I needed to take Bosco, my dog, to the veterinarian for her checkup yesterday. On the way there, she was unsuspecting of what lies ahead, doing her normal morning ride in the car routine. Once we parked and were headed into the building, she quickly became aware of where she was at and the first shakes began. This quickly increased as we entered the building and stood at the reception desk. Once we entered the exam room, she was in a full blown anxiety attack.
No matter how great my skills are as a counselor, she was not buying into it. I am sure some of the people I have counseled with have felt the very same way. Even hugs and puppy talk was not slowing down her rapidly pounding heart rate.
As the technicians walked in the exam room to ask the routine questions as to why we were there, they immediately saw she was in distress and were aware of my inability to calm her down. Where is the dog Valium when you need it?
I was made aware the doctor was running 20 minutes late. Heck, after another five minutes in the exam room, Bosco may have needed heart paddles to bring her out of cardiac arrest. Can dogs have heart attacks? I decided to go back home and return when the doctor arrived.
Bosco’s heart rate began to slow as we walked out of the building. Once we were home, she returned to her normal state of calm, like nothing had happened. Bosco’s anxiety attack was created by the fight-or-flight response that is wired into the brain of all animals, including human beings. Fight-or-flight is a survival mechanism.
But how does Bosco’s anxiety attack apply to me you ask? More than you may realize. Fight-or-flight in humans is responsible for all of the high energy emotions you feel every day, both good, like joy, and bad, like anxiety.
First thing to notice was that Bosco was not experiencing a threat to her life, like a Pitbull giving the stink eye to my small Jack Russel Terrier. Any perceived threat to life turns on the fight-or-flight response in animals. This is no different for you or me when we become frightened. But what is different is that this response also turns on high energy emotions like anxiety, anger or stress.
When anxiety is turned on, you respond like Bosco did at the vet’s office. This happens even when there is no real danger or threat to your life. And like Bosco, once we are triggered, the response is immediate. Fight-or-flight, as well as high energy emotions work the same way.
I worked with an adolescent who suffered with panic attacks. He would be fine driving to Target, and even walking toward the entrance of the building where his parent was going to shop. Once inside, his heart rate began to increase, and after 10 to 15 steps into the building, his heart was pounding so hard that he would turn around and run back to the car. My young friend’s experience was no different than Bosco’s at the vet. And if Bosco could have had the ability, she might have run out of the building and all the way home.
Please understand that anxiety is simply an emotional response to an external stimulus. It is created the very same way that an animal’s need to survive turns on fight-or-flight. This response is first formed in the emotional center of the brain, which then triggers your behavior, how you will respond.
A second aspect of fight-or-flight is that both Bosco and my adolescent friend calmed down when they felt safe. The fight-or-flight response turns on when there is danger and off when an animal feels safe. The problem with our emotions is that they do not automatically turn off. You have to learn to turn them off. My friend was able to turn his anxiety off by finding a safe place.
One last thing to notice is that Bosco was not in danger from a predator, but reacted as if she was. Why did she act this way?
Bosco had previously experienced pain in her past visits, vaccine shots and a surgery. Bosco had now associated the veterinarian’s office to pain, which triggered her response. My dog had formed an emotional memory. This is also true for you. Past emotional experiences are filed in your emotional memory bank, which is why you react so quickly when you feel the emotion. Emotional memories are the driving force behind Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Back to my adolescent friend. After a few weeks of teaching him how to properly breathe should he have another anxiety or panic attack, teaching him how to think differently about anxiety, and helping him rewire his brain so that he can eliminate these attacks in the future, he can walk into Target, and all others stores without having those old feelings.
You can learn how to do this too.
To learn some tips on how to control your emotions, change bad behavior and improve your life, purchase my book “Take Control of Your Life” now or contact me today to schedule a free introductory personal life coaching assessment. As an expert in emotional intelligence, I deliver keynotes, small group presentations and seminars for companies and organizations striving for effective communication, leadership and team performance.