Coping With Fear

I’m flying to Portland, Oregon, from Los Angeles and the pilot has just told us that there will be turbulence the closer we get to Portland. It is 53 degrees at our destination with rain and gusty winds. He tells us that our descent is likely to be very bumpy.

I used to be a nervous flyer, but the older I get the better I have become. I virtually live on a plane because I fly all the time for work, but when I feel the first bit of turbulence, I begin to sweat. I can feel my heart beat faster, my stomach lurches, my breathing becomes shallow and I don’t feel hungry. I know that I’m experiencing a physiological reaction that is readying my body for danger. It’s called fear.

I’m trying to keep myself calm as the plane makes its descent through thick clouds. I know the likelihood of the pilot losing control and the plane going down is very small, but my mind is now recalling every film and news story I have seen of planes crashing because of bad weather and the fear begins to envelop me.

I’m also strapped into my seat. I know the safest thing is to do is to remain seated with my seatbelt fastened tightly around my waist, but all I want to do is run away and hide and I can’t do anything except sit here and pray that we land safely.

As I’m fighting against the rising tide of fear inside me, I think what it must be like to be a fearful dog that is restrained on a leash or confined in a kennel run. It is a powerless feeling. I have nowhere to go, no control over my situation and no escape. The person who has control right now is the pilot, and I don’t know what he’s thinking. The only way I can get through this is to trust his skills, the plane’s sturdiness and the statistics that show thousands of planes experience turbulence every day and the chances of anything bad happening is very small.

As a human I can rationalize my fears to a point because at least I understand the situation and have a vague sense of what is happening. It’s going to get bumpy, but the chances are pretty good that I’m going to get to my destination alive and all will be well.  It‘s believed that dogs don’t have the ability to rationalize like we do and even though they don’t watch the news or read books that foretell disaster and destruction and are unaware of what the danger might be, in so many situations dogs have no idea what is happening and what is around the corner. We can’t explain it to them. If they are fearful, all we can do is put a hand on them and tell them it’s going to be ok, and if they trust us we might be able to calm their fears a little. But it must be terrible to have so little control over much of what you do and limited choices to help you deal with an uncomfortable situation.


Fear is adaptive, in that it serves a very important function because it keeps us safe and allows us to survive by avoiding or neutralizing danger to ourselves. It is a physiological phenomenon and the primal neural response to a perceived threat is one of the oldest developed parts of the vertebrate brain. As such, perceived threats induce similar emotional states across the animal kingdom, with similar neural circuits being engaged across species.

The primary function of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is to stimulate a physiological reaction in response to a perceived threat. The sympathetic nervous system releases hormones within the body in response to stress, resulting in an “adrenaline rush.” This “rush” activates the “flight or fight” response and increases blood flow to muscles, increases heart rate, dilates pupils and gets the body ready to act. How we cope with this rush will either get us out of a situation or deeper into it, but if we’re lucky we make the right choice and we either practice avoidance or win the fight. If we make the wrong choice or have no control over the situation, we are in trouble.

But how do we combat fear in ourselves and in our dogs? The Hippocampus is the central organ for learning (neurologically speaking). It lets in learning and adds new neurons by creating new connections between existing ones. The hippocampus is very sensitive to cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone.” Cortisol affects the rate at which neurons are added or subtracted in the hippocampus. High levels of cortisol, due to fear and stress, prevent new neural pathways from forming – thus preventing learning of new behaviors. Put simply, when you are in a fearful state, learning cannot take place as effectively as when you are calm. Trying to train or get the attention of a dog when she is fearful is counterproductive, but removing her from a scary situation and getting her to a physical and mental place where learning can occur again, will help her cope.  Encouraging her to seek, hunt and problem solve will activate the learning part of her brain and quell her fear by discharging her nervous system and returning her to a calmer, parasympathetic state.

Many people still believe that comforting a fearful dog will reinforce the dog’s fear, but ignoring dogs in their time of need can do great damage. We must be our dogs’ protectors and extend a comforting arm as well as engaging them in brain engaging activities, which is exactly what I’m doing now. I’m writing faster as we are descending through the clouds. I know that if I activate my thinking brain, I can deactivate my emotional brain. Thinking, doing and problem solving can quite literally turn off my fear. 

I’m scribbling furiously as we are descending and it is helping. The plane is being tossed around like a boat on a choppy ocean, but with each bump and drop, I scribble faster because it helps quell my rising panic. I can hardly see what I’m writing and the letters I am putting on the page are difficult to read, but at least this is preventing me from losing my mind. We are nearing the ground and the plane is being buffeted from side to side. The wings are vibrating wildly as we get close to the runway and I have no idea if we’re going to land safely. I’m praying to god, while keeping my head down and focusing on my writing as the wheels touch the tarmac.

We land.

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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.

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