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Practical lessons on classical conditioning

Classical condition is a weird thing, always have been. I learned about it in 11th standard, I vividly remember my psychology teacher, telling us that the next topic we learn is one of the most important breakthroughs of psychology a.k.a classical conditioning.

Has someone ever told you that too much information is bad? Well, if not then we all are experiencing it right now in this pandemic, that psychology lesson was the same for me. How? Let me narrate a story.

I love travelling. Love might be an understatement. It was in my college first year, where i travelled a lot for an 18-year-old. I did 2 backpacking trips in the northeast- to Meghalaya and Nagaland, I went to Leh Ladakh and was stuck in an avalanche with my whole family; I visited Rajasthan a few times.

The practical lessons of classical conditioning started in Meghalaya. I was in the middle of a rainforest, living amongst insects in a very damp cottage. It was exciting, but it was also when I got my first panic attack, the kind where you feel you won’t see sunlight the next day, the kind where you imagine those insects eating you alive, the kind where you go behind the cottage and cry your lungs out because suddenly you feel you live in an unknown body. That kind. It was my first time feeling something like this; it was forgotten the next morning because nature was hell more important than my stupid emotions.

Cut back to Ahmedabad, when directly after Meghalaya I developed ulcers in my stomach, the doctor told me it was the water of that unknown land; I somewhere knew that it was because of those thoughts of an unknown self. I slowly was becoming a victim of anxiety.

I still went to Nagaland after 6 months, losing my appetite and weight both. The second trial of classical conditioning took place, yet I was not yet really ‘conditioned’. Because we know, the dog was not conditioned to secrete saliva on the ring of the bell in the first trials.

Travelling paused for me, I was dreaming about it unknown to the weird connections by brain was making. After a good long time, I went to Kerala with my aunt. The first night, I started puking. That puking led to a panic attack. An hour later, I was still puking, without any water coming out of me as if I was throwing up all the remains of parts of me that I hated. That panic attack did not stop. The driver drove us 45 minutes to access a hospital because we were in a remote area, I was given an injection to calm the fuck down. I still did not know this was anxiety. But I remembered the lesson my favourite teacher taught me. I automatically assumed that whenever I’ll travel, I’ll have these weird symptoms because I was now so afraid, and because of that lesson I thought I  will always have anxiety when I travel.

I tried therapy.

I went to Baroda for Navratri and had to return to Ahmedabad the same night because of those weird symptoms.

I cried and shouted at my fearful self in therapy, hardly even accepting I had anxiety.

I went to Mumbai; I was having panic attacks every 2 hours.

After months of overthinking and hating myself, I started accepting, I started sharing. I went to the doctor and got myself pills; I booked tickets to Prague and set a goal to be completely better by then.

I was resisting anxiety like I was resisting parts of me- the sensitive, emotional, conflicted parts. I needed absolute control on myself; I could not accept that I too can be ‘not okay’.

But the process of reverse conditioning started- like any psychology experiments, I worked with the method of trials and errors. Trials on what worked for me and those errors were just treated like errors. Period.

I understood that before listening to anything else, I had to listen to what I needed. The only response to my anxiety was ‘why me’ or ‘fuck not again’. I imagined it as an alien object residing in my body rather than an extension of myself that needed urgent attention.

So that is what I did.

Have you had issues with anxiety? If yes, how did you cope?

By : Manasvi Shah

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