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Like many things in life, my brain acquiring language at around age 2 had some pluses and some minuses. On the plus side of the ledger, I could use words to let people know what I needed, I could understand that they used words and took actions differently than me, and I could use words to socially connect with people (although many other things can connect us to others much more powerfully than words. Things like similarities of experience, humor, kindness, well-matched, interlocking trauma histories, simple proximity, energy intensity and resonance, for starters).

Those are a few of the pluses that accrue from language-learning. Turns out there are quite a few negatives acquired along with language as well. Most of them we usually don’t speak about. However, we know from anecdotal reports that taking a vow of silence – refraining from the verbal use of language – has powerful impacts upon the brain. A few years ago, John Francis gave a TED talk recounting his 17 speechless years out on The Ragged Edge of Silence. Some of the things he discovered were … he could earn a Ph.D. degree without speaking; he could travel the country on foot silently; he could teach college students without using language. Simply walking and not talking can make a profound difference in the world, John discovered. Frequently, when we talk it profoundly limits our capacity for listening.

The Silent Guru

Baba Hari Dass – The Silent Guru

Baba Non-Speak

We also have this account from Baba Hari Dass, founder of the Mt. Madonna Yoga Center outside Watsonville, CA. For more than 60 years Baba has remained speechless. If the “use it or lose it” theory of neural organization generalizes, it appears that what begins to happen as a result of going silent is that neurons in the areas of the brain that generate speech – Broca’s area – begin to wither and their connections become significantly diminished. Along with that withering goes a lot of mostly unneeded discursive thought. In addition, along with discursive thought happily dissolves the “narrative of me” – the story that simply unfolds as a by-product of attaching language to experience.

One example of such a story: I can readily recall as a kid the great excitement my brain and body would generate when I’d return home from a Great Lamprey Eel Hunt, regaling my friends with the harrowing accounts of how one of the eels almost latched onto my hand or leg, where it would be impossible to pull off in order keep it from sucking all the blood and guts out of my body! Gradually, over time, experience after experience results in story after story, up until the present moment defining (and greatly limiting) in my own mind, who my brain and my body think I am. Who am I if I am not my personal narrative?

Increasing the Stillness-to-Noise Ratio

As Broca’s Area begins to diminish in size, it appears that other areas of the brain naturally begin to grow more robust. More specifically the areas that move us away from the direction of self-referencing and self-concern. As these areas grow new cells and make more synaptic connections, we simply begin to lose interest in our own storyline, our own drama. Now what the brain and body begin to find much more interesting are how disorganized brains and bodies operate in the world in ways that contribute to great suffering for self and others. Much of it is the result of … discursive thought or what I call reactive, Bully Word Brain. Bully Word Brain, for example, is what Steve Jobs used to intimidate Apple employees in the company’s early years. He used the power imbalance of his position as company head to diminish, disrespect and dismiss the people in his care. That karma came back around when he found his own board of directors using Bully Word Brain to diminish, disrespect and dismiss him – betrayed by the very people he’d placed into positions of power. Steve possessed quite a powerful Narrative of Me.

The Thought Space Amusement Ride

Unfortunately, we can’t simply decide to “still the Narrative of Me” and tomorrow become completely focused on working to alleviate the suffering of others. It appears to be something most of our brains and bodies have to gradually grow into. It most often operates as a developmental unfolding. cingulatepartsAnd we now have brain-scan evidence of just which areas of the brain lose connections, and which gain connections. The internal rewiring mostly seems to move connections from the posterior part of the cingulate cortex to the anterior part (See illustration at left). And like anything we grow into, it takes dedication and practice. For me, the practice mostly involves observing the multiple times throughout the day discursive thought thinks up painful thoughts of self-concern: “it’s raining and I’m bored,” “I’m hungry and there’s nothing good to eat,” “the dogs have left a ton of poo for me to clean up again,” “I can’t believe I spent good money on a putting green for the john.” Thoughts like these and 10000 others flow through my thought-space day after day. Over time I have gradually grown increasingly able to diminish self-concern and pay them little mind. The discursive flow centered around The Narrative of Me has essentially lost its compelling draw; at this late date most of the thoughts I have throughout any day are actually pretty repetitive, dull and boring. I’ve thought them all before. Yawn. And as my friend, Kathleen Singh reminds us in her wonderful new book, The Grace in Aging, “Lightening our attachment to self is the only thing that is going to get us through the decline, illness and loss that we will inevitably face from now until we die, with some equanimity and peaceful sanity …”

Way back in the day, the days of free love and the back-to-the-land movement, I was particularly enamored of the freedom and flexibility of a lifestyle like the one being lived by Scott and Helen Nearing. No bosses, no schedules, nowhere to go and nothing to do. Except by personal, deliberate intention.

I didn’t need a lot of external motivation to set my own intention to work toward getting some of that freedom and flexibility for myself. First on the Freedom List: I would have to learn to build my own house. Since I was working a minimum wage job at the time and knew next to nothing about buying property or housebuilding, the road promised to be a long and winding one. Twenty years worth of long and winding, in fact. Eventually though, I acquired the skills and got the house built (here’s the first page of a story run on the house by the San Jose Mercury News).

Unforeseen Forces

At some point during those 20 years I found a quote by William Hutchinson Murray, a member of the Edmund Hillary party who first climbed Mt. Everest. It really spoke to me about pursuing dreams of freedom and independence:

whmurray-portrait“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

Though rarely proceeding with anything close to the feeling of boldness, my intention remained strong throughout. But what is intention exactly? And what’s required to set one, and to sustain it. Merriam-Webster defines intention as: “in·ten·tion – noun \in-ˈten(t)-shən\ 1. the thing that you plan to do or achieve ; an aim or purpose; a determination to act in a certain way; resolve; what one intends to do or bring about, the object for which a prayer, mass, or pious act is offered.”

Two things are interesting to me about this definition. One is that intention is generally considered a noun. In my experience it’s more a verb. An action verb. The second interesting thing about the definition is that pious acts are often involved. That certainly seems to be the case with my house getting built. From the mortgage banker who gave me ridiculous, below-market financing, to the retired county engineer who volunteered for free to draw the plat maps and shepherd me through the subdivision process, to the Town Manager who worked behind the scenes with individual city council members on my behalf out of the goodness of his heart (imagine!).

Intention as Magic

But along with those pious, magic acts, something additional was going on – unremitting changes in my heart and in my brain.

An artist looks inside your brain!

Brain cells were coming into being through the process of neurogenesis. And new connections were being made between those new cells as well as with the old. Learning was happening (along with unlearning). And it wasn’t just learning about housebuilding, back-to-the-land, and freedom and independence. It was learning about … me. It was me, without realizing it, continually allowing my life to be drawn towards those things that had great heart and meaning for me. In other words, I was using The Two Perilous Questions as my guiding North Star.

My dream-pursuit wasn’t so focused and single-minded, of course. It was more the way jet airliners, because of air currents and other factors, fly off-course 90% of the journey. The Inertial Navigation System on the plane constantly course-corrects, until the destination is reached. And that’s pretty much how it has turned out that I have been living on an off-shore island for the last seven years with my days pretty much structured the way I wake up and feel they need to be – the result of an intention set nearly 40 years ago!

May the forces of Providence, pious acts and intention be with you. And me.

 

 

Houston child advocate and neuroscientist Bruce Perry likes to say that “no matter what business you’re in, first and foremost, you’re in the brain change business.” And if you’re in the Operational Wisdom Business, it’s probably a good idea to know how what you’re trying to change actually works. And it’s probably an equally good idea to start knowing how your brain works as early as possible. Especially whether or not your TUBB5 gene is running mutant on you.

Microencephaly

Before we get to the TUBB5 gene though we might take Bruce’s advice to heart, first by teaching fathers and mothers-to-be about the basic developmental unfolding of baby’s brain. We would teach them about neurons – brain cells that work like teeny tiny batteries and fire electrical signals (action potentials) necessary for every human function. We’d also teach them about the “off switches” (inhibitory neurons) that keep all those batteries from discharging at once. Then we might teach them about the connections those brain cells make. And how to maximize those connections, since they are so necessary to process the energy and information of life. Like a computer with 2KB of RAM versus one with 10KB, brains with more “batteries” making more connections are able to process significantly greater information with considerably greater speed. More is generally better when it comes to early child development.

Rubba-TUBB-TUBB

Once they have the basics down and know many of the environmental and behavioral events that contribute to neural enrichment – things like safe, bully-free environments, mindful nutrition, contingent communication, skillful socialization – we might teach them the many things that parents can do to optimize the expression of the TUBB5 gene. It’s the TUBB5 gene that turns out to be primary coding agent responsible for growing neurons and enriching neural connectivity in the brain – the Massive Synapse Forminator. Humans possess roughly 19000 genes (fewer than a nematode!) and they are encoded in long strands of double-helix DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid); we’ve long known the TUBB5 gene is responsible for microencephaly – children born with abnormally small heads and brains as a result of mutations in TUBB5 adversely affecting the generation, migration, and differentiation of developing neurons.

By implication then, we can hypothesize that TUBB5 not mutated, in combination with other factors, drives healthy neural unfolding and connecting. TUBB5 rocks!

And once you have your TUBB5 in good working order, next on the list of brain enhancements would be over-expressing the TLX gene. TLX has been found to be primarily responsible for rapid learning and longer and better memory retention and in simply building larger, more connected neural networks overall. This too, can be affected by skillful parenting practiced in conjunction with the complex neural art of stress management. Wherever we go, there we are; it’s useful to have sufficient neural resources available so we can be there mindfully present.

JNK All the Way

But wait! We’re not done. Another factor influencing brain organization and function turns out to be your JNK inhibitory interneuron signalling pathway (which I bet you could have guessed!). Inhibitory interneurons lay down wiring (axons) all through the brain and perform a function exactly opposite that of excitatory neurons – as I mentioned above, they prevent those batteries from discharging electrical action potentials. They are essential for proper brain function – we can’t have all our brain batteries firing at once. One hypothesis is that inhibitory interneurons are what work to hold traumatic memories in check in the brain. Except for when they don’t. Because the supply of inhibitory interneurons is unique and finite in number, if we have an early developmental history of traumatic experiences, we are going place our allotted supply into service early, theoretically causing them to be in short supply later, making us more susceptible to trauma exposure which can result in PTSD. The brain then has a compromised ability to keep horror under wraps. It’s considerably harder to make good decisions when our traumatic history is being constantly overlaid onto the present moment (That experience is often later marked with the phrase, “What was I thinking?”).

Crossing Up Chaos

brain differences

Which is male? Which is female?

Another recent study which I have little doubt is connected to wise decision-making is this one: brain connectivity differences in men and women. Turns out women have better cross-hemisphere connectivity. This allows for all kinds of easy access to things that men have to work much harder, as a general rule, to access. Things like seeing the big picture. And … feelings. It’s not that men don’t have feelings or can’t get in touch with them, it’s just that as a cohort, they have to expend much more energy to gain access and expression. In places and with people who are safe. As this study suggests, one way for men to accomplish that is to … actively parent. Another way is to partner with a good, cross-hemispherically connected woman who knows how to turn you on through both hemispheres. :-)

Wisdom in the world needs enriched, integrated brains to consistently show up operationally. Enriched brains, demonstrating an abundance of robust connectivity (synapses) turn out not to need much formal instruction in Wisdom. Wisdom seems to be an evolutionary, natural by-product of profound, enlightened, neurally-enriched child-rearing. Highly developed morality as researched by Theory of Mind in children is one way we know this to be the case for natural Wisdom. But even so, depending upon environmental circumstances and stressors within us and around us, there are no Wisdom guarantees. As Antonio Wood, an early psychiatrist mentor of mine once warned: the world can make even the sanest of us crazy at times.

And if you have little of the above working for you, don’t hesitate to get advice from people around you who have a lot of it working. All of us are generally wiser than any one of us.

When I was in my early forties I bought a piece of property that had a run-down, 100 year old barn on it. The plan was to restore the barn to its former structural glory and then live in it. But building and zoning regulations turned out to make that project financially prohibitive; the barn would have to be torn down (Note to Self: Check zoning and building regs before signing future real estate purchase agreements).

barn2My initial impulse was to hire a guy with a bulldozer and a dump truck and have the thing razed in two days for a couple thousand dollars. But sitting one day out on the two foot by three foot oak beam that spanned the whole second story, I thought, “What a waste of some beautiful raw materials.” Then I got the idea to put an ad in the Palo Alto Weekly to see if anyone might want to dismantle that barn and recycle those materials. Jonathan did.

Since I was in no rush to remove the structure – I needed to draw and submit all new plans to the building department – Jonathan had four whole months to take that barn apart piece by loving piece. First he took several hundred pictures, then as he pulled each peg and each nail, and numbered each board, he piled them on his flatbed trailer and hauled a dozen truckloads of barn up to his property in the Santa Cruz mountains. Two years later I went to visit and was proudly shown the barn fully, and soundly restored … as an actual barn in beautiful working order.

Barn as Brain-Body

Carl Jung claimed that buildings often show up in dreams (waking and sleeping) as symbols for the psyche. And in fact, the brain is constructed in very much the same fashion that buildings are: piece by piece over some period of time (in case you were wondering about the shortest amount of time ever taken to build a whole house, including foundation, interior sheetrock, trim, painting and landscaping, it’s … 2 hours, 59 minutes, 29 seconds!). Brains, however, take a lifetime to build and they are perpetually in the process of being remodeled. And that’s a good thing.

In much the same way that kitchens and bathrooms serve as the starting point for most home remodeling, two important processes that drive the brain’s remodeling activity are the “No” Circuitry and the “Reward” Circuitry. The No Circuitry is closely related to the prefrontal cortex’s primary job of initiating and managing Executive Function. We need circuitry that operates like the CEO of a business; circuitry that can easily say “No” to all the things that don’t ideally serve us over the long run in the great scheme of life. And we need that circuitry to be sufficiently strong so that No really means No – it’s essential for shaping and maintaining our Ordo Amorum. It’s a primary parental function to help us build our No Circuitry. Here’s one example – my mother repeatedly warned me to stay away from people who weren’t going to be good for me or to me (of course, I didn’t listen). But eventually I did learn the truth of the need for that bit of neuro-discernment – in any moment, some people are just not a good match for my personal psycho-spiritual developmental trajectory. Best to spend my time with people who are.

The Myth of Introversion

Where the relational Reward Circuitry is often most in evidence is when the brain is developing in childhood. If kids spend time with other kids and have a great time, what gets activated over and over again is the Reward Circuitry. These are the circuits in the brain that most often release endorphins, dopamine and serotonin – the feel-good brain molecules. Over time our brain associates feeling super good with being around other people, and an extrovert is born.

DopamineseratoninBut if other people initially show up as threats early in our lives, then neuroception (threat detection without awareness) tends to insure that we won’t be spending much time around other people, since they build out neurons in our fear center and don’t make us feel very good. And thus an introvert is born (obviously many more factors than just this go into the formation of a whole personality).

But neither end of this spectrum needs to remain permanently fixed. We can actually grow brain cells and connections in the Reward Circuitry in response to other people. How? By finding non-threatening people we don’t become neuroceptively high-jacked around and begin to spend more and more time with them (this is actually one way that introverts manage to acquire mates).

To learn more about brain remodeling and the acute need for it, let me offer you this challenge: cancel your next therapy appointment, or the Netflix movie you’ve rented, and instead, spend the hour listening to this recent talk by Bruce Perry on Empathy Endangered. In the talk he describes why it’s essential to repair much of the damage that was done in childhood to the social brain of many of us. I think you will end up more than a little hopeful, excited and ready to wholeheartedly take on the brain rebuilding process.

The one promise I made to myself when my daughter was born is that I would be a better dad to her than my father was to me. Last year she invited me to have a pleasant lunch with her in downtown Seattle. Over that lunch we discussed a wide range of topics – her life for the previous six months without a regular job; my neuroscience research; her impending move to Portland, Oregon; my teaching; her going off to yoga teacher training school, etc.

father_hugging_daughter_BLD073655At one point in our conversation, she mentioned that she thought I was a great dad … until she turned nine years old. I was surprised and curious and invited her to tell me what happened at age nine that transformed me from Great Dad into not-Great Dad, but she couldn’t really put her finger on it. It was all smushed together, woven all through ages 10, 11, 12 … 20 … 25. But I could certainly identify what the precipitating event was. It was estrogen. And testosterone.

It was at age nine, with puberty unfolding relentlessly, that I no longer felt comfortable making non-sexual physical contact with her in ways that I had freely and openly been able to do for nearly a decade. When a caring, competent, protective, nurturing father abruptly stops freely touching you, that’s an unfortunate, disruptive event to body, brain, spirit and to relational wisdom-mind. For daughter and for dad.

Number 2 on the All-Time Hits List

Of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, the word touch has the most definitions listed. Clearly, touch is an important experience for human beings. Not only that, but if you go looking through the most cited peer-reviewed neuroscience papers over the last ten years, what you discover is that Number 2 on the list is a study published in 2004 in Nature Neuroscience by Ian Weaver and his colleagues … on rats. The title is: “Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior.” Essentially, what Weaver’s group found is that physical nurturing profoundly impacts nature – mothers’ touching, licking and grooming influences the proteins that move and shake and affect which genes become expressed in rat pups.

That’s the upside. On the downside, there’s plenty of evidence accruing that lack of early nurturing contact adversely impacts human pups. But very little has been researched and written about what happens to body and brain in rats and human children when loving, early nurturing abruptly stops. From either mom or dad.

Roots of Autism Are in the Skin

Here’s a recent interesting study suggesting that the roots of autism may be in the skin and that a lack of early non-sexual physical affection could be a contributing factor. This makes a lot of sense to me, both personally and professionally. skin sensory organsThe skin is the largest body organ and according to Jon Lieff, MD, its cells are super-intelligent; in part because our skin has a huge number of neurons distributing sense receptors all over it – Pacinian corpuscles sense pressure, nocioceptors sense pain, Meissner’s and Merkel’s mechano-receptors sense touch, thermo-receptors sense heat and cold, etc. As those nerves become stimulated over and over during early development – the connections they make significantly strengthen significant parts of the neural network – neurons that fire together wire together. Physical touch then becomes something that feels good and doesn’t generate a lot of stress hormones both early and later in life. Without that early physical contact, people touching us as adults can often make us feel uncomfortable. Physical touch feels threatening as it triggers an HPA adrenal response (the good news is that as adults – while it’s not easy – we can learn to become increasingly comfortable with physical touch).

Homeostatic Touch

One important function of physical touch is for significant people in our lives to help us learn to regulate homeostasis. I remember I was once out hiking a mountain trail and came across a young girl scout troop trapped with a nest of buzzing yellowjackets blocking their way forward and a steep rock ledge preventing their retreat. As I pulled one girl after another up to safety, they each spontaneously extended a hug. In the moment, hugging a complete stranger was the perfect thing to do, and it worked immediately to down-regulate their runaway glucocorticoids. In a different context, people would have very likely reported me to the police.

A Momentous Transition

I have little doubt that having your mom or dad suddenly stop hugging and touching you as easily and frequently as they used to is a momentous event in a child’s life. I suspect that because of the sexual overtones our culture generally connects with physical touch, I have never seen anything researched or written about how to skillfully and intentionally navigate this developmental transition. It’s not a topic that regularly finds its way into the pages of Highlights or Parenting Magazine, for example. But just because something makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t mean the best way to deal with it is to downplay it or ignore it. Unless you want to be inexplicably turned into Bad Dad and never really know the fundamental, underlying reason why.

someone i loved once
gave me a box full of darkness.
it took me years to understand that this too,
was a gift.

~ mary oliver

mary oliver

mary oliver

A key piece of my social neuroscience training explores how little sensory information our workaday senses consciously take in (roughly 1%) if we don’t pay deliberate attention to sight, smell, sound, taste, or touch. Often participants are surprised to discover that the amount we take in is so small. Afterall, our eyes seem to see everything on the highway we need to in order not to crash, and our ears hear everything that our significant other says to bring home from the Goose Grocery, and we easily smell the deodorant or shampoo he or she uses. Nevertheless, all we need do is watch a short video like this one by Professor Richard Wiseman and his Color-Changing Card Trick to realize both how much our senses actually miss in any moment and how much more we might be able to take in with training and practice.

I would argue that one of the purposes of significant relationships in our lives is to increase our sensory capacities. Especially awareness of those things that live in the depths of implicit memory – the deep repository where lives our own personal box of darkness. It contains vast amounts of information that our senses have taken in unconsciously, mostly direct or perceived threats to our survival. They live in the tissues of our brain and our body as what I tend to think of as states of chaos – unintegrated, dissociated stressors that we have had to build physical and psychological defenses around. Mostly in response to … Adverse Childhood Experiences.

As Villanova psychologist Tom Toppino suggests: “What we know influences what we see?” And if what we know is an early life of adversity, writ large and small, much of our later life would be well-served by doing our best to come to terms with that early life (for a stirring confession of how we can end up being very successful in the outer world, while our inner world remains disorganized, joyless and painfully chaotic, read this brief account by Michigan pediatrician, Tina Marie Hahn).

Why It’s a Joy to Be Hidden, But a Disaster to Not Be Found

British developmental psychiatrist Donald Winnicott speaks directly to the need for the hidden, buried parts of ourselves to be surfaced, seen and in some manner brought to healing resolution (It’s actually one of the purposes I use this blog for – as Narrative Medicine). Jesus said much the same thing when he supposedly warned: “If you bring forth that which is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth that which is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” At one level, Jesus is talking about ACEs untreated, alive and unwell in virtually all of us (none of us escapes childhood unscathed).

Toxicity Rising

How do we know when a significant relationship is bringing forth buried trauma, searching for the possibility of healing? Simple: we pay attention to our adrenals. If they’re flooding us with adrenaline and cortisol and that’s showing up in our body generating feelings of anger or fear and there’s no real, immediate threat present (a REAL threat means there’s a real cougar or the equivalent actually munching on our leg, not some painful, dissociated memory surfacing from the past, and not some distant future being disastrously imagined). Paul Tillich once observed that, “The first duty of love is to listen.” What we know from neuroception and hyperacousis research is that listening becomes extremely difficult and distorted when stress hormones are flooding the body and brain.

In addition, many of us have been conditioned by parents and society to wholeheartedly believe that it’s other people who cause us trouble, mostly by what they say and do. What most of us lack training in, which can significantly rewire our brain, is how to skillfully manage what Houston psychiatrist Bruce Perry calls our relational neurophysiology. Much of our own personal difficulties arise in the brain, in the body and in the mind. And that’s where they are most skilfully addressed.

Ajahn Chah

Ajahn Chah

Here’s a quote from Ajahn Chah a spiritual teacher I have great respect for. It’s from his book, Food for the Heart:

“Learn to see that it is not people, places or things that bother us, that we go out and bother them. See the world as a mirror. It is all a reflection of mind. When you know this, you can grow in every moment, and every experience reveals truth and understanding.”

What to Do About that Box?

Over the last fifteen to 20 years, in response primarily to the managed care industry demanding that therapy be brief and effective (one of the few positive benefits?), a great number of (mostly) experimental therapeutic interventions have emerged in the marketplace intended to address the fallout in adulthood from Adverse Childhood Experiences. Few of them are proven and evidence-based. Rather, they have come into being as Thoreau once advised: “It’s perfectly find to build (healing) castles in the air. Next, set to work building the foundations under them.” Here’s a link to the list. Realize that no one therapeutic size fits all, of course, and while practitioners in modalities like EMDR and EFT are busy at work building anecdotal and evidence-based foundations to confirm their benefits, many on this list may be worth experimenting with as a way to begin to open and turn our own personal box of darkness into a gift.

P.S. I’m reprising last September’s Social Neuroscience Training – Taking the Brain to Heart beginning again this September. Click here for details if you think you might be interested in this educational adventure.

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

Stress_new_1354041064046The 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. GrizzlyIt’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, 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.

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