Research supports the anti-panic measures

Research supports the anti-panic measures

I have written recently about the 5,4,3,2,1 exercise and the Strengthening Exercise devised by Captain Tom Bunn for nervous fliers and useful also in non-flying situations where the nervous system is challenged by fear. I thought you might like to hear about the research that supports the Strengthening Exercise so here is an excerpt from Captain Tom’s newsletter.

“When facing a challenge, an attuned and non-judgmental person can help us approach the situation with less anxiety. The parasympathetic nervous system (the system that calms by neutralizing stress hormones) is activated by the face, voice, and touch of such a friend – or by the memory of their face, voice, and touch. SOAR has helped countless people fly by linking the memory of being with a calming person to challenging moments of flight.

New research shows that having a calming friend in mind is as protective against stress as having the friend physically present. At the University of Arizona, 102 participants were put in a stressful situation. The participants, all of whom were in a committed romantic relationship, were split into three groups.

During stress, one group was asked to think about their day. A second group was asked to think about their romantic partner. The third group had their partner present. Both the second group and third group had lower blood pressure than the first group. Not only that, the researchers found no difference in the response of the second and the third group. One of the researchers, Kyle Bourassa, said “It appears that thinking about your partner as a source of support can be just as powerful as actually having them present.”

“Life is full of stress, and one critical way we can manage this stress is through our relationships — either with our partner directly or by calling on a mental image of that person,” Bourassa said. “There are many situations, including at work, with school exams or even during medical procedures, where we would benefit from limiting our degree of blood pressure reactivity, and these findings suggest that a relational approach to doing so can be quite powerful.”

As many readers know, in the SOAR program, we control high anxiety during flight by linking each challenging moment of flight to a person who, physically or psychologically present, activates the parasympathetic nervous system.

In day-to-day living, we can reduce stress by doing this three-step parasympathetic activating exercise:

When you notice stress,

  • Imagine you see a friend or a romantic partner come into the room.
  • Imagine hearing the person greet you.
  • Imagine the person comes over and gives you a friendly touch

By repeating this exercise each time you notice stress, you will establish a program in your unconscious procedural memory that will unconsciously calm you when stress arises.”

 

I hope so much that this will help others like me to cope better with daily challenges and to extraordinary challenges such as flying or other phobias. Please contact me direct if you would like to work on these issues with psychotherapeutic support.

Fear of Flying or Just Plain Fear

I wrote recently about the  5,4,3,2,1 exercise that Captain Tom Bunn describes in his book Soar and quite a few people have told me how they have successfully used it, not for flying but for other tricky experiences where our nerves can make life hell. Making Christmas Dinner under your mother-in-law’s critical eye. Driving on the motorway when you don’t like motorways. Waiting for an interview or an audition. Asking for a pay-rise. This simple exercise can interrupt the production of adrenaline which fear produces but which isn’t needed in those situations. Famously adrenaline is invaluable when you meet a tiger in the jungle. It give you the oomph to run away faster than you ever knew you could. However situations where no running away is going to be possible, all it does is wind you up, freeze your brain so you can’t answer simple questions and ruin your breath control so you can’t control your voice. Its effect is also cumulative. If the body cannot discharge or use up the adrenaline by direct action (shouting, running away, hitting someone) it builds up and the message gets through that there really is an emergency and more adrenaline is needed!

Today I have come back to tell you about Captain Tom’s other seminal exercise, designed for nervous flyers (read terrified) for whom other approaches have not worked. I can testify that this has brought my flying experience (six flights in the last 9 months and counting) well within the realm of bearable, sometimes even fun. It has also come into its own at the dentist’s and for you there may be other areas of your life where terror tends to win over common sense because the body is out of your control.

The second exercise is called the Strengthening Exercise and you need to practise it once or twice to learn it and then for a week or so before the challenging experience is coming up. (Incidentally you don’t need a week. I had two days and trust me, it works.) It is hard to believe that it will work for you but if you take a peek at the Fear of Flying website you will see hundreds of testimonials from people who didn’t believe it would work for them but did the exercise anyway (desperation is a great motivator) and now fly confidently.

The Strengthening Exercise is based a moment in your history when you had a deep empathic connection with someone. You knew about the empathic connection because of the eye contact you had with them in that moment. You felt you were the only person in their world at that moment. Bringing this moment of deep empathic connection to bear on the feared experience dispels the terror. Technically the visualisation of that moment produces oxytocin in the body and adrenaline production is inhibited. Oxytocin gives us the courage to connect deeply with others and we feel completely unafraid. Oxytocin is the enemy of adrenaline. They cannot both be produced at the same time.

The moments which produce that magical oxytocin are many. When you were just about to make love for the first time and you looked into each other’s eyes, when you were feeding your new baby or exchanging a look with your child are likely to work. Simply catching the eye of someone who makes you feel in that moment that you are the centre of the universe is the moment we are looking for. It DOESN’T MATTER what happened next!  if the relationship went on to be a disaster or if the person has subsequently died you still have the benefit of that moment and you can use it today. What matters is getting in touch with that feeling the eye contact produced. If you can, find a person. If you can’t, you may remember a moment of deep eye connection with a pet. Use that. When you have identified such a moment or two or three, what next?

If it really is flying you are dealing with I recommend you buy the Soar book because it conveniently lists all the various stages of boarding an aeroplane, taking off, flying, landing etc. You are going to connect that oxytocin-producing moment to the stages of the experience in your mind so the first thing you need is a list of the stages. If it is, for instance, going to the dentist, this is what you do. Make a list of every minute stage of the experience starting with walking out of the dentist’s surgery with a big smile on your face because it’s all over. Then work backwards to making the appointment. Your list for having your tooth filled might look like this.

  1. Leaving the dentist’s surgery
  2. Paying the dentist’s bill and saying goodbye
  3. Putting your coat back on
  4. Getting up out of the surgery chair
  5. Having that final rinse
  6. Hearing and feeling the dentist take his hands and equipment out of your mouth for the last time
  7. Feeling the drill polishing up the new filling
  8. Feeling the dentist put the putty in your tooth
  9. Having another rinse
  10. Hearing the drill stop
  11. Hearing the drill start again and opening your mouth extra wide
  12. Hearing the drill stop and having a rinse
  13. Having the drill in your mouth
  14. Opening your mouth extra wide as the dentist leans over you to begin work
  15. Feeling that parts of your mouth have gone numb
  16. Resting while the anaesthetic takes effect. Chatting with the dentist
  17. Feeling the anaesthetic injection go in
  18. Opening your mouth extra wide for the injection
  19. Letting the dentist find the problem through examination. Telling him what has happened
  20. Having the bib put on by the nurse
  21. Sitting down in the chair
  22. Taking your coat off
  23. Being called through into the surgery
  24. Sitting in the waiting room
  25. Talking to the receptionist
  26. Entering the surgery building
  27. Travelling to the surgery
  28. Leaving the house
  29. Getting washed and dressed
  30. Getting up on the morning of the appointment
  31. Going to bed the night before
  32. Waiting for the appointment day to come
  33. Making the appointment
  34. Noticing you need to visit the dentist

 

You can add to this list as many stages as you like. The more the better. Make a small photo in your mind of the first stage of the experience and imagine that loved person is holding it next to their face as they make that fabulous eye contact with you. Make the photo black and white and small. Make the experience of the eye contact live in your whole body. Then move on to the next stage and so on right through to the very beginning where you are making the appointment or booking the flight.

If you lose track don’t worry. Start again.

If  imagining yourself in the chair or on the plane produces more fear than you can handle you can imagine your favourite cartoon character in the photo instead of you. Cartoon characters, you will have noticed, come out of every situation unscathed. Imagine Micky Mouse in the picture, or Spiderman or Pop-Eye. Put your whole mind into this as you go through the stages. You are retraining your amygdalae, desensitizing them, to accept the experience you are working on as routine, non-threatening, nothing to get excited about. You are sending the message that you are safe.

On the first day do the exercise two or three times and then fewer times over the subsequent days. Don’t worry about it in between. The magical effect on your body responses will show up when you begin the actual experience.

If you suffer anticipatory anxiety, use the 5,4,3,2,1 exercise to dispel it as often as you need to. On the day use both exercises.

This is the kindest way to help yourself with fear and it builds on itself so that it gets easier. Gritting your teeth and giving yourself a good talking to is unkind and the fear does not go away.

I’d love to know how you get on.

Stormy Weather

Stormy Weather

About two months ago things went wrong for me visiting Lisbon for a wedding.  I ended up in casualty with a bad UTI and when I eventually saw the twelve year old doctor and got my hands on some antibiotics (you could get Ecstasy easier) I thought that was that. But no. There has been pain and panic ever since.

A major attack of IBS followed and by the time I was back in England a horrible burning pain in my side which especially played up at night when I had all the leisure in the world to worry about it. A trip to casualty in England (and let me tell you Lisbon makes the National Health look like Los Angeles) established that it wasn’t a kidney stone and then they sent me home with the pain which was now a hundred times worse courtesy of lying on the scanner and worrying.

The moral of my tale is twofold. Doesn’t worrying make things so much worse (and actually produces physical sensations to order)? Secondly cause and effect is usually so much more complicated than we imagine. After months of osteopathy I was still not able to sit and meditate nor go to my piyo classes. I foresaw a future of sloth and a balloon shaped me wearing shapeless dresses. Utter misery. I tried meditating lying down and other versions but it wasn’t the same. Opening the French doors and sitting on my cushion, semi-exposed to the elements, has become a precious way to start my day and I was very sorry for myself contemplating that this might be a thing of the past. Also I had a wardrobe full of clothes I felt too bloated to wear.

Gradually I came to accept what the osteopath gently broke to me : there was a disc involved which was causing referred pain. I can’t tell you how I fought against this diagnosis but I did stop exercising and it did stop being absolute agony and reduced to miserable. But I also realised that the IBS was also still shouting its head off. So I have stopped looking for one simple treatable-give-me-a-pill-or-an-operation cause. As ever it is my spine and my bowels playing up under stress. So not even the glamour of something serious.

I am sharing this with you (and you may well say I am sharing way too much) because it can really help to stop looking for a cause and resign yourself to kindness and forbearance as a way of treating things (once serious illness has been ruled out by scans and so forth).

Arriving in Venice yesterday in stormy weather (see picture) I felt the stress fall away and this morning I did some yoga and obtained some clicks from my poor spine which may just have set things on the mend. There was no hurrying this – I just had to wait and to all those who have put up with me patiently while I learned to wait : Thank you!

I’m not sharing a new recipe today but I include photos of porridge in its different guises, sweet and savoury and risotto which seems to help the IBS big time.