When I feel afraid, my body turns on. From elevated blood pressure to sweaty palms, my body shows that I’m feeling afraid. When I sense those body signals, I get sensational feedback to my mind confirming that my body “got the message.”
Some fears appear as an intense and irrational reaction to sensory input. Spiders, for example, invoke in many an intense fear that modifies their perception of the spider’s relative size.
Why is that?
I think it may have to do with a positive feedback loop. Positive feedback is defined as “the enhancement or amplification of an effect by its own influence on the process that gives rise to it.” (Wikipedia)
Body-Mind Escalation -> WTF!
Body and mind play together like content and context, object and environment. When my body and mind get caught in a positive feedback loop, escalation of sensation and interpretation often result in irrational behavior that I look back at and wonder, “What the hell was I thinking?!”
The irrational fear positive feedback loop goes something like this ->
Sensory input (I see a spider) -> Mental Fear Reaction (OMG, it’s a spider!) -> Physical Fear Response (heart rate and blood pressure increase, sweating, screaming, etc.) -> Sensory Confirmation of Physical Response (I see, hear, feel my heart rate, sweating, screaming, etc.) ->> Amplified Mental Fear Reaction (OMG, I MUST REALLY BE SCARED!!!) ->> Amplified Physical Response (even MORE heart rate increase, sweating, screaming, retreating, etc.) ->> Amplified Sensory Reaction to Physical Response (sensing ever more physical activity) ->>> Increased Amplified Mental Fear Reaction (OMG! I’m even MORE scared!!!)… irrational behavior!
All this happens pretty quickly – like when you put a microphone in front of a speaker and it goes into a feedback loop that creates that loud squeal that hurts the ears so much.
Breaking the Feedback Loop
Researchers in Amsterdam thought they’d put this positive feedback loop hypothesis to the test by introducing a beta blocker (propranolol) into their study subject’s phobia experience with spiders. Propranolol is often prescribed to treat high blood pressure, chest pain (angina), and uneven heartbeat (atrial fibrillation) – which also happen to be very common physical symptoms of phobia.
Sure enough, the drug knocked out the physical phobic reactions (heart rate and blood pressure increase), breaking the positive feedback loops of those in the study, eliminating their phobias in ONE SESSION. Results lasted when checked a year later.
Instead of Drugs
I experienced this same fear-busting phenomenon without drugs using a body-tapping technique called Emotional Freedom Technique, in which a person taps on their body while progressively experiencing the fear-inducing object.
It occurs to me that the tapping process may be breaking up the feedback loop by changing the sensory portion – instead of focusing on and feeling/reacting to a racing heartbeat, and/or sweating palms, and/or other symptoms, the person focuses on and feels the tapping and hears the intention statement associated with the tapping – while being exposed to the agent of their fear.
Some dismiss the tapping as simply a distraction technique – as though distraction is somehow irrelevant or ineffective simply BECAUSE it is a distraction. Regardless of rationale, it occurs to me that the tapping process INTERRUPTS the positive feedback loop in much the same way that the Dutch researchers did.
Regardless of the method, once the fear feedback loop is interrupted, the mind swiftly creates a new way of dealing with the object – free of the initial fear-feedback response that triggered the positive feedback loop.
We’ve moved the microphone away from the speaker!
- An abrupt transformation of phobic behavior after a post-retrieval amnesic agent, Marieke Soeter and Merel Kindt, Biological Psychiatry, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.04.006, published online April 2015, abstract.
- Itsy bitsy spider?: Valence and self-relevance predict size estimation, Tali Leibovich et al., Biological Psychology, doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2016.01.009, published online 21 January 2016.
- NLP Techniques – Pattern Interrupt or State Break, Lee S. Avery, January 09, 2014, Ezine Articles.