Often when I’m helping a client to understand how they’ve arrived at a particular emotional response like anxiousness at work, or panic on the tube, I compare it to the way we have learned to do or understand anything. Like the chair they are sitting on. When they first encountered a chair, when they were a tiny crawling baby, they would have probably used it as a prop to begin the long and arduous process of climbing up to standing. Before they began to grip the chair legs with their little sticky fingers and hoist themselves to their chubby knees, they would have taken a few exploratory licks as well. This first experience of a chair, as a prop, and don’t forget that baby now knows whether the grimy chair leg is tasty or not, would lead to another chair experience, and another and another until the person that baby grew into has arrived at my clinic and found themselves sat in my chair, a chair that they would have been able to predict what it would feel like to sit in before they planted themselves down in it, such an expert have they now become.
Each child does this
That same child has gone through this similar process not just with every other object in its world, but also with every situation it has encountered. Each scenario the child has been part of, with its parents, family, friends, strangers, each one has informed the next one and so on. This includes the emotion that was felt, because how we react to situations emotionally, whether its to feel that it is familiar and safe or unusual and partly unknown, depends on how we’ve reacted to previous similar situations.
Learning to panic
If we’ve learned to be wary when we hear a particular sound or type of voice it might be because its the sound of dog barking and we’ve been bitten by a dog before, or a certain type of voice that sounds like our strict headmaster. We can attach emotional responses to different objects or sensations, both positive ones that feel good and negative ones that can mean we are triggered into the fight or flight response.
Not why; how?
The point of realising this is that it shows that it is not so helpful to know why we have a particularly disturbing and distracting negative response in circumstances that shouldn’t warrant it, like panicking when we leave the house to go on holiday. What is helpful is knowing how it happens, what it feels like, what seems to set it off, and this information can help me to guide my clients to trace the actual emotional state to its beginnings and begin the process of acquiring a new perspective on an old out of date reaction.
What about the chair?
What if they had a negative emotional response to my chair? Maybe they once sat on a chair that collapsed beneath them and everybody around them laughed and they felt humiliated. I can help them reestablish the other option; that it was funny and that they can be in on the joke as well and that chairs are great for sitting on and getting the weight off your feet. What I mean is I can help them let go of the old meaning the situation seems to have and also help them to create a different expectation, one that allows them to feel safe and confident.