In the last post [link], we covered what the panic reaction is, how it works and why we need it. In this post we are going to cover why it can go wrong and how to manage fear.
Our fear system is designed to keep us alive. It is supposed to assess the risk of a thing – object or event – for a threat value and prime us for a response to that threat. The greater the perceived threat, the less time you have to intellectually evaluate that threat and response and make a choice about your actions – you just do it.
So how do we manage a risk?
- Threat evaluation
- Planning a solution
- Implementing that solution
You can’t manage a threat if you don’t know what the threat is. To assess a threat, first one must detect a threat, then one must compare it to known threats and lastly one must confirm the accuracy of that threat as it changes based on several factors.
When do we classify a thing as a threat? We perceive the world around us, constantly comparing the sensory inputs to known dangers. A few dangers are programmed into us – edge of a platform detection, being left alone by a primary care given, loud noises. All of the other fears we learn as we grow up, initially from our care givers – if they are frightened of a thing, then we should be too! – and from our own experience.
As we covered earlier, our brain processes a raw feed of our sensory inputs through our hind brain threat detection system. It is looking for identified threats that we have mostly learned as we grew up.
Our decision that this thing is a risk to our safety is based on comparing it to things our care givers were afraid of, things that have hurt us in the past, or things that we can imagine hurting us. This allows for some errors to creep into our threat perception system.
Cockroaches have no direct means of hurting humans. They can very rarely bite humans which might cause a small amount of irritation at the site of the bite. They can carry pathogens that can cause disease, but this is rarely the source of human disease. They mostly just freak people out. But why? If they can’t hurt you, or more to the point, are far less dangerous than pretty much everything else you come across, why are some people so terrified of them? Partly it is the jump scare thing – you didn’t expect that thing to be moving when it did. Partly it is that they move oddly and very rapidly. Mostly it is because you have seen other people react badly to them. Primarily the fear of cockroaches is caused by seeing other people afraid of them. If a primary care giver has a fear of roaches, you have a much higher chance of also having a fear of them.
Sometimes we are hurt by something or someone. We don’t want to re-experience that pain, so we avoid that thing so that it can’t hurt us. However that is not generally the best solution to the threat. Imagine that a dog bit you and it hurt. As a result you avoid dogs. The problem is that dogs are everywhere. So your avoidance creates a significant hassle in your life. Another solution to the dog threat is to recognise the warning signs of good dogs vs risky dogs, then work out how to manage both.
I don’t have experience falling off a cliff to imagine that doing so is going to hurt. Clearly I should stay away from cliffs. The problem is that I don’t know how big a cliff has to be in order to be dangerous to me, which can cause a problem when the cliff is only half a metre high (about 2 feet), or I have safety equipment protecting me from falling and I still can’t get near the edge of the cliff. My imagined threat is not being balanced or fairly portrayed.
The care giver and bad experience parts of threat assessment are miss-training our threat perception, while our imagined threats are misinforming the hind brain about the nature of the expected threat.
Once a thing is determined to be safe or unsafe, we need to continue to check the thing in case its nature changes. Threat is a dynamic thing that changes due to distance, time and intent.
A crocodile is clearly a threat, but if it is way over there and I am way over here, it isn’t much of a real threat to me. I shouldn’t camp at the bottom of a river known to have crocodiles, because in time that crocodile will come and visit me. While crocodiles will eat humans, they much prefer pretty much any other medium to moderate sized animal, so if there is another animal nearby, the crocodile will predominantly attack that instead. However you are still food, so you should still be concerned about the crocodile.
Trying to work out the intent of things and the ability of the thing to target you is an important aspect of threat detection and evaluation. Coffee tables may seem to leap out and attack your shins, but perhaps their targeting of you is a misperception. The coffee table has no intent to harm you. Predator animals might, but rarely target humans. Predatory humans do, but most humans are not predatory to other humans. If you avoid all humans, then you end up quite isolated and lonely, so your assessment of individual humans needs to be continuous in case they reveal themselves to be predatory.
A common error is to assume intent before it is revealed, acting on the threat that isn’t there on the off chance it will come.
Planning a Solution
Now that you have detected a threat, and are keeping an eye on it for dynamic changes in its threat to you, it is time to work out what to do if it is going to affect you.
Imagine a ball game where there are three people standing in an imagined triangle. There is you at point A, Blake at position B and Casey at position C. While Blake and Casey are throwing the ball at each other, there is no threat to you of the ball. You aren’t involved. The ball has a low level of threat as it might become directed at you, but it hasn’t. Rushing in to disable the ball is a possible solution the the ball threat, but not a good one.
The threat of the ball comes if the ball is thrown to you by either Blake or Casey. At this point, the ball threat has increased as it now involves you. Action is now required. Referring to our earlier chart of fear responses, you can either freeze, that is try not to be noticed by Blake or Casey so they won’t throw the ball at you, but now it is too late; flee, dodge the in coming ball so it won’t hit you; or fight, catch the ball and throw it back. The game you have agreed to is the catch and throw back, so it is a very valid solution. Dodging the ball minimises your harm, but it may have a greater social cost as neither Blake nor Casey are likely to want to continue to play with you if you keep fleeing the ball.
Catching the ball can be scary. A thing is moving at you at high speed with enough mass to hurt you if it connects to a sensitive part of your body. If you catch the ball badly it can hurt your hands, or you might drop the ball and look silly in front of your friends. Each of these sub-threats is helpful in breaking down the actual threat and can have a solution to them. If you turn your body slightly, the ball has less chance of impacting some of your more sensitive parts, if you track the ball as it comes in, you can guess at the landing location and put your hands in proximity, if you step back as the ball gets to you, you have a bit more time to catch the ball and remove its momentum. You can also step closer to Blake and Casey so the triangle isn’t an equilateral so the ball isn’t thrown as hard at you so you can build up skill. You can also inform Blake and Casey that you aren’t very good at ball catching and want to work on your skill, which addresses the social threat.
It is tempting to now break each of these perceived threats down another level and solve them too, however that it over analysing the complexity of the threat and allowing yourself to over analyse. The cost of this is either paralysis through over analysis, justifying avoidance, or feeling overwhelmed because there is too much to work out. Knowing when to stop planning and allow yourself to make up a solution on the spot if it is beyond a reasonable level of anticipation is an excellent skill to develop.
Having a basic management plan allows you to inform your over scared mind “stop – I’ve got this worked out”. Your brain is trying to save you as it prompts you to go through scenario after scenario prompting for solutions. We don’t have to work out how to splint a little finger bone with straws and elastic bands in case you break it, nor do we have to work out what to do if it turns out that Blake is a brain eating zombie. These scenarios are either overly specific or very unlikely. Should they become the actual problem we face, then we can create solutions at the time for them and the odds are, you already have some defaults in place – especially for the zombie problem.
Implementing that Solution
There is no point having a solution to a threat and not doing it. Some plans are preventative – turn the saw off when it isn’t being used, use a condom, look both ways before crossing the road. Some plans are based on the threat surfacing – splinting a broken bone, calling for emergency services, explaining why you are late. Not all solutions need to be implemented, however knowing that you have done the prevention actions and have a plan to get through a perceived threat means now you have to do the thing. The thing you weren’t previously going to do because it was scary.
When we are over sensitive to a perceived threat, such as cockroaches, cliffs and men, we need to face that fear and recalibrate our senses. Cockroaches pose no real threat, so bring soap to wash your hands if needed. Cliffs should be tackled with caution, so do some research about how high you can jump safely and work your way up to that, then go on an abseiling course that works with height phobias. Some men are predatory (as are some women, but less so), so learn the signs that you tend to miss that indicates the person has become a threat and interact in safe ways.
Seeing a therapist can really help you work out safe means to manage overcoming your fears and managing your moods. If you don’t face your fears and learn to manage them, then you will always be avoiding your fears or becoming overwhelmed. Consider that most people in society do not have the fear you have and survive quite well despite the sensitivity to the thing you have… that tells you that you are over sensitive and the threat is over represented in your mind. You don’t have to be uncomfortable.
Most of the previous assumes that you have noted and identified a clear and present danger. Something that is there and can harm you. Once identified, then you can address it directly as a plan for just in case, or an action as needed.
What happens when the threat isn’t there, but it feels like it is?
Imagine that you are hiking the plains of Kenya in Africa. You’ve stopped for a lunch with your friends Blake and Casey. Blake notices a lion off on the horizon eating an antelope.
Lions can kill humans.
The Lion is quite a way off, and currently eating, so the odds of it coming for you are remote. So at this point you are all wary of the lion and take turns keeping an eye on it… just in case. You also come up with some handy plans for what to do if it comes your way. When to leave, when to fight, how to fight. Mostly though, you are using the freeze options – don’t draw attention to yourself and the lion will probably ignore you.
It is during your watch that you notice the lion gets up and heads in your direction. You all get a bit nervous… the threat, it is coming. You are all desperately watching the lion to work out if you should get out of there, but it is still quite a ways off, and leaving early means leaving the track you are following, risking becoming lost; or drawing attention to yourselves, which could lead to a fight.
The land dips a bit between the lion and you, and as the lion walks the track you all seem to be on, it goes beneath the dip and you lose track of it.
Where has the lion gone?
You wait… expecting it to appear on the track above on the other side of the dip in moments, but it doesn’t.
Panic starts to set in. Your plans required knowing where the lion was. Now you don’t know that. Your plans are far less useful.
Blake suggests that the dip is bigger than you all guessed, so you keep waiting. If it is that big, does that mean the lion is that much closer to you? Casey suggests the lion has gone perpendicular to the path when it was out of sight of you. As the minutes tick buy, this seems more and more likely. The question now is, is the lion stalking you, or has it gone home?
The three of you spend the next 30 minutes in terror, looking for the lion. Every snapped twig, every movement of tan on a tan background, every shifting of the breeze freaks you all out, expecting the attack from the lion at any minutes… but it never comes.
It turns out that the lion went somewhere else and really didn’t care about you. The result, though, is a day spent waiting for the lion to jump out at you at any minute.
In this example, we had a clear and present danger prompt your danger sense. That isn’t always the case, sometimes it just goes off for no good reason. We spend our day looking for the threat/lion to justify our panic. In the example of the lion it was possible to make some basic plans for how to deal with the lion, but what if you hadn’t seen the lion and you just felt like you were being stalked, or more vague, like something was just going to go wrong?
Our hind brain has, for some unknown reason, decided we are in danger but hasn’t done us the grace of informing us of what we are in danger of. This invalidates our risk evaluation of the danger, because we can’t identify it. This invalidates the planning a solution phase, because we can’t identify it. This invalidates our implementing solutions, because we can’t identify it.
Wait up… if we can’t identify a threat, is there a threat?
Step 1) Identify the threat. If it isn’t clear and present, it isn’t a threat. If it is clear and present, go to step 2.
Step 2) Evalue the threat. Does it just need caution, or does it need action?
Step 3) Create a management plan for the threat, a few basic options for the most likely (top 3 or 4) ways the threat can affect you, then stop planning.
Step 4) Implement any necessary things now for prevention, then implement as needed based on how the threat evolves.
In the case of the feeling of threat without a clear and present danger, we can stop at Step 1.
There is no threat, so stand down.
Next we will cover how to do that using various mindfulness and grounding techniques.