“Don’t Panic” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has these famous friendly letters written on the cover to help your roving hitchhiker manage pretty much any situation as they rove around the galaxy. Panic, though, has its uses. When a threat exists that requires an immediate response without thought and cogitation, panic has a fair chance of keeping you alive. Panic attacks are when this goes wrong.
Fear is an integral part of our survival mechanism. If we had no fear, we would do things that would harm and probably kill us. That isn’t a good way to pass on your genetic material to the next generation, and from a biological perspective, that is the point of life. Passing on genes doesn’t require joy, contentment or comfort – merely survival.
When we see a threat, we need to work out if we it can be ignored (passive, passive aggressive), we can overcome it (assertive, aggression) or not (hide, run). When we react to the threat we can compare our reaction to the actual thing and work out if we have over or under reacted. If we over react, we waste our personal resources, if we under react, we may not overcome the threat – and that can be fatal. As you begin to address the threat you can also assess how effective your strategy is. If it is working, you can reinforce it; if it isn’t, you can change your strategy.
An important ingredient to this is control. You may not have chosen the threat (sometimes you do), but you can choose how you are going to defeat the known threat. Continual assessment of success against the threat allows for continual choices to be made. It might be scary, it might be dangerous, but we feel we can defeat it. We feel in control of the threat.
Adrenaline junkies are people who deliberately go out of their way to do something that is known to be dangerous, but in such a way that you are intellectually certain you should survive, even if your feelings are telling you that you shouldn’t. These people thrive on this conflict in the brain and the thrill of the act that brings the fear reflexes to the fore. This is then followed by a satisfaction that they have faced and defeated a threat. The satisfaction can be very addictive.
Let us take a look at the difference between the intellectual assessment and the feeling assessment. The adrenaline junkie works on creating conflict between the two, yet that is conflict in the same brain. Surely this should be impossible! Yet it is not. In a simplified manner, the basic threat assessment that triggers the feeling of fear is all in the hind-brain. If you cup your hand to the back of your head, just above the neck, you are encapsulating the area that contains the amygdala, thalamus and hypothalamus. Some people refer to this region as the hindbrain, primitive brain, the monkey brain or the lizard brain. Of course neuroscience is far more complex than this simple representation – but this will help you get your head around the idea of separate processing in the same head.
The intellectual part of your brain is at the front, the cerebrum. Put your hands out in front of you, palm up. Now put your hand together so your palms are still up and your little fingers are now touching, your thumbs are pointing away from each other. Place the heel of your hands just above your eyebrows and the little finger join goes up your head until the tip of your finger touches the crown of your head (ish). Wrap your joined hands around your forehead. This region of your skull holds the frontal regions of your brain. There are two halves, the left and the right. Mostly they do the same thing with a few very specific “one side does this bit and that side does that bit” specialised processing. They communicate via a chunky bundle of communication neurons about the diameter of your thumb called the corpus callosum that connects one half to the other.
The intellect can take abstract ideas, facts and feelings and turn them into predictions of the future. Once we have these predictions, we make management plans. This is how we are going to manage that threat. This is what we will do if it doesn’t work.
Our hind brain isn’t concerned with the management plan the intellect will eventually get around to making, it needs to know if you are going to survive right now. It looks at the current knowns – this is here, that is there, in the past we did this, in the past we got hurt by that. It tries to work out the timeline of harm from the known threat and either handballs the problem to the intellect to solve (low to medium threat) or takes over and hits the panic button RIGHT NOW.
Fear has three immediate survival defaults. Flight – we can’t fight it, it’s seen us, get out, go – run away! Freeze – we can’t fight it, it hasn’t seen us, don’t get noticed, don’t be a tall poppy, stop painting that target on your back! Fight – we can fight it, or we can’t outrun it so what they hey, either fight or die. Based on the perceived threat, your hind brain decides to pick the most likely survival option and either triggers that reflex if the threat is immediate, or offers that reflex to the intellect if there is some perceived time between threat and consequence.
This is what makes you flinch from the incoming sports ball you didn’t know you saw, or step back from the curb to avoid the oncoming truck, or brace for the unexpected attack. Your hindbrain has quickly processed the environment and yelled “watch out” and taken over. Afterwards your intellect catches up and goes …. whoa.
The hindbrain is a quick and dirty calculator. It doesn’t really have good information, nor does it make logical conclusions. It sees the world as raw data and samples just enough to get an early warning. It is frequently wrong in how it perceives the world. Biologically speaking, if the hindbrain gives you 9 false alarms to 1 real alarm, it has done its job. Responding to the 9 false alarms doesn’t kill you, while failing to respond to the 1 real alarm might. Alive and uncomfortable trumps dead.
When the hind brain responds to clear and present danger saving you from harm, it is exactly what we need in this complex world. This is a fear response to a real event. When it hits the internal alarm button and there is no clear and present danger, we call this a panic attack.
There are two main ways the hindbrain can get things so wrong. One is that the automatic process has been miss-trained, the other is that it is being fed bad information by the intellect.
We’ll cover that next time.