Why Do Some Of Us Get Upset Easily And Others Not?

We all have a calming system. It is called the parasympathetic nervous system. It opposes the sympathetic nervous system, the system that revs us up when we are stressed. But — and here is the problem — the calming system can oppose the system that stresses us only if we have a built-in program to activate it.

A young child automatically activates the system that gets them upset, but they can’t operate the system that calms them down.

If a child has an emotionally secure relationship with its caregivers, it builds memories of the relationship inside. A secure relationship — one that activates the child’s calming system — produces a special kind of memory, one that attachment theorist John Bowlby called an internal working model of secure relationship. When a working memory is activated, instead of coming to mind, it goes to work. In other words, emotional regulation takes place unconsciously when a working model — acting like a computer program — activates the parasympathetic nervous system.

Since down-regulation takes place outside of consciousness, a person who has automatic down-regulation is not aware they have it. Nor does a person wthout it know they lack it. A person who has it knows things that bother others don’t bother them. A person who lacks down-regulation is aware they are easily upset, and when they get upset, it takes time to get over it.

All of us try to control things that could upset us, but for a person who lacks automatic down-regulation, every little thing that goes wrong is a mini-crisis. Being upset is so frequent and so distressing that being in control of everything that could upset them becomes a way of life. Things that can’t be controlled are avoided. If control is tenuous, they need a way to escape if things go wrong.

According to a Princeton University study, roughly 40% of us do not develop a thorough sense of physical and emotional security in our early formative relationship.

This means about 40% of us lack automatic down-regulation. Lack of ability to effectively down-regulate, I propose, is a centuries-old socially transmitted pandemic. Lack of built-in ability to down-regulate is so woven into human history that it seems normal for feelings of well-being to rest on control, social interaction, and escape.

The above information is taken from my new book, Panic Free Pandemic Workshop: Exercises To Calm Pandemic-Related Fear, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia. You can read more of it by clicking here.




Tom Bunn is a retired airline captain and licensed therapist. He is the originator of the SOAR Fear of Flying Program.

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Capt Tom Bunn

Capt Tom Bunn

Tom Bunn is a retired airline captain and licensed therapist. He is the originator of the SOAR Fear of Flying Program.

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