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Using The Social Engagement System

Control flight anxiety with your most powerful regulation system

When it comes to flight anxiety, statistics don't help. It doesn't matter—at least emotionally—whether there is one crash in a million flights, or one crash in one-hundred million flights. No matter how remote the possibility, when an anxious flier contemplates an upcoming flight, images of disaster come to mind. The images may involve emotional disaster such as panic, or physical disaster such as a crash. Whichever is the case, the images release stress hormones that cause emotional distress.

When released, stress hormones activate the Mobilization System (MS. This system, being primitive, has just one way to deal with uncertainty. It produces an urge to escape. Some creatures, those with a tiny brain, do just that. But humans, with a bigger brain, look for other options. When stress hormones activate the MS, they also activate Executive Function (EF), our high level, conscious thinking. EF—at least temporarily—overrides the urge to escape and tries to figure out what is going on. Does this situation really call for escape, or is it a false alarm? If there is a problem, EF looks for a way to deal with it.

When it looks for a way to deal with problems, EF is in the prediction business. Healthy EF does not insist on a sure thing. It looks for the plan that is most likely to get good results. When healthy EF comes up with a plan that will probably work, it commits to carrying out that plan. At that moment, EF signals the amygdala to stop releasing stress hormones. Anxiety disappears.

Not so with the anxiety-prone person. Their EF requires certainty. Otherwise their EF finds it difficult—perhaps impossible—to commit. Since commitment to a plan is necessary to end stress hormone release, when EF can't decide and commit, stress hormone release continues. If stress hormones build up too high, EF collapses, and MS, the primitive escape-based system, takes over.

When a person panics, if escape is available, they can get relief. But when a person panics on a plane, there is no escape. Neither the person's sophisticated EF nor their primitive MS can stop anxiety.

What can control flight anxiety? There is another emotional control system, one we use it every day in social settings. When we are with other people, unexpected things are being said and done almost constantly. Each of these triggers the release of stress hormones. At the same time, a system researcher Stephen Porges says the Social Engagement System (SES) picks up signals from others, such as body language, voice quality, and facial expressions. If the SES likes what it sees and hears, it calms us. Since the SES operates unconsciously, we are not aware that it is calming us. We have no idea that the SES is overriding stress hormones that other people almost constantly trigger in us.

Think of being in your car with one foot pressing on the accelerator and one foot firmly holding the brake. Though gas is revving up the engine, the car goes nowhere because of the brake. In your body, stress hormones are being released, but signals the SES picks up from others, can cause you—in spite of the hormones—to feel calm, using what Porges calls the Vagal Brake. Not only can the SES override stress hormones, it can prevent the release of stress hormones by increasing the level of oxytocin, a hormone that inhibits the amygdala.

Because it works unconsciously, the most powerful regulation system we have is the one we know little if anything about. And the system we know the most about, our high level cognition, is—when it comes to flying—our weakest one. We all know that when someone supportive is with us, we are less afraid. But what we don't know—because the SES works automatically—is that the "someones" who were supportive when we faced uncertainties during formative years are built inside us. Not only can a person physically present calm us, but a person psychologically present (because they are "objects" built inside our psyche) can also calm us.

If someone supportive is on a flight with you, they can respond and reassure you when a shot of stress hormones is released by a noise or a bump. But a "someone" supportive who is built inside you can override stress hormones or prevent stress hormone release.

For the fortunate child, links are established naturally between the face of a supportive person and the various uncertainties encountered. Since we are not aware of it when an established link calms us, a person who flies with no anxiety can't understand why others are fearful. Likewise, a person—lacking those links—is afraid when flying, and can't understand anyone isn't afraid.

It all comes down to what was—or wasn't—built inside way back when we were facing uncertainties as little kids. If we were adequately responded to, links between uncertainty and mom's or dad's face unconsciously protect us from anxiety. If we were not adequately responded to, there are not enough links to protect us from anxiety now. To regulate anxiety, we try to control things. If unable to get enough control, we make sure we have a way to escape the situation.

When working with fearful fliers, I have them tap into the SES. It is incredibly powerful. We simply find a moment when signals from another person caused the SES to actively control anxiety. Then, we link that face of that person to the door of the plane being closed, to the engines starting, to the plane taking off, and to turbulence, and to landing. Once the various moments of flight are linked to vivid recall of the person's face and the signals it sent to the SES, anxiety is controlled.