Thursday, January 26, 2012

Unconsciously Unsafe leads to Mental Torment?

Behind closed eyes, a dreamer's in-tension?
I froze for a split second, faltered in my approach to her. I recovered quickly, acting out the ritual "how are you." Yet the damage was done. The scene set for an exchange more uncomfortably tense than relaxed and spontaneously flowing.
"Dam! She's so beautiful and I'm aching to get close to her," I remember thinking as I re-ran the scenes in my head and the way it might have gone if I could only get over it. This ice in my gut that tensions my shiver of flight. Or is it fright?

Its the slightest effect, flashing through my whole body in an instant. Always there, no matter how much mindful rehearsal I do beforehand. All those affirmations of positive intent, never dissolved its unconscious nature. An involuntary reaction that I couldn't control. Over the years, the pain of miss-tuned connection drove me mad! Down into the hell of fearful isolation, even in a crowded room?

Over the years my mind seemed to amplify the effect with the worrisome concern of, WTF is it? The frozen pool that should have been the health spa spring of emotional well being, became a beast of torment, the bad me within. The "my fault," guilt, shame and self blame, became the rage of a beast that eats from within.

Over the years I tried everything from pills to spiritual affirmations, mindful meditations of followed breath and gratitude for the smallest blessings. There were periods of calm and steady progress, always interrupted by unexpected "got ya" moments, which set the whole shame blame feeding cycle of again. Looking back on my darkest hours of torment, I can well understand how notions of being possessed come to mind.

Mary was the girl's name, such a vision to behold, a heavenly goddess of beauty, in an embodied reflection of divine light. I re-run that same miss-attunement scene again, playing it out like an old home video through a mind's eye projector lens. Edited version added as well, with all that we might have said and done, if I'd slipped seamlessly into easy flirting. The fist glance look before my little freeze reaction had spoken of a want in her too. “Dam! I could have used the divine light line too, she is Catholic after all.” "Alas, my poor soul, fate colludes towards deep regret and heaven is not sent, in such moments of lost innocence."

Hmm! Another fantasy of self support, of self nurture through times of heart felt isolation? The real thing lost and enacted through imagination, a fantasy simulation? There were times when the simulation kept me warm on lonely nights though. Melted the frozen pool and allowed the health spa spring of emotion to flow? 'You can't have a relationship with ghost,' a therapist once told me about such fantasy re-enactments. Perhaps he sought to break through my icy shiver by evoking the heat of anger, yet it felt like judgment and blame.

"Why am I one of those who has to pick things apart? - Why do I need to see exactly how it works?" I once complained during group therapy. "The 1950's kid with a meccano set," a group member quipped .
Much later I read, "Therapists need to understand that the cues of a therapeutic setting are extremely critical to the clinical process. Insight is not going to do very much with PTSD, but intonation will do a lot." _S, Porges.

Intonation of the voice is therapeutic for PTSD? How on earth does that work?

In time I came to understand that feeling unsafe was the keystone of my life long habit of miss-connection. My icy shiver of heart felt interruption to the wondrous flow of life, is energized by internalized threat. A millisecond re-enactment of trauma experience that is processed far below the level of cognition. The miniature re-enactment is an unconscious need to complete a physical reaction and leave the actual experience in the past.

Years of not being able to identify the unconscious nature of my social anxiety, only enhanced the mystery and amplified the effect. Not only did I suffer from an unconscious expectation, as a need for completion, I became self conscious and increased the fear toned affect. Looking back now with the benefit of hindsight and a lot of self education I see the vicious cycle inherent in the mind, body split.

Unsafe brings images to mind and thoughts of an external threat, and that was there during childhood when I ran away from home four times, because I felt safer on the streets. Quiet, wide open spaces and the silence of the dead of night, have always brought an easier, rhythm and depth to my breath. I can describe the events of a fearful childhood, paint a picture of this incident led to that drama and its subsequent consequences. I can describe how I felt using well known words for major organs, like my heart. I could even use of words of analogy to poetic effect, if I had that kind of talent;

“That fall, as the disorder gradually took full possession of my system, I began to conceive that my mind itself was like one of those outmoded small-town telephone exchanges, being gradually inundated by flood-waters: one by one, the normal circuits began to drown, causing some of the instinct and intellect to slowly disconnect.” (Styron, 1990).

Styron’s small town telephone exchange is a wonderful analogy of depressions creeping paralysis of the mind. Its also an example of how we're stuck with a rather object oriented view of our inner experience? How can we hope to articulate our inner states to ourselves and others using the dialogue of an externally focused language?

To be fair the kind of knowledge we now posses about the electro-chemical activity of inner sensation, is so new it makes our object oriented language painfully inadequate for any accurate self awareness. The dominance of visual image of an external world and the symbolized self narrative it evolved, has fostered a kind of self deception. That zest for life we seek in such states as a thrill, has an overwhelmingly chemical nature below the surface of the skin. Perhaps more akin to popping the cap on a well shaken can of cola, than a “this is were the rubber meets the road Jack,” if you sense what I mean?

Unconsciously Unsafe is a much harder state to describe and the academic language of neurobiology, is far from poetic. There are no images or thoughts that spring to mind either, because the sense of threat is so insidious, lying below the threshold of the mind within the more ancient layers of the brain. It subtly affects muscular tone, breathing depth and rhythm, heart rate and pulse, a vigilant stare in the eyes and tense curling up of the fingers. It even has an effect on our hearing, so that we miss much of other people's voice intonation. Its like a constant hum of inaudible noise below the surface, with degrees of habitual tension.

Did trauma experience lead me to mental torment & a diagnosed mental illness?

As I mentioned above the torment of not being able to identify the beast that attacked me from within, drove me mad, or at least that what I was judged to be? Twenty seven years of struggling with a mental illness diagnosis, when trails of hit and miss medications brought the extra burden of chronic side effects to the beast within. On or off medication this fundamental issue of a freeze reaction never went away, and the shame and stigma of being labeled mentally ill, only compounded my problem.

Still, fate and destiny move on and I have found relief from the predator within. Years of reading through the latest research into brain and nervous system development brought the insight that I needed for a more accurate self awareness. In particular Dr. Steven Porges and his “The Polyvagal Theory,” has helped me shed a conscious light on what is happening internally with my trauma energized freeze reaction.

Here I’d like to share exerts from an interview with Dr Porges, where he explains this new understanding of our evolved nervous system with Ruth Buczynski, PhD. (see here)

Dr Porges: “One of the major problems in the treatment of trauma is that it has fallen under a general category of stress-related disorders. And by doing this something has been lost in our understanding of how the human body and mammalian bodies in general, respond to life-threatening situations.

Most people think that we merely have one defense system, the “fight/flight” system. This defense system is described in every book and is central to discussions about stress and anxiety. However, lost in these discussions is an accurate description of reactions to life threat when the body immobilizes.

When the body immobilizes, it goes into a unique physiological state that is potentially lethal for mammals. Many of us have observed this response in a common small mammal, the common house mouse. When a mouse is caught in the jaws of a cat and it looks like it is dead, but it is not.

We label this adaptive reaction by the mouse, “death feigning” or pretending to be dead. However, this is not a conscious response. It is an adaptive biological reaction to the inability to utilize fight/flight mechanisms to defend or to escape.

In part, the difficulties in treating trauma reflect a lack of awareness of this adaptive biological reaction. Unfortunately, many dedicated clinicians working a variety of disciplines dealing with trauma patients were never taught about an immobilization defense system.

In fact, tracking the scientific literature on this phenomenon suggests that due, in part, to the incompatibility of an immobilization defense system with the dominant theories of stress that focus on the adrenals and the sympathetic nervous system to support mobilization defense strategies, an understanding of the neural mechanisms mediating immobilization defense has been written out of the literature.”

So how does this new knowledge of our evolved nervous system fit into my habitual freeze reaction, leading to a lifetime of miss-attuned social interactions like the one with the goddess, described above.

My unconscious, split second reaction can be seen as a previous attempt to “escape,” by “feigning death?” The trap I fell into, was the thwarting of this unconscious reaction by my conscious sense of control. The unconscious urge is to drop, collapse or in days gone by faint, which was a common occurrence in Sigmond Freud’s time of exploring the unconscious.

I recall a TV program in Australia, of organized public debate on mental health. I’ll never forget the intellectual answers given to a young woman who’d froze when facing of a shotgun, during an armed robbery, and was tortured by flashback memory, guilt and shame about her own reaction. It was all very rational and cognitive in terms of trying to sooth her torment, all very mind based awareness stuff. Yet I sat wondering why no one pointed out that she’d had an involuntary reaction, that was beyond her minds ability to control and was not a sign of weakness.

Perhaps if she had allowed the physical impulse to complete its intention, she would have fainted like Victorian era ladies used to do. More than likely the gunman would have quickly moved his attention to other sources of possible threat. Instead she froze and almost simultaneously fought for conscious control, drawing out the agony of a fright/freeze moment. One moment in time that came to haunt her for years to come.

Dr Porges: “The polyvagal theory basically emphasizes that our nervous system has more than one defense strategy and the selection of whether we use a mobilized flight/flight or an immobilization shutdown defense strategy is not a voluntary decision. Outside the realm of our conscious awareness, our nervous system is continuously evaluating risk in the environment, making judgments, and setting up priorities for behaviors that are adaptive, but are not cognitive.”

In my case, a drop dead gorgeous Mary was no shotgun threat, yet I could not control that millisecond reaction which so spoilt the natural process of attunment in my approach. Just like the young woman on the TV program I tortured myself for decades, over my perceived weakness.

Let me share a personal example of a traditional talk therapy's approach to trauma resolution, prior to the revelations of the polyvagal theory, an experience I wrote about in Intellectual Avoidance of Body Sensations

‘We should talk about that reaction,’ Angus says. “Shit!” I think to myself, convinced I had not shown any external signs of discomfort.
‘Well I guess I could say what reaction, but that would be really childish, wouldn’t it?’
‘Well that’s where it comes from.’
‘I think I’m close to really feeling it, it’s near the surface,’ I tell him.
‘And it feels like you will fall apart if you let it out.’

‘Yes!’ I say nodding my head.
‘You will feel humiliated and deeply embarrassed if it happens in front of another human being?’
‘You know the trauma theory, you have to revisit it if you want to truly resolve it.’
‘Shit Angus, I can’t see it as trauma, nothing horrific ever happened to me.’
'It’s simply a question of degree David; a sensitive self can be traumatized by continuous emotional abuse, as much as a one off or multiple physical traumas,’ Angus tells me.

‘I guess I agree with that, I’ve said it to others often enough myself, but when you’re dealing with your own stuff, it just! I don’t know! - It worries me, there may be as much uncontrollable rage down there as there was in him, that I’ve internalized him so much, I am him.’
‘And you’re constantly fighting that part of you, holding it back.’
‘I guess so, I worry that I’m just as critical as he was, I just dress it up as care and concern.’

‘And you won’t risk the possibility of deeper loving intimacy with another human being, fearing the kind of rejection your parents inflicted on you, you‘re even shocked that anyone could love you.’ The words evoke images of my father and a sudden freezing shudder.
‘Why is that? Why does that involuntary shudder I get with the memory of his voice and his stance towards me feel like a miniature death?

Dr Porges: "For some people, specific physical characteristics of an environmental challenge will trigger a fight/flight behavior, while others may totally shut down to the exact same physical features in the environment. I want to emphasize that we have to understand that it is the response, and not the traumatic event, that is critical."

In my own journey, what I have struggled to consciously know was the mechanics (for want of a better word) of that unconscious reaction, which had prevented me from maturing into early adulthood and enjoying the happy and productive life, nature had intended at the time of my conception.

Since finding my way to science researchers like Dr Porges, I have been able to slowly merge together the split in my mind/body sense of self, with a thought/felt awareness of that unconscious freeze reaction, which so hampered my emerging from childhood into the group support of social relationships.

In our increasingly cognitive age, we tend to place the mind at the center of our sense of self, perhaps as part of our evolution towards species maturity and a growing perception of our place in the Universe. However, as Dr Porges points out, we have lost some awareness of our physical nature in the evolving process.

An Unsafe World?
For decades I castigated myself for an unconscious reaction, that was nature's way of keeping me safe in childhood, when avoidance was a smart choice in a family home that was not safe.

The downward sensation of a millisecond freeze reaction and the hesitant approach behaviors it triggers, made me think of myself as small and weak, a lesser self than others. What I've come to realize, is the energy of an unconscious physiological reaction toned my thinking.

In 1980, when I prayed to God in front of a mirror that holds a symbolic place in my heart, was it nature that answered my prayer, and un-froze my unconscious sense of an Unsafe Environment?

I prayed sincerely, promising I'd do whatever was required if he’d just show me the way, give me a sign, help me please! Nothing happened for what felt like minutes as I sat there in hopeful expectation while looking at my own reflection, looking into my face.

Then it began, a new sensation, a feeling at the top of my head which flowed down slowly, down through my face, into my shoulders and down through my chest, down into my pelvic area. I sat with a sense of "what is it” wonder, although more felt than in any thinking sense. A sense of wonder that was similar to the out of body experience when I was fourteen, except this slowly descending calm was the polar opposite of the sudden sharp elevation, when I'd seemly left my body.

It felt like I'd been sitting in a bath of water that was over my head and someone had pulled the plug. I sat there as calm descended slowly from head to toe, as if a mind numbing tension were being drained out of me, like waste water flowing down and out through my toes. Next came a mindful realization of the experience in a pleasant and very welcomed surprise.

I felt unburdened somehow, refreshed and excited, happy and new. "Wow! Wow! Wow! Has God just touched me on the shoulder? Is this a religious experience? Or am I just relieved by a sense of being free, free from demanding attachment, not needing anyone but myself?" (read more here)

The spectrum of Mental Illness & Diagnosis?

Dr. Porges: "There is actually a dialectic between science and clinical practice. Science is interested in processes and clinical practice is often interested in diagnosis. There is a practical component to that because with diagnosis comes the ability to use certain billing codes in a variety of other issues, as well as believing that if you can give it a name, you have a better grasp of the disorder.

But scientists are less interested in the clinical diagnosis and more interested in the underlying processes. There are many underlying processes that cross several clinical disorders. They are not studied at the level that they should be, because they are not specific to any one clinical disorder."

Is this the paradox in the public debate on mental health? While many accept such experience's as depression as a mental illness, there is also a growing concern about a medical model of may be natural responses to life stress. Many, who feel let down and wounded by miss-diagnosis and painful experience tend to then reject out of hand the contribution science is making to understanding the nature of the human condition.

Dr. Porges: "I started in my talks to tell clinicians, “Try something different with clients.” I said, “Tell your clients who were traumatized that they should celebrate their body’s responses, even if the profound physiological and behavioral states that they have experienced currently limit their ability to function in a social world.

They should celebrate their body’s responses since these responses enable them to survive. It saved their lives. It reduced some of the injury. If they were oppositional during an aggressive traumatic event such as rape, they could have been killed.

Tell them to celebrate how their body responded instead of making them feel guilty that their body is failing them when they want to be social and let’s see what happens.

Now, remember, what is occurring in most therapies? Therapies often convey to the client that their body is not behaving adequately. The clients are told they need to be different.

They need to change. So therapy in itself is extraordinarily evaluative of the individual. And once we are evaluated, we are basically in defensive states. We are not in safe states."

In my own spontaneous un-freezing of an unconscious and habitual condition back in 1980, did I unconsciously perceive a safe environment, yet could not find a cognitive explanation for my experience ? Did I then amplify my new found sense of life into manic euphoria, with a life long habit of self support via my imagination?

Enlightenment ? A Harmonic sense of the nature of ALL?
Cognition & Intuitive Imagination?
A sustained unconscious perception of safety for the first time in my life, had a powerful effect on my senses & their stimulation of my imagination. Yet in a cognitive age that sanctify's the mind above all else, I found it difficult to simply accept my new sense of relaxed approach towards others and in particular my own inner experience.

Does the core of our sense of self lie within the body and its capacity for a sensory experience of those subtle vibrations within a cosmic nature?

Dr Porges: "Actually I have given a couple of talks on mindfulness, and I started to say, “Well, mindfulness requires feeling safe because if we don’t feel safe, we are, in a sense, neuro-physiologically evaluative of our setting which means we can’t be safe, and we can’t engage. We can’t recruit the wonderful neural circuits that enable us to express the wonderful aspects of being human.”

Does our minds need for certainty, reflect a physiological need for Safety?

In my journey of self discovery, resisting my minds desire for quick cognitive explanations and exploring deeper aspects of my nature, has been a paradoxical one. So many times when I have a cognitive sense of "I've got it," real knowing slips away with the loss of the felt sense. The same paradox contained within my initial freeze reaction towards the very beautiful Mary? An unconscious response that once kept me safe, thwarted my conscious desire and need for social engagement.

Following such moments of thwarted innocence I went to war with myself, simply enhancing the internalized sense of threat. Perhaps if I'd read Dr Porges advice sooner, I could have learned to celebrate my body's natural responses, accepting them with relaxed ease, allowing an ebb and flow to the spontaneous nature of my being. Instead, I fell into the trap of trying to exert conscious control over my unconscious nature. "I think, therefore I am," feels more like a blind alley to me these days.

What do you think?