I was 55 years old before I realized I was someone who suffered from panic attacks. I thought the feelings they periodically generated were simply part of who I was. It was while attending my daughter’s college graduation ceremony that I began to wake up to this signal I was receiving. Sitting in the audience, suddenly I was overcome with a powerful urge to flee the scene. I didn’t realize it then, but the familiar discomfort I was feeling was the way we feel when our body/brain floods itself with stress hormones in response to an acute, immediate threat. In reality, there was no one in the processional or the audience representing any such threat, but for some reason my body/brain decided there was. And so I fled the scene. And skipped the after-party. And felt much better. But also sad that I couldn’t fully participate in this milestone celebration. I have had to flee many such seemingly harmless social events over the years.
I’ve Heard About People Like Me
Coincidentally, I was taking a post-graduate class in trauma at the time, and it was in there that the light bulb fully lit up. The description the professor offered of panic attacks perfectly described what happened to me at my daughter’s graduation:
- Pounding heart
- Intense feeling of dread
- Shortness of breath
- Trembling or shaking
There are other symptoms as well that I didn’t have, but essentially it came down to my brain generating a flight or fight response when nothing truly represented any threat at all. (Interestingly, just last week I could feel my brain doing something similar again at a much lower intensity when I began the familiar, easy job of changing the oil in my truck! Only here I could identify the trigger: thoughts my brain spontaneously generated of the truck falling off the ramps it was raised up on and crushing me). This is my brain doing its best to look out for me. Very often unnecessarily.
Fruit for the Juicer
It is these kinds of stress-hormone-generated activations that seem to continually point the way for my personal growth and development. These afflictive emotions provide the fruit for my neurological juicer. Local Seattle author Mary O’Malley writes about the benefit of paying close attention to such disturbances in her recent book, What’s In the Way Is the Way. One primary challenge though is that what’s in the way usually doesn’t feel all that great. Combine that with my brain’s and body’s preference for feeling good and we have a perfect recipe for aversion, for turning away from pain and suffering – both my own and other people’s. What’s the problem with that? Only one thing: abnegation is not integration.
Integration means “to combine things together to produce increasingly greater wholes.” Where the brain is concerned (and as we’re learning, on many levels, the heart as well), integration benefits its operations in several ways. University of Washington neuroscientist William Calvin argues that Albert Einstein’s brain was integrated in ways that made it appear that structurally he had two right hemispheres. Where most of us have a deep groove (Sylvian Fissure) separating our left temporal and parietal lobes, that fissure on Einstein’s left hemisphere was completely filled in with brain tissue – integrated!
Nature Versus Nootropism
Whether he was born that way or he grew it that way, I would argue for a little bit of both. For more than seven years Einstein reviewed innovative patent drawings and applications for the Swiss Patent Office. But here’s a part I think may have played a significant role in Einstein’s brain integration: every day he would walk to and from work accompanied by a colleague. During those daily walks they would fantasize and regale each other with accounts of the innovations they had reviewed during the work day. Why is this walk-and-talk important? Well, since almost 90% of the neurons in the brain are employed in moving the body, and every single one of them eventually traces a route that terminates at a muscle, walking may turn out to be a massively facilitating integrative mechanism. Steve Jobs, among many luminaries, thought it was pretty important.
Integration Makes It Happen
There are other ways to place life challenges into the service of neural integration as well. Any number of these somatic therapeutic modalities can and do work for many people (more than half of them have worked for me).
Another is to simply begin a concerted study of how your own brain works. Here’s a list of some considerable benefits that can be obtained.
Finally, simply observing and realizing that all of us – individually and collectively – are on a journey of wholeness and increasing mind-body integration (even though sometimes it doesn’t seem like it – for example, during political season in America), that realization can serve as a reason to begin to consider the possibility of using life’s difficulties as directional signals.