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.