.

A person can be anchored to and event, or to a particular object – they form a connection between the event or the object and themselves.


In psychological terms we call this ‘conditioning’; when a person responds to a particular event or object in a certain way.


Classical conditioning is where a conditional stimulus is paired with a neutral stimulus - for example a monkey being presented with food at the same time as a bell is rung. Eventually the monkey can become conditioned to the bell ringing and will expect food to be delivered when it does ring.


Another type of conditioning can occur where the operant has to do something in order to gain a reward, or to avoid a punishment. Positive reinforcement of a type of behaviour would mean that the behaviour is rewarded (food delivered when a switch is pressed), negative reinforcement of a behaviour would mean that something unpleasant is removed when the behaviour occurs (i.e. a loud noise stops when a switch is pressed) and punishment means that something unpleasant happens when a type of behaviour occurs (loud noise sounds if a switch is pressed).


When a person is anchored to an event, they form a connection between the event and their lives; for example, if a person fell down a long set of steps when young, they might have developed a long-term fear of heights. The conditioning event was falling down the steps, and the response is a fear of heights. You might think, but that was only a single fall, how can that cause a conditioned response? Well although there was only one fall, if the person was hurt badly and spent some time recovering, they probably played the fall through in their mind many, many times. The conditioning occurred through their memory. Furthermore, over time, the person may become so used to being ‘afraid of heights’ that they condition themselves to be utterly afraid of heights – they continue to reinforce the original fear.


The good news is that just like a ship which can retrieve its anchor, disconnecting itself from the sea floor, a person can disconnect themselves from previous events or ‘triggers’ that cause them difficulties. This doesn’t mean forgetting or deleting memories, but recognising those connections made in the past and finding a new way of responding to them. For the person who fell down the steps, they might be able to recognise the fall and the pain that was associated with it, and – in the light of a new perspective – see that it was an unfortunate accident, but not a reason to fear heights. They can change their response to being in a high place. Reconditioning, or raising the anchor, is one way a person can overcome a conditioned response. What has been conditioned can also be reconditioned.


Limiting beliefs, conditioned responses, negative thinking – these can cause stress, anxiety, depression, fears, phobias… Recognising those previous events that have caused present difficulties may be easy if the initial event was obvious, but it might not be apparent. Counselling can help to find and recognise those early events that have allowed such anchors to occur, it can help to ‘raise the anchor’ – to break the previously formed connection, and can help develop a new more positive, helpful response.


What has been conditioned can also be reconditioned.

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