Dr. James Masterson MD believed that, at the core of human problems, is what he termed “abandonment depression.” I have come to see that the feelings Masterson’s work deals with are the same feelings that anxious fliers fear will overwhelm them when flying.
Masterson taught that three things determine the mental health of an adult: nature, nurture, and fate. By nature, he meant genetics; we now know certain qualities of the 5HTT are important in developing an ability to regulate emotions. By nurture, he pointed to the role of the mother, and how secure the young child felt in her care. And in fate, to the fact that luck plays a role as well. Since there is little we can do about our genes or our luck, Masterson focused on the role of the mother in the development of emotional regulation.
Through his work with clients, Masterson came to believe that in the first year of life, a time when infants are so interconnected with their mothers, things go well provided the mother tunes into the child and respond to the child’s signals for play, connection, and nourishment.
But in the second year of life, the child begins to exhibit individuality. The child’s emotional expressions (such as anger, or a need to gain some distance from the mother) may be regarded by the mother as negative. As the child’s emotions show its individuality (a mind of his/her own and a will of his/her own) some mothers feel distressed. They are not ready for the young child to show itself as a separate person.
Many mothers see this expression of emotion as a threat that needs to be “nipped in the bud.” And that is precisely what happens; the budding true individual is nipped. The young child learns that there is no place for who he or she really is, and if there is to be any relationship with the mother, it will be on her terms. The child is dependent. It has no choice. It has to abandon its own budding as an individual and pretend to be the child the mother had in mind before it was even born.
It is as if Mom and Dad consulted a mail order catalog, found the child they wanted on page 37, placed an order, but that child was “out of stock” and you were sent to them as a trial replacement. Rather than send you back, they decided to make you into the child they had in mind all along.
The pain of that rejection, the rejection of ones real self, continues to play out. It is not just a one-time-and-its-over rejection; the conditionality of acceptance in ones family is known in ones gut regardless of lavish claims by parents that one is truly loved.
Though the child goes along with the game, the feelings of abandonment remain. They are too painful for the child to bear. To go on with life, the child has to hide the pain deeply away. Rejection of the real self – and what the child must do to pretend it didn’t happen – are a directing force in ones life, throughout ones life.
What a person does to hid from feelings of abandonment result in what therapists call “Personality Disorder.” Masterson said it is not that some people have Personality Disorder and some don’t; he said none of us escape childhood unscathed. He believed we all have Personality Disorder, and it is only a question of how much. For more on Masterson, see his book, Search For The Real Self.
In a New York Times Magazine article, William C. Moyers, a recovering addict (and the son of the journalist Bill Moyers) is quoted as telling a conference of scientists and addiction researchers that treating addiction might be more than just about a chemical imbalance in the brain. He said, “I was born with what I like to call a hole in my soul.. . . A pain that came from the reality that I just wasn’t good enough. That I wasn’t deserving enough. That you weren’t paying attention to me all the time. That maybe you didn’t like me enough. For us addicts, recovery is more than just taking a pill or maybe getting a shot.. . . Recovery is also about the spirit, about dealing with that hole in the soul.”
Though Mr. Moyers may believe he was born with a hole in his soul, those of us who studied with Dr. Masterson would say that the hole was created by natural human needs which were not met, and this happened so early that Mr. Moyers believes he was born deficient.
Humans have a natural, genetically encoded need to connect with others. Yet, writers such as Ayn Rand would have us believe that to need anything from anyone is to be flawed, and that parental response to an infant’s need promotes weakness.
Research by Allan Schore has shown that when infants are left to “cry it out,” when they appear to have fallen asleep, they are instead in a dissociated state of terror.
Research by Stephen Porges appears to confirm this. Briefly, Porges says humans have the three phylogenetically ordered nervous systems.
The Immobilization System
In primitive creatures (similar to today’s turtles), when an unfamiliar creature was sensed by its amygdala, stress hormones were release. These hormones triggered metabolic changes which put the creature into a “freeze” mode. Heart rate was sharply reduced; breathing became so slight as to be imperceptible. These primitive creatures remained in this state so long as the presence of another creature caused its amygdala to continue releasing stress hormones, for months if necessary.
The Mobilization System
Later creatures added a second system, the sub-cortical “fight or flight” Mobilization System. When the creature’s amygdala sensed an unfamiliar creature, it triggered an urge to escape, or in some cases, to fight.
Executive Function And The Social Engagement System
Still later, a new system appeared with the addition of the mammalian cortex. When the appearance of an unfamiliar mammal triggers the release of stress hormones, the hormones activate both the Mobilization System in the sub-cortex, and Executive Function in the cortex.
According to Porges, Executive Function overrides the initial urge to escape, allowing the mammal and assess the unfamiliar mammal consciously and unconsciously. If the unfamiliar mammal passes cognitive assessment, the urge to escape remains inhibited, and allows for assessment of a different nature by the Social Engagement System (SES).
Mammal send and receive signals unconsciously. To underline the unconscious nature of Social Engagement System operation, Porges calls the receiving of these signals “neuroception” rather than “perception.”
If the signals – which are processed unconsciously – indicate the unfamiliar mammal is trustworthy, the SES stimulates the vagus nerve. Note that stress hormones have already increased the heart rate. Vagal stimulation, however slows the heart rate back to normal and activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
The SES often allows the energy required to run or fight to be conserved. It may allow the danger of engaging in a fight to be avoided. It provides a behavioral basis for cooperative action.
The latest-to-develop system stands as the default system. If it fails to deal with the threat, the next-to-develop system takes over. For example, if the unfamiliar mammal does not pass assessment by the Executive Function assessment or the SES, the Mobilization System kicks in, and running or fighting may result.
But what happens if the Mobilization System (running or fighting) does not end the threat? The Immobilization System activates. Metabolic changes reduce heart and breathing activity. In humans, activation of the Mobilization System is a serious problem. The huge humans cortex requires substantial supplies, more than can be met when the Immobilization System is active. Partial shutdown of mental processes results in dissociation. Partial shutdown of memory may result in PTSD.
Porges’ research has serious implications for kids on the spectrum. First, their ability to use the SES is impaired. They get little or no down regulation via SES signals from others. Unless the child is in control of the situation – or the situation is as he likes it – the Mobilization System is activated: the child experiences an urge to escape. If the urge continues, and escape is not possible, the Immobilization System is activated. When it is, the autistic child is damaged. Each activation of the Immobilization System paves the way for reactivation. During activation, if the experience is traumatic to the child, PTSD results. If activation is prolonged, brain cells damage and/or loss occurs.
Immobilization System Activation Is Involuntary
Porges says metabolic activation of the Immobilization System is completely involuntary. Though an adult may believe the child is acting out, this is not the case; the child has no choice.
Once the Immobilization System is activated there is no way for any person – child or adult – to transition back to a normal state other than for stress hormone release to end and the hormones already present to be “burned off.” This means the autistic child can recover only when protected from (or when he can isolate himself from) all stimuli that might release additional stress hormones.
Because of SES deficiencies, children on the spectrum cannot adequately self-regulate. When their environment overloads them, they are not be able to learn. Porges says, “Good therapy and good social relations, good parenting, good teaching, it’s all about the same thing – how do you turn off defensiveness? When you turn defense systems off, you have accessibility to different cortical areas for more profound understanding, learning, and skill development.”
When the way a child is related to causes what Shore calls “dissociated terror” and Porges calls the “Immobilization System.” These states cause great harm. Bessel van der Kolk, the leading expert of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has called for lack of attuned responsiveness to a child’s needs to be recognized as a form of PTSD. A New York Times article on van der Kolk says he sees trauma victims as alienated from their bodies because when the amygdala triggers a fight-or-flight response, this response persists until the threat is vanquished. But for the helpless dependent child – just as for the trapped soldier or overpowered rape victim – the threat is not vanquished if it is impossible to fight or to flee.
This inevitably leads to difficulty in regulating emotions. Some children deal with terror by overcompensation, by disowning emotion. As adults, they may appear to be strong human beings who need nothing; but they are neither strong, nor fully human.
Theorist Harry Guntrip came to believe that the greatest sufferings imposed on humankind came from people in power who were so emotionally weak that they disowned emotion altogether. By abandoning emotion and holding reason as the only orientation, they failed to be truly human; he regarded leaders such as Hitler as examples of schizoid personality disorder, leaders who truly believed in what they sought to achieve, but whose aims lacked humanity. Leaders whose aims lack humanity are a continuing problem.
The ordinary need an infant is genetically programed to have, that built-in need to connect, needs to be met by someone who tunes into the child’s psyche, recognizes that there is indeed a separate person there, and responds to the child with empathy. There needs to be reliable-enough connection through communication in touch, look, and word.
When needs for connectedness are not met, according to Masterson, psychological abandonment takes place and with it, the following feelings: depression, anger-rage, fear, guilt, passivity-helplessness, hopelessness, and emptiness-void. The intensity of these emotions varies from individual to individual, but each emotion, Masterson said, can develop to some degree in each of us.
These, I have learned, are the feelings people fear they will experience during flight. They fear a greater intensity that they can withstand. The feared feelings are both known and hidden from being known. We know them but we never want to feel them again.
- Depression: in general, the feeling of loss or threat of loss; the feeling that what one vitally needs for survival cannot be found. In flight, the feeling that the plane will be unable to support them, and will fall. I believe this terrifying feeling comes from early – and continued – experience that ones needs were too great to be met.
- Anger-Rage: in general, at who or at what fails to provide what is vitally needed. In flying, anger-rage at an uncaring pilot who frightens you unnecessarily, or who is intentionally reckless.
- Fear: in general, facing death or being killed. In flying, fear of crashing, fear of heart attack due to fear, fear of being unable to breathe. Can reach panic.Guilt: in general, this reflects a parental attitude that you fail to be what you ought to be, according to their arbitrary and unyielding judgement. In flying, the decision to fly, or the flight chosen is wrong. The feelings one has are wrong.
- Passivity-Helplessness: in general, prior expression of ones own will caused massive separation (remember, individuality being “nipped in the bud”) making passivity a requirement for continuation of relationship. To fly is a new expression of ones will, and thus a risk. To place ones life in the pilot’s hands requires passivity, and can lead to feelings of being helplessly in danger.
- Emptiness-Void: in general, feeling emotionally disconnected, and devoid of all that is good. A plane can seem vulnerable, high up, and in a void.
When these, or when most of these, develop during flight, there is a threat of being overwhelmed emotionally.
If lack of healthy connection with others were not the cause of difficulty when flying, why would the Strengthening Exercise – which links each flight experience with a moment of profound connection – be so effective?
With the SOAR Program:instead of depression, where needs are not met, feelings of connectedness are linked to every flight experience as an antidote to anxiety;
instead of anger-rage at threat of loss, or absence of caring, meeting the pilot results in your knowing he or she cares just as you do;
instead of facing fear of death ONLY when flying, recognizing risk is everywhere and needs to be managed rather than obscured by illusion of safety; instead of guilt about ones feelings, knowing that others feel just the same as you do;instead of passivity-helplessness, the ‘Abstract Point Of No Return’ establishes you as the author of your decision;instead of emptiness-void, knowing air is transformed by speed into a substance as thick as jello that supports your place as solidly as wheels support a train; and feeling emotionally connected to significant people in your life, even though you are in the air.
It is my belief that when the “fight or flight” response is answered by being able to control a threat or escape from it. the feelings of abandonment described by Masterson can be kept at bay by most of us. Persons who cannot keep them at bay may turn to substances for psychological escape, and to the ultimate escape – suicide – when all efforts seem to offer no relief. But for most of us, our connections and our control helps us regulate emotions.
The healthiest of us can regulate emotions naturally. The healthiest regulate automatically and unconsciously because the feeling of being connected was so pervasive during childhood that it remains and serves the person throughout their life.
But when that natural ability was not sufficiently built-in during the early relationship with the child’s primary caregiver, flying is a problem because is a replay of childhood when stress hormones could no be relieved by attuned empathic response, or by “fight or flight.”