Attenuation of Arousal: The Linchpin of Emotional Regulation

The amygdala releases stress hormones to get our attention. Then what?

Posted Aug 10, 2016

The amygdala releases stress hormones when it senses anything it is not used to. Unless a person flies frequently, the amygdala will react to flying. Other than flight crew members, few people fly often enough for the amygdala to become, and remain, desensitized to flight.

A research study of subjects taking an Austrian Airlines fear of flying course showed that, during takeoff, non-fearful fliers and fearful fliers experienced a similar increase in heart rate as the plane took off.

The heart rate of non-fearful fliers (the research control group) quickly returned to normal. The heart rate of anxious fliers - particularly those (group 2) who were troubled by panic - slowed only slightly.

Stress hormones do two things. 1. They grab out attention. 2. They prepare us to run or fight in case that is required. After grabbing our attention, arousal needs to be sharply reduced so we can assess the situation accurately and determine whether action is necessary.

By analogy, when a phone rings, the sound gets our attention. When we respond and answer the phone, the ringing stops so we can have a conversations. If the ringing continued, normal conversation would not be possible.

Similarly, when stress hormone are released, arousal gets our attention. That's good. But after it gets our attention, we need an immediate attenuation of arousal so Executive Function, our high level thinking, can accurately assess the situation, determine whether a threat exists, and what action, if any, is needed.

In the Austrian Airlines research, the level of initial arousal was similar in all three groups, with a heart rate of between 107 and 115 beats per minute. After initial arousal, attenuation began immediately in the control group of non-fearful fliers. But, in anxious fliers, there there was little attenuation.

M. Trimmel, R. Wolfger, M. Burger
Source: M. Trimmel, R. Wolfger, M. Burger

Without attenuation of arousal, accurate assessment of the situation is difficult or impossible. This is because a continued high level of arousal causes imagined threats to seem genuine. (See this link for details.) Mistaking the imagined threats as real, Executive Function calls for escape. But, on the plane, escape is impossible. Panic may result.

This tells us that automatic attenuation of arousal is the linchpin that holds self-regulation together. When this linchpin is removed - or missing - regulation of arousal and of emotion becomes impossible.

Where does automatic arousal attenuation come from? I believe it comes from the hundreds of times when a young child gets aroused and is calmed by a caregiver. Not all of us get that consistently. If we don't, we may not develop automatic attenuation of arousal, and by extension, emotional and behavioral regulation.

The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child offers the following. "When we are threatened, our bodies prepare us to respond by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones, such as cortisol. When a young child’s stress response systems are activated within an environment of supportive relationships with adults, these physiological effects are buffered and brought back down to baseline. The result is the development of healthy stress response systems." 

What can be done? A way to attenuate arousal needs to be established. In my work with fearful fliers, we produce in-flight attenuation by linking each arousal-producing moment of flight to memory of a person whose presence is profoundly calming. According to researcher Stephen Porges, when we are with a person who is not a physical or emotional threat, we unconsciously receive signals that override the arousing effects of stress hormones and calm us. Since these signals of safety are not conscious, Porges refers to them - not as perception of safety - but as "neuroception of safety," Neuroception of safety slows the heart rate and activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system.

Once we link arousal-producing moments of flight to the memory of a person whose presence causes us to reflexively let our guard down, attenuation of arousal takes place automatically during flight.

How well, and how quickly, can such links work? The following was just posted on Amazon.

To say I was a nervous flyer is an understatement. With an upcoming flight I asked my doctor for something to help me relax - she wrote me an Rx for Xanax. In the meantime I researched coping methods for fearful flyers and ended up finding Soar. I read it and was skeptical but made sure to practice the exercises a few times. As the day of the flight approached I noticed I had far less anxiety than normal.

Armed with my Xanax, just in case, my drive to the airport, checking bags, and going through security all went well. I didn't feel the need for meds yet.

I was a little nervous during takeoff, and then..... Nothing. No fear, no cold sweat, no rapid pulse. Granted, it was a very smooth flight, but usually my anxiety is through the roof. Then as we approached Dallas we hit a rather long stretch of turbulence and...... Nothing!

I was even able to watch out the window as we landed. I could NEVER have done that before! My return flight went just as well! No meds needed!


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