Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Dying yet another death

In the breakroom down the hall, my friends laugh and share stories over coffee. I sit with lead in my stomach, too frightened to speak, hardly able to breathe. It is like this every single time, and yet I can't help it. I have no control over my reactions. Tomorrow morning I get on a plane, and to me it might as well be hell.
Have you ever experienced a panic attack? They are, in fact, so similar to heart attacks that many people have been hospitalized for the wrong one. Your heart beats heavy and irregular, you sweat and tingle and shake and can only manage shallow breaths, your muscles go numb, your gut churns and your head swims. And yet somehow the idea is brushed off as simply "anxiety;" it's social, it's psychological, it's not harmful. It's nothing. So you don't like flying? Have a beer and get over it, they say.
For some reason, the modern Western ideas about psychology are only just now coming around to realizing that psychological problems can physically harm you. "The danger, however, is no less real because it is imaginary;" Sir James Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough over a hundred years ago. "Imagination acts upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid." But only recently do we see depression medications meant to treat physical pain as well as psychological pain, and the like. Many cultures around the world and throughout history have understood psychological problems to be intricately linked to the physical body; to a Chinese farmer, for instance, "depression" connotes just as much "stomach pains" as it does "sadness." And to me, being forced onto a plane is the same as having a gun held to my head. The response is just as real.
The irony is two-fold. First, if my fear comes to fruition and I die in a plane crash, then I no longer have to suffer my fear; the fear is self-defeating. Second, because the physiological response is so intense and so physically damaging, the fear itself has the potential to cause bodily harm; the fear of death is killing me.
We cannot continue the ruse that we are separate psyches trapped within a physical body. The pieces are irrevocably connected as a whole. And damage to the one can cause damage to the rest.
If nothing else, I have to write because it is calming; I hope that, in seeing my final thoughts on paper, the Fates play a joke on me and allow me to live to eat my words. But the reality is, I write because the rational majority of my brain can't override the emotional core, and so I spend my time convinced that I'm about to die. And every flight, every prolonged fear of death, is just the same as dying.
Maybe someday people will understand. Maybe.


  1. My panic attacks have always been more associated with a fear of consequences, like missing a train or a plane and having to pay for another or having to explain my lateness. It's more of a fear of a fear if that makes any sense, again having to deal with a panic attack. Luckily over the years I've been able to know when one is coming on and go through the psychological step to avoid it, but the fear of dread induced is horrible. Nothing I'd ever wish upon anyone.

  2. Adam, you bring up another excellent point. A serious phobia can bring on fear of the fear response itself - you're scared of feeling that scared - so the physiological fear response nests on many levels. The fear can also engender guilt, depression, and OCD-like reactions, making the entire experience inescapably severe.

  3. What can we do to help? The only treatment I know of is aversive therapy- to approach the phobic situation in a structured and safe way.

    I used to fear rollercoasters, though not to the extent of panic, but gradually got over it (I think). Perhaps there is a way to ease into flying by gradual steps, even video game steps. At any rate, I am flying tomorrow as well, with the FAA on vacation, apparently!

  4. Burk - I think one major first step is just making it widely understood that a phobia is not the same as a simple aversion. It's not that I don't like flying the way I don't like brussel sprouts or ticks, but that flying (even the anticipation of it) actually causes a severe physiological response over which I have little to no control. I can't just "have a beer and get over it," and that's something that seems to be overlooked.
    As for me personally, I don't know... I've tried therapy and anti-anxiety drugs (and lots of other little things besides, like meditation and trying to solve a Rubik's Cube). I know logically that it is a phobia, it's unfounded, it's irrational and that things really will be fine, but that side of my brain isn't in control in these situations (however, it does mean that telling me things will be fine also does me no good). Perhaps pilot lessons?

    (As for the FAA, it seems to me like something *always* happens just before I travel... a JetBlue flight has to make an emergency landing at LAX because of broken landing gear, Air France crashes into the Atlantic, the FAA loses funding....)

  5. Good luck to you!

    I will be annoying and offer a tip, but it probably won't help.

    I have certainly suffered from irrational fear. And I believe very strongly, as you do, that we are holistic beings. Everything is interconnected.

    Therefore, instead of trying to stop myself from thinking about it, or this or that, I focus on my physical symptoms. Relaxing my tight stomach muscles, mostly staying loose through my center. Breathing, easing the tightness immediately anytime it starts to happen. Oftentimes, if I can stick with this for a minute or so, it really helps calm the emotional feelings.

    Basically, instead of trying to change my emotions first, I try to ease my bodily symptoms first.

    And then sometimes I just start singing "Twist and Shout" to myself.

  6. Steven, I do appreciate the tip. Of course, during the height of the phobia any advice is impossible to take. But it's a good idea - if you focus on something physical, the emotional may follow.

  7. Hi! I just recently was turned on to your blog (as a new graduate student trying to figure things out).
    I myself have fought with depression for the past year, so I can empathize with you that these "psychological" issues have very real, physical consequences, and they are very painful. I feel for you that you are experience such pain.

    So my first point is that what you are feeling is VERY real, and the worst thing someone can say to you is "just snap out of it", because you can't.

    I am by no means an expert but I am a strong believer in the mind-body connection, so I might suggest you look at your diet/exercise/sleeping habits - sometimes changing those things can change your life dramatically! (and scientists are notorious for neglecting their physical health)

    I also encourage you to try to have someone who understands your pain and can talk you down from it. This is an enourmous task, but if you can talk about it, it helps.

    Best of luck!

  8. Thanks for the kind words - they are appreciated! You're right that physicists aren't very good at taking care of themselves, and I totally agree with you that the "wholeness" of being is important (this is why I know the anti-anxiety medication will never really work). And it's true that people are out there who can help, if one can just find them. Talking to all of you (out there in teh intertubes) helps - I think it makes the fear more controllable by releasing it from being bottled up inside my head alone - so thanks to all of you as well!


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