Conditioning is a process by which one thing becomes so associated with another that it informs our reactions. Pavlov’s famous dogs, drooling when they heard the lunch bell ring are of course the classic example, but we all do it. Conditioning is one of the means by which we learn, and you can get all kinds of problems by teaching a small child that they’ll be paid attention if they act out. We don’t just consciously look for patterns, we learn them with our bodies.
So, postmen then, and where they all fit. There were years when anything dreadful started with a letter and anything terrifyingly important would be in the post, too. Things from solicitors. Bills (not always but frequently also from solicitors). Paperwork for Tom getting to stay in the UK. It all came thick and fast for a long time such that the sound of post became associated with a rush of adrenaline. It wasn’t long before I’d get the rush without even knowing what had come through the door. By extension, seeing our postman or his van started to make me nervous, too. Then we moved to the boat and had to collect our post from the post office. Cycling past the post office soon became unsettling. And then gradually all post offices, post vans, post persons, post boxes and reference to post started to be infected by a sense of creeping dread.
It probably sounds mad. It is, and it isn’t. There’s a perfectly reasonable connection with things that were genuinely terrifying and I had every reason to dread and fear, but the way in which trained fear responses can spread makes it rather a lot like a disease. It is mechanisms like this that result in people feeling like they can’t leave the house.
The post hasn’t been scary for about five months now – it was scary again during the house buying period. I still feel anxious when I hear mail falling through the door, and have to consciously remind myself that most of it will be junk, the rest will probably be ok and some of it could be good. “The postman can bring nice things” has become an important personal mantra for dealing with fear.
The best way to deal with conditioning is to put a new layer of something different on top. I’m being helped by people sending me lovely things. The postman can bring good stuff. I make a point of talking to postpeople and being friendly, I make myself go into post offices, and slowly, slowly I replace the conditioning with better associations. It is an attrition job.
If you do something, or respond to something in a way that seems irrational, it is always worth tracing it back and finding out where it came from. The odds are there was a time in your life, or there is a place where that reaction makes perfect sense. Knowing what it is, you can start trying to build a different set of associations and beliefs to replace the ones that aren’t serving you. Our minds and emotions are surprisingly malleable. We can learn startling emotional responses without knowing how it happened, but we are not then, any of us, stuck with them. It is always possible to change.
The postman is nice.
Other postpeople do not have things for me and will not run at me in the street with unpayable bills.
The postman is nice.
There may be mushroom spores in the post today.
Seasons don’t fear the postman…