I almost cut my finger off last month in a logging accident. I had a glove on when I caught it in a peavey (a log-rolling tool), and at first I only felt a pinch. I kept working. But then the finger began feeling hinky and I had the thought, “I should take a look at that finger.” I took the glove off and saw the base of the fingernail completely severed. Then I turned it over to see the end of the finger dangling from the bone. Only at that point – actually seeing the extent of the injury – did I suddenly feel my adrenals go into action, flooding my body with adrenaline and cortisol. What’s worth noting here is that the actual insult happened many minutes before any awareness of the threat it represented (Interesting, semi-related side note: Leprosy is a bacterial infection that damages the body’s pain receptors. Had this cut happened to someone with advanced leprosy, blood would have been everywhere, and they would have had to search their body for the injury. Lepers’ fingers, toes, hands and feet are often amputated as a result of secondary infections from cuts that went unnoticed).
Once threat-awareness came into play many minutes later, my adrenal glands received a shot of ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone) and then went to work activating the whole HPA axis stress response, simultaneously triggering floods of norepinephrine in my brain and adrenaline and cortisol in my body, affecting all my organs and large tracts of neural real estate (as described in detail last week at the Langley Bakery).
Recognizing how my stress response system was highjacking me emotionally, after I wrapped a handkerchief around the finger, I began deliberately attending to my breathing – inhaling to a count of seven, exhaling to eleven. After six reps like that, I suddenly remembered that Polyvagal Theory underscores the importance of using the ventral branch of the vagus nerve to short-circuit the dorsal vagus branch by not remaining immobilized in the face of threat, so next I got up and began trotting back and forth, up and down the narrow trail into the woods.
After ten minutes of that, I took another look at the finger. The sight of the end dangling once again triggered further release of adrenaline and cortisol, but less than the first time. My head a bit clearer now, I went to my truck and took a water bottle from behind my seat and poured it over the cut. Next I took some clean napkins from the glove compartment, carefully wrapped the finger and taped it with duct tape. I repeated my 7-11 breathing and walked back up the trail, arm raised, more slowly and mindfully this time. Then at some point another idea arose from the neural depths: I stood next to an ancient Douglas Fir and deliberately began to shake my body. From my head to my toes I just stood there and shook until it felt like it was time to stop. Then I repeated my favorite stress mantra: “In THIS moment, everything’s completely all right.” And it was. And I had a cut finger.
On the drive home, I remembered another important element: the untrained, thinking brain does not operate well under big stress conditions. In such cases it’s usually best if possible, to do nothing. If that’s not an option, then make only the most elemental decisions. First decision: do I go straight home or drive a half hour to the emergency room in Coupeville? I decided to drive home. Hospitals are dangerous places. And they’re expensive. And since I wasn’t in any danger of bleeding to death, and not in particularly great pain – trauma often triggers the brain’s natural analgesics – going home seemed the most sensible option. I could always go to the hospital later.
Next decision: when I get home do I show the finger to my wife? Remembering the Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience, and its negative corollary (a less organized brain will disorganize a more organized brain), I elect to not show the finger to her and have her freak out. No sense in having BOTH our neurophysiologies highjacked.
Did any one or all of these things contribute to taming the 10th cranial nerve, augment the flow of beneficial trophic factors, amp up the immune response and set the healing process on a positive course? Possibly. I can’t really say for sure. Deliberately deciding to love that finger might have allowed my central nervous to release beneficial molecules like oxytocin – the love hormone (Love heals). But what I CAN say for sure is: I felt just the opposite of helpless in creatively orchestrating everything I did. I felt greatly empowered, the direct opposite of helpless. In the wake of it all – especially considering the results – as much as is prudent – I think allopathic medicine might well want to do everything they can to support personal patient empowerment. After all, it’s primarily our immune system that performs the healing miracles.