Stress hormones are released whenever the amygdala senses anything non-routine or unexpected. One of the most troublesome problems when treating fear of flying is the automatic interpretation that arousal, caused when stress hormones are released, means there is danger. This interpretation is so automatic that the anxious flier is not aware of making an interpretation. We sometimes say "seeing is believing." In this case, "feeling is believing."
Perhaps this is because stress hormones produce an urge to escape. This urge to escape is inherited. One hundred million years ago, the brain consisted only of the amygdala. There was no cortex. When the amygdala sensed anything non-routine, the release of stress hormones caused the urge to run. With no ability to think, the creature just ran.
Later, the cortex was added to the brain. As the cortex developed, so did executive function. When the amygdala released stress hormones, it activated both the urge to escape and executive function. The executive makes decisions. Here, when activated by stress hormones, executive function decides whether escape is necessary or a waste of energy.
While executive function assesses the situation and makes its decision, it overrides—or is supposed to override—the urge to escape. The amygdala is crude; the urge to escape is primitive. The cortex is sophisticated; override of the urge to escape and assessing the situation, is an advanced response. How well executive function understands its role influences how effectively it overrides the urge to escape.
Executive function needs to know that the urge to run is automatic. Stress hormones can be released by a stimulus that is totally benign. If this is not understood, the urge to escape and danger cannot be kept separate. If they cannot be kept separate, once a person feels the effects of stress hormones, they may be oblivious to the fact there may be no danger. They take it for granted that when aroused, when feeling the urge to escape, they are in danger.
Though arousal and fear are obviously not the same, some psychologists still refer to arousal as the “fear response.” This is incorrect. Fear is but one interpretation of what arousal may signify. Another interpretation of arousal could be excitement at winning the lottery. Or arousal may be a false alarm. Problems develop when executive function abdicates its role and allows interpretations to be done automatically.
The anxious flier needs to become aware than an interpretation is being made and to learn to not make the usual interpretation habitually. It is important to understand that when there is a shot of stress hormones, the urge to run is, as my cousin used to say when he over-trumped playing bridge, “That (the other player's trump card) isn’t worth a fart in a wind storm!” Shakespeare's more eloquent "sound and fury, signifying nothing" also fits.
When a smoke alarm goes off, we don’t just run. Why? Because experience has taught us that a smoke alarm can go off because it is defective or because the toaster is burning toast. Though the alarm could mean the house is on fire, we don't just run. We assess the situation. We look around. If we see smoke coming from the toaster, we figure, “Oh, that’s what it is.” We drop the matter. If we have a sophisticated smoke alarm, we hit the reset button to stop the noise. If we have a basic smoke alarm, we might take the battery out temporarily.
Look how appropriately we respond to the smoke alarm. We run only if we, after having assessed the situation, find the house is on fire. Otherwise, we don’t.
Now, what about our response to the amygdala. Our response is, again, due to experience. If a child's amygdala fires off and the child is responded to, the child learns to regard the stress hormones triggered by the amygdala the same way we regard the noise triggered by the smoke alarm. No big deal.
If a child’s amygdala fires off and the child is not responded to, the child learns to associate stress hormones with feelings of abandonment, the belief that no one cares, that there is danger, and that there is no way to escape.
We can't go back and remember what happened when we were two. We can’t remember being put in a room and left to “cry it out.” We can’t remember no one responding to our extremely high level of arousal. We can’t remember that we finally gave up and went into a deep primitive state of shutdown that researcher Allan Shore calls “a state of dissociated terror.”
Are we are stuck because we can’t go back and remember the experiences that programmed our mental responses to stress hormones? No, because we can teach the amygdala not to react to situations that cause it to release stress hormones.
We can also keep it in mind that arousal is arousal.