Pavlov rears his ugly head

I once walked out of a restaurant with two colleagues just as the bell rang at the elementary school across the street. The three of us, all in their forties at the time, slumped our shoulders and said, “Damn! Recess is over.”

This little anecdote illustrates a simple psychological reality called classical conditioning. Any stimulus – a sight, a smell, a sound – can get attached to a memory and trigger an emotional response. These memories can be positive and fun while they last – like a song from our childhood triggering a wave of nostalgia – or simply odd and curious – such as the school bell. But they can also bring back painful memories that remind us of horrible events. Most of us remember what we were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. It would not be surprising if one day an image, or a place, or a sound, triggered a specific memory in us from that fateful day.

These associations are like the ones that triggered salivation in Pavlov’s dogs. In his classic observation, the bell over the laboratory triggered a digestive response in his dogs even when they were not being fed. They learned to associate the sound of the bell with the meat they were served at mealtime from a tray brought in through the same door. The important thing here is that a REAL PHYSICAL RESPONSE was triggered in the body from something that was COMPLETELY NEUTRAL. No bell would ever cause a dog to salivate.

How is this relevant to everyday life? Well, just imagine any strong emotional event such as a car accident, an assault or even a panic attack. If a person panics in a restaurant, they experience this strong physiological response in the presence of specific smells from the kitchen, the clinking of glasses, the din of countless conversations, the candles and dim lighting, and many other specific stimuli. What happens is that these stimuli can then later trigger emotional memories of the panic. It becomes somewhat of a vicious circle where one panic gets associated with stimuli that trigger the next panic and so on.

This is not the only thing that affects panic and anxiety but it is an important factor to consider. Unless we learn to deal with these unexpected triggers, we will be paralyzed by fear for a long time.

Anxiety gets better if we simply face it without trying to over-control it. If we avoid it, we tend to confirm to our brains that there was some sort of danger to be avoided in the first place. We will never achieve the ultimate goal of anxiety management, which is to learn that we have nothing to be afraid of.

One of the challenges is to confront these emotional triggers without making them worse. To do so, I talk to clients about the positive ones they experience; ones such as smells that trigger memories of Grandma’s cooking, or songs that remind them of a great time of their lives. I then ask them what they do about them. Most say, “Nothing.” They simply experience them and enjoy them while they last. These flashes don’t last very long. They simply run their courses.

I use this to illustrate the process. Painful memories act the same way. They come in unexpectedly but they also run their course. They do not normally last very long – or at least they shouldn’t. The difference between positive memories and negative ones is not in the nature of the memory process. The difference is in how we handle them. The reason negative memories last long and even get worse over time is because we often fight them or try to avoid them. If we avoid memories, they will still tend to pop up at unexpected times. This contributes to anger and frustration and triggers a series of questions and analyses that prolong the memory.

The best strategy is to treat negative emotional memories in the same way we treat the positive ones. That is, let them be. I like to think of them as a wave or a passing storm. We must let them pass naturally. They may not be pleasant but they won’t last long. More importantly, if we do not strengthen them by our efforts to fight them, they will weaken over time. If Pavlov’s dogs stopped being fed through the door with the bell over it, eventually the bell would be, well, just a bell, and longer trigger the salivation.

As a human, of course, I am far too rational to allow bells to affect my body as much as Pavlov’s dogs. Bells, while they might make me feel like I’m late for class, will simply never make me salivate.

Oops, gotta go. My microwave just beeped. Mmm, lunch!. I’m already drooling!

Psychological Ouches!

(Source: Gérer ses douleurs psychologiques. Journal Métro, May 18, 2010)

What do you do when you stub your toe or bump your head? While these things can sting quite a bit there really isn’t much we can do except wait for the pain to subside and then continue going about our days. Although most of us would prefer not to experience such pain, we aren’t given much choice. It is a reality of life.

This simple reality applies to psychological pain as well.

Trauma, loss and Pavlov’s dog

Sometimes life hits us with a serious blow – car accident, rape, sudden death of a loved one. One of the toughest things for people to deal with following such traumatic events are the painful memories that keep coming at them like a locomotive. Memories and flashbacks are lingering psychological effects that continue to exact a price from the victims. Just like Pavlov’s salivating dogs, the body reacts to any reminder of important events.

These reminders are felt at an emotional level. Normally, an emotional response serves to protect us. It is like a voice in our heads that screams, “Do something!” Unfortunately, when it comes to grief and trauma there is often nothing to actually do. Our emotions push us but there is no place to go.

Pavlov’s pleasant flashes

When we walk down the street we sometimes smell something, or hear something that transports us back in time. When these memory flashes remind us of pleasant events such as grandma’s cooking or the music of our youth, they temporarily make us feel good. We simply experience them until they pass.

Pavlov’s unpleasant flashes

The same applies when these flashes are painful. They are emotional memories of past trauma that cannot be erased. We have no choice but to learn to live with them and the best way to do so is to treat them the same way as the pleasant flashes, that is, let them be and accept them as normal. They will soon dissipate. Just like stubbing a toe, there really isn’t much to do except wait for the bad feeling to pass and then move on. If we try to avoid unpleasant memories they will intrude at unwanted times and in surprising ways, eventually controlling our lives. If instead we accept them, they will weaken over time and lose their emotional punch. This is the only was to get our lives back.

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Posted in Anxiety.

Posted on 31 May 2010

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