When Anxious, Our Most Basic Strategy Is to Run

More advanced strategies require years of development.

Posted Oct 03, 2016

Our most basic way of dealing with our fears and anxieties is to run away from them. Why not? That is the way we are wired up. The main component in this wiring is the amygdala, the part of the brain that releases stress hormones. Whenever it notices anything unfamiliar, it releases stress hormones that cause the urge to run.

The amygdala is sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain. It protects reptiles on the basis of this theory: "If the creatures routinely around here haven’t eaten me, they probably aren’t going to."

It's not a bad strategy. The familiar is probably safe. The unfamiliar may be dangerous. But, it may not be. A brain no bigger than an almond can’t determine what is safe and what isn't. All it can do is urge the reptile to run whenever anything unfamiliar comes on the scene. Running means wear and tear on the body, and burns calories that have to be replaced. That means returning to the possibly unsafe environment.

We still have that system. Researcher Stephen Porges calls it “The Mobilization System.” The system is so basic it requires no development. We also have sophisticated systems that can resolve uncertainties, and not always resort to escape. But, these systems require development. To develop them, a child needs to feel profoundly safe in the presence of its caregivers. The systems must be developed in the caregivers well enough for them to interact with the child in a way that builds arousal regulating circuitry in the child's brain.

The Three Sophisticated Systems

  • Executive Function

When the amygdala releases stress hormones, we feel an urge to escape. The hormones also activate Executive Function. It says, “Hold on. Let me take a look and see if running is really necessary.” But, other systems must reduce arousal from alarm to curiosity in order for Executive Function to work.

When your phone rings, it gets your attention. To have a conversation, the ringing must stop. When the amygdala fires off stress hormones to get your attention, for Executive Function to calmly survey the situation and figure out what to do, some system must attenuate arousal, taking it down from alarm to a comfortable level that merely causes interest.

If alarm is not attenuated, Executive Function can’t differentiate real danger from an imaginary danger. Consider the plight of fearful fliers. They have the Mobilization System because that requires no development. They probably have a good enough Executive Function to function well when not stressed. But, they can't automatically turn the volume down when the release of stress hormones causes alarm. Once alarmed, they stay alarmed until the stress hormones burn off. Two other sophisticated systems can - if adequately developed - attenuate arousal and allow Executive Function to work.

  • The Social Engagement System

Porges discovered that when we are with another person, they unconsciously send signals we unconsciously receive and process. When the person is attuned and non-judgmental, their signals give us a sense of physical and emotional safety. When we feel our guard letting down. the vagus nerve is slowing our heart rate and activating our calming parasympathetic nervous system. If we are with a calming person when the amygdala fires off, their presences overrides the effect of the stress hormones, and calms us.

  • The Internal Replica System

This is the most advanced system. This system allows a person to regulate arousal independently, and not burden another person with the job of being a constantly calming companion. The brain records our experiences with others. When we have repeated interactions with the same person, an internal replica of our relationship with them is formed. This allows them to be psychologically present when not physically present. If we have a robust working model of how they calmed us when stress hormones caused us to be alarmed, their psychological presence overrides the effect of stress hormones. In short, arousal triggers the working model to calm us. However, if we had few calming persons around us during our formative years, we may have nothing to automatically attenuate alarm, and alarm tends to produce panic.

Look at this post from the SOAR Message Board

I have a history of fearful flying and opt to fly with partner wherever possible as I get some comfort in hand squeezing! In two weeks due to work I am flying from New Zealand to Austin across three flights and I am starting to panic already. I am starting to think up all the excuses I can to cancel but would be too embarrassed to do so. I have to find a way to get on these three flights and attempt to enjoy it. My trigger is turbulence and I am terrified the entire long-haul 12 hour flight will be riddled with turbulent air. I am also terrified of the small plane on the LAX to AUS leg as it is smaller than I am comfortable to travel on. I am a bundle of nerves and teary at the thought of having to make this trip. Help!

Here is my response.

1. Right. It does help to have another person present. But, even more important (in terms of emotional regulation and control) than a person beside you, it a person build INSIDE you connected (by using the SOAR Strengthening Exercise) to the things that trigger anxiety.

This is because we are genetically wired up to best regulate and control our own feelings. But though we are wired up to do that, doing that requires development of the system. Think of a supermarket. Suppose you went into a supermarket and all you found was shelves and aisles - no food. The supermarket is like the system nature gave you: it has the aisles and shelves. But, to do its job, the shelves need to be stocked with food so when you go through the aisles, you find what you need, put what you need in your cart, and take it with you wherever you go to sustain you.

What happens to fearful fliers is there is nothing on the shelves. Why? Because during the vital formative years of your life, instead of stocking up on emotionally important supplies, something else happened. I can't say what, but you probably have some guesses. Instead of having parents who took care of you, you had to take care of them. Of there was a problem with safety: you were not protected. Or your parents did their best, but there best was limited because their own shelves were not stocked with emotional goodies to put on your shelves. They were too empty; they left you empty. Or they were emotionally not well-regulated, so when you were upset, they got more upset; that took stuff off your shelves instead of filling them.

2. So the answer is—not to simply fly when someone is with you—but to stock your shelves so you have the supplies you need to regulate and control emotions.

3. Until you gain inner ability to easily, naturally, and automatically regulate and control emotions, you have to either have someone with you to take care—or TRY—to take care of you emotionally, or you have to run away.

4. Turbulence: never a problem for the plane. Always a problem for the person whose shelves are not stocked with goodies that regulate and control feelings. When the plane drops, the amygdala reacts. It is supposed to. But a person who has good emotional regulation instantly—and automatically—goes from alarm to curiosity. An anxious flier feels alarmed and STAYS alarmed. A non-fearful-flier feels alarmed and immediately calms down. Most do it so quickly they don't even notice the alarm.

5. Turbulence will remain a problem until you build in—like others get who got their shelves stocked in childhood—the supplies you need. 

6. It's your choice. Hope there is no turbulence and dread that there will be. Or get the stuff on your shelves you need to have turbulence be no problem.