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Two Causes of Anxiety:: Low Frequency Sound and Turbulence

Low frequency sounds and the feeling of dropping are associated with danger.

My wife, Marie, and I recently returned from a week vacationing on Block Island. Access to the island is by ferryboat from Point Judith, Rhode Island. Marie has a special relationship with Block Island, When she was a child, her father was the captain of one of the Point Judith to Block Island ferryboats. She had her parents spent their summers on the island.

This year, because Marie’s mobility is limited due to a stroke, we stayed in our car during the ferry crossing. On the deck where cars are transported, there are loud low-frequency sounds from the ferry's engine and propeller. As the ferry got underway, our dog began to quiver. I held her and stroked her. Yet, it took several minutes for her to calm down.

Why was our dog upset? Researcher Stephen Porges says mammals react to low frequency sounds. Low-frequency sounds are associated with danger. The growl of a predator is a low-frequency sound. A earthquake produces low-frequency sounds. We - like other mammals - automatically react and release stress hormones. Marie and I know these sounds are benign. Knowing keeps the feelings caused by the stress hormones from being translated into danger. It was a different story for our dog. She had no way to know these low-frequency sounds did not mean danger.

As this was taking place, I was reminded of how fearful fliers are troubled by turbulence. Just as low-frequency sound triggers the release of stress hormones, so does the feeling of dropping when there is turbulence. As a pilot, I know turbulence is not a threat to the plane. If a passenger learns that turbulence is no threat prior to encountering it, that knowledge can keep fear from developing. But, it is different for a passenger who has a turbulent flight without that information. The feeling of dropping and the stress hormones produced by dropping connect with inaccurate knowledge - the belief that there is danger - and sensitizes the person to turbulence. Once sensitized, learning that turbulence is no threat is only mildly helpful. The emotional response is likely to remain.

If turbulence causes you distress, what can you do about your reaction to these movements? First, Recognize that, though these movements trigger the release of stress hormones, they do not mean danger. Second, prior to the flight, bring the movements to mind and link the movements to the memory of a time when you produced oxytocin (nursing a child, holding a newborn, sexual afterglow, good chemistry in sexual foreplay, interacting with a pet). Once the link is established, when the plane moves, you will produce oxytocin which will then begin to inhibit the release of stress hormones.

Notice I say “begin” to inhibit the release of stress hormones. When the plane drops the first time, you will automatically produce stress hormones because of genetic programming. But you will also produce oxytocin because of having done psychological programming. The oxytocin will take hold quickly. But before it can, some stress hormones will already have been produced. It will take about two minutes for the stress hormones to be burned off. Remember that I began stroking our dog when she began shaking. Her tremors did not stop immediately. It took a couple of minutes for the oxytocin produced by my stroking her to calm her.

Third, link these movements to the memory of being with a person you felt your guard let down with. When your guard lets down, it is because your calming system, the parasympathetic nervous system, is being activated by your friend's face, voice, and touch. This link has an immediate effect.

For more information, see my website at

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