It makes sense that most people who experience panic attacks try to identify what triggers the attacks, but the vast majority of people are unable to identify the trigger or triggers on their own.
The story of “Little Albert,” a nine-month-old orphan who was the subject of a research study conducted by Watson and Rayner in 1919, describes why it is difficult to identify triggers on our own.
Two scientists placed Little Albert in a room and gave him a little white rat to play with. Little Albert cooed with delight because the animal was warm, and soft, and fuzzy. He showed no fear of the rat at all.
Watson and Rayner then started to make a loud sound whenever Little Albert touched the rat. Not surprisingly, Little Albert cried and showed fear when he heard the noise.
After several repetitions of hearing a loud noise whenever Little Albert touched the rat, Little Albert was again presented with only the rat. This time he became distressed at seeing the rat. The scientists concluded that Little Albert had associated the white rat with the loud noise.
Scientists Watson and Rayner discovered that Little Albert’s fear of the white rat had “generalized” to include other furry objects, including a furry dog, a seal-skin coat, and a Santa Claus beard.
Understanding this research study may help you to better understand your own panic attacks. The stimulus that originally frightened you (like the loud noise for Little Albert) has likely become generalized to such an extent (like a furry dog for Little Albert) that you will not be able to identify your own original trigger.
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Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta