Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Trauma & an Escape into the Mind of Bipolar Disorder?


Is Trauma a hidden casual factor in Bipolar symptoms which are largely expressed through the autonomic (animal) nervous system?

Can a trauma defense of the body be conditioned, perhaps from birth or by habitual postures of avoidance in the skeletal musculature, perhaps caused by continuous emotional abuse for example?

Is systems theory now beginning to explain the brain/body/mind better than our older clockwork universe model of simple cause and effect?

What waits beyond the  linear thinking of ‘one thing causes another?’

Complexity is a pain in the frontal lobe, when trying to think in terms of systemic interactions, with their feedback loops that work at millisecond speeds, we understandably get a headache, and on instinct, distress is triggered deep in the reptilian layer of out triune brain, the r-complex.

We are evolved for a simple life, born with an innate ability to survive once we have reached full maturity, unfortunately the systemic interaction between environment and organism affects the maturing process at levels below conscious awareness.

The notion of trauma and subsequent PTSD symptoms, is well accepted when visualized in terms of terrorizing events, war, rape, sexual abuse and similar events, less well known are the similar symptoms caused by sustained emotional abuse, although it is clearly recognized by psychotherapists worldwide.

Many people accept the Darwinian theory of evolution, considering it scientifically based, yet find the thought of themselves as an animal a stretch of the imaginative process. We prefer to think of ourselves as rational objective human beings, yet is our objective logic driven more by animal instincts than we care to admit to ourselves.  

‘That well known river flowing by the pyramids,’ you may be thinking?

Is our famous object oriented logical thinking produced by the need to regulate the instinctual energies of the body, evolving from early symbolization in painting and drawing, to the left brained modulation of metabolic processes through complex language expression. Does language transform instinctual energies for better self control by modulating raw sensations?

An Olympic athlete is asked to describe his/her experience of a gold medal performance, and nine times out of ten will use the word ‘you’ to describe themselves. ‘You know, you just, you just give it your best shot,’ in this way we manage our emotional energies without becoming overwhelmed by them, we distance ourselves from the core of our life experience.

Thinking in this way we might ask what the rational is behind the transformation of the kind of emotional disorders, known as ‘shell shock’ at the end of world war one, to PTSD in the modern era of Iraq and Afghanistan. Are such categorizations and labeling of symptoms beneficial to the sufferer or to the observing other, ensuring an unconscious distancing from the raw experience of life?

If we can accept that objective logic is fundamentally a process of energy regulation and modulation within the brain/body/mind, we can see there may be a need to question our motivation in labeling symptoms as if they are separate objects, in the same way we see objects in the external world, in our instinct for survival. Is simple cause and effect thinking a product of intellect or instinct, certainly it must be a combination of both if we accept Darwin’s theory.

Is it time to take a systems look at affective disorders like bipolar and schizophrenia and is the common denominator the autonomic (animal) nervous system, with the fantastic complexity of feedback between body and brain, can we really think in terms of separation within the brain/nervous system motivation of the organism, the way we see separation in the external world.

Looking back on my first episode of mania, the lack of perspective beyond ‘it’s a chemical imbalance,’ left me as disorganized and distressed as the shame that ushers in the first objective memories of the manic period. Perhaps the mania was an unconscious attempt to change a previous system organization that was dominated by the instinct or innate affect/emotion we call fear? 

Chaos systems theory studies the way systems organize through what on the surface appears to be chaos, yet somehow systems find a hierarchical balance producing longer term stability. Perhaps the chaos of mania is an attempt to re-balance our unconscious emotional systems for a more positive longer term stability?

Accepting myself as an animal, an evolved mammal with an autonomic nervous system which is the same as my mammalian cousins, has allowed me to embrace newer theories and therapies that address the human condition in this way, leading me to become more familiar with the accepted knowledge of the brain/nervous system, and even begin to feel its processes within my body, using mindfulness and sensation tracking to slowly ease my hyperactive, instinct driven life long intellectualism.

We are evolved from the mammalian line of species and our animal cousins have the instinctual ability to feign death as a last resort when facing the terror that they were about to be eaten, known as the escape when there is no escape. This is managed via the brain and the autonomic (animal) nervous system, with it's sympathetic and para-sympathetic branches.

The sympathetic branch is largely responsible for our fight/ flight reactions, while the para-sympathetic is largely responsible for freeze/fright reactions, so when we face a danger that we cannot escape from ie, memory sensations of a traumatic event we (feign death) escape by going into hyper-vigilant dissociation, this is now understood as simultaneous hyper-activity in both branches of the nervous system.

To escape the sensations of the body, we escape into our heads and that is why we get issues like not being able to feel the ground beneath our feet, and other such symptoms of dissociation.

Mania has been acknowledged as the second phase of bipolar disorder, even though it presents as the first, because that's when we normally seek the medical door. Yet it is now thought that this is only after a long period of withdrawal on the depressive side, perhaps even that mania is an unconscious urge to re-engage with life, hence the feelings of wellbeing in the early days as the nervous system comes back into balance.

Sadly there is little discussion of this period of enhanced wellbeing, with an autonomic acceptance that life before the manic episode was cradled in normal wellbeing, and what normal wellbeing implies.

In the process of the manic experience, is an original trauma defense pattern of hyper-active nervous system activity still unconscious, such as a tendency for braced muscular postures. Do we slip back into our habituated negative defense of hyperactive autonomic nervous system activity, as the chaos of mania fails to reorganize the nervous systems hierarchical balance.

There is new awareness now being taken on-board by all sorts of therapists who use mindfulness and sensation tracking techniques to bring trauma victims in particular, back into awareness of their body.
The aim is to expand the individuals tolerance for sensation arousal within the body without escaping into dissociation. 

There is a growing awareness that all disorders of experience maybe a continuum ranging from mild to extreme, from the common experience of highway hypnosis to unusual forms of denial and on to delusion, perhaps our core experience as mediated by the evolved mammalian nervous system cannot be separated so easily into objective symptoms of this or that?.

Is the autonomic (animal) nervous system at the core of our "affective experience" of being alive in each passing moment of life, what neuroscience now describes as an "affective state?" Is a well balanced autonomic nervous system the core experience in Eckhart Tolle's description of "The Power of Now," and the Buddhist experience of deep meditation?

John Chitty has perhaps the best education on the autonomic nervous system here on the internet, listen to him talk about the miracle hug of new born twins.