Thursday, December 6, 2012

Mental Illness - Psychological & Physiological?

The Buddha - His Serene Face  - Free of Muscular Tension?

Discover Your Inner Self?

Recover from Mental Illness?

"My teaching is neither theory nor a philosophy, but the fruit of experience. Everything I say comes from my own experience, and you too can confirm it by your own experience. Words do not describe reality: only experience shows us its true face." _Buddha.

Since 2007, I have been discovering more of my own inner-self, through a process of self-education and a daily practice of deepening physiological self-awareness. Discovering more inner security and an increasingly confident recovery from three decades of mental illness experience.

Using a method similar to the famous Buddhist practice of meditation, I have increased my inner-awareness of sensations and the activity of my body/brain nervous systems, becoming more aware of the physiological foundations, to my experience of mental anguish and altered states of body/mind. A journey of self-empowered recovery, captured as succinctly as I could in: Bipolar Recovery This post provides excerpts from the reading material which has had the most influence my recovery journey, and the critical insights, of which I write in: Bipolar Recovery

The Physiological Foundations of Mental Anguish?

Below are excerpts from Peter Levine’s book “In an Unspoken Voice,” in which he articulates his four decades of knowledge and wisdom about “trauma resolution,” and trauma’s role in mental illness. Levine’s methods are now scientifically enhanced by Stephen Porges discovery of a third branch to our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS plays a large part in our famous fight/flight stress reactivity, now being re-understood as freeze/flight/fight, in-line with new discoveries from neuroscience research, like “The Polyvagal Theory.”

For those of us with a history of mental illness, a new awareness of the physiological stimulation of mental states, is helping create new methods of coping with the symptoms of mental illness, and understanding how they are mediated through the body/brain nervous systems. Increasingly, mindfulness techniques which influence ANS activity are being used to help with better self-regulation, and are playing an increasing role in mental health therapies, as an adjunct to psychotropic medications. Meditation, is well known, as one of a variety of life-style adjustments made by people who successfully self-manage, and fully recover from a diagnosed mental illness.

My own improving self-management and on-going recovery has essentially involved a shift in self-understanding, from a typical Westernized sense of "I think therefore I am," (psychological) to a more Eastern and ancient understanding of the body (physiological) and its role in the stimulation of the mind. Particularly, the body's natural response to "trauma," and the way a Western cultural imperative of "all about the mind," actively thwarts our instinctual, natural response to traumatic experience.

Using a new left-brained (so to speak) intellectual understanding of how my internal nervous system is supposed to work, and Peter Levine's methods of sensate-awareness, I've shifted from a "thought-based" sense of myself, to a more balanced "felt/thought" sense of myself. Just like "The Buddha," I'm learning to use my body as an instrument of self-awareness and self-interpretation, understanding more of the physiological and psychological nature of my experience. I'm learning to combine science discovery with ancient wisdom, in my journey of recovery, through a process of self-discovery. Please read excerpts below, from Peter Levine's brilliant book, "In an Unspoken Voice."

"The Body as an Instrument of the Self?

Physical sensations are the very foundation of human consciousness. As the biological creatures we are, our bodies are designed to respond in an ever-changing, challenging and often dangerous world. Your knowing about the world and how you interact with it, comes from the totality of your sensations, both external and internal. Sir Charles Sherrington said, “the motor act is the cradle of the mind.”

From research experiments: The brains activity began about 500 milliseconds before the person was aware of deciding to act. The conscious decision came far too late to be the cause of the action. It was as though consciousness was a mere afterthought - a way of 'explaining to ourselves' an action not evoked by our mind’s consciousness.

Signs and Symptoms of Physical/Mental Distress:

Breathing that is rapid, shallow and/or high in the chest indicates sympathetic arousal. Breathing that is very shallow (almost imperceptible) frequently indicates immobility, shutdown and dissociation. Breathing that is full and free with a complete expiration, and a delicate pause before the next inhalation, indicates relaxation and settling into equilibrium. When psychologists speak of the unconscious, it is the body that they are talking about.

How many of our habitual behaviors and feelings are outside of our conscious awareness or are long accepted as part of ourselves, of who we are, when in fact they are not? Rather, these behaviors are reactions to events long forgotten (or rationalized) by our minds but remembered accurately by our bodies. We can thank Freud for correctly surmising that both the imprints of horrible experiences, as well as the antidote, and latent catalyst for transformation, exist within our bodies

To the nervous system, being overwhelmed by an event is really little different than being overwhelmed by similar sensations and emotions that are internally generated.

Human beings have been designed over millennia, through natural selection and social evolution, to live with and to move through extreme events and loss, and to process feelings of helplessness and terror, without becoming stuck or traumatized. When we experience difficult and particularly horrible sensations and feelings, our tendency, however, is to recoil and avoid them. Mentally, we split-off or “dissociate” from these feelings.

Physically, our bodies tighten and brace against them. Our minds go into overdrive trying to explain and make sense of these alien and “bad” sensations. So, we are driven to vigilantly attempt to locate their ominous source in the outside world. We believe that if we feel the sensations, they will overwhelm us forever. The fear of being consumed by these “terrible” feelings leads us to convince ourselves that avoiding them will make us feel better and, ultimately, safer.

If we go underneath the overwhelming emotions and touch into physical sensations, something quiet profound occurs-there is a sense of flow, of “coming home.” This is a truth central to several ancient spiritual traditions, particularly certain traditions in Tibetan Buddhism.

Becoming more Self-Aware?

The Transformative Power of Sensation Awareness:

To understand the transformative power of direct sensate experience, it is necessary to “dissect” certain emotions such as terror, rage and helplessness. When we perceive (consciously or unconsciously) that we are in danger, specific defensive postures of protection are mobilized in our bodies. We prepare to fight or flee and when escape seems impossible, we freeze or fold into helpless collapse. All of these are specific innate bodily responses, powerfully energized to meet extreme situations.

These survival energies are organized in the brain and specifically expressed as patterned states of muscular tension in readiness for action. However, when we are activated to this level and are prevented from completing that course of action- as in fighting or fleeing, then the system moves into freeze or collapse, and the energized tension actually remains stuck in the muscles.

In turn, these unused or partially used, muscular tensions set up a stream of nerve impulses ascending the spinal cord to the thalamus (a central relay station for sensations) and then to other parts of the brain (particularly the amygdala), signaling the continued presence of danger and threat. Said simply, if our muscles and guts are set to respond to danger, then our mind will tell us that we have something to fear.

Our minds will stay on overdrive, obsessively searching for causes in the past and dreading the future. We will stay tense and on guard, feeling fear, terror and helplessness because our bodies continue to signal danger to our brains. These red flags (coming from non-conscious parts of the brain) will not disappear until the body completes its course of action. This is how we are made, it is our biological nature, hardwired into brain and body.

Our Postural Attitudes?

These bodily reactions are not metaphor’s, they are literal postures that inform our emotional experience. For example, tightness in the neck, shoulders and chest and knots in the gut or throat are central to states of fear. Helplessness is signaled by a literal collapsing of the chest and shoulders, along with a folding at the diaphragm and weakness in the knees and legs.

All these “postural attitudes” represent action potentials. If they are allowed to complete their meaningful course of action, then all is well, if not, they live on in the theatre of the body. Trauma is the great masquerader and participant in many maladies and “dis-eases” that afflict sufferers. It can perhaps be conjectured that unresolved trauma is responsible for a majority of the illnesses of modern mankind. Trauma is transformed by changing intolerable feelings and sensations into desirable ones. This can only happen at a level of activation that is similar to the activation that led to the traumatic reaction in the first place.

My approach to healing trauma rests broadly on the premise that people are primarily instinctual in nature - that we are, at our very core, human animals. It is this relationship to our animal nature that both makes us susceptible to trauma and, at the same time, promotes a robust capacity to rebound in the aftermath of threat, safely returning to equilibrium. More generally, I believe that to truly understand our body/mind, therapists must first learn about the animal body/mind because of the manner in which our nervous systems have evolved in an ever changing and challenging environment.

Inner Conflict & Our Postural Attitude:

The bases of conflict are oppositional or incomplete motor patterns. The significance of this for therapy (and life) is monumental.

It is the ability to hold back, restrain and contain a powerful emotion that allows a person to creatively channel that energy. Containment (a somatic rooting of Freud’s “sublimation”) buys us time and, with self-awareness, enables us to separate out what we are imagining and thinking from our physical sensations. The uncoupling of sensation from image and thought is what diffuses the highly charged emotions and allows them to transform fluidly into sensation based gradations of feelings.

This is not the same as suppressing or repressing them. For all of us, and particularly for the traumatized individual, the capacity to transform the “negative” emotions of fear and rage is the difference between heaven and hell. The power and tenacity of emotional compulsions (the acting out of rage, fear, shame and sorrow) are not to be underestimated. Fortunately, there are practical antidotes to this cascade of misery. With body awareness, it is possible to “deconstruct” these emotional fixations.

Through awareness of interceptive sensations (i.e., through the process of tracking bodily sensations), we are able to access and modify our emotional responses and attain our core sense of self. A first step in this ongoing process is refusing to be seduced into (the content of) our negative thoughts or swept away by the potent or galvanized drive of an emotion, and instead returning to the underlying physical sensations. At first this can seem unsettling, even frightening. This is mostly because it is unfamiliar, we have become accustomed to the habitual emotions of distress and our (negative) repetitive thoughts.

We have also become used to searching for the source of our discomfort outside ourselves. We simply are unfamiliar with experiencing something “as it is,” without the encumbrance of analysis and judgment. As the sensation-thought-emotion complex is uncoupled, experiencing moves forward toward subtler, freer contours of feeling. In particular, you begin to notice what various sensations (i.e., tensions, contractions, aches, pains, etc,) tend to emerge in sequences or in groups. For example, you may notice that a “knot” in the belly or tightening of the anus is associated with a suppression or holding of breath.

This experiential process involves the capacity to hold the emotion in abeyance, without allowing it to execute in its habitual way. This holding back is not an act of suppression but is rather one of forming a bigger container, a larger experiential vessel, to hold and differentiate the sensations and feelings. “Going into” the emotional expression is frequently a way of trying to “release” the tension we are feeling, while avoiding deeper feelings. With containment, emotion shifts into a different sensation-based “contour” with softer feelings that morph into deepening, sensate-awareness of “OK-ness.” This is the essence of emotional self-regulation, self-acceptance, goodness and change.

From a functional point of view, bodily/sensate feelings are the compass that we use to navigate through life. They permit us to estimate the value of the things to which we must incorporate or adapt. Our attraction to that which sustains us and our avoidance of that which is harmful, are the essence of the feeling function. All feelings derive from the ancient precursors of approach and avoidance; they are in differing degrees positive or negative.

Postural Research:

Working at Columbia University in the 1940s and 50s, Nina Bull conducted remarkable research in the experiential tradition of William James. In her studies subjects were induced into a light hypnotic trance, and various emotions were suggested in this state. These included disgust, fear, anger, depression, joy and triumph. Bull discovered that the emotion of anger involves a fundamental split. There was, on the one hand, a primary compulsion to attack, as observed in tensing of the back, arms and fists (as if preparing to hit). However, there was also a strong secondary component of tensing the jaw, forearm and hand. This was self-reported by the subjects, and observed by the experimenters, as a way of controlling and inhibiting the primary impulse to strike.

In addition, these experimenters explored the bodily aspects of sadness and depression. Depression was characterized, in the subject’s consciousness, as a chronically interrupted drive. It was as though there was something they wanted but were unable to attain. These states of depression were frequently associated with a sense of “tired heaviness,” dizziness, headache and an inability to think clearly. The researchers observed a weakened impulse to cry (as though it were stifled), along with a collapsed posture, conveying defeat and apparent lethargy.

When Bull studied the patterns of elation, triumph and joy, she observed that these positive affects, did not have an inhibitory component; they were experienced as pure action. Subjects feeling joy reported an expanded sensation in their chests, which they experienced as buoyant, and which was associated with free deep breathing. The observation of postural changes included a lifting of the head and an extension of the spine. These closely meshed behaviors and sensations facilitated the freer breathing.

The Inner Conflict of Our Negative Emotions:

Understanding the contradictory basis of the negative emotions, and their structural contrast to the positive ones, is revealing in the quest for wholeness. All the negative emotions studied were comprised of two “conflicting impulses,” one propelling action and the other inhibiting (thwarting) that action.

In addition, when a subject was “locked” into joy by hypnotic suggestion, a contrasting mood (eg, depression, anger or sadness) could not be produced unless the joy “posture” was first released. The opposite was also true; when sadness or depression was suggested, it was not possible to feel joy unless that postural set was fist changed.

A direct and effective way of changing one’s functional competency and mood is through altering one’s postural set and thence changing pro-prioceptive and kinesthetic feedback to the brain. Hence, the awareness of bodily sensations is critical in changing functional and emotional states.

Just how does posture alter one’s mood and affect a lasting change? Intense emotions occur only when emotional action is restrained. Or said in another way, it is the restraint that allows the postural attitude to become conscious, for the attitude to become a feeling-awareness. What Nina Bull deeply grasped, is the reciprocal relationship between the expression of emotion and the sensate feeling of emotion.

When we are “mindlessly” expressing emotion, that is precisely what we are doing. Emotional reactivity almost always precludes conscious awareness. On the other hand, restraint and containment of the expressive impulse allows us to become aware of our underlying postural attitude. Therefore, it is restraint that brings feelings into conscious awareness. Change only occurs where there is mindfulness, and mindfulness only occurs where there is bodily feeling (I.e., the awareness of the postural attitude.)

While physical feelings are both punitively and qualitatively distinguishable from emotions, both derive ultimately from the instincts. The five categorical emotional instincts described by Darwin are fear, anger, sorrow, disgust and joy. However, feelings, as the consciousness of a bodily attitude, come in a virtually infinite range and blend. The Darwinian emotions correspond to distinct instincts, while feelings express a blending of (sensate-based) nuances and permutations.

In addition, bodily feelings embody a relationship between an object or situation and our welfare. They are, in that sense, an elaboration of the basic affective valances of approach and avoidance. Feelings are the basic path by which we make our way in the world."
Excerpts from, “In an Unspoken Voice.” By Peter Levine, PhD.

* * *

Discover more of Your Inner Self?

Paraphrasing the Buddha from the quote above, "Everything I say comes from my own experience, and you too can confirm it by your own experience." Below is an excerpt from Bipolar Recovery describing my own experience of becoming more aware of the physiological foundations to my experience of mental illness, and how I now self-manage my over-sensitive constitution, with daily practice of mind-less meditation, as I build a new experience of myself.

Test the Physiological Foundations of Mental States?
Relax the muscular tensions of your head and face, your jaw, around your eyes and your tongue. Be mindful of spontaneous shifts in your breathe as your thoughts slow down? Feel this action, don't try to focus thoughts on it and you will feel the spontaneous actions of your auto nervous system. The mind gets in the way of our instinctive nature and interrupts our auto nervous system in its job of maintaining balance. Feel how feedback signals from muscle tensions fire your thoughts? Let go of your minds need to know and your auto nervous system takes over, doing the job millions of years of evolution designed it for?

Your Muscles & Nerves Send Unconscious Feedback to your Auto Nervous System:

Over two hundred muscles in the head & face supply feedback signals to a newly discovered 3rd branch of our autonomic nervous system. This highest level of nervous system function fine tunes the activity in the older levels, allowing for easy self calming. It is this easy, unconscious self-calming which is missing in the mental illness experience, with social interaction far less spontaneous.

Example: In my own experience of excessive emotional abuse (shame-humiliation), I habitually (unconsciously) held my chin tucked in. After raising my awareness of auto nervous system reactions, I've managed to correct this unconscious habit. A slight change in posture makes an enormous difference to automatic body responses. Automatically deeper breathes, spontaneous relaxation of stomach muscles, more vital feedback throughout my nervous system. Previously I had been trapped in automatic (unconscious) Freeze/Flight/Fight reactions.

Once you understand the importance of muscular (postural) tensions in sending signals back to your brain, as well as signaling others you can access an easier self-calming and self-control, by thinking less and feeling more confident. Recall Peter Levine's description of our tendency to self-consciously assume that the source of our discomfort, our profound dis-ease, is located outside ourselves, as we "unconsciously" recoil from "bad sensations" within;

"We have also become used to searching for the source of our discomfort outside ourselves. We simply are unfamiliar with experiencing something “as it is,” without the encumbrance of analysis and judgment. As the sensation-thought-emotion complex is uncoupled, experiencing moves forward toward subtler, freer contours of feeling. In particular, you begin to notice what various sensations (i.e., tensions, contractions, aches, pains, etc,) tend to emerge in sequences or in groups. For example, you may notice that a “knot” in the belly or tightening of the anus is associated with a suppression or holding of breath." _Peter Levine, PhD.

FELT Awareness Exercise:
Relax the muscular tensions of your head and face, your jaw, around your eyes and your tongue. Be mindful of spontaneous shifts in your breathe as your thoughts slow down? Be mindful of sensations in your toes and fingers as your senses come into balance? Feel this action, don't try to focus thoughts on it and you will feel the spontaneous reactions of your autonomic nervous system, within?

Practicing a mind-less observation of automatic nervous system activity in this way will bring you back into a natural body/brain/mind balance. Over time a new awareness of your inner-self can reduce a reliance on medications alone and bring you a more holistic sense of well-being, inner-security and psychological confidence.

A Felt Awareness Practice:


Lay down on your tummy like the lady here, sinking down into the bed or floor as much as you can. It is important you try to feel as much of the fabric beneath you as possible. Try to feel your internal organs dropping or pressing down against the fabric texture.
Feel the area of your heart, feel the muscular tension there in your chest. As you make contact with body sensations notice any tingling in your toes & finger tips. Try to feel and not think, let go & sink deeper into your body, falling down, way down. As you let go of tensions in this area of your chest relax any tension in your face.

Focus a felt awareness on your chest, the area around your heart, let go and sink down, letting go any tension around your mouth, your jaw and in your tongue. If you can focus on sensing your heart and the muscles in your chest, you should notice an involuntary deepening of your breath. Notice any increased sensations from your limbs, your fingers and toes, any spontaneous relaxing of tummy muscles. These sensations are your auto nervous system at work.

Observation of Felt Sensation: As you continue to feel your heart soften, letting go of muscular tensions, notice any slowing & deepening of your breath. Notice further relaxing of regions of your body where contact has usually been outside your minds awareness. You should notice an increased awareness of your limbs and your posterior, with the sphincter muscle of your anus letting go of autonomic constriction there.

Notice the temptation to escape body sensations and return to a thought based energy discharge, when you try to feel your body in this way. Practice for a few minutes the sensations of coming into relaxed body states, and the habitual flight into mind of an unconscious, autonomic response, your normal comfort zone. This gradual experiencing of unconscious defense, the tensions, the habitual thinking, will bring you into contact with your autonomic nervous system's reactions and its affect on the vagal tone of your heart.

On first introduction to this practice, try for a few minutes each day to get a feel for the difference between your habitual autonomic nervous system tensions, and the more relaxed heart tones possible through thoughtless relaxation? As you go about your daily routine try to spend a few seconds now and then, relaxing every muscle you can feel within your face. Relax any tension in your jaw, around your eyes and let your tongue lie relaxed in your mouth, your lips allowed to part as you inhale with relaxed chest muscles. Feel the feedback signals from your muscles that have maintained this autonomic activity below your conscious awareness.

Building a New Mind-Body Experience:

Building a new mind-body experience is a process of getting to know your hidden auto nervous system through observing internal sensations as described above. Practicing control over pressured thinking by relaxing internal tensions, brings a felt sense of the role of the ANS in bipolar symptoms. A short period experimenting with this tension release method of easing racing thoughts, will bring you into a new awareness of your internal mind-body function. Practicing a new felt awareness will bring you into direct contact with the bipolar catch 22 of avoidance of body sensations.

Resistance to deep muscular relaxation is common for mental illness sufferers and is evidence of an unconscious internal threat. Understanding how this unconscious of sense threat is maintained by habitual tensions, we can begin to re-condition the nervous system with new experiences. With acceptance that the auto nervous system is deeply involved in bipolar symptoms, raised awareness brings a new observation of internal sensations.

Acceptance of unconscious, autonomic nervous system function by a felt experience of sensations, allows the conscious mind its craved for sense of knowing. It is the conscious experience of "not knowing" that ensures the cyclic trap of bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, with self-conscious concern/distress providing fuel for the unconsciously perceived threat. Escape into the mind is the common denominator in all mental torment, and it is crucial to understand this fundamental avoidance of felt sensation at the root of mental illness. Once we accept the autonomic nervous system and its crucial role in our experience, we can pay it due respect with a mind that observes, knows and allows this vital auto-pilot of our lives to do its job.

Example: As I write this page I slip back into an habitual tense posture for concentration, its unconscious and automatic. As part of my new mind-body experience, a half hourly alarm is set to remind me to relax unconscious muscle tensions and allow a healthy auto nervous system response. Over the past two months of daily writing my old intense posture of concentration has softened, as I re-condition my auto nervous system with new experience. At end of each writing session I deliberately trigger my desired auto nervous system state using an NLP kinesthetic anchoring technique.

After only a weeks practice using a physical anchoring technique I now trigger my desired nervous system state just by pressing my finger and thumb together? Such anchoring techniques are used by people in all walks of life from sales to entertainment and sports performance. In health therapies such techniques are taught as grounding exercises to help people suffering de-realiztion or de-personaliztion sensations. In all these cases the autonomic nervous system is the unconscious mechanism, affecting the changes in internal sensations and physiological/psychological states.

NLP kinesthetic anchoring technique: I find an implicit memory of balanced nervous state, feeling a rising intensity of body sensation, particularly the increased feedback from fingers and toes described above. Such increases in body awareness are my surest sign that I'm dropping out of my habitual freeze response, when attention is focused through the mind too much. As the grounded sensation of autonomic balance increases I press my thumb and index finger together creating a specific sensation of pressure which becomes associated with this nervous system state.

Our Felt Sense?

Now, as I finish up writing this blog post, I need to re-orient my unconscious nervous system activity, which still sees me adopting habitual postural tensions, as I concentrate hard on writing. I automatically drift into a fight/flight orientation within, bracing my muscles to strain my mind to greater focus, presumably? Which right now reminds me of the wonderful Gene Gendlin and a chapter in my online memoir, about my first experience of clinical depression, following my first episode of mania in 1980;

"I feel for the activity of my autonomic nervous system through which instinctual activity is mediated, I can feel its electro-chemical affect, most obvious in tingling sensations. After thirty two years I can finally face the pain, feel its spiraling down sensations as I remember the past with a felt sense. Here and now I can face up to those feelings of collapse and resist maintaining and amplifying them through the affect of thinking. I feel the tensions within and let them ease away, not with a mindful focus, but with felt awareness.

Its the kind of felt awareness that the wonderful Gene Gendlin introduced to the world with his Focusing Therapy and his extensive writings on the "felt sense." Watch him explain this strange place where implicit-self (physiological) meets conscious-self (psychological), when we go inside and attempt to marry the mind to the body;

"When psychologists speak of the unconscious,
it is the body that they are talking about." _Peter Levine.

Bipolar Recovery
Discovering a Paradigm Shift in Mental Health?
Bipolar Anger & Toxic Shame
Bipolar Anger