The autonomic nervous system has two parts: one that revs us up when facing an emergency – or imagining an emergency – and one that is supposed to keep the first one in balance.
The first one, the one that revs us up, is totally mature at birth. As any parent knows, an infant can – without having to be taught how – get upset.
But the second one, the part that is supposed to counterbalance the first, is NOT mature at birth. In fact, the part of the brain that will serve to calm us down does not even physically exist at birth; it starts its physical development at around eight months.
What this means is, the operation of the part of the brain – once it develops – that counterbalances emotional upheaval, is NOT innate. If it is to operate, it must be taught to operate.
How? Mom, without knowing it at all, teaches the infant how to respond to emotions. And how well she teaches the infant depends upon:
- how well she knows how herself;
- opportunity: she needs the time free of distractions to teach the infant;
- protection: she needs to feel safe herself, if her infant is to learn to feel safe. To teach the infant, the mother needs to tune into the infant, and to feel what the infant feels, and then prove to the infant – based on her own responses to the infant’s feelings – that those feelings are OK, and even if they don’t feel OK at the moment, will pass, and things will soon be OK.
Unfortunately, psychology has not – until recently – begun to under- stand the obvious: that people can sense and feel what another person in their presence is feelings. When I was in grad school, we were cautioned to never tell a client that we knew what they were feeling.
Neurological research has proven that humans can and do feel what others feel. Here is how it happened. On a hot summer day, a monkey sat in a laboratory waiting for researchers to return from lunch. A graduate student entered the lab with an ice cream cone in his hand. The monkey stared at him. When the student raised the cone to his lips, the monitor attached to the monkey’s brain sounded as the monkey observed the student moving the cone to his mouth.
This led the researchers to discover mirror neurons, which ‘fire’ when a monkey sees another monkey – or a human – perform an act; the act being performed is duplicated within the animal that is merely observing.
Humans have mirror neurons that are more highly evolved than any of those found in monkeys, and form the basis for our social – and empathic – interaction. Social interaction is based on our ability to feel what another is feelings, and grasp intuitively the intention of another person.
One of the researchers, Dr. Rizzolatti says, ‘Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others. . . . Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.’
Again, what does this have to do with flight anxiety? It is via mirror neurons that a young child learns to use the part of the autonomic nervous system so that it counterbalances the part of the system that revs us up. When, during early development, the mother does feel what the infant is feeling and intuitively maintains her own emotional balance so she is able to respond in a way that lets the infant know she knows what the infant is feeling, and that it is – or will soon be – alright, the infant learns to use – rather than fear – emotions.
If, instead, the mother is overwhelmed by feeling what the child is feeling, the child learns to fear feelings.
Or, if the mother simply does not feel what the child is feeling, the child learns that he or she is emotionally isolated; thus the meaning of emotions is foreign and confusing, and to feel becomes risky. Such a child tries to learn not to feel, and when forced to, as on a flight, any feelings which arise are experienced as danger.
The disconnect between feeling and meaning opens the door for imagination to produce terror. Though we can feel what another feelings, when an empathic connection is not present – or when empathic connectedness was not profound during early childhood – we lose the meaning of emotion, and uncounterbalanced imagina- tion runs rampant. The result can be terror.
Time and again, clients have told me they experience terror imagining what it would be like to be on a plane that is plunging out of control. This is uncounterbalanced imagination, for when people actually face a life-threatening situation, the actually distress experienced is only a tiny fraction of what the anxious flier experiences vicariously simply by imagination. This is because, for the person who suffers from anxiety or panic, emotion is a foreign language. The emotion the rest of us experience as normal is experienced by them as terror.
There is a profound disconnect between emotion and its rightful meaning: normal emotion is experienced as terror. Though the fearful and the anxious believe they understand emotion quite well, it is just the opposite that is the case. Emotion should be ‘user friendly’. Emotion should be informative. Emotion should provide guidance.
Instead, emotion equal terror; there is no understanding of its meaning at all. And the fearful and anxious run from emotion as if their life depended upon it.
What we have learned to do in treating flight anxiety is to repair what failed to develop as it should have. We teach our clients to feel what they feel during flight, and not be alarmed. As a result, emotional alarms during the flight stop going off. Though they may or may not understand the principles involved, our clients automatically counterbalance potential alarms through empathic connectedness which lets them sense that what they are feeling is quite alright, and need not be upsetting in any way.