Sunday, December 23, 2012

Cravings: Brain Generated Bad Feelings

I've been thinking a lot lately about how overeating interacts with bad brain chemistry. I overeat in response to the bad feelings that come from my brain; it's a way of self-medicating, a way to fix the problem of feeling bad for no reason.  That method is especially effective when the bad feelings are the result of overeating!

The brain is efficient--it knows exactly what will fix the problem quickly. Chocolate-induced stimulation is missing, says the brain, so chocolate must be obtained. And then it nags the organism to go fetch some for it. (The brain is bossy like that.) And we all know how painful the brain's nagging can be.

So what to do? Surrender and give the brain what it wants? That's one solution. Not the best, considering what the consequences are.

What else, then? Well, if you consider that in most cases cravings for highly stimulating foods like chocolate or french fries are generated by the brain (and not by the environment), they can be dealt with like other brain-generated bad feelings such as anxiety, depression and rage. That means you can recognize them for what they are and make them go away with the usual bad-brain-chemistry scanning techniques.

Not so easy, you say? I agree, especially when the feeling is strong and the customary remedy is so cheap and close at hand.  And so seemingly harmless, right? Wrong.

The key is "seemingly." Having a couple of cookies or a piece of pie of a big dish of ice cream will quickly fix my cravings/depression/stress and won't hurt me or anybody else, you say, so why not go ahead?  Well, the truth is, it will hurt you and others who care about you. But more practically speaking, because eating fat/sugar is an addiction, as time goes on, more and more of the substance will be required to do the same job, until no amount will fix the problem and you're left with powerful, painful cravings and no way to satisfy them. And by then you'll no doubt be morbidly obese.

So the answer is to treat food cravings like any other brain-generated bad feelings and make them go away as harmlessly as possible.  Do a jigsaw puzzle, for instance. Or read a murder mystery.  Do genealogy hunting. Or make a model. Take pictures.  Or paint.  There are many healthy ways to stimulate the brain so it doesn't feel deprived. Come up with your own and try it out!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Roller Coaster Brain

So, addiction is caused by the brain trying to adjust to the unusual level of stimulation (either too much or not enough) by up- or down-regulating the number of receptors on the neurons that process brain chemicals.

It's as if the brain is saying, "So, I guess too much stimulation is the new normal around here," and it decreases the number of receptors to keep the brain from being over stimulated.  And when there's a change in that "new normal," the brain has to make new receptors because it's not getting enough stimulation.  "Make up your mind!" it says to the person making bad choices.

People whose brains readily adjust in that way to drugs are more likely to become addicted.  It's why when I eat even a little bit of chocolate, I find myself craving it for hours afterward.

I think that people who are hyperalert naturally produce more chemicals that stimulate the brain, producing a higher degree of alertness.  But the delivery of stimulating chemicals is neither constant nor consistent, so it sometimes drops off. When that happens, the person gets depressed because the brain has responded to the hyperalertness by down regulating receptors.  Not only does it drop off sometimes, but sometimes it becomes too great, to where there are too many receptors and the brain is overstimulated. One of the results of that condition is that the person becomes angry or combative, I think. 

So, too much or too little stimulation produces a fight or flight scenario, with depression being one version of flight (playing dead?).

The cure for all these states of being is time, really, though sufferers are usually in so much pain (or euphoria) they don't want to wait for the brain to adjust to the change in chemistry. So they do something--often something foolish or unhealthy or costly or risky--that works, but only for the short term.  And the associated costs are usually high.

The alternative? Recognize the impulse for what it is. Wait, or if you can't wait, do something that will work but will not cause harm.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Maintaining Homeostasis

I've been reading more into the book Understanding Biological Psychology. It's a fascinating book, but a little over my head from time to time.  I have to work harder to understand the genetic and physiological processes of brain chemistry, but I did read a little section on addiction that was interesting and quite pertinent, I think, to what I was saying about behaviors designed to fix the bad feeling.

In the book, Philip Corr talks about the neurotransmitter receptors on the neurons that process the neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) as they enter the "dock," as it's called. In the normal state of the brain, there's an optimum number of receptors that serve to maintain "homeostasis," where the brain has a "consistent level of stimulation" (114).  The brain has the ability to increase or decrease the number of receptors, depending on what the "internal processes of the brain" are telling it is needed. The ingestion of recreational drugs such as cocaine, nicotine, or amphetamine causes the brain to respond to the overstimulation by decreasing the number of receptors.  That's fine until the person stops ingesting the drug, when the decreased number of receptors throws the level of stimulation out of balance; the person is in a "deficient chemical state" and suffers withdrawal. The brain takes action, increasing the number of receptors, but it takes time, so the suffering goes on for a while.

Of course, when the person goes back to ingesting the drug, the process starts all over again.

Corr mainly talks about typical drugs of abuse, including hallucinogens and alcohol. But I think that anything can become a "drug," such as gambling, shopping, hoarding, or eating.  Any of these activities could effectively stimulate the brain to the point where the brain takes away the receptors, causing the deficient chemical state that then prompts the next round of drug taking.

Now, if the brain starts the process by creating the bad feeling that the person must then try to make go away by ingesting a drug or doing a particular activity, then there's no reason to assume that the brain will stop sending those erroneous signals.  The mind will need to find better ways of making the feeling go away--ways that are not harmful to the person or the society.

The brain is trying to maintain homeostasis, but it's not doing a very good job, apparently. Corr talks about the "mesolimbic dopamine pathway"--"the common pathway of reinforcement and reward in the brain" (120). He says this pathway can be activated by many things, "from intellectual accomplishment to sexual orgasm." He suggests that some people have a smaller number of dopamine receptors, and that "their own internal reward system is not working too well in the first place, and this might predispose them to keep trying drugs as a means of compensating for their own naturally decreased activation of reward circuits."

It's an interesting idea, one that might explain my idea, that the brain is starting this whole thing by not working too well.  And that people are rationally trying to compensate for the brain's poor performance by acting in ways that they hope will work to fix it.

So, then, achieving happiness is just a matter of making better choices about how to fix the brain's physiology.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Allowing Yourself to Be Happy

Bad brain chemistry is a terribly debilitating condition, even in a relatively mild form like mine.  I struggle with fear, anxiety, anger, depression every single day.  It's funny how for most of my life I never knew my mother had the same condition.  Because she was married to my father, who suffered from bi-polar disorder, it seemed that he was making her unhappy all those years.  It never occurred to me that she had the same problem as he, though in a less conspicuous form.

Over the years my mother complained of unhappiness, and I wanted to do something to help her, to make her happy.  My whole life I worked at it, and not just with her--with the other members of my family, too, who always seemed to be unhappy.  But no matter what I did, it didn't help.  I decided they liked being unhappy.

But that wasn't really true, at least not in the strictest sense.  During that time I'd been unhappy, too, attributing my misery to life circumstances that were making me suffer.  So I'd change the circumstances, thinking that would change my level of happiness.  Of course, it never worked, or not for very long, anyway.  My family members were no different; they assumed their misery came from the outside and they continued to change their circumstances to try to stop their suffering.

In fact, they've tried everything, but the misery always comes back. Believe me, I know.  Unfortunately, I can't convince them that the reason it comes back is because it's inside them.  But then who can blame them? If the misery is inside you, you're doomed, right?  If you can't get rid of it, you have to give up.  Who'd want to accept that?

Well, I know I can't get rid of the bad feelings because they are part of my physical being.  But what I can do is realize that they are merely physical phenomena that can be dealt with in a pragmatic and non-self-destructive way.

Easy to say, but not easy to do.  Feeling bad is something you want to fix right away. For instance, right now I feel terrible.  It's a physical pain but it feels like a mental pain.  What I'm doing now is designed to make it go away; writing is an analgesic for me.  Hunting for the solution to the puzzle helps my brain get back on track.

I wish I could communicate this to my mother to help her feel better.  I've tried it with my sister, but she just doesn't want to accept that she has a brain chemistry problem, and that is the key to this treatment.  Maybe she's afraid that if she admits to having bad brain chemistry, she'll be stuck being unhappy with no hope for the future.  I guess it's like having to admit you have an addiction; once you admit that, then you have to do something about it, and if you don't know what to do, you'll lose hope.

So, I guess I have to perfect this treatment before I can convince people it's alright to have bad brain chemistry because you can do something about it and finally allow yourself to be happy.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Feed Me, Seymour!

Lately I've been paying more attention to the cravings that impel me to eat (usually high calorie, high fat foods), and I've noticed that the cravings are not stopped by eating the preferred foods (chocolate, for example).  Yesterday at about 9:30 AM I ate some pumpkin bread that one of my coworkers brought.  (There's always some food available there, it seems, especially now at holiday time!)  I figured it would suffice as my snack, but one hour later I was hungry again, so I went ahead and ate what I had brought, a muffin with a teaspoonful of peanut butter.  That seemed to satisfy me, since I wasn't hungry at 11:45, when I ate my lunch.  Was it because of the protein that I was satisfied--protein I didn't get in the the pumpkin bread?  Maybe, but I'm not sure.

Earlier this week, in response to a craving, I had some candy.  I waited to see if that would satisfy the craving, and it did--for a little while. But only 15 minutes later I was wanting more of it.  I've talked about the quality of the craving in my eating blog--it feels like a burning sensation, and it's very insistent.  It takes my focus away from whatever I'm doing and so is difficult to ignore.  But if I give into it, before long it's back. In fact, the craving returns in a shorter and shorter span of time, it seems.  I'm reminded of the play, Little Shop of Horrors, where the plant cries, "Feed me, Seymour!"  (I can't help but think that this play is about addiction.)  I know that what I'm supposed to do is ignore the cravings, but why do I (and other people) have them to begin with?  And why do some people not have them?

I've been reading the book, Understanding Biological Psychology, in an effort to learn more about brain chemistry and its effect on the mind and behavior.  The author, Philip Corr, seems to share my way of thinking about the brain as hardware and the mind as software.  And he's talking about genetics and how they affect brain chemistry, something I definitely want to know more about. And in the chapter on Evolution, he's relaying that we are going to learn about how certain traits survived because they made the organism more able to survive and reproduce. I believe that the collection of traits I'm calling "hyperalertness" was in ancient times very effective at increasing survival, but has over the years become more and more troublesome.

So, I can't help but think that the high-calorie/high-fat-food-seeking behavior that could informally be called a craving is nothing more than a formerly adaptive mechanism that is currently causing the organism to fail to survive, especially if that organism is young.

We know that obesity is related to Type II Diabetes (what was once called late-life diabetes).  Because it has been for many years an affliction of middle-aged and elderly folks (developed after the child-bearing years), the genetic predisposition for Type II continues to be passed down.  Diabetes affects the survival of the individual, but only after he or she has already reproduced. (It seems that no one worries about passing down that particular bad trait, unlike hemophilia or sickle cell anemia.)

I think that the recent increase of Type II Diabetes  in children is a sign that the formerly (in ancient times) highly adaptive behavior of eating foods that will most efficiently sustain life (high-fat, high-calorie, low-bulk foods) in the face of a what must have then been an uncertain future has become maladaptive and will cause the organism to fail to survive and--because that individual might die young--fail to pass on his/her genetic material (including the tendency to develop Type II Diabetes) to succeeding generations.

From Nature's point of view, this would be considered a good thing: bad traits are not passed down and eventually become extinct.  Is that how we will get rid of Type II Diabetes?  Probably not, because we can't bear to let nature take its course, at least here in the U.S. 

But to get back to the idea of an ancient, formerly adaptive desire to eat fuel-efficient foods: at one time in our dim past it helped us, but it no longer does, at least not those of us in developed countries who don't daily engage in calorie-burning survival activities.  Despite the fact that it doesn't help, the desire still exists and expresses itself in the cravings we feel that we have a hard time ignoring.

If indeed this now maladaptive desire is imprinted in my brain and not likely to go away, what to do about it?  Well, I think my strategy for this feeling should be no different from the one I use for other pesky feelings conjured up by my brain.  That is: 1) recognize it for what it is and not what it seems to be (an emergency), 2) restrain myself from responding immediately, and 3) do something non-harmful to make the feeling go away.

All three parts are hard, unfortunately. But the beauty of this approach is that is it not reproachful.  The problem is a physical one and the solution is practical: to take up the challenge of maladaptive brain chemistry in the most effective way possible.  Find it, fix it, and forget it.

Today I'm mainly focusing on the first part: recognizing the cravings for what they are.  The next part is a little harder, I think--to find a way to not respond to the craving. The third part helps the second part; if I can find something to do that will make the feeling go away before I respond to it, I'll succeed.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Brain Chemistry and Addictions

Today I want to explore the connection between bad brain chemistry and addiction.  In the past, I've pointed to various self-destructive behaviors as being the BBC sufferer's attempt to fix the problem caused by his or her bad brain chemistry.  It's a form of self-medicating to binge on alcohol, food, tobacco, drugs, shopping, gambling, sex, video games, channel surfing, texting, hand-washing, hoarding, or even violent behaviors such as beating or killing or destroying someone or something.  (People who kill animals obsessively, for instance, are self-medicating, I believe.)

People use these forms of medication because they work--they make the bad feelings go away.  Unfortunately, even the relatively harmless remedies don't work for very long, and people find they need more and more of the medicine more and more frequently to obtain the same result.  In other words, they develop a tolerance for it, and as their tolerance builds so do the medicine's costs and debilitating side-effects.

There are treatment programs for the more well-known obsessions, and people are becoming aware of how many ways there are to become addicted, thanks to a number of shows currently on TV that depict such maladies.  One of the things all the treatment programs seem to have in common is that the addiction is a medical problem, something that can't be helped.  The two methods used to treat addictions involve either swearing off the behavior completely or gradually decreasing the incidence until it's at a reasonable level.  Both seem very difficult for the addict to accomplish.

The same serotonin uptake inhibitor drugs used to treat depression are often recommended for addictions, with the idea that bad brain chemistry is causing the addictive behavior.  I wonder, though, if there's a way to using cognitive therapy to fix addiction. I'm guessing it would be very difficult, but maybe it would work better than what is being used currently.

Let's think about that for a minute.  The addictive behavior is in response to the feeling state produced by the brain.  The logic goes like this: I feel terrible.  Doing X will make me feel better, so I need to do X so I can feel better.  And I need to do it right away.

The urgency of the need is indicative of its being brain chemistry induced.  It's not simply a desire, but a powerful urge, a craving that is out of the normal realm of desire.  And what kind of need falls into that category?  A life-or-death urgency.  When one is in a fight-or-flight situation, time is of the essence.  If you're confronted by a mountain lion about to pounce, you can't afford to wait until a more convenient time.  You need to respond now!

Does the brain create that need?  I don't think the brain is particular about what the person uses to respond to the apparent emergency.  Whatever works is what the brain will be satisfied with.  The need is for the pain (that comes from the fear) to stop.

I know, I know--it doesn't feel like pain.  For example, I was at a luncheon today and even though I wasn't hungry after the first several bites, I ate everything on my plate in addition to the candy appetizer.  There are a lot of theories about why I did that, but I'm satisfied that it's an addiction.  The clean plate is the signal to stop, not the full stomach.  (Shirley Simon talks about this in her book, Learn to Be Thin.)  But I don't recall any pain associated with my behavior.

But what produces that desire to see the clean plate?  That's the question that most intrigues me.  In order to change my behavior, I would have to know the answer; otherwise, it's just a matter of doing what I'm told--to respond to the full stomach instead of the clean plate--a task that seems like it should be easy.  After all, it's just a matter of doing one thing instead of another.

So, what produces the urgency to eat until the plate is empty?  It must be providing me with the medication that I need to make the bad feeling go away.  But what is the bad feeling?  I don't recognize it when it sweeps over me.  But I do feel anxious when I see that there is food that is not being eaten, on my plate or someone else's.  Where does that feeling come from? 

Let's look at my original premise: the brain produces the bad feeling for no reason other than its own hyperalertness.  I feel hungry and that frightens me, so I try to feel less frightened by eating.  At that point, my mind is keenly focused on food.  I'm not paying attention to other things around me becaused I'm distracted by the desire to eat.

But what happens when I do eat and I'm no longer hungry?  Why do I keep eating?  How is my brain producing this desire?  Clearly it's not related to physical satiety.  What is it related to, then?  Well, maybe it's just what I've learned to do to make the bad feeling go away.

Like right now I feel bad, but the reason (I tell myself) is that my sister is unhappy.  I want my sister to be happy, so I try to do something right away to make my sister feel better so I can feel better.  Did I start out with the bad feeling that then fixes on my sister's problems?  If my sister no longer had problems would I still need something to be worried about?

Perhaps that's an addiction like any other.  I feel bad->I look for a reason to feel bad->Finding a reason creates the need to find a solution->act on that desire by carrying out the solution.

So, if I apply this reasoning to my eating behavior, I have this.  I feel bad (brain chemistry solar flare); one of the ways to make myself feel better is to eat; when I eat, I feel better.  I might even keep eating until I'm sure I won't feel bad again.

But the fact is, any number of actions will fix the brain chemistry.  And by the way, sometimes the brain chemistry produces euphoria instead of dysphoria.  It doesn't matter, really, the response is the same--do something to get my brain back in balance.

Some people would say: oh, come on! Is there no good reason to feel bad in your world?  Yes, there are good reasons to feel bad.  It's reasonable to think that I would feel bad because someone I love feels bad.  But then my desire to do something about it has more to do with me than with my loved one.  I want my sister to stop feeling bad so I can stop feeling bad.  That's about me, not her.  And even if I do solve this problem for her, she'll come up with another one, and another one after that.  And I'm going to keep feeling bad with her until she stops feeling bad (never, apparently).

So, what to do? More on that later.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


This morning I woke up early, as I often do, and started worrying. No doubt my brain chemistry is to blame, because I felt really terrible.  As usual, there was no reason to feel terrible.  Yes, I have plenty to worry about, as any person does.  But I know that worrying does no good, especially if what I'm worrying about is not under my control.  And certainly worrying in the middle of the night and losing sleep is not good for me at all.

Worrying is a form of caring, or at least that was what I was brought up to believe.  If you're not worried, you don't care.  But worrying is also a way to try to control the person you're worrying about.  Letting her or him know that the worrying you're doing is painful suggests that the person could stop the painful worrying by fixing whatever is causing the worrying: "If you go out in the snow storm tonight, I'll worry about you until you come home.  I'll be up all night and I have to go to work in the morning.  If you really cared about me, you wouldn't go out and make me worry that way."

So the person who worries shows she cares, but the person she worries about should show he cares by not doing whatever it is that makes her worry.  But if her pleas work and she never has to worry again, how will she show she cares?  It's a paradox, but don't worry.  She'll find something else to worry about soon enough.

Worrying happens in anticipation of a threat, because worrying always involves the future.  When we worry, we fear what we imagine could go wrong rather than what is going wrong now.  The worry is based on what has happened in the past and what could logically happen in the future given the present set of circumstances.  It's kind of like betting on what could go wrong; you win if you're right.  But you don't really want to win because that means that whatever could go wrong did go wrong.  (People who believe in Murphy's Law ["whatever can go wrong will go wrong"] are great worriers.)

Unlike a real and present danger, imagined dangers can escalate quickly, especially if the worrier has a good imagination.  What is the end result of a particular decision? No one knows, but worriers can always imagine.  I'm reminded of the series of commercials on TV that shows bizarre sequences of events resulting from using Cable TV instead of Dish.  The Rube-Goldberg-like scenarios are highly improbable but also highly imaginative and entertaining.  In a (mostly) comical way, they show the extent to which a single innocent-seeming decision can lead to disastrous consequences.

We all have the ability to imagine such consequences and to fear them.  We might even try to avoid them by making a different decision (such as not sticking with Cable TV).  Worrying, though, is something we do when we don't have the ability to head off consequences, mostly because the decision is another person's to make.  So we suffer pain from a life-or-death situation that hasn't happened yet.

Is that really different from the scenario we come up with during a brain chemistry attack?  Not really.  Ordinarily, the story we invent to explain the brain-generated bad feeling is one that is happening now.  With worrying, the story takes place in the future.  And then, once the soon-to-be-life-threatening scenario is imagined, it becomes like any other fictional rationale and takes on a life of its own.  The worrier tries to respond to what seems like a flight-or-fight situation.  But how would she respond?  Well, it depends on where and when the worrier is coming up with the dreaded scenarios.  If it's the middle of the night and the worrier's in bed, she's limited in her responses.

For instance, if I wake up and worry about whether or not the door is locked, I will eventually have to get up and find out.  Once I do that I feel better for a few minutes, but now I'm wide awake, and though I go back to bed, I don't go to sleep right away.  Instead, because the bad feeling is back, I find something else to worry about, something I might vow to fix in the morning.  Luckily, once morning comes I have a clearer perspective and find I don't have to do anything.  Or perhaps I find that I can't do anything.  But unless the bad feeling is gone completely, I still anticipate the bad event.  Sometimes I'll tell myself that I can't do anything, or that there's a solution I can apply in the future if it comes to that, and I do feel better.

The important thing is--as with all bad brain chemistry attacks--to get rid of the bad feeling as quickly as possible.  Now, I can hear protests from those people who are heavily invested in the value of worrying.  If I get rid of the feeling, doesn't that make me a bad person, an unfeeling wretch?  Well, that's a question that comes up whenever a person who is miserable because of brain chemistry tries to stop feeling bad.  If a person stops feeling bad, the logic goes, then he stops feeling.  That's utter nonsense, of course, because joy is every bit as legitimate a feeling as sadness or anxiety or anger.  Why is it not as valued, then?  A good question, and one I think needs to be answered.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Power of Ruby Slippers and Magic Words

So, you're the owner of a hyperalert brain that gets alarmed at the slightest provocation and sends life-or-death signals that must be responded to immediately to avoid psychic pain. Your fight-or-flight response to that alarm causes problems in your life in many ways, not the least of which is the effect is has on the people around you who witness it.

But part of the difficulty of avoiding psychic pain is that the person experiencing the false alarm and responding to it doesn't realize that the bad feeling is coming from his brain.  He thinks himself fully justified in being angry or sad or anxious or lethargic because he has come up with reasons for his feeling state that make perfect sense to him.  That they don't make sense to others doesn't matter to him.  He may tell himself that his friends or family or coworkers just don't understand, or that they are jealous and seek to sabotage him.  It doesn't occur to him that he is getting upset about something minor or easily tolerated or quickly remedied, and if some brave person points it out to him, he indignantly insists his complaint is legitimate and his so-called "friend" should support him in his beliefs.

A friend who wants to support him, though, often doesn't fare any better. She may get trapped into what would seem a rational strategy of offering suggestions for how the person could fix the problem.  These suggestions are usually rejected, one by one, until the helpful friend gives up in exasperation.  The offered solutions are rejected ostensibly because they are bad solutions, but in reality, the problem is not what the hyperalert person has presented it to be; the problem is his brain chemistry.  The friend's suggested remedies will not help the real problem. The sufferer probably realizes the truth on some unconscious level, so he avoids solving the imagined problem to avoid facing the probability that even if he finds a solution, he will still feel bad. 

And that's what usually happens.  A problem solved may be followed by momentary relief, but then the bad feeling returns and another, equally intractable problem is identified that must be solved in order for the hyperalert person to feel good again. And so the cycle continues, sometimes for a whole lifetime.

How can this be avoided? Well, the first step is to acknowledge the brain's role in producing the bad feeling.  That's not easy. People often are heavily invested in their rationale for why they are unhappy. Acknowledging the brain's role means acknowledging that your unhappiness is all in your mind.  When you've spent a lifetime blaming everything and everyone outside yourself for your misery, you're not eager to accept that you can stop being miserable whenever you want.  And perhaps even more difficult to accept is knowing that you had the power to change all along, that all those years of misery could have been avoided.

Once you see your brain chemistry as the culprit, the next step is perhaps harder to take: to make a different decision about what to do when the bad feeling strikes.  The brain's alarm is powerful; the strength of the longstanding stimulus-response chains makes it hard to think and to resist.  The sequence is firmly established, after all, so the organism doesn't have to think, just react, the way she should in a real life-or-death situation. But when it's not life-or-death, changing her response means going against powerful conditioning.  It gets easier with time and practice, but there's always a chance that the automatic response mode will kick in when the hyperalert person least expects it, undoing perhaps months of "normal" behavior.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

False Alarms

Making the bad feeling go away--ideally, before the person responds inappropriately--is the ultimate goal of my cognitive therapeutic technique.

Bad feelings come from the brain, but sometimes the brain is making a mistake. It's sending fear chemicals when there's no reason to.  I don't know why this happens (yet), but my guess is that the brain is wired to sound the alarm at the slightest provocation. Like the over-sensitive car alarm that goes off when someone merely brushes up against it, the hyperalert brain may also be too sensitive.

But even though the brain's alarm is false, the mind responds by taking the alarm seriously and trying to figure out where the threat is coming from so it can direct the body to do something about it.  It follows the brain's stimulus with an immediate response, a response that often causes the person problems.

My technique tries to interrupt that stimulus-response chain with a time-out during which the mind determines if the brain has sent a false alarm.  If there is no threat, the mind stands the body down.

Simple, right?  Yes, but despite the mind's accurate assessment that there's no threat, the brain continues to send out an alert.  It's similar to what happens when your smoke alarm goes off from a steamy pot of spaghetti cooking on the stove.  You know there's no fire, but you want the terrible noise to stop, so you frantically run around, moving the source of the "smoke," waving towels at the alarm, and if all else fails, pulling out the battery. 

Getting the erroneously produced bad feeling to go away is like stopping a false smoke alarm: you try everything until something works.  It's so painful, you would never just wait until it went away on its own.

People who are hyperalert suffer from false alarms frequently. Whenever the alarm happens, they do whatever they can to make the pain stop.  Often, because they haven't assessed the degree of threat, they are responding to the alarm as if it were a real life-or-death emergency.  Their actions to stop the threat (whether fight or flight) work; they feel better. But their response leaves everyone around them feeling worse because it was inappropriate, frightening, offensive, or even harmful.

Getting back to my example about the smoke alarm: what if you didn't stop and assess whether or not there was a fire? What if, every time your smoke alarm went off, you assumed there must be a fire, evacuated the building and called the fire department?  The firefighters would come each time because it's their job, but after a few such times they might come more slowly, and they'd probably be angry with you for the time and money you wasted on a non-emergency, especially if a real emergency happened at the same time.  You might even be prosecuted or charged.  And needless to say, when you really did have a fire, the fire department would assume that it was just another false alarm. ("The Boy Who Cried Wolf" story comes to mind here.)

Something similar results each time the hyperalert person "goes off" over some minor event. People who might otherwise be sympathetic to a shower of tears or persuaded by an angry protest become inured to the hyperalert person's irrational outbursts.  Each incident solidifies in their minds that the person is troubled; they end up disliking or fearing her or him and staying away as much as possible to avoid the next unpleasant encounter.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Third Option

Today I want to talk about what's behind my treatment technique called scanning.

Earlier in this blog I wrote a post called "Fight or Flight? How about neither?" In it I outlined my approach to the fight option, where I get enraged about an event in a way that suggests I'm afraid for my life, yet the circumstances of that event are anything but life threatening. My approach is first to realize I'm not in a life-or-death situation, and second, to do something other than fight in response. That's where the neither of my title comes in.

The third option is the option that arises when the organism determines he or she is not threatened, or at least, not yet.  That option might be called Watchful Waiting.  It involves holding off taking an immediate action to vigilantly look, listen, taste, touch, smell, investigate, explore, check things out, closely scrutinize, experiment, think, surmise, wonder.

I know you've seen animals use this option when confronted with a new creature in their environment.  If the animal doesn't feel particularly threatened, it will check things out--poke or prod, sniff, provoke, closely watching what the other creature does.  Sometimes the animal gets a nasty surprise in response to its investigations: the creature being poked pokes back.  Other times the new creature is deemed harmless and the animal moves on.

Wild animals must often be on the lookout for predators as they go about their business.  Hooved animals, for example, need to go to the watering hole to drink or bathe, so despite the good chance that they'll meet a big carnivore there, they go.  But they stay vigilant, wary of the predator's approach.  That heightened awareness helps them to escape when their lives are in imminent danger. They can quickly switch to fight-or-flight mode if need be.  After all, they have little choice; if they stay away from the watering hole for fear of encountering a predator, they'll eventually die of thirst.  So they go, but stay watchful. 

Some animals have trouble striking the right balance between acting and watching.  The male cardinal that visits our birdfeeder is an example.  He comes to get the seeds my husband and I put out for him, but if other birds (sparrows, for instance) come to feed at the same time as he (though there's plenty of room for all), he spends most of his time fighting to keep them away and barely gets a chance to munch a seed or two in the interim.  I admit that the sparrows might seem a bit intimidating in large numbers, but if the cardinal would stop fighting, he'd see that the sparrows are not going to get all the seeds and he would be able to eat his fill.  He chooses fight instead of watchful waiting, and consequently, he doesn't get to eat. 

The cardinal's mate, on the other hand, has figured out the sparrows are no threat. When they come to eat, she doesn't try to chase them away but instead continues eating, and then all the birds can happily eat their fill.  Obviously, at some time in the past the female cardinal made the choice of watchful waiting when confronted with a possible sparrow threat, and she is the better for it, unlike her mate, who must look for a time when sparrows are nowhere in sight to eat without interruption.

Humans are no different than other animals. When confronted with a potential threat, they too must decide whether to fight, flee, or watch and wait.  Of course, the choice first depends on the degree of threat.  If one's life truly is in imminent danger, then action is the right choice.  The trick is to assess the threat correctly.

But unfortunately, if you're a hyperalert person, bad brain chemistry can make a correct assessment difficult.  For instance, if my brain is suddenly flooded with fight-or-flight chemicals, I'm going to react without thinking, even though there is no real threat to react to.  Making a different decision at that point is hard, but what I should do is to immediately recognize the feeling as coming from inside myself rather than from outside and then choose to ignore it and avoid the erroneous and possibly harmful fight-or-flight response. 

Once that is accomplished, the next step is to make the feeling go away, and here is where the third option, Watchful Waiting, comes into play.  More on this later.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

My Theory

I've been thinking lately about hardware and software with respect to the brain and the mind. The hardware (your brain) is what you're stuck with, but the software (your mind, your interpretive apparatus) you can re-program.  People who use drugs and other chemicals are trying to fix the hardware without changing the programming, believing that fixing the hardware is enough.  Whether it really fixes the hardware is still being researched, but I believe that the behavior that has resulted from the faulty hardware also needs to be fixed because it will continue despite the chemical patches applied to the brain.

It's important to re-program the mind, whether or not you try to patch the brain, because it is the programming and your response to the programming that are making your life miserable, not the brain.  The brain is doing its thing, but your response to what your brain is doing is causing the problems.

Here are the main tenets of my theory:

1.  Hyperalert people have a certain inconvenient brain chemistry.

2.  The hyperalert brain delivers a message of danger, evoking fear.

3.  The mind tries to contextualize the fear.

4.  The mind causes the organism to respond with fight or flight.

5.  The action causes the organism to feel better (until the next time).

In order to be more convincing with my argument, though, I need more back up from science. So I'm going to buy a textbook about this subject and read it and then study this topic until I have support for my theory.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Creating Narratives

This morning, I went back and read all my posts for the past year and a half.  I like my ideas about brain chemistry but I wish I could share them with more people.  This is the shoal on which my ship of good intentions founders: the hard reality of the difficulty of getting people to listen and understand and agree that my perspective is valuable. 

It seems that everyone loves to disagree these days.  All our media is filled with conflict, much of it, it seems to me, manufactured for the purpose of selling more goods and services.  Ah yes, commerce.  The bedrock upon which our nation was founded.  Nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if our method of promoting sales is good for us.

We seem to have entered a period in which every communication between people must be a narrative. There's nothing wrong with that on the face of things, but unfortunately, a good narrative, one that succeeds at getting people's attention and entertaining them, must contain conflict, and that conflict must be sufficiently compelling to get the viewer/reader to stay with it to the end.  "Only trouble is interesting," say the fiction-writing teachers.  So in an effort to get people to pay attention to their messages about goods and services that are for sale, advertisers (and the shows they sponsor) copy fiction's structure and try to create narratives with as much "trouble" as possible.

And so we have shows like the long-running Survivor and its many imitators, to the point where every reality show must have some kind of conflict to be seen as viable.  Even shows that are not contest shows (that is, already set up for conflict) must, it seems, contain conflict in order to be thought interesting.  For instance, American Chopper, a reality show centered on what would normally be considered a peaceful activity (crafting a motorcycle), becomes instead a soap opera about the crafters' intra-familial fights.  That soap operas are traditionally fictional is my point: what we call "reality" shows these days are more fictional than the shows they are trying to emulate.  Because of the success of American Chopper and other conflict filled shows, we now have a number of shows that are, like soap operas, based entirely on dysfunctional relationships (Keeping Up With the Kardashians is one of the many).

But what does this have to do with brain chemistry? Well, the process of creating narratives in the media is similar to the process individuals with bad brain chemistry engage in to rationalize why they feel bad.  The bad feeling that comes from the brain is out of context, so the sufferer creates a context that makes sense.  She writes a narrative that contains a conflict to which she must then respond. And owing to the requirement that in order to be sufficiently compelling a narrative must have serious conflict with dire consequences, the person who feels bad must create a conflict that requires an immediate and serious response.  Life or death, fight or flight.

Unfortunately, the drama unfolding is only happening in the sufferer's mind.  It's a private screening.  Like listening to one half of a cell phone conversation, watching a brain chemistry compelled drama makes the viewer feel as if she is missing something.  Why are you so upset? is a question that the unfortunate witness asks herself, and she can only answer that there is no rational reason and therefore the person who is upset is irrational and therefore, at best, is to be avoided and at worst, to be feared.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Hyperalertness Is the Key

Today I read an article in the NY Times that describes the latest research in depression. Scientists now think that the process of treating depression is much more complicated than they first thought when they heralded Prozac and other drugs like it as a miracle cure for depression.  I could've told them that.  In fact, I did try to tell people that the drug, even if a person could safely use it, is not a panacea.  I don't use it because it makes my heart race, but also because it doesn't seem to work too well.

What I've been using--scanning, primarily--has been working for me (most of the time), although I'm not sure why it works.  I have my theories, but they are not backed up by science so they can't be right, right?  Well, reading that article has made me wonder if there is perhaps some science behind my theory.  One of the things the article stated was that the growth of new neurons seems to be related to improvement in mood for depressed people. They're not sure how, though.  And they think that maybe it's not Prozac that's helping but the creation of new cells (that takes a few weeks, perhaps) that does the trick, and that somehow Prozac and serotonin are stimulating the growth of new cells.  An interesting idea, since my theory involves the use of mental focus to alleviate depression, although my technique works right away.

Another thing the writer said was that they're wondering if the way the brain organizes itself has something to do with depression--that if you act depressed, you feel depressed.  That's somewhat like what I surmise--that the brain creates a feeling state that is interpreted by the mind as danger and the mind quickly fills in the causes that then prompts a logical response.  The brain makes you feel something out of context (another point the article makes--that depression is non-context sadness), and so you supply the context and act on that.

Something else in the article: statistics that some large number of people (49%?) are suffering from untreated depression.  That's because they're handling it somehow and don't want the stigma of treatment.  I can understand that.  I want to tell my colleagues that I suffer from brain chemistry problems, but I'm afraid they'll never look at me the same way again, that they'll see me as "sick" somehow, even though intuitively they know I am.

But what the article doesn't address but which I feel is inherent in depression is that it is directly related to other unpleasant mental states: anger, rage, anxiety, panic, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, even schizophrenia, paranoia, and mania disorder.  I believe that sufferers are hyper-alert and that the condition of hyper-alertness is causing all these problems, mainly in society, because that is where the problems are most acutely felt.  We live in groups, and so our mental disabilities affect the other people in our groups.

I still maintain that hyper-alertness was once a prized ability; the hyper-alert person was an asset to a group of people who were nomadic or hunter-gatherers or even farmers surrounded by wilderness and predatory animals.  But in a safe society, such people are not an asset--they are a detriment.  Their skills are not put to use, and can be a real disrupter in most circumstances. 

However, in parts of society--even our supposedly safe society--hyper-alertness is still an asset.  In high crime areas, for instance, it pays big dividends to be someone who can scope out the dangers, can interpret the behavior of other humans who may intend harm (though there are fewer non-human predators these days, there are still some).  I was reading a novel in which the main character is the survivor of an abusive father.  He learned to "read" the signs of the father's changing moods and keep out of harm's way when possible.  Such early training made him an excellent detective, of course.  But what wasn't brought out in the novel was that the father's alcoholism and rage was a sign of the same qualities he possessed and passed down to his son, what I call hyper-alertness.

More later.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Chasing the Blues Away

Some days are harder than others to chase the blues away.  It's funny--I've heard that expression all my life but never before this moment really thought about it as being a real struggle. When you think about what people do to chase the blues away, it usually involves having a party, or maybe going for a trip, or watching a comedy show, or even singing the blues.  People do have to work at keeping sadness at bay, and the blues are usually thought of as something that happens without warning or even sometimes without reason. 

In the middle ages and the Renaissance, people thought melancholia was a condition brought on by the wrong combination of bodily fluids--too much black bile, they surmised. (In fact, the word melancholy can be translated as black [melan] bile [chole].)  Hamlet was thought to be suffering from the condition.  If you think about it, they weren't too far off with their theory; they just picked the wrong organ.  The blues always results from an imbalance, but it's of brain chemicals.  Chasing away the blues can only be done by correcting that imbalance, whether through chemicals or diet or exercise or some other activity that triggers the change.

Sometimes I have a hard time finding the right activity to fix my brain chemistry.  Today I tried staying home from work, reading a mystery novel, and now writing.  None of these techniques are working too well.  What to do?  I'm not really sure.  Keep trying, I guess.  Maybe I'll have lunch, see if that works.