Extreme Negative Experiences Cut Deep
Extreme negative experiences – being physically attacked by an axe-wielding psychopath, getting pulled underwater by a strong current, being chased by angry wild turkeys (which I swear has never happened to me), or… like a spontaneous panic attack – cut deeply into our psyche and leave heavy footprints across our memory.
That’s how fear works. It leaves its mark so that it will be remembered, so that next time, we will recognize this danger, and maybe, just maybe… we will live to tell the tale.
The problem with this internal alert system is this – the mechanisms in our brain that record and categorize possible threats are, well… they’re not really that smart.
Certainly, they are not sophisticated and selective.
And they tend toward an over-abundance of caution – for good reason. (At one time in our distant past, some of those details might have saved us.)
Unless the source of our fear is extremely clear (“that car almost hit me!”), our brain takes a snapshot of the whole moment – busy grocery store, bright lights, lots of people, noisy, smells like cheese – and stamps “DANGEROUS” across the front of that memory in red. It doesn’t recognize the it was the “panic attack” that caused the fear, not the smell of cheese, or the bright lights, or the crowds of people…
Now, as far as our brain is concerned, everything in that snapshot poses a serious threat to us, meaning that in future, a very simple thing – a smell, a sound, a movement can sweep one right back into the moment of danger and horror.
Following the 1989 California Loma Prieta earthquake, it was a long time before I did not react with fear anytime anything around me shook. For months, if someone sat down on the edge of my bed and it jiggled, or the front door slammed and the windows in the house rattled, immediately I would be rushed back in full force to the moment of the earthquake.
The same is true for panic. The memory of panic is powerful. Fear memories and the associations our brains make during panic are powerful, and it is difficult (even for our clever, modern, pre-frontal lobes) to overwrite or modify these memories – EVEN when we know the logic behind the fear to be faulty.
Coming to an understanding that your body is (at least some of the time) sending out faulty signals, and that you must begin to question the messages it is sending, well… that is probably the critical first step in tackling panic.
I can know that I’m not going crazy, and it isn’t dangerous when my heart beats like I’m sprinting uphill. I just need to overwrite my automatic response to react to those feelings with fear.
How hard can that be, right?