Where Do Anxiety And Panic Come From?
WHERE DO ANXIETY AND PANIC COME FROM?
The autonomic nervous system that regulates emotions
has two parts: one is totally mature at birth, and the
other part only starts to physically develop at around
ten months of age.
The part that is totally mature at birth is the part of
the system that ‘upregulates’, that ‘revs’ you up, that
makes you more aroused, more excited, or more afraid
. . . but in any case, whatever the emotion, more.
The part that starts to physically develop at age ten
months is the part that ‘downregulates’, that slows you
down, that calms you, that lets you go to sleep at night.
Since this second part only PHYSICALLY starts to develop
at ten months, it is not innate in its operation. The
child must learn to make that part of the brain work.
But let’s go back. For the first year of life, it is
the mother’s job to ‘upregulate’ the child, to stimulate
the child, to make responsive sounds, to excite the child,
AND to calm the child when the child gets overstimulated
or gets upset.
The child has zero ability to do it on its own (at least
in a healthy way; there is a destructive way the child
can, but that is complex). So it is the mother’s job to
We can easily understand how the mother ‘upregulates’ or
stimulates the infant, but how does she ‘downregulate’ or
calm the infant?
Essentially, it is like magic. When the child’s right
prefrontal orbito cortex (the part of the brain that
develops to regulate emotion) ‘lights up’ (when the
brain is viewed on a PET scan) (to show the child is
upset) the mother who is tuned in and who naturally
(because her mother gave her this kind of response when
she was an infant) will respond by having her right
prefrontal orbito cortex ‘light up’ (on the PET scan).
The child senses that the mother ‘got the message’ that
s/he is upset, and the very fact that the mother got
the message, lets the child calm down.
This is cutting edge stuff. There is a lecture in NY
May 7th on this. If you want to attend, let me know.
This was simply not known just a few years ago, and
even though it is now being investigated, there is a
lot we don’t yet know. But this response that auto-
magically calms the child is now being called
This emotional resonance helps the frontal cortex
develop. If the child gets too upset and mom does
‘resonate’ with the child’s upset (because she is
attuned, not emotionally available, not trained by her
own mother, or is in a home where there is violence,
or whatever that keeps it from working), instead of
growing, the frontal cortex actually shrinks!!!
Shocking, but children who are not resonated with have
smaller brains; part of the brain simply does not grow
and these children, as adults, have life-long difficulty
with anxiety and depression.
This is in part because mental stimulation is required to
cause blood to flow to the regulating part of the brain so
it will grow.
And it is in part because, when the mother fails to
resonate, if the child continues to get more and more
‘upregulated’, finally the child cannot endure this state,
and cortesols are released into the part of the brain that
is supposed to provide regulation and ‘zaps’ the brain cells
involved. Brain cells are actually destroyed. (This is the
unhealthy way to ‘downregulate’ I mentioned earlier.)
Without suitable stimulation and calming, that part of
the brain that is responsible for regulating emotion
does not physically develop.
But even if there is physical development, the child
still has to learn to use what is physically developed.
How? By making a movie in the mind of what mom does to
calm him/her. The movie can only be made if what mom
does is simple, and repeated consistently . . . and
works to provide calming. If mom gets upset when the
child is upset, research shows - unfortunately - the
child would be better off alone. But even so, for this
‘movie’ to be recorded, mom has to be consistent and
effective. Then, when mom is not present and the child
needs soothing, s/he remember what mom does by having
this memory playback and it serves to soothe the child
in the mother’s absence.
This is how mom gets ‘built in.’
So, when it is time to go to kindergarten, the child
can say, ‘Don’t worry, Mom, if I get upset, I have you
built inside, and I’ll just run that movie of what you
do when I get upset and I’ll be fine.’
But if that building in of mom has not happened, the
child could say, ‘Mom, I don’t have you built inside,
so you have to go with me, because if I get upset,
there is nothing I can do to calm myself.’ Here the
child has the physical development of the prefrontal
cortex but doesn’t know how to employ it.
It is this way: mom has to be either built INSIDE the
child or has to be BESIDE the child for the child to
feel secure. And because mom cannot always be beside
the child, there can be little emotional grown and
development unless or until mom - or someone - is built
What we do in SOAR is to help adults build or rebuild
something inside by connecting every moment of the flight
with some soothing experience they have actually had with
another person. It needs to be a person because we are
wired up at birth to connect and be soothed by people.
So, each of us gets in those first two years of life,
first soothing and stimulation (in the first year) and
then in the second year - once the child has some
internal ability to calm him/herself, prohibition.
Seventy percent of the interactions between mom and the
child in the second year are to say ‘NO.’ Very different
than the first year. But if the child has not developed the
ability to calm him/herself, it can’t handle ‘NO.’
And the ability to self-regulate emotions just doesn’t take
place. Without the ability to self-regulate, the child cannot
develop the ability to function autonomously, and must cling
to others, or be obsessed with control.
The human child does have emotions; there is no way around it.
But when the child has emotions and mom is not attuned to the
child, the mom cannot assure the child that the emotion is
normal, cannot assure the child that the emotion is OK to have.
In fact, mothers all too frequently tell children that they are
not feeling anything (that should upset them) or that what the
child describes is ‘nothing’.
As a result, emotions do not become ‘user friendly’. Emotions
are alien. Emotions are dangerous to have. The child comes to
think of feelings as something that comes from ‘outside’ and that
For example, let’s take something more concrete than a subjective
feelings; let’s say a child has an itch, and tells mom about the
feeling. Let’s also assume that the child has never experienced
this before and has no word for it. And let’s say the child tries
to tell the mother about this experience (which all of us call an
‘itch’.) Suppose the mom says, ‘That’s a ‘witch’ that’s causing
that, something evil, and awful and invisible witch is touching
This may be an absurd example - to call an itch a witch, because
since this is a concrete feelings, sooner or later the child will
find out mom is nuts. But when this kind of thing happens with
’subjective’ experience, experience which is harder to describe,
and mom does not take to it well, that feeling can become alien
And emotions which become foreign can become threatening. They
seem to originate from some source that is ‘other’, not from
ones own self.
Before thinking how crazy a schizophrenic is, consider this.
Where do words come from? I don’t know. Do you? Don’t they
just come to mind? But wait. Where do they - before they land
in the mind - come from? Is the source INSIDE me or OUTSIDE me.
Really, it is kind of amazing that we all assume that words are
our own. It is kind of amazing that - since we don’t know where
they come from or how they are formed - that we assume they are
our own and not coming from someone broadcasting them into us, or
inserting them into our mind. That is what a schizophrenic does
think. Someone ELSE is controlling his mind by inserting these
Just as a schizophrenic who ‘hears voices’ is frightened by
them because the schizophrenic mistakenly believes his own
words are from coming from outside him/her self, a person
who has not learned to be ‘user friendly’ with emotions finds
emotions threatening and frightening because s/he mistakenly
believes these feelings are caused by something other than
himself or herself!
They feel ‘attacked’ by feelings. They are easily overwhelmed
by an amount of feelings that others would not have any problem
In fear of flying, people feel ‘attacked’ by feelings
which are - in reality - their own feelings.
In fear of flying, people feel ‘attacked’ by feelings as
if they are caused outside, when they are - in reality -
caused by the person who fails to realize that fact.
A dog would not chase its own tail if it realized it was
We would not fear the feelings that come when flying - or
in a panic attack - if we had learned early on that feelings
belong . . . that feelings are informative.
Just like an itch, feelings are supposed to be there to tell
us something. An itch tells us when and where to scratch.
Fear, like an itch, tells us to ‘look out’. The German word
for ‘look out’ is ‘vorsicht’ which means ‘have foresight’.
When we have fear, we are not supposed to simply have a knee-
jerk reaction, but to ‘look outside’ and have some ‘foresight’
about what may be happening or what may be about to happen and
use the responding ability of the mind - not just the reactive
Why is it so many are unable to use the responding mind instead
of just reacting using the amigdyla. It is because, as very
young children, we learned - incorrectly - that feelings are
alien and thus dangerous.
What we need to do to change how flying feels is to assign a
value to each moment of the flight experience which lets those
feelings become ‘user friendly.’
We do that with the ‘Strengthening Exercise.’
That is why we succeed where others fail.