This week, a client who has long been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and claustrophobia, had a breakthrough. He discovered fear. He became aware of the fear of being trapped in a collapsing tunnel, and fear of a technical failure on the plane. I believe, as he becomes more mindful, he will find more specifics. And each specific fear generates a brand new opportunity for success.
Generalized anxiety is not specific. Fear is specific. When something is specific, a plan of action to grapple with the specified thing may be possible. But without specificity, how can one grapple?
Mindfulness Can Bring Specificity And Open The Door To Effective Action.
In general, therapists take the view that we human beings need to be pretty well aware of our internal thought processes, in order to be able to psychologically adapt in day-to-day living.
However, the view of internal process can darken.When things are painful, we are tempted to let internal process go underground. If it does, decision-making goes underground. impulsivity takes over. When it does, we only discover what we are going to do, just as we do it.
Or worse; after we have done it.
That applies to many things. And, it applies as well to panic attacks; many people discover they are going to panic only after the panic attack has started. For such people, panic attacks seem to come out of ‘nowhere’. Well, they do, but only because the mental processes going on inside are ‘nowhere’ to be seen. They have become blocked from view.
To reach the realization that there are actual — well-formed, but hidden from view — fears is a major advancement ! And it offers, finally, an effective way of attacking the generalized anxiety or the claustrophobia.
To deal with claustrophobia, we need to become comfortable enough in situations to not develop the need to escape. When the Strengthening Exercise can help you feel comfortable on the plane, the need to escape does not develop. When there is no need for an escape route, there is no concern that ones escape route is blocked.
The Strengthening Exercise accomplishes this by making a neural link between the (possibly previously hidden from view) actual feared situation and the profoundly soothing experience of being in a moment of empathic connection with another person.
Discovering a specific fear is like a gold miner hitting ‘pay dirt’. But a person inexperienced in these explorations may not know the difference between gold ore (a specific fear) and fool’s gold (keeping fear out of sight).
It can be disturbing to discover actual fears, particularly for men, who are expected to be fearless. We guys are at least a bit macho, right? Perehaps we are more comfortable with a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety than awareness that we are actually afraid of a tunnel collapsing?
Once a person finds specific fears, it is time to abandon ‘generalized anxiety disorder’ because it isn’t generalized anymore; it is specific. It is time to abandon ‘claustrophobia’; it isn’t about tight spaces; it is about being afraid and needing to escape, and being unable to.
Once you have found one, or more, of the specific fears underlying generalized anxiety, or claustrophobia, you have indeed hit pay dirt. More mining for pay dirt is needed. The work now is to simply stay aware, being vigilant about awareness, such as feelings in places where you don’t have an instant way of leaving, in places where you are not in control, and in situations where you are not in control.
I remember, as a child, riding in the car into New York City through a tunnel for the first time and dealing with my anxiety by thinking maybe, if the tunnel started to flood, I could jump out of the car, and surf on the leading edge of the flood, back out to the opening of the tunnel. Or, in an elevator, I imagined lying down on the floor if the elevator fell, so as to spread the stress of crashing at the bottom throughout my body. I imagined leaping up at just the right point to be in the air when the elevator crashed at the bottom, and then landing on its floor.
See, as kids, when we don’t have good built-in anti-anxiety systems, we need to be powerful, like super-heros, or have some plan to escape; even one that won’t really work — but we pretend it will — helps.
But now as adults, we have to come to grips with the fact that we don’t have adequate control to always save ourselves. And we need to form human connections to make life worth while in spite of the fact we will ultimately perish.
To be specific, once we have located a specific fear, it is simple to get relief. We put it in the Strengthening Exercise. We produce a neural link between that specific fear and a moment of empathic connectedness.
Is Fear A Metaphor?
In some cases what appears to be a real fear is really a representation, a metaphor for a more primitive fear, a feeling of not being in control that goes way back, perhaps to a time when language was not developed. If that is the case, are we just ‘spinning our wheels’ when dealing with real fears that have deeper roots?
Attempts to put the underlying fear into clearer words will almost defy success. That doesn’t mean we are always ‘spinning our wheels’ though. Even when we cannot put the underlying fear into words, if we feel it while trying to put it into words, doing that in the presence of another person (friend or therapist) can help reduce the impact of the fear because, in the attempt to put words to it, the sense of connectedness with the other person does get linked to the underlying and unworded fear.
That actually points to the crux of the problem: that there was not good-enough connectedness between ones own mental functioning and that of the mother.
It is shocking, we believe, when a very young child discovers the mother has a separate mind. And that shock can only be successfully dealt with if there is an empathic connection between the mother and the child.
If so, separateness can be bridged by a feeling of communication that is more than mere communication. It brings a feeling of connection: that our fates are not separate.
Is the fear that the tunnel will collapse a metaphor for the collapse of empathic connectedness? And with the collapse — now that the child knows the mother is separate — what might the child think? ‘What will happen to if my mother doesn’t feel it when I am distressed? If she and I are separate, and I am at her tender mercies, what if she has no tender mercies? What then?’
If it seems that the tunnel will collapse and one will be crushed under tons of tons of weight, with no chance or hope of rescue, because no one knows and no one cares, is that not the collapse of empathic connection?
If our original insecurity is the result of this shock — the shock that the person everything depends upon has a separate mind which is not connected by empathy, what must we do? Our only chance for survival is to find control.
Originally — and this is very early — the infant gets the idea controls everything. In a way, it does. In early infancy, when the infant feels hunger, and imagines what will satisfy hunger, the thing that satisfies hunger magically appears. Why? Because mothers are almost always responsible in the first few weeks, and months.
So originally, the infant mistakenly believes it controls everything. When it discovers that is not the case, unless there is an empathic connection, control must be re-established. But control cannot be re-established, because mom controls everything, or see it seems. If we cannot count on her for empathy, then we must ourselves get that control which will let us disentangle ourself from her, and survive her agenda.
But it can’t be done. According to Dr. Ralph Klein, defeated, we try to figure out what ‘the deal’ is in this family. What ‘the deal’ consists of is what the child has to do and be in order to survive and get basic needs met. It is at this time, Dr. Klein believes, that we must abandon the real self — the self we were born to be — and must adopt to the false self the family requires.
Connection is (almost) everything.
We must be wired up to connect in order to survive having been born. If there were no instinct to connect, there would be no connection to the breast or to the bottle. Interesting, though, the connection to the breast or to the bottle is the result of the far, far great instinct to connect body to body and mind to mind.
It is connection body to body and mind to mind that calms. The crucial question is this: how consistenly available is good connection? Is it good and consistent enough for us to take it for granted, to be secure, and to internalize it?
If we do internalize it, we have something inside that carries us through life pretty well. If not, we may not be able to avoid overwhelming distress unless body to body and mind to mind connections are present every moment. It is, for many of us, like the Chris Christopherson’s song, ‘Help me make it through the night’ (lay your warm and tender body next to mine, . . . and help me make it through the night). Is it just the body? Or must there also be a mind-to-mind connection? And, if part is missing, must it be imagined to be so?
Secure kids are secure because the empathy of their mind to mind connections and their body to body connections are consistent enough to have been internalized, or, memorized in such a solid way that to remember such moments is to re-live them and to bring back feelings of calm.
But to deal with flight anxiety, we must — at least — reach the specificity of the ‘tunnel’ that we fear will collapse. Though it is metaphor, it does represent the underlying unwordable fear well enough to bring the edge (if not more) of that unwordable feeling into awareness. And that is what we need for the Strengthening Exercise: to bring the edge of the fear — not too much of it — into mind (so that the terrible fear of cosmic aloneness and abandonment under the ‘collapsed tunnel’ which is metaphoric of our catastrophic terrible and terrifying relationships can be ‘neutralized’, by being mentally connected to a moment when there WAS a connection.
Unless we can find a moment — with SOMEONE — in which there was no terror (because the two of us were attuned, maybe not forever — but for a moment) where can safety exist except through control? And when we seek safety through control, to have enough, we must control everything and everyone, and that is not possible.
Or, we must shrink our world to make it so incredibly small that we can control everything and everyone in it. That may be possible. But it is a very limited life, a life which places crushing limits on those we are in relationship with, and requires them — as well – to be incredibly small.
That, I am afraid, describes one of the pathologies therapists commonly see in clients: in order to attempt to feel safe in the world, they spin a web of control through dependency and shame and guilt around people in their lives, including their children.
And when such webs are spun around us as children, webs which keep us in such a very small world, simply to entertain the idea flying off to explore the world at large strikes panic in us.
So, as I see it, we can only find emotional safety in empathic connection, not pseudo-empathy used to weave a web around us.
Once we locate a moment of genuine empathic connection, we use the Strengthening Exercise to spread that feeling to other situations where emotional safety is needed for us to function.
A further issue in the email
The writer of the email posed the question, ‘If we constantly connect to another for calming how can we learn to calm ourselves. Won’t we always need either in the abstract or the real ‘donors’ for calming our anxieties . . . ?’
As I see it, we learn to calm ourselves by borrowing calm from moments where it existed when it existed, and carrying it elsewhere. Just as we take honey from the bee hive and carry it to the kitchen where we put it on our bread so our bread tastes sweet. We sweeten our bread by sweetness taken from where it is created. We calm our activities in day-to-day living by spreading it on our activities. But we have to find places to get it. And those little moments of connectedness with another are where we get it. Never mind it didn’t last. After all, we are all afraid, and can only connect briefly until fear pushes us to get away from the person. (That fear that pushes us to get away is, again, fear of being connected to the restricting or crushing ‘tunnel’.
We want the connection; we want the sweetness. The connection and sweetness can be in the tunnel we fear will collapse. Is the fear of connection with another well-founded? Yes, and no. Based on past experience, yes, we can’t count on connection being good. But, no, we can learn to have our antennae out for genuine empathy in our connections with others.
We need to have experiences which are empathic connection in order to have a supply which can carry along when we are alone. But we don’t necessarily have to have constant connection to do that; we just have to have moments, and the moments may be from the past.
We just have to gather them from our memory, and relive them. Even though the actual connection may have been lost (or maybe not, for who knows what they recall in their moments of solitude about the moment of connection), it was real with it happened. We have a right to it. We have a right to apply that supply to the things we fear so we can function.
Once applied to the areas where we can’t function, we become able to function. and then — perhaps — we can do a better job of managing our fears (and our need to control, and to not be controlled) that cause relationships to faulter.
Yes, we do need real ‘donors’. And yes, our fear of connection can be so great that we can’t connect with them. So something has to be taken from the past in order to calm our fears so we can approach ‘donors’ in the present.
As I see it, the key is to find another person who has the capability of empathic connection, not just connection. It is the empathy that makes connection safe. An overbearing person who, because of their fears is overcontrolling, is like an ‘overbearing’ tunnel, collapsing on you.
What so often goes wrong in the relationship with mom is that mom, instead of responding to our needs, expects us to minister to hers; she expects the infant to parent her. Or, put another way, she wants the infant to calm her. This turns everything upside down. The job of the real mother is to calm the infant. The infant has no capability whatsoever to calm itself for months after it is born. And so the mother than has had a baby so the baby can comfort her destroys the baby’s capability to learn to calm itself because it is enslaved to the career of calming the mother.
But also consider the mother who has the same issue, that the infant will be overbearing, that in infant is too much for her. She may simply withdraw. Guntrip has written extensively about the therapy of adults who have had such childhood experiences; he speaks of the infant whose mother has withdrawn emotionally as ‘the baby in the steel drawer’. The image is, to me, powerful. It is a desk from an office, a desk made of steel, and the baby is simply put in the drawer, and the drawer is shut, leaving the baby alone, unable to escape, unable to open the drawer, unable to cry out well enough to be heard outside, and touch only the cold metal.
When early relationship are so terrifying, we develop PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in which there are ‘flashbacks’ which come powerfully to mind. When an adult, such as a combat veteran, has experienced terrible things, ‘flashbacks’ are both emotional and visual; one sees the situation which is carved in stone in ones mind as vividly as when it was taking place. And the emotion of terror is as intense as in the moment when it was taking place.
But when we, as adults, have ‘flashbacks’ to early childhood, instead of being both visual and emotional, the ‘flashbacks’ are only emotional. This causes the emotion to be mistaken as being caused by the situation one is in at the present; though the emotion is a ‘flashback’ from terror when one was one or two or three years old, the emotion is not recognized as being that. Instead, if one is with a lover, it is seen unmistakably caused by him or her!
And thus, the lover is dangerous, or the lover is not emotionally empathic, or the lover is overbearing, or whatever the past emotional experienced was.
So far as I can tell, the only way out of this vicious cycle is to understand that ‘flashbacks’ occur, and that ‘flashbacks’ are so real, so intense, and so in-the-present-moment, that we have no clue whatsoever that they are ‘flashbacks’ from age one, two, or three. It may help to understand that when we let our guard down and reach for intimacy, we must give up control. Since control is used to reduce anxiety, giving up control leads to anxiety, and opens the door to ‘flashbacks’.
These ‘flashbacks’ drive us back to the safety of withdrawal. We need to learn that ‘flashbacks’ exist, and that ‘flashbacks’ happen to us. We need to understand that when ‘flashbacks’ happen to us — because they are intense (often more intense that reality) — they seem to belong to the present. They can take over our connection with reality. If so, we don’t have much of a chance of attributing them to the past. And, of course, attributing feelings in the presence of an intimate partner which are really about the past, damages the relationship.