Fear is an innate emotion. In extremes, fear can paralyze. However, it also may motivate extreme defensive behaviors. Fear triggers a rapid response in our bodies and minds. This primal instinct plays an essential role in the survival of our species, alerting us to dangers, and initiating protective responses to threatening people and environments. We are born with an emotional system that guides behaviors. Primal panic is not learned but part of our human inheritance. However, we may learn different elements in our environments that may ignite a primal panic response.
In the ancient realms of our ancestors, fear played a crucial role in their daily lives. The harsh world was unforgiving, filled with unknown dangers. Predators, rival tribes, and natural disasters were constants in their existence. Fear kept them vigilant and prepared to fight or flee, preserving their lives.
Primal panic is an innate emotional response to extreme dangers in our environment that threaten basic biological needs.
Primal Panic or Fear
We experience fear daily. We fear the unknown, futures, and unpredictable elements in our immediate surroundings. Basically, we all carry a unique collection of fears that guide behaviors. We all harbor some level of anxiety. Perhaps, we have a base level of fear that when one fear is resolved we actively seek something else to replace it. Primal panic is something different.
Primal panic is an intensified version of fear that taps into the deepest recesses of our psyche. It is the raw, unfiltered fear that emerges when our most basic survival instincts are triggered.
Imagine a scenario where you find yourself in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by darkness and eerie sounds echoing through the air. Your heart races, your palms sweat, and your senses go into overdrive. The feeling of being watched, hunted, or pursued becomes overwhelming, and your mind becomes consumed by a primal panic. It is in these moments that we truly understand the power of fear and its ability to hijack our rationality.
Primal Panic and Psychology
The term “primal panic” is not a sanctioned psychological term with a exact definition. We don’t find ‘primal panic’ referenced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Diagnosis (DSM). Within the DSM, however, is a definition and elements for panic attacks and panic disorder.
The Oxford Dictionary defines panic as “sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behavior.” By adding ‘primal’ to ‘panic’ we infer that the panic ignites a basic survival mechanism. Fear may triggered a reasoned response to protect. Primal panic often refers to a last resort reaction. Our system is running so hot that reactions may lose rationality.
Allan Schore PhD., a clinical faculty member of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and UCLA, includes panic as a biologically primitive affect (shame, rage, excitement, elation, disgust, and panic-terror). He suggests that psychopathology is manifest we manifest in a limited capacity (over or under regulation) to modulate the intensity and duration of any of the biological primitive affects (2003).
Primary Behavioral Motivational Systems
Jaak Panksepp, Estonian-American neuroscientist and psychobiologist, theorizes that there are at least seven “primary behavioral motivational systems that are at the core of what animates us: Seeking, Fear, Rage, Lust, Care, Panic (separation distress), and Play” (2009, Kindle Location: 132). However, based on Panksepp’s descriptions, and our definition of primal panic, it would fall under the FEAR motivational system, not PANIC which primarily refers to distress over separation from someone we are attached to.
Panksepp explains that “primal neuroaffective states are not only fundamental parts of human nature but also brain endowments in all mammals” (2014). Corner a frightened dog and you most likely witness primal panic up close and personal.
Panic: A Maladaptive Form of Fear
Panic is an expression of emotional overwhelm. When our system overloads, we refer to this as emotional dysregulation. This can happen, as Schore stated, to any biologically primitive feeling affect. When fear explodes into dysregulation, we may resort to a state of panic. Leslie S. Greenberg, a pioneer in developing emotion focused therapy, explains “panic is a prime example of the fear system run amok. It no longer organizes the person for adaptive action but instead is disorganizing” (2015, Kindle location: 3,667).
Panic may not be our first response to frightening stimuli. We may react with mindful intent. However, if our initial responses fail and the threat is significant enough to risk basic needs, the intensity of the anxiety grows, soon we are scratching and clawing for our lives. In these cases, panicked reactions may not be maladaptive. They are more a last resort fight for our lives. If our panicked response fails, then we may drop into a shocked state of helplessness and depression.
But when the enemy breaks through into the capital of the country, when the inner lines of communication are broken and the battle is no longer localized; when, that is, the enemy attacks from all directions and the defending soldiers do not know which way to march or where to take a stand, we have the threat of being overwhelmed, with its corollaries, panic and frantic behavior. This latter is analogous to the threat to the basic values, the “inner citadel” of the personality; and in individual psychological terms it is the threat responded to as anxiety.
Basic Needs and Primal Panic
Primal panic is not limited to physical threats alone. It can manifest in various forms such as social anxiety, stage fright, or even existential dread.
A teenage girl giving a talk in front of a large group, quickly shifted from confidence, to a shaky voice, and then fainted. Her anxiety overtook her ability to regulate and her biological system intervened. Jon Kabat-Zin explains, “passing out is the body’s way of breaking the vicious cycle that begins when you feel unable to breathe, which leads to panic, which leads to a stronger feeling of being unable to breathe.” He continues, “When you pass out, your breathing returns to normal on its own” (2013, p. 42).
While primal panic may not be tied exclusively to life and death situations, it certainly is associated to circumstances we perceive as important to our wellbeing. In co-dependent entangled relationships, the threat of a partner leaving can trigger a panicked response. Relationship specialist Sue Johnson specifically refers to this, writing, “for those of us with weaker or fraying bonds, however, the fear can be overwhelming.” she continues, “we are swamped by ‘primal panic.’ Then we generally do one of two things: we either become demanding and clinging in an effort to draw comfort and reassurance from our partner, or we withdraw and detach in an attempt to soothe and protect ourselves” (2008, Kindle Location: 377).
In many types of neurosis, a person may panic with the slightest trigger. Needs for perfection are disrupted with hints of failure, some lack the regulatory ability and skills to navigate these disappointments. Their fear of failure looms large and easily sets off panicked reactions.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
Primal fear lurks in the shadows of our subconscious, waiting for the right trigger to unleash its full force. An unpredicted journey into panic quickly reminds us of our vulnerability to the delicate balance between our primal instincts and our rational minds.
Overcoming primal panic can be a daunting task, but it is not impossible. Through self-awareness, understanding, and practice, we can learn to navigate the treacherous waters of fear. By seeking support from loved ones, professionals, or support groups, we can benefit from invaluable guidance and tools to help us conquer our fears.
Greenberg, Leslie S. (2015). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings. American Psychological Association; 2nd edition.
Johnson, Sue (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.
May, Rollo (1950/2015). Meaning of Anxiety. W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition.
Panksepp, J., Wright, J., Döbrössy, M., Schlaepfer, T., & Coenen, V. (2014). Affective Neuroscience Strategies for Understanding and Treating Depression. Clinical Psychological Science, 2(4), 472-494. DOI: 10.1177/2167702614535913
Panksepp, Jak (2009). Brain Emotional Systems and Qualities of Mental Life From Animal Models of Affect to Implications for Psychotherapeutics. In The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice. Editors Daniel J. Siegel, Marion Solomon, and Diana Fosha. W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon (2013). Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Bantam; revised updated edition.
Schore, Allan N. (2003). Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition.