Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Problem with Summer in Sacramento

A student I know who is studying the brain with respect to post traumatic stress tells me that the latest research indicates that the brain is physically changed somehow by traumatic experiences such as war. It's an intriguing idea and one which seems to offer a solution to the problem that so many suffer, especially the last decade or so when we've sent military (and some civilian) members to war zones repeatedly.

The latest shooting at Fort Hood underscores the problem of post traumatic stress, although it's hard to predict how people will react to combat experiences, as those who were helping the shooter will, to their dismay, attest.

It goes back to my theory that the brain chemistry a person inherits predisposes that person to painful feelings that come from the brain, whether randomly or in a predictable pattern or cycle.  In an effort to explain those feelings, the mind fixes on a reasonable-seeming source of the pain and then sets about doing something to eliminate that source or mitigate its effects.  The problem then is not the brain, but whatever the suffering person decides is the source of that pain.

Of course, as I've often said, it's pretty easy to find something to be upset about. No one has a perfect life and many things can be the source of discomfort or trouble. The problem arises when the identified source does not really match the level of suffering the person is experiencing. But the sufferer carries on nevertheless, making the external event into something bigger than it really is, working to eradicate the falsely identified source of pain no matter how illogical.

For instance, a woman who has this kind of brain chemistry suddenly feels bad when there's really no reason to feel bad. In an effort to explain why she feels bad, she comes up with something: why did her husband not call her at lunchtime? Every day he calls her and today he did not. It must be because he is seeing another woman and was with that woman during lunch. Now she has a reason to feel bad: her husband is cheating on her. Of course, this kind of thought process, because it's fictional to start with, has no bounds. In an effort to "explain" her bad feelings, she's prepared to go all the way. He's seeing another woman and has been seeing her for months, maybe years. She looks back at all the times he didn't call her or even those times he did call her and she scrutinizes them for signs of cheating.  She remembers all the times he was absent or seemed distant and decides they indicate his preoccupation with that "other woman." She continues to accumulate "evidence" until she's convinced herself this is happening to her and now she has a reason to feel bad. When her husband gets home, she confronts him with this evidence and cries hysterically. If he is innocent he will be completely puzzled by her behavior. He denies the accusation, which only causes her to suspect him more and now she is really upset, crying hysterically and planning her future without him.

Paradoxically, it is this outburst that finally causes her to feel better. She has identified the source of the pain and has done something about it--confronted her husband. She has lanced the boil, so to speak, and now feels purged of the infection that was causing her pain. She may calm down while she contemplates her next move. The storm is over. For now, anyway. The husband's reaction may change the details of how she responds, but the end result is the same. Whether he denies it or not, whether he gets angry or offers comfort, she feels better afterward.

Moreover, even if she is right and he admits it, the same quiescence occurs. Whether or not the source of the pain is real, the outcome is the same: she feels better. In fact, the more real trouble she has, the better she feels.

Have you ever known someone who is always complaining about minor disturbances but when a real tragedy occurs, rises to the occasion beautifully, even heroically? I believe the reason is that the person is prepared to deal with disaster. His fight/flight apparatus is constantly honed and ready for action so that when real emergencies call on him to act, he can do whatever is necessary without thinking. That he seems overjoyed to get into the action is no coincidence. His brain chemistry gives him the tools he needs to respond to dire situations. Unfortunately, when there are no emergencies to respond to, he doesn't fare so well. The decorated soldier who redeploys home to his Army post only to find himself sinking into alcoholism or depression is an example of this phenomenon. His brain chemistry is still making him feel he is in a fight or flight situation when he no longer is. So he creates one to make himself feel better, not even realizing that that is what he is doing.

It's the kind of the situation Sacramento Valley weather forecasters find themselves in: there's not much to report on any given day, especially in the summer or during a drought--sunshine and heat, unremittingly. But because they make their money reporting on change, especially when that change is big or dangerous, they will try to find reasons to be troubled. When something does finally happen that causes trouble, they jump on it, barely containing their glee, it seems, at their "good" fortune. Thus "Rain Storm '98" or "Winter Storm Vesuvius" rules headlines for days or (if they can manage it) weeks.

Normal life for many Americans is like summer in Sacramento, California--every day is pretty much the same with safe, non-troublesome weather and the occasional short-lived, not-too-threatening storm of one kind or another. No tornadoes, no blizzards, no hurricanes, no floods. But if your brain chemistry erroneously sets off sirens in your head on a daily basis, you think your life is not normal and start believing there must be a storm around somewhere and go off looking for it before it wreaks havoc in your life.

The task for such people is not to find the reason for the siren, it's simply to find a way to turn the siren off. Simple, yes. Easy? Not so much.

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