Why We Panic | Psychology Today

I hate the take off . . . but thought I would be fine on the flight. And I was until there was turbulence at which point I was terrified, on the brink of tears and miserable for the rest of the journey. – Posted at


On takeoff, a series of things happen that cause the amygdala to release stress hormones:

  • When the engines rev up, the pitch of the sound goes higher. Intellectually we know this is normal. But the amygdala, noting change, releases stress hormones.
  • The thunder of exhaust from the engines, though normal, triggers the release of more stress hormones.
  • As the plane accelerates, we are pushed back in our seats by invisible forces. This physical intrusion may arouse memories of traumatic physical intrusion. In any case, it releases a third shot of stress hormones.
  • We are used to accelerating ten seconds to get on a highway. We are not used to acceleration that goes on for fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five seconds. The amygdala reacts. Thoughts may arise, “This is taking too long. Maybe the pilots can’t get enough power. Maybe we will get off the ground and fall back.”
  • Stress hormone releases continue as the plane leaves the ground, and are redoubled when the noise abatement procedure makes it feel like the plane is falling.

Automatic Down-Regulation of Alarm to Curiosity

Some passengers take this in stride. They have emotional regulation “software” that automatically down-regulates feelings caused by the release of stress hormones. They have a momentary sense of alarm, But, if down-regulation is working properly, they shift so quickly to curiosity that the moment of alarm doesn’t register

But, the alarm – and the shift – does register if a person is keenly aware of their internal processes. A person who asked about it online was puzzled by it.

It’s not a panic attack, but it’s a small blip, a glimmer of anxiety or fear, for a few seconds at most. What am I experiencing?

This person was experiencing the mind working exactly as it is supposed to. We are supposed to feel momentary alarm – “a small blip” – that grabs our attention. The unexpected thing the amygdala is alerting us to might be a threat. The amygdala has no ability to know whether what is triggering it is dangerous or benign. So the amygdala stimulates us (using stress hormones) and forces us to assess the situation. Is there a threat? Or, is the amygdala’s reaction just a false alarm?

To make an accurate assessment, the feeling of alarm needs to be quieted down to curiosity. If we don’t automatically down-regulate from alarm to curiosity, we are unable to make a balanced assessment. Staying alarmed influences our assessment. Alarm can convince us that a threat exists when there is no threat at all. (This is what happens in a panic attack.)


In turbulence, the plane drops again and again. Each drop activates the amygdala. Each drop causes release of stress hormones. If we lack the down-regulating “software to shift alarm to curiosity, we shift in the other direction, to terror. Imagination takes over. We believe the plane is falling out of the sky, We think we may be going crazy. We are – or we are on the edge of  being – out of control.

The 200,000,000 Year-old Part of the Brain

The feeling of alarm – and with it the urge to escape – is caused by stress hormones. They are released by a 200,000,000 year-old part of the brain we inherited from reptiles. The amygdala has no intelligence. It cannot think. It reacts to unexpected change, the sequence of noises and physical sensations of takeoff, and the dropping feeling during turbulence.

Some Passengers Are Unperturbed

Everyone experiences stress hormone release. With automatic down-regulation, there is a momentary “blip” of alarm, followed by curiosity. If curiosity reveals no threat, a secure person drops the matter, possibly without noticing the issue has been processed at all.

But a person without automatic down-regulation cannot handle emotions. Once alarmed, the person stays alarmed. Rather than curiosity that leads to assessment, alarm leads to imagination. And imagination, under the influence of alarm, leads to overreaction, if not to panic and to terror.

Automatic down-regulation is invisible. A person who has automatic down-regulation does not know they have it. Having it, they – being automatically regulated – don’t understand people who overreact and panic. A person who does not have automatic down-regulation does not know they don’t have it. They just know they panic. They don’t understand why everyone doesn’t.

Automatic Down-regulation is Experience-Dependent

The following excerpt is from my book Panic-Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia.

As the child’s brain develops, it retains memories of the caregiver’s face, voice, and touch. If a caregiver responds consistently when the child is upset, the child comes to expect that the caregiver will appear to calm her. Anticipating this response, she imagines the caregiver’s face, voice, and touch. This imagination immediately activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system. The child is calm before the caregiver even reaches the child.

What happens next is important. If the child’s caregiver follows through with a calming response, the child’s expectations are reinforced, and a program begins to form in her unconscious procedural memory. The program has four steps. First, hyperarousal causes her to wish for her caregiver. Second, because her caregiver is dependable, she expects the caregiver to appear. Third, she imagines her caregiver’s face, voice, and touch. Fourth, imagination activates her calming parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, hyperarousal causes expectation, which causes imagination, which activates calming.

If these four steps are established as a program in the child’s unconscious procedural memory, hyperarousal will be automatically down-regulated to alertness throughout her life. She will not be subject to panic. Automatic down-regulation will allow her to think clearly under stress.

If, however, the caregiver does not respond as the child expects, there is no reinforcement, and automatic down-regulation is not established.

Fortunately, if automatic down-regulation was not established during formative years, it can still – and quickly – be established now.

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