We are told it is good to face our fears. This advice overlooks that fact that some of us do not have enough built-in resources to deal with fear without unbearable anxiety or the threat of a panic attack.
When I work with a person who is afraid to fly, they often say they have been told by friends to just get on the plane and they will be fine. They will be fine ONLY if they – before they get on the plane – build in the resources required to maintain emotional regulation when on the plane.
This is because many people simply cannot maintain emotional regulation unless they are in control and able to escape.
So, before I advise a client to fly, I want to speak with them to make sure they have, indeed, done the preparation needed to fly comfortably. I need to know if they will be able to regulate their emotional state when someone else is in control, and when escape is not possible until they are back on the ground.
On the ground or in the air, panic results when the autonomic nervous system – the system that is supposed to regulate us automatically – does not work automatically.
When the amygdala senses change or anything unexpected, it releases stress hormones. The stress hormones do two things:
- Stress hormones activate the “fight or flight” response in case the unexpected change should mean danger.
- Stress hormones cause a feeling of alarm. This is to grab your attention. Even if you are focused on something or are deep in thought, the stress hormones will shift your attention to what the amygdala is reacting to.
So far, so good. This is how automatic up-regulation is supposed to work. Where things go wrong are with automatic down-regulation.
If you are a securely oriented person, your parasympathetic nervous system, referring to predominantly secure past experiences, down-regulates the feeling of alarm so you can assess the situation, figure out what is going on, and decide what to do about it.
If you are insecurely oriented, your parasympathetic nervous system, referring to predominantly insecure past experiences, down-regulates the feeling of alarm only if you are in control or are able to escape. If you are not in control or able to escape, no down-regulation takes place. The feeling of alarm persists. At the very time you need to assess the situation accurately, you are alarmed. Feeling alarmed colors your judgment. Alarm may cause you to believe there is danger, even when no real danger exists. When alarmed, if escape is not immediately at hand, panic may result.
Automatic down-regulation of alarm is supposed to be developed in a person’s formative years. In about 40% of us, it does not develop adequately. So, to feel secure, we need to control everything that happens so that nothing upsets us. As we mature and realize we are vulnerable, we feel threatened except when we are fully in control and have escape as a backup.
An example is driving a car. With the wheel in our hands, we have the illusion of control. If we have an accident, imagining we can stop out of the car gives us the illusion of escape. Though flying is much safer than driving, lack of control and escape when flying makes driving seem safer than flying.
In situations where control is tenuous, escape becomes even more important. When immediate escape is not available, anxiety develops. A panic sufferer may think, “What if I start to panic and can’t get out?” This concern may make it difficult to take an elevator or go to a theater unless guaranteed a seat on the end of a row. MRIs become impossible. In any place where escape is not guaranteed, panic may develop.
Anxiety cripples our ability to live life fully. But, there is an answer. It is to train the mind to automatically down-regulate alarm as nature intended. Otherwise, lack of complete control – which is to say lack of absolute safety – causes constant anxiety, if not for the present moment, for what may happen in the future.
As foreign as it may sound to a person who suffers from panic, anxiety, or claustrophobia, it is possible to feel secure, to be comfortable when not in control, and to feel safe when escape is not immediately at hand. How this is done in flight is taught step-by-step in the SOAR fear of flying courses. How this is done on the ground is taught step-by-step in my book, Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia.