The Most Basic Way We Regulate Our Feelings

Our own two feet take us to what interests us and away from what threatens us.

Posted Feb 19, 2017

The most basic way we regulate our feelings is with our own two feet. If something interests us, we can walk toward it. If something frightens us, we can back away. Researcher Stephen Porges terms this "The Mobilization System." In addition to this basic system, most of us can regulate arousal in other ways. But, some of us are mobilization system dependent. If escape is not immediately available, we can't self-regulate. We panic or we freeze.

Though we can't use our own two feet inside a car, anxiety does not develop because the ground is immediately accessible. Mobilization becomes available simply by opening the door. We know cars can crash, but our anxiety is controlled by imagination. We can picture being able to walk away from an accident.

Imagination of a plane crash is the opposite. Anxious fliers see no way to escape. Ordinarily, Reflective Function lets us know what is real and what is imaginary. But if Reflective Function is weak, the thought of being trapped triggers enough stress hormones to make Reflective Function collapse. When it collapses, imagination of being trapped suddenly is too real, perhaps real enough to cause panic.

During flight, a person cannot use their own two feet. Nevertheless, when the plane is near the ground, most anxious fliers feel alright. Some of my fear of flying course clients have said, "I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like I could jump from here." Imagination that the ground is accessible relieves anxiety. 

As the plane climbs higher, so does anxiety. The more separated from the ground, the more divorced the anxious flier is from escape. Though cruise is the safest part of the flight physically, emotionally it is the riskiest.

In secure attachment, a child develops ability to maintain an internal working model of its relationship with caregivers. This internal representation keeps the child secure. The child's caregivers are psychologically present even when physically absent. An insecurely attached child does not develop this ability. Emotional security is based on the physical availability of its caregivers. If this carries over into adulthood, internal representations provide no sense of security. During cruise, though the earth is not physically available, flight may be tolerable if it can be seen. But, in clouds or at night, when the earth is not visible, it is as though it no longer exists. Everything the person needs to control their emotions has been lost.

When the plane begins its descent, the mobilization system dependent passenger begins to recover Separation from the earth is being reversed. The promise of being reunited with their source of emotional regulation brings relief. 

Constant access to escape is essential to a person who is mobilization system dependent. Inability to escape equals inability to regulate emotion. This limits a person in many ways. Sitting through a movie may be impossible without an aisle seat. Elevators are a trial by fire. Bridges and tunnels are best circumnavigated. Flying may be completely out of the question.

Fortunately, there are ways to self-regulate that do not require being in control or being able to escape. The method I've developed for treating flight phobia establishes automatic regulation. It frees a person from the need to always be in control or able to escape. Doing so opens up the whole world. An introduction to this method is at this link.