When aboard an airliner, if neither the sophisticated Executive Function (EF) nor the primitive Mobilization System (MS) is able to quell anxiety, what can be done? For an answer, we turn to another sophisticated regulation system, one that has the capability to counteract the effect of the stress hormones, and even to prevent stress hormones from being released.
We can control the feelings by employing the Social Engagement System (SES). The SES has a special purpose. It provides the emotional regulation needed for us to relate to others in social situations.
When we are with other people, they say things we don’t expect and they do things we don’t control. The amygdala regards all of this as non-routine. This means that, in a social situation, the amygdala is releasing stress hormones almost all the time. Why doesn’t this drive us up the wall?
Operating completely unconsciously, the Social Engagement System (SES), picks up signals from others. It notes their body language, their tone of voice, and their facial expression. If the signals being picked up are associated with trustworthiness, the SES applies what researcher Stephen Porges calls “the vagal brake.” Though stress hormones are trying to rev us up, the vagal brake slows the heart and, in general, calms us.
In addition, the SES facilitates reproduction. But, instead of using just the vagal brake, it uses a hormone, oxytocin. When a person looks at you with attunement and devotion - as if you are the only person in the world - the SES produces oxytocin, which inhibits the amygdala. The amygdala becomes unable to release stress hormones. Anxiety and fear disappears. Less stands in the way of acting on whatever sexual desire may be present.
Oxytocin is produced in even greater amounts during breast-feeding. By shutting down the amygdala, oxytocin allows the mother to nourish her child for long periods without concern.
When I work with a client to help them overcome fear of flying, we identify a moment in which the SES applied the vagal brake or inhibited the amygdala with oxytocin. Once we find such a moment, we turn to basic psychology: conditioned response. We link the stress controlling moment with each of the things that takes place when flying. Thus, when the cabin door closes, in spite of stress hormones, a link to the trustworthy face causes the SES to apply the vagal brake and calm the anxious flier. Or, association with a lover’s face causes oxytocin to be produced, which prevents the release of stress hormones.