What I think people don’t understand about those of us who suffer from intense anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and the like, is that having an intense response to something is not a mere intellectual construction that one can be argued out of. We don’t put a few bits of data together and make a rational decision to freak out. The freak-out comes as a result of something our body, including the deepest and most animalistic parts of our brain, has learned, rehearsed, and taken as the unchanging truth: “I am under threat.”
And to the person having this experience, it seems entirely rational, plain as day, whether it could be rationally justified or not. The actual facts are immaterial, really, other than how they serve as stimuli to a fight-or-flight response. What doesn’t work is trying to convince us not to be freaked out by pointing out the facts. More data only fuels the fire, gives more things for our brains to be afraid of.
Because what’s happening is physiological, it’s chemical, even though it can express itself in language after it’s been through our brains’ processes. Particularly for PTSD (my particular flavor of crazy), we’ve been “trained” to respond in certain ways to threats (real and imagined) by our past experiences. Some event or series of events have served as rehearsals for our lizard brains, to the point that the perceived threat that kicks the fight-or-flight response in gear becomes The Truth. It is so compelling, in fact, that it also entirely convinces the “higher” parts of our human brains, the ones we like to think of as rational.
What happens then? The rational parts of the brain don’t resist the mania of the lizard brain. Instead, the rational brain goes to work justifying and bolstering what the lizard brain is telling it. Lizard brain says “threat,” rational brain says “drop everything and analyze all aspects of threat; actual and hypothetical; past, present, and future.” In these cases, the rational brain is kind of like CNN when a plane disappears.
I can’t get into it here, but there’s a threat I perceive in my life right now. I am being told my everyone in my life that the threat is very small — not nonexistent, but not worth obsessing over by any means. I am, nonetheless, obsessing over it, to the point of panic, to the point of a heart pounding against my rib case when I’m merely sitting and watching a movie with my 2-year-old daughter on the couch. I hear a sound, I sense a movement, I think of benign things, it all leads down the same path. I imagine every possible scenario of how this threat might manifest, the ways in which this threat might hurt or kill me, my wife, my kids. I remind myself of how almost anything could set this threat in motion, that its catalyst is entirely unpredictable. That means that this threat could appear at any time, in degrees that range from nuisance to unspeakable horror.The facts don’t help. Every bit of data given to me about the situation, meant to allay my fears, only gives me further avenues to explore as to how things might unravel. It’s like a conspiracy theorist, where every fact meant to disprove a ridiculous assertion only serves to confirm it.
I know that the thing I’m supposed to do, as someone who’s been in a lot of therapy for this kind of thing, is to reverse what my lizard brain has rehearsed. To rehearse a new automatic response. But it has to go in the opposite direction of the original “bad rehearsal.” Instead of the experience being dictated by my lizard brain, and into my rational brain, I have to begin in my rational brain and work it backward. Instead of letting my lizard brain determine my physiological state (the heart pounding, the tightened muscles, the widened eyes, the quick breathing, etc.), I have to let my rational brain tell my body what to do, which should in turn “rehearse” my lizard brain to a new status quo. It’s incredibly difficult.
And it is made all the more difficult because, remember, my rational brain is already in the can for the worldview of the lizard brain. My rational brain believes that the threat is real and ever-present, and for me to tell it something contrary to that feels like an enormous lie, a sick joke, like trying to convince yourself that Santa Claus is real, or that two plus two equals banana. Everything inside me tells me that the threat is real, and all attempts to convince me otherwise are wrong, or worse, additional aspects of that threat.
The only solution to that paradox, frustratingly, is more and more rehearsal of the “correct” outlook. Even if every fiber of my being believes it to be a lie, the rehearsal will, in theory, eventually begin to take. My lizard brain will learn from the adjustments in thinking, in breathing, in refocusing. It will resist, but by rehearsing, it becomes the new normal.
But it is so hard. It is so hard. And that threat is right there, guys. It’s right there.