We Move Too Fast For Our Brains

From an evolutionary perspective, it is always better to perceive a foreign stimulus as dangerous unless proven otherwise. Following this rule is cautious, and the slow way is often the safest way.

Imagine how disorienting it would be for one of our prehistoric ancestors to be placed in a car, a train, or worse, an airplane. In the car, s/he would suddenly find herself moving as fast if not faster than a gazelle. In a train, the landscape would whip by with such speed as to frighten her/him into shock. In a plane, looking out the window to 30,000 feet of nothingness; our poor ancestor might just die of fright,

We live with godlike technology, but we have stone age brains with pituitary glands sized for a life on the African prairie. Not for life traveling above the clouds,

Is it any wonder why some of us experience acute anxiety while traveling faster than our own two feet, or atop an animal’s four? I’ve had panic attacks in cars, trains, and planes. Here’s what has worked for me:

  • If driving, pull over and stop the car. Turn the warning lights on and put on some calming music. Panic attacks do not last long, like a flame extinguishing due to lack of oxygen, when the offending stimulus is removed, the panic attack will burn out faster.

  • If a passenger in a car, move your attention to what is inside the car only. Read the safety warning on the visor shade. Marvel at the Glade air freshener stuck to an air vent. Become curious about the contours of the dashboard. You may want to close your eyes, resist this, a panic attack is due to too much external stimuli, but if you remove sight your body is still moving faster than your brain can notice and the fear will remain. Instead, try to notice all the mundane items in your immediate environment. By focusing your attention on the internal environment of the car, you’ll smother any remaining panic.

  • If traveling by train, take care to watch the train start moving from your seat. Let your brain follow the increase in speed by watching the landscape blur as the train picks up speed. Visualize yourself running next to the train. You are conning your brain so it believes it is going that quickly on its own. Do this for a few minutes and then turn to another distraction: a book, a movie, or music. If you feel panic increasing, repeat the exercise,

  • If in an airplane, you have two things going for you. You’re moving faster than you can intuitively process and you are higher than your brain has evolved for. You may think these are disadvantages; they could be, and for the same reasons you can take advantage of them to reduce panic. First, do not get a window seat. Aim for an isle. Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the internal layout of the plane. Note your closest emergency exit. Now, strike up conversation with someone, anyone. This will distract you brain and put it in socializing mode. As social beings, we are most at ease when connected to other humans. One of the quickest way to get out of any potential anxiety inducing situation is to speak to other humans. If frightened about speaking to strangers, call a family member or friend. It’s a simple, but terrifically effective hack to get your brain out of a pre-panic state.

  • Across all mode of travel, as soon as you sit down and buckle up, perform three rounds of circle breathing. Inhale for a count of 4, hold fill for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, hold empty for a count of 4, repeat. If you cannot manage that, lessen the counts but try to exhale for longer than you inhale. This engages your parasympathetic nervous system. It is your rest and digest system, which turns on when you are relaxed. Panic has a much harder time attaching to a relaxed mind. Stack the deck by circle breathing before any situation you feel may induce a sense of panic.

You may have noticed some overlap in the techniques described. Being human is messy, what works in one situation may work in all or none of the others, and it’s a matter of trial and error to find what works best for you. Give these a go the next time you travel, and let me know how your trip was.