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Posts Tagged ‘HPA Axis’

It wasn’t until I was 55 years old and had three clinical graduate degrees under my belt that I finally connected the dots: “I’m someone who suffers from panic attacks.” Sure, I knew the clinical symptomology and the DSM designation – I was even preparing to sit for clinical licensing. But panic attacks happened to “patients.” They only showed up in clinical case studies. I never dreamed of associating that kind of malfunctioning to me. It was like the lyric in the old Don McLean Crossroads song: “You know I heard about people like me, but I never made the connection. They walk one road to set them free, then find they’ve gone the wrong direction.” I also never understood that I’d learned to be reactive and essentially helpless in the face of such attacks.

Well, once I realized I’d been missing that self-diagnosis for decades, I couldn’t help but wonder what other diagnoses I might also be missing. It was at that point I decided I wasn’t mentally, physically, emotionally or psychologically fit to sit in an office all day long and listen in earnest to the untold suffering in people’s lives. It would not be good for my body or brain. Or other peoples’.

Reactive Guru Syndrome

Asilomar-Merrill-Hall-01a-2011-Copy-1024x685Here’s how one panic attack showed up for me: a friend and I were scheduled to attend a week-long retreat at the Julia Morgan-designed Asilomar Conference Center outside Monterey, California. It was being led by a self-appointed American guru whom I’d never heard of, but whom my friend was interested in hanging out with for the week.

When we arrived, the guru was sitting in an elevated chair in the main room holding forth before a small group of acolytes. I walked in, took one look at him, felt myself flood with anxiety (I have since come to learn all about how the HPA axis works – the early warning sensor in the brain, the amygdala unconsciously registers a threat, which may or may not be real or present. It sends an SOS to the hypothalamus which releases the peptides, vasopressin and corticotropin-releasing hormone [CRH] in a flash. These messenger hormones then instant-message a signal to the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone [ACTH]. ACTH then notifies the adrenals sitting on top of my kidneys to release adrenaline muy pronto, in preparation to deal with the obviously imminent threat [it must be imminent or none of this neuro-hormonal symphony would be playing out, right?]).

In me at Asilomar, this hormonal flooding – apparently triggered by a somatic memory I had no words for, and thus could not use language to remember, identify or name – resulted in a flight reaction: without a single conscious thought I turned around and walked out of the hall. And kept on walking – the whole 4 miles back to Monterey where I took a bus back home to the San Francisco peninsula. Fleeing the scene was the only option available to me to get the cortisol I needed released by my adrenal cortices in order to help calm me down. It took the whole ride back to Menlo Park (where, interestingly I lived across the street from The Cookoo’s Nest – the VA Hospital where Ken Kesey flew over while working there as a student at Stanford. His stint there provided the raw material for his book) to finally get me calmed down. With my mind racing the whole time, I tried to make sense of what was essentially unconscious, senseless behavior triggered by buried traumatic memories that my language centers had no words for. But my body clearly recalled something threatening and reacted “appropriately,” in the best way it could manage to insure my safety.

This kind of body response accomplishes several things. First is, it can make you feel VERY crazy-cookoo. It doesn’t make sense to feel like you’re freaking out for no apparent reason in one of the most beautiful environments on the planet. Second, without an understanding of the neuro-physiology involved, I’m at a loss to make any sense whatsoever of the experience. Third, it begins to feel like I have a body that simply cannot be trusted. It may decide to betray me (and has) at any unexpected moment (like on my honeymoon in St. Maarten in the Caribbean where I ended up tossing a full, king-sized mattress across the bungalow room in a hissy fit – but that’s another trauma displacement story).

Free at Last

Fortunately, I’ve essentially been free of panic attacks for more than a decade. What mostly helped was a graduate class in the neurophysiology of psychological trauma that I audited – cognitive understanding does provide some benefit – understanding the reasons and the mechanisms at play when the attacks occurred went a long way towards normalizing them. I also put that information together with a few sessions of Reprocessing Therapy and came away realizing it’s reassuring to know that you’re not crazy even when it may look and feel that way inside your body; and to also know it’s most often simply healing trying to happen. Which, sometimes actually does!

P. S. Once again, I’d like to extend an invitation to readers to join me at the free, online Art of Attention Conference. You can find out more about it at this link: Art of Attention.

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Decades ago the Righteous Brothers pined forlornly about the sorry state of affairs that come calling when you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling, especially after you’ve had a love, a love you don’t find every day. What the Righteous Brothers never really offered listeners though, is a hypothesis about where that lovin’ feeling actually went … and how we might investigate ways to bring it back. Me and my brain are here at this late date to offer one possible explanation … and a plan of action.

Essentially, every time I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling it became buried under one or more of the Dirty Dozen Defense Mechanisms. Those mechanisms invariably fired up limbic structures in my brain, structures like the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. Once triggered, the parts that make up the HPA axis (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis) began secreting stress hormones into my blood stream. Those hormones produce the exact opposite feelings that oxytocin and endorphins produce, leaving me sad and forlorn and singing along with Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers … Bye-Bye Love.

Feeling love means I’m running soft, safe, undefended, expansive energy, as opposed to loss or fear, which most often show up as hard, constrictive, defensive, protective energy attempting to safeguard my body and brain. One of the reasons I can so often unconditionally love babies and pets is that they rarely trigger defensive reactions in me. On the other hand, one big life challenge is to be able to continue running, soft, safe, undefended expansive energy in the face of someone I’ve become disenchanted with, or around someone who has become disenchanted with me. But I can tell you from personal experience, that while it’s not necessarily easy, it’s not impossible.

Given this state of affairs, it’s useful for me to think of emotional reactions as early warning signals surfacing from down below the neck and also from the depths of the right brain primarily (in actuality, thoughts and feelings are probably widely distributed across many neurophysiological nodal points). Emotions are early warning signals because almost all of the (only) 40 conscious pieces of the 11 million data bits we take in at any moment are often apprehended by the Bully Interpreter brain. And the Interpreter is constantly distorting things conservatively, i.e. negatively and apprehensively.

Why I Write Listening Books

David Augsburger, a professor of pastoral care at Fuller Theological Seminary and the author of Caring Enough to Confront, has noticed that “being listened to is so close to being loved, that most people don’t know the difference.” It’s also a great way to combat my Bully Interpreter’s distortions. Turns out I’ve never lost that loving feeling in response to someone earnestly and undistractedly attempting to hear and deeply understand me. So, I think David’s right. One partial reason is that being listened to helps us discharge the increased levels of neurotoxic glucocorticoids that Big Emotion often generates in the wake of a grand HPA axis activation. We begin to feel less fear. Which means we generate fewer stress response neurotoxins. Which means our brains are freed up to process more energy and information as a result of make increasing connections (even with our heart, perhaps).

But also, deep listening, much like love, is radically seditious. It goes toe to toe with our culture of distraction. It promotes the cultivation of radicalness and rebellion, fearlessness and defenselessness, while growing the brain at the same time. Both listening and love live to go beyond themselves. Not only does our safety lie in fearless defenselessness, but therein also lies a pathway back to Rumi’s field out beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing. It’s in that field that we can each begin to breathe out and tell tender truths that permit Defense Mechanisms to dissolve. When we are able to do this successfully, we come back face to face with Rumi’s other great awareness: love is the default condition, the primary, subtle, driving creative energy of the universe. It’s the energy that grows flowers and trees and baby’s brains and children’s hearts.

Learning to listen skillfully is however, a VERY difficult practice. There’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t find Bully Interpreter trying to convince me and others about the rightness and righteousness of what it believes. And not only is it adamant in its beliefs, it’s often inflexible in its ability to consider alternative possibilities. Not a great way to invoke and sustain loving feelings, unfortunately.  

The Benefits of Reclaiming Love

Using listening skills as a contemplative spiritual practice invariably seems to work to soften mental and physical structures inside me. Tensions I’m holding in body, mind and brain begin to ease, allowing the Bully Interpreter to relax. With such release I often find myself opening to the possibility of increasingly creative responses. As Neil Gaiman offers in this inspiring commencement address given recently to the graduating class at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, listening practice begins to foment not only a deep desire to “make good art,” but a conviction that I really can. And in my experience much of the good art in the world springs from … love. People who love who they are and what they do rarely lose that lovin’ feeling.

P.S. If you want to be seditiously and uncommonly loving on this upcoming Father’s Day, click HERE.

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I was getting ready to leave work late one evening when a colleague buttonholed me on my way out of the office with a request. It was a small request really – to deliver something to another mutual colleague. But her voice tone and sense of entitlement triggered an outsized emotional reaction in me – without really meaning to, she “got my back up.” Thinking about my reaction on the drive home, after I curtly declined her request, several things became clear. One was … Polyvagal Theory!

Struggling in My Understanding

Stephen Porges

Stephen Porges

The very first time I heard about it, Polyvagal Theory seemed important and vital to understand, only I couldn’t. No matter who I asked to explain it, or anywhere else I encountered it, even with a medical dictionary in hand, or some reason Stephen Porges’ theory remained locked in a shell of impenetrability. Even after spending a delightful morning listening to Steve lecture to a standing ovation in Berkeley one Fall morning, only small bits of Polyvagal Theory seemed to fall into place.

At first I assigned my difficulty in understanding to a lack of in-depth knowledge of human anatomy – my training is primarily in clinical psychology. But then, on that Friday afternoon, as my “blood began to boil,” my heart began to race, and my stomach began to churn at my colleague’s simple request, I suddenly understood Polyvagal Theory … in my body. So now I’m going to do my best to attempt to explain it to you in yours and in your children’s.

The Life We Save

The first thing to understand about Polyvagal Theory is that it primarily pertains to your (my) own reactive neurophysiology, how our Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis gets activated in the face of threats that mostly aren’t real, even though our brain makes us think and act as if they are. If we take the example of the colleague whose request hijacked my limbic system as our working example, Polyvagal Theory might posit that it is a useless distraction to think of all the social and emotional intelligence my colleague lacks, and all the ways she really needs to grow and change (even though, were she to do so, it would be marvelous for her own reactive neurophysiology). No, the best and most useful place for my focus to be is on me and my own reactivity.

The Protective Function

The next thing to understand is what Polyvagal Theory is actually attempting to explain – why and how we, or our children, often get upset about inconsequential things that matter little in the greater scheme of things. According to Polygvagal Theory, this upset is part of the neurophysiological process that has only our best interests at heart – the Polyvagal nervous system is designed to reliably operate to save our lives in the face of perceived or actual threavagus_nervets to life or limb. When Ralph Waldo Emerson talked about being afraid of things his whole life, most of which never happened, he was essentially talking about the protective elements of our Polyvagal nervous system.

The dorsal and ventral vagus nerves emerge from the base of the brain and connect up to our major organs. 80% of these fibers transmit information from the body to the brain. Parts of these nerve collections are sheathed in myelin. Myelin acts as an insulator and insulated nerves transmit impulses much faster than uninsulated nerves. Any time a threat appears in our internal or external environment, the myelin-sheathed vagus nerves are the first to spread the word.

False Positives

The central problem with the vagus’s speed, is that it often sends false positives – news about things it thinks are threats – usually based upon prior memories of earlier experiences that may have been actually painful or threatening at the time. Remember – it’s primarily concerned with saving our lives. So a few false positives are a small price to pay to the vagus. Better to be safe than sorry.

There’s a wisdom teaching that speaks to the vagus’s propensity for rapid response: “I am never upset for the reason I think” (Lesson 5 in A Course in Miracles). Essentially, what this teaching is suggesting is that upsets we experience in the present are most always connected to something that remains unresolved and unintegrated from our past. So these upsets are clues to “healing longing to happen.” In the incident I described above, the colleague who made the request of me, “coincidently” has the same look and feel of my older sister. She has the same voice inflections and the same shaped face. She also has a very bossy way of being that apparently feels overly threatening to my myelinated vagus nerves.

So, what remedy does Polyvagal Theory provide for this kind of over-reactivity? Simply this: it is possible to train ourselves to rapidly override false-positive vagus responses. Some of the ways to actually accomplish this extremely useful bit of bio-self-regulation, you already know from previous pieces I’ve written. I’ll discuss others in future columns.

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