Psychologists show up all the time in jokes. “How many psychologists does it take to…?” “A guy walks into a psychologist’s office and….” The general theme is that psychologists reflect on things rather than do things. If you had asked me last year to describe a critical situation where it would actually be appropriate to offer up, “I am a psychologist, let me help,” I don’t think I could have come up with much. Then, on a January flight out of L.A. to Santa Fe, I found myself in the middle of just such a scene.
I was flying to Santa Fe to meet with my Evolutionary Collective group, a wonderful bunch of extraordinary people led by spiritual teacher Patricia Albere. We gather for a long weekend every three months to cultivate mutuality, authenticity, and community. As the plane began taking off, fellow EC member Claudia and I were sitting across from each other, deep in animated conversation about Dave Logan’s amazing book, Tribal Leadership. Suddenly I heard a concerned, urgent voice a few rows ahead, “Stewardess! Something’s wrong!” I looked towards the front of the cabin and saw a woman in the grip of a full-on panic attack. Her body was shaking violently, and her eyes were staring sightlessly up at the ceiling as she hyperventilated, speechless with terror.
The flight attendant, a hip young black woman who had teased me earlier when I forgot to check my bag (“I can tell you’re going to be high maintenance”), was looking helplessly at the poor passenger, completely out of her depth. Turning around for an emergency landing seemed like a real possibility.
I waved my hand to catch the flight attendant’s attention and told her firmly, “I’m a psychologist. Let me help.”
Ignoring all the rules about staying strapped-in during takeoff—remember we were just lifting off and rapidly ascending as all this was going down—the stewardess gratefully nodded her head, and motioned me forward.
As I approached the woman I could tell she was losing it. The extreme arousal and hyperventilation of panic attacks can lead to convulsive struggle and loss of consciousness if allowed to cycle upward into progressively more terror. People feel isolated and trapped in this horror when it happens, but generally respond well to human contact—especially eye contact since we have mirror neurons in our brain that automatically resonate with other people’s states of consciousness with shared gaze. I settled in close to her and centered myself, knowing my mood would affect hers, “You’re having a panic attack. Just look at me.” She briefly focused her eyes on mine, and I saw the deep pools of pain and horror that are the hallmarks of panic states.
“Can I touch you?” I asked gently. She nodded helplessly, still unable to speak. I put my left hand behind her neck and my right hand on her left shoulder, and sat down comfortably next to her, radiating relaxed support.
“Keep looking in my eyes,” I told her. “It will help calm you down.” She nodded, and I went on, “What’s your name?” “Beth,” she managed to say. “I’m scared of flying, especially takeoffs.” “Oh, really,” I responded, and she briefly smiled. Everything got better from there.
I asked about her family, job, and reason for going to Santa Fe. I kept eye contact and reassuring touch until she calmed down enough to talk with the flight attendant—which they continued to do for the rest of the flight.
Then I sat down, totally exhilarated. The flight attendant came by to thank me and I told her, “Sometimes high-maintenance people can be useful.” Without missing a beat, she grinned at me and replied, “You’re the first one.”
Claudia and other passengers were appreciative and complimentary, which felt wonderful, but the rush I experienced was something deeper than what you get from applause. I had a sudden flash of how firefighters, paramedics, and police officers must sometimes feel when helping another human being in a critical situation. They’re in the right place at the right time to offer their unique skills in service of someone desperately in need. I’ll bet many have felt this profound joy of service to others in extreme crises.
I also knew that, “I am a psychologist. Let me help” would be the tag line to a story that I’d be telling for a long time.
This once, it isn’t a joke.