Here’s the life-long instruction set in one declarative sentence – Practice keeping your adrenals from closing your heart and making you their Bitch, i.e. temporarily insane.
Right now, as I’m crafting this blog post, I’m sitting in my office and my body is splattered with chronic uticaria (Hives – No. 12 of the 50 most common ways our adrenals kick our ass). Big red random welts that itch like crazy show up daily, here, there and everywhere. When they erupt on my lips I look like I’ve come out on the bad end of a Saturday night bar brawl. On my eyebrow they swell and close one eye making it look like I’ve stroked out. When they swell my inguinal crease, you’ll find me standing around like an on-deck baseball player with one hand or the other perpetually down the front of my pants. This adrenal-generated stress response can be a real pain in the ass, literally.
So, since I know that this condition and all kinds of others often result from piling too much stress on my brain and body, what’s really going on? And more importantly, what might I do to keep it from continuing down this heart-closing, crazy-making path? Excessive stress hormones circulating in the brain and body, invariably impair our response ability.
HPA All the Way
The brain and body work together to process stress along something called the HPA axis. HPA stands for Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal. That’s the electro-chemical route that gets activated in response to my wife going in for surgery, for example (which is clearly related to this current hives flareup. She went under the knife, but my body acts as if it’s being cut). My brain works this axis all day long from sunup to sundown. It only becomes problematic when the levels of stress hormones exceed a threshold my body can easily manage. A major problem for me is that I’m not sufficiently tuned in to my body to know when I’ve surpassed those stress levels – when I’ve “jumped the hump.” I very often only find out after the fact, like when I get a headache, or I suddenly break out in hives, or I get a traffic ticket (traffic tickets are usually the result of me not paying close enough attention to the road because I’m off in the clouds thinking about something that’s majorly stressing me).
And the thoughts I think, it turns out, are in reality probably THE major stressors in my life. Only I rarely realize it. I erroneously think the stressors are other people, places and circumstances. Rarely does the Cougar have my Leg, but the thoughts I think end up making my body believe one does. My adrenals generate high levels of stress hormones very much as they would if a real Cougar did actually have my leg. Or a real grizzly bear.
A simple example from yesterday: I’m reading Laurence Gonzales’s excellent book, Surviving Survival. It’s an account of how the brain and body are profoundly changed in the wake of major trauma and describes the struggles that roughly a dozen people have had to go through in the aftermath. I’m reading about survivors of grizzly bear attacks. As I’m reading, because Laurence is such a compelling writer, I’m actually feeling what it might feel like to really BE attacked by a grizzly bear. Spurred on by the adrenal response in my body, I go on the Internet and find pictures of the actual people who’ve survived these bear maulings. They are not pretty pictures. If my adrenal response wasn’t great enough from just reading the text, the pictures further trigger an increased flood of adrenaline and cortisol. It’s not too long until I actually have to put the book down, leash up the dogs and go for a long, heavy-breathing Discharge Walk.
So that’s one way to skillfully manage my adrenals: exercise.
Who’s Minding the Mind?
Another is to practice minding my thinking. My brain and the world are complex beyond measure. It does very little good to try to plan for millions of contingencies that in all likelihood will never happen. To underscore this tendency, my recent email signature displayed Zen teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck asserting:
“Life is not a safe space. It never was and it never will be. If we’ve hit the eye of the hurricane for a year or two, it still can’t be counted on. There is no safe space, not for your money, not for ourselves, not for those we love….And it’s not our business to worry about that.”
So, that’s my job: to realize that my brain, together with the brains of the other 7 billion plus people on the planet comprise networks of unimaginable and unpredictable complexity, and to do my best not to worry about the terrors and tragedies that might befall me near or far on up the road. Rather, I’d be better served to follow Gonzales’s 12 Rules for Surviving Survival, one of which is to think about what’s directly in front of me and to trust that my brain and body are sufficiently resilient to get me through whatever crises may arise – much as they always have; including a grizzly bear managing to board the ferry on the mainland in Mukilteo, make it over here to Whidbey Island, and attack me one day while I’m out walking the abandoned golf course across the street from the house. It will most likely be yet one more opportunity for compassionately ramping up AMP – Adrenal Management Practice.