When Ingrid is about to go off to kindergarten, she says:
Look, Mom, if I have a meltdown at kindergarten, I don’t know what I’ll do. I have all these different recordings of you in my mind. When I hit the Play button, it’s like Russian roulette.
If the video of you loving me and calming me comes up, I’ll be OK. But if a video of you invalidating me starts playing, I won’t trust myself. And what if I start seeing a video of you threatening me or hitting me? I’m too anxious to bring you to mind. Since I can’t depend on what is built inside to calm me psychologically, I need you to be there with me physically to do it.
Everyone is subject to the release of stress hormones and the resulting feelings of high arousal or alarm. Some of us have neural programming that activates automatically and calms us. We go from alarm to interest or curiosity about what the amygdala is reacting to.
Those of us who don’t have that software stay alarmed until the stress hormones burn off. We try to control our arousal by being in control of what is going on so that we can be sure there is nothing to get upset about. We tend to avoid situations where we can’t control what happens. If we can’t avoid such a situation, we make sure that if things go wrong, we can get out.
Fortunately, if our circuits for automatically attenuating alarm and regulating arousal—including panic—weren’t established in early childhood, we can establish them now. We can pick up where development left off.
Ingrid’s anxiety-ridden adult life
Let’s consider Ingrid again as an adult. On the surface, she looks cool, calm and collected. Everyone thinks she has it all together. In part, that may be because she has some good friends who are rarely competitive with each other. When she’s with them, the signals she unconsciously picks up from them keep her parasympathetic nervous system active. She can let down her guard and feel completely comfortable.
When Ingrid starts a new job, however, there is competition among the employees. Her performance is subject to judgment and criticism. No one provides her with unconscious signals that all is well. Anxiety causes her to judge and criticize herself. But because Ingrid needs to control things to feel safe, she has become quite accomplished at it. Though she pays an emotional price for it, this ability advances her career, and she becomes a manager.
Initially, she handles her new responsibilities well. But, as she advances and faces greater challenges, she can’t control every detail. Stress builds up. She has occasional panic attacks and consults a therapist. The therapist asks her to replace critical thoughts about herself with positive affirmations. The therapist also tells her that since panic attacks cause no harm, she shouldn’t fear them.
Every baby is born knowing how to get revved up, but nature doesn’t provide built-in software for calming down.
Ingrid expected that therapy would make her feel better, but being told by a person she believes is an authority that she shouldn’t be troubled by panic attacks is one of the most invalidating things that has ever happened to her. How could she not mind having a panic attack? Does it mean there is something wrong with her?
Though research has repeatedly shown that breathing exercises don’t relieve panic, the therapist recommended them, probably because he was unwilling to admit to Ingrid that he had no effective way to help her stop having panic attacks.
Though Ingrid didn’t know it, the therapist had set her up for failure. Her panic continued. When Ingrid’s health insurance carrier refused to pay for additional therapy sessions, she figured it was just as well. If anything, she felt worse about herself after seeing the therapist.
To run well, a computer needs both good hardware and good software. To attenuate alarm and regulate arousal, you need good hardware; your brain needs to be physically intact. Usually, nature takes care of that. But regulation also requires good software, and nature provides only half of it.
Every baby is born knowing how to get revved up, but nature doesn’t provide built-in software for calming down. That has to be installed through emotionally secure relationships with caregivers. Ingrid’s early relationships didn’t install the software she needed.
The power of a couple of simple exercises
Now let’s assume that Ingrid did what you’re doing: She read this book. She was surprised to discover that many people feel the way she does. She didn’t think anything was missing during her childhood. Though she didn’t remember as many childhood events as others seemed to, she believed things were fine. Nevertheless, since the exercises in this book looked interesting, she decided to try them.
Because of her friends, it was easy for her to remember times when she felt her guard let down. She recalled a friend’s face and pretended the friend was holding a photograph of a work situation that caused distress. She then pretended that she and the friend looked at the photograph together and talked about it.
The calming quality of her friend’s voice permeated the scene in the photo. She could remember her friend’s reassuring touch. Ingrid pretended she felt that touch as she and her friend talked about what was going on in the photograph.
On the following day, she pictured her friend holding a cartoon. The cartoon character was having a panic attack, feeling his heart pounding. In her imagination, Ingrid and her friend talked about that feeling. Remembering her friend’s touch felt calming. Ingrid continued the exercise and linked each element of panic to her friend’s face, voice and touch.
To make the calming process more automatic, she practiced bringing her friend’s face to mind whenever she noticed stress. As she practiced doing this, she was able to detect stress at lower and lower levels, which allowed her to nip it in the bud.