Episode 104: Primal Panic

Your partner comes home from a date and needs reassurance, but you can’t give it in that moment. Is this something to overcome?

This letter encapsulates why I feel like attachment labels can be extremely unhelpful for people who experience anxiety during polyamory.

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

Discussion Topic:

What scares you the most about relationships?

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Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.

Podcast transcript

Last March, I entered into a relationship with a wonderful person who has been non-monogamous for about 2 years prior to our meeting. We now consider ourselves anchor partners. Before this, I had been curious about exploring [consensual non-monogamy], but my prior partners were very threatened when I brought up the subject.

These relationships were not healthy, and I was controlled and manipulated by both men. My most recent ex had retroactive jealousy [obsessive compulsive disorder], and he was hyper-focused on my past sexual history. Both of my exes were anxiously attached in our relationships, and they made me push away in reaction.

In my new relationship, my partner is more securely attached, and he does not seek to control or manipulate me. Even though our communication is very strong and we are working hard to build a trusting and secure bond, I have been struggling with what I now have come to realize is most likely "primal panic" and not just jealousy and anxiety. I was re-reading Polysecure the other day, after my most recent meltdown when my partner had a date night, and I came across the term "primal panic", which perfectly described what I am experiencing when my partner goes on dates.

[This is where the letter writer puts in I think an excerpt from the book on the definition of primal panic which I’m going to avoid reposting here just in case there any copyright issues]

I am a therapist, and I have been trying to use somatic techniques, focused on my vagus nerve, to help calm myself down when my partner goes on dates, but so far, once it gets late into the night, I spiral into this hole of anxiety and panic that lasts sometimes days after the date. Logically, I know that I have consented to my partner going on the date, and it is with someone he has been seeing since before we got together who he sees only once a month or so, but physiologically my body goes into flooded panic. Even when my partner messages me before and after his date, it does not seem to quell my panic.

I have only gone on one date with another person since entering into this relationship, and while I am curious to see if going on more dates might help with my primal panic, I also do not want to use that as a crutch. I want to keep exploring non-monogamy with my partner, and my partner is incredibly supportive of me and willing to help me work through my anxiety, but I don't know how much longer I can handle the extreme emotional states that arise when he goes on dates. After having a conversation after my most recent primal panic experience, my partner said he is okay with putting other dates on pause while I work through this, but I do not want to hold him back from seeing his other partner for too long.

There is not a lot of information or resources about primal panic in [consensual non-monogamous] relationships, and even Polysecure only mentions it once. I really appreciate your podcast and advice column, and I have found your book to be very helpful, so I figured you might be a good person to ask! If you have any advice for how to deal with primal panic, it would be much appreciated.

Thank you for taking the time to read this long email, and I look forward to possibly hearing a response!


Okay, first and foremost, I have like a confession to make. I really hate attachment styles, personally and I know that they're useful for people and it's not for me to tell you what's useful and what's not useful for you. Personally, my problem with attachment styles is this: I think that if you want a good encapsulation of someone who kind of how I put this? It's not so much that I think that they are total trash. It's just I feel like they are labels that people use for themselves that apply to situations when they were children that are no longer the case as adults and I think that sometimes that labelling is often worse for people than actually is helpful.

Todd Baratz on Instagram who is yourdiagnonsense on Instagram — Todd Baratz a therapist he talks a lot about the problem with attachment styles. It's not necessarily that attachment styles in and of themselves are bad things, but I feel like people overly rely on attachment styles to the point where it becomes unhelpful. What really demonstrates why it’s unhelpful for me personally is the study that was done in 2011 I believe — and there may be better studies and I totally am not a nutrition expert.

So if you are and you want to say “Actually the study is bullshit”, please feel free to let me know. But it was a study I read about milkshakes. There was a milkshake that they gave two groups of people. For one group of people they said that this is a 620 Calorie indulgent shake and then for the other group people they said this is 140 calorie sensible shake. And what they did is after they gave these people a shake — and I think before during and after — three times they measured a hunger hormone called ghrelin, which is supposed to you know, make you feel hungry.

And they noticed that for the people who consumed the shake that they were told was indulgent — It was the same check. By the way, if that wasn't already obvious — for the people who believed that they had consumed this indulgent shake, they had a dramatically steeper decline in ghrelin, the hunger hormone, after consuming the shape, whereas if somebody thought that they consumed something that was “sensible”, they had kind of a flat ghrelin response, which is very interesting. And I think that mindset is a huge deal.

I think that mindset has a lot to do— if you ask any athlete and I'm not saying I'm like a super athlete, but I do lift weights and I do strongman training. If I tell myself before a lift that I can't do it, that is not going to help me and I would never do that and almost any coach, any athletic anything. If you ask them. “Oh, should you tell yourself that you can’t—“ No, you should not tell yourself.

So what I feel like attachment theory does to some people, is I feel like they tell themselves that they're anxiously attached. They label themselves and what I've noticed throughout your letter is that you kind of have a very black and white way of looking at things and I'm not saying that you're wrong about the way that you're looking at your previous relationships. But if you kind of look at it, you kind of have like, “This is bad stuff”.

“Everything was bad about this. Everything's bad then” and now you're kind of supposed to be in your good stride. Right? And I think that that is painting you into a corner. Because right now you are— first of all, you're six months into a new relationship. It just doesn't make anybody anxious. New relationships make people anxious for very understandable reasons.

Secondly, is that you've also said that you’re “anchor partners”, which in my opinion, is somewhat of a hierarchy, which I'm not judging you for, and I'm not saying is a bad thing. But the thing about hierarchy is that when there is an MVP, when there is somebody who is more important in any kind of way, whether you call it a primary or an anchor partner, whatever label you call it, there is one person who is in a position that is different to others than that means that there is one person who's in that position and that means you can be replaced and so that is going to understandably add anxiety to everything else.

I think also you are really trying to treat the symptom and not the disease. Like you're trying to logic with your anxiety. You're like “Logically, I've accepted this. Logically la, la, la—“ but you're kind of and I did this as well, when I had really severe anxiety is that I tried if I didn't try to appease the anxiety by giving it what it wants, but just kind of like what your partner is suggesting by not going on dates. And I also don't agree that that's a good idea because the more you give anxiety an inch, it takes a mile.

Also, if you try and reason with your anxiety, trust me when I think I can say and anyone who has anxiety can say your anxiety can outreason the shit out of you. And there's a good reason for that because your anxiety is a survival response. I don't like proposing this as anxious attachment. There's something that Todd Baratz says that I really agree with, which is that adult relationships are inherently going to be insecure because you're not a child anymore. The reason why attachment and anxious attachment and all that other stuff was bad when you were a child is because you relied on your caregivers to keep you alive.

You do not rely on your partner to keep you alive. So that attachment is going to be insecure. It is. That's just how it is no matter how “secure” it feels. Adults can and should leave relationships that don't serve them. So you are going to be anxious and if you expect to feel ”securely attached”, and all these sorts of good and bad black and white labels that you're putting on everything. You are adding pressure to yourself. That just makes you more anxious.

Your brain is trying to keep you alive. You grew up most likely. And if you haven't, then I apologise. But most of us grew up in a monogamous centric society. Most of us grew up in a society that has told us since we were very, very young that monogamy is the thing that you should want. It is the thing that everyone does. You don't have any kind of modelling to go on even if you want to non-monogamy.

Generally speaking, it's not a very common thing to see. So you have no models, you have no cultural script for it. You're trying something completely and utterly new and then add to the fact that you have two relationships previous to this that didn't seem to work out well. I tend to try and avoid to paint things in such black and white terms. I'm not saying that the people that you're with were great to be with or helpful, but I do think that this kind of labelling of them you know this like “oh, he has OCD. Oh he's this-attached. Oh, he's blah, blah, blah”.

I don't know if that's a helpful thing. I think your brain is trying to understand this as a means to survive. But it might be helpful for you to actually challenge yourself a little bit on labelling yourself, labelling other people, making everything black and white. Like I'm pretty sure that your partner probably does experience a lot of emotions. Maybe he just doesn't work— he or she or they— just don't work them out with you.

That doesn't mean that they don't have them. So you kind of labeling this as like, “oh, this person is securely attached, and I'm not securely attached because I have feelings” — like I just think this is making it so much worse. And it makes total sense for you to be afraid. It makes total sense for you to be anxious, and then added to the fact that I feel like you're trying to constantly ground yourself— I mean, I'm not there.

I don't know what's going on in your head. So it's hard for me to say but for me it doesn't feel like you're actually trying to be in your feelings. It seems like you're trying to ground yourself away from them. Seems like you're trying to get away from the feelings, get away from them. “No, I don't want these feelings. That means I'm not securely attached. La la la”. I don't feel like you're in your feelings. So you keep running from them and they keep chasing you because your brain is like “I don't know what to do”.

“I have been told my whole life that this is how relationships are and now this is different. And we've also had some bad experiences. I want to protect you from pain”. And that's what your brain is doing. It's trying to protect you from pain. This isn’t primal panic. I mean, I don't even know enough about what primal panic is supposed to be to necessarily say whether or not it's a good definition, but I think that this is — and all of our emotions are useful information for us to have and sometimes designed to keep us safe.

They don't always keep us safe. Because we are living very different lives now then our ancestors and the you know, our emotions and our the way our body responds, our physiological responses have been evolving over a long, long period in a pretty much a very different lifestyle than what we live now. It's not even about monogamy or polyamory anymore.

So you know, this is about having a completely different nervous system response and needing that nervous system response to survive. By the way, I'm not saying that no other humans today kind of live in a life or death situation. But what I'm saying is that you have all of this inbuilt survival physiology that your body is going to remember and respond with. And of course, you're having these big panic episodes. Why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't you have them? That makes— you're trying to logic out of anxiety instead of logic into anxiety and understanding anxiety and why it's happening to you. It's happening because your brain is trying to keep you alive.

Your brain doesn't know what the hell is going on, but it knows that its job is to keep you alive. And kind of like obviously, the brain isn't self aware, but you know what I mean. So yeah, I just feel like the way that you're approaching this is very kind of binary. It's very kind of “I’m gonna give these things labels” and these labels are very binary in a lot of ways. They're very— you're either good or you're bad. And this is a good or bad situation. “My partner that I'm with now is good and I'm bad because I’m—“ you know, and I think that that's making things so much worse for you than it has to be, of course, your brain is freaking out.

Of course it is. You're in a big important, securely attached relationship now with an anchor partner now, and you have a lot to lose. So of course your brain’s freaking out. So I feel like maybe kind of rethink your approach to this. Rethink your approach to labelling things. Rethink your approach to yourself. Can you like step away from this kind of inclination to label and practice some acceptance of your feelings? And understanding and just welcoming them in a weird way, which I know feels weird, like as a person who's had anxiety for most of their life, who pretty much like— my anxiety is almost non-existent now.

And I think a big part of that comes from the fact that— I mean, I feel like I had like to be honest, I had like an I Know What You Did Last Summer moment where I was just like, “Fine come kill me then kill me then!” because I had really bad health anxiety. But I think that part of it comes from acceptance part of it comes from going “Okay, this is my fear. I have this”. Because a big part of what made my anxiety worse for so many years, was seeing myself as like a Sisyphus and seeing myself as like pushing this and pushing this thing I'm always working towards never having a panic attack. That's my goal. And that means success.

And if I have a panic attack, that means the thing is rolling down and I have to push it up again. That mind frame made things so much worse, so much worse. And when I just said “You know what? I have panic attacks. And that doesn't mean I'm a failure doesn't make me a bad person. Does it mean that I, you know, I'm not managing my anxiety correctly. It's just something that's happening to me. And there are a lot of reasons why it's happening to me”. Understanding nervous system response, and all of that, like there's a great accountant Instagram called “Repairing the nervous system”

Definitely check that out. Understanding my anxiety through the lens of survival was really, really helpful for me. I never really related to any of the attachment stuff. So that's just my personal perspective. Attachment theory helps people it can be a useful tool. It's not been a very useful tool for me personally. So I would recommend maybe stepping away from that.

So yeah, to sum up, I feel like I would shift my perspective here. Away from black and white thinking. I would really think about how you label yourself, what you tell yourself about yourself. Think about the labels you're giving to both past relationships and current relationships.

See if you can practice acceptance of your feelings and looking your fear in the face instead of just trying to like ground yourself — Like push it away from yourself like courage. You're going to purge your emotions, like a Vulcan. Like it's not gonna happen, you're gonna have feelings, and those feelings feel really terrible. But you have gone through this before you've gone through “primal panic” before and you've gone through it just fine. And sometimes that is kind of the only thing to do. The only way out is through.

But I think breaking the binary way of thinking and really think about how you're labelling things might make that worse, make what you're going through worse because when you're going through this panic, you're kind of— it seems like you're kind of constantly telling yourself like “I’m insecurely attached I'm bad. I'm this and that and that,” you know, like that is making it a lot worse than if you can just accept it, let it go. Let it have its time in the in the sun.

Allow your brain to have a little bit of a panic and go “oh my god” and then be there for it at the end because you will get to the end it will be okay. But you have to kind of go through that in order to see that after a period of time and give yourself a break. You're six months —around six months into this new relationship and you've also had some like not so great experiences. You're trying a new relationship style that you have absolutely no social cultural model for. Give your brain a break, man. Give yourself a break.

And yeah, I think overall, if you kind of step away from a binary way of thinking, accept your anxiety and trying to escape the feeling or reason with it, then I think that that will probably help. You may find as you go along that maybe this isn't the best thing for you. For other reasons. Who knows? I can't tell you if this panic is because non-monogamy is not for you.

But what I can say is that a lot of things that you're doing right now probably are contributing to it in a way that it's going to make it harder for you to realise if it's not for you if you,  you know if you're dealing with all this other stuff at the same time. So yeah, I hope that helps and good luck.

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