Thursday, November 22, 2012

False Alarms

Making the bad feeling go away--ideally, before the person responds inappropriately--is the ultimate goal of my cognitive therapeutic technique.

Bad feelings come from the brain, but sometimes the brain is making a mistake. It's sending fear chemicals when there's no reason to.  I don't know why this happens (yet), but my guess is that the brain is wired to sound the alarm at the slightest provocation. Like the over-sensitive car alarm that goes off when someone merely brushes up against it, the hyperalert brain may also be too sensitive.

But even though the brain's alarm is false, the mind responds by taking the alarm seriously and trying to figure out where the threat is coming from so it can direct the body to do something about it.  It follows the brain's stimulus with an immediate response, a response that often causes the person problems.

My technique tries to interrupt that stimulus-response chain with a time-out during which the mind determines if the brain has sent a false alarm.  If there is no threat, the mind stands the body down.

Simple, right?  Yes, but despite the mind's accurate assessment that there's no threat, the brain continues to send out an alert.  It's similar to what happens when your smoke alarm goes off from a steamy pot of spaghetti cooking on the stove.  You know there's no fire, but you want the terrible noise to stop, so you frantically run around, moving the source of the "smoke," waving towels at the alarm, and if all else fails, pulling out the battery. 

Getting the erroneously produced bad feeling to go away is like stopping a false smoke alarm: you try everything until something works.  It's so painful, you would never just wait until it went away on its own.

People who are hyperalert suffer from false alarms frequently. Whenever the alarm happens, they do whatever they can to make the pain stop.  Often, because they haven't assessed the degree of threat, they are responding to the alarm as if it were a real life-or-death emergency.  Their actions to stop the threat (whether fight or flight) work; they feel better. But their response leaves everyone around them feeling worse because it was inappropriate, frightening, offensive, or even harmful.

Getting back to my example about the smoke alarm: what if you didn't stop and assess whether or not there was a fire? What if, every time your smoke alarm went off, you assumed there must be a fire, evacuated the building and called the fire department?  The firefighters would come each time because it's their job, but after a few such times they might come more slowly, and they'd probably be angry with you for the time and money you wasted on a non-emergency, especially if a real emergency happened at the same time.  You might even be prosecuted or charged.  And needless to say, when you really did have a fire, the fire department would assume that it was just another false alarm. ("The Boy Who Cried Wolf" story comes to mind here.)

Something similar results each time the hyperalert person "goes off" over some minor event. People who might otherwise be sympathetic to a shower of tears or persuaded by an angry protest become inured to the hyperalert person's irrational outbursts.  Each incident solidifies in their minds that the person is troubled; they end up disliking or fearing her or him and staying away as much as possible to avoid the next unpleasant encounter.

No comments:

Post a Comment