My counsellor tactfully suggested that when I’m in situations where I get very stressed, I could think about the actual level of risk. So a couple at the swimming pool are being a bit touchy-feely and I am triggered, panicked, and feel a strong desire to leave the building. But I stop and think about the risk to me, a large middle-aged lady, from this couple who only have eyes for each other. There are other people sat at tables all along the side of the pool drinking coffee and relaxing. The whole place is covered by CCTV cameras.

I conclude that in reality there isn’t a risk. There is no real need for me to feel scared and to evacuate the building. Yet my adrenaline response, which leads to fight, flight or freeze type reactions, was in full swing and it felt like the panic button had been pressed. My heart was pumping like mad and I was gasping for air as my body geared up for major action: action that wasn’t actually necessary.

At a subconscious level, we are constantly scanning to see if we are safe. It’s a bit like a computer doing a scan to check for viruses. You can still use the computer while this check is running in the background, somewhere ‘inside’. And inside us, we too are scanning for danger. We are pattern-matching what is happening now with what happened before to help us automatically assess for danger.

If we detect danger, then adrenaline is released and we respond before we have had time to think. It doesn’t even go through the thinking part of our brain – it is totally automatic. I find Carolyn Spring’s analogy (from the training day Living and Working with Dissociation) of a smoke alarm helpful. It is as if you switch the toaster on and the smoke alarm goes off. The alarm is too sensitive and is sounding even when there is no danger.

My smoke alarm was going off in the swimming pool even when there was no real risk. There was risk and danger when I was a child, and that has affected my brain’s ability in the here-and-now to assess when there really is danger and when I really need an adrenaline rush so that I can escape or protect myself. This is what is happening when I am triggered: I am responding to a danger that is not really here now.

If this reaction is happening automatically, before I can think, how on earth can I stop it?  How can I turn down the sensitivity of my smoke alarm? How do I stretch my ‘window of tolerance’? – that emotional space I live in before adrenaline-fuelled panic zooms me out the top, or a dissociative freeze pulls me down, down, down out the bottom. Then I’m outside the ‘window of tolerance’ and that’s when it’s really hard to think straight and to cope with whatever is going on.

I think my counsellor’s tactful suggestion comes in here. If I can actually risk-assess situations for danger, perhaps I can develop a new set of patterns that will help me to look at things more clearly, without the influence of the risk of the past. At the moment, danger from the past intrudes into my life in the here-and-now. Little panicked voices inside shout, “Get out of here!” when there is actually no need to.

So this week, when another couple got frisky when I was having a swim, as soon as I felt the adrenaline reaction start, I told myself to risk-assess the situation. I was able to recognise that there was no danger for me, and slow down my breathing, and get control of the rising panic. I was able to stay and continue my swim. I know it will take practice to remember that, as soon as the reaction starts, I need to take control of it and do a real ‘now time’ assessment of the risk.

Another useful check is to see what other people around are doing. If real fire alarms are sounding and everyone is evacuating the building, it is probably best to do likewise! If no one else is taking any notice of the couple, then it looks like their automatic risk assessment scanning is not flagging up any danger. It can be really helpful if in situations that we find difficult, we stop and check the reactions of people around us who did not suffer childhood trauma.

So never mind the ‘X’ factor – let’s be winners when it comes to the ‘A’ factor of adrenaline, and let’s work at turning down the sensitivity of our internal smoke alarms.