Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bipolar Dis-Ease - Its Trauma Reenactment Urges?

Read the hand - body language & traumatic reenactment urges.
An overwhelming urge is seizing control of my limbs as I walk along the pavement. A large bus is rushing towards me, securing its passage through time just a few centimetres to my left side. I can't believe how strong the physical urge is to step off the pavement and into its path.

In a by now well practiced mindful observation of inner sensations, I let the urge and the moment pass, yet can't really comprehend the reason. For the life of me I can't rationalize this apparent desire for death, this involuntary urge, with an everyday psychological explanation. I'm shocked anew, at the very nature of my own subconscious motivations, and just how powerful they can be.

All the learning, all my recently acquired knowledge about the subconscious stimulation involved in what’s happening to me right now, afford me no conscious control, in terms of prevention that is, with this reenactment of an original trauma. As I continue to drag myself along, feeling all the old familiar sensations of a depressive reaction, I can only take the opportunity to mindfully observe these overwhelmingly negative sensations. The weakness in my legs as I try to walk, a living example of the "freeze" reaction and a urgent desire for collapse.

"Did I set myself up for this," I wonder as I continue along, rehashing the phone conversation and its "shock" affect. Only thirty minutes previously I'd received news that a job application I'd been 95% certain of succeeding in, had gone to another. I'd gone numb with shock as the affable human resources person went through all the appropriate responses, while delivering his bad news. For a good twenty minutes my reaction continued in shock mode as I stayed within my thinking mind, disbelieving of reality as I tried to fend of awareness of its implications. “I’m trapped in poverty now, my stupid desire to understand stuff nobody wants to know about anyway, will be the ruin of me,” I tell myself as the noise of the passing bus recedes.

I try to catch the double-bind though, aware that the thoughts are an avoidance of a felt-sense of what’s actually happening to me. I steal myself to really feel these sensations, as bad as they are, and not think. There’s an instant of sensation awareness that shocks me to the core, a violent collapse, a fall, falling straight down through the pavement in darkened despair, “or is it disappear?” I feel it in the pit of my stomach and my legs have gone to jelly as I struggle to stay with sensation awareness and not think. It happens in flash now, a confusing, crushing, drowning sensation that is instantly gone. Displaced by the automatic urge of my mind, in nature’s kind dissociation trick of “what was that?”

“A body memory?” Springs to mind triggering a stream of thoughts about my birth, “how did I survive it, those three days waiting for birth, is that the great mammalian trick of feigning death, was that the urge toward the bus, or was that the undirected fight/flight urge of trauma exit energy.” Yet I know from experience that there is no point in a reasoned analysis right now. Know too, that there will be days of this depressive reaction to come, as the energies of traumatic reenactment wash through my nervous systems. Know too, that there will come a time for calm reflection and the positive processing of such a seemingly negative experience. Know too, that I wont be crippled with months of depression and a dreadful sense of hopelessness and helplessness, now that I’m not as ignorant of my internal makeup, as I once was. Neither am I as afraid of my sensation experience as I once was, nor desirous of staying with the denial inherent in my cognitive capacities, even if I do think I’m fairly intelligent.

Sleep that night brought a strange dream, one reminiscent of childhood dreams and fantasies. Strange because of apparent semi-consciousness, aware of lying in bed while a dark hooded figure approached on my right. I was kicking, trying to kick the figure in black yet feeling my efforts as half-hearted and futile. Waking before being overwhelmed by the approaching figure, there an immediate awareness that the kicking movements had been much stronger than in similar dreams in my past, much stronger. I was reminded of Peter Levine’s intuitive advice to his client, in his famous book “Waking the Tiger,” and wondered if the dream was the subconscious wisdom of the body, in its counselor mode? A memory of a former lover came to mind too, “I you love to bits darling, but sometimes your too nice, too passive.” “Hmm, was the dream trying to invoke my active energies of escape, from a lifetime of being to passive for my own good. Trapped in what is becoming increasingly understood as tonic immobility, conditioned of coarse, by that initial conditioning of my nervous systems, at birth?” Please consider;

Tonic Immobility - Freezing.

Anxiety has often been linked to the physiology and experience of flight. Analysis of animal distress behaviors suggest that this may be quite misleading. Ethology, points to the “thwarting” of escape as the root cause of distress-anxiety. When attacked by a cheetah on the African plains, an antelope will first attempt to escape through directed/orientated running. If, however, the fleeing animal is cornered so that escape is diminished, it may run blindly, without a directed orientation, or it may attempt to fight wildly and desperately against enormous odds.

At the moment of physical contact, often before injury is actually inflicted, the antelope abruptly appears to go dead. It not only appears dead, but its autonomic physiology undergoes a widespread alteration and reorganization. The antelope is in fact highly activated internally, even though outward movement is almost non-existent. Prey animals are immobilized in a sustained (atelic-catatonic) pattern of neuromuscular activity and high  autonomic brainwave activity. Sympathetic and parasympathetic responses are also concurrently activated, like brake and accelerator, working against each other.

In tonic immobility, an animal is either frozen stiff in heightened contraction of agonist and antagonist muscle group, or in a continuously balanced, hypnotic, muscular state exhibiting what is called “wavy flexibility.” In the hypnotic state, body positions can be molded like clay, as is seen in catatonic schizophrenics. There is also analgesic numbing.

A patient described many of these behaviors as they were happening to her. She wasn’t, however, aware of her physical sensations, but rather of her self-depreciating and highly critical judgments about body sensations. It is as though some explanation must be found for profoundly disorganizing forces underlying one’s own perceived inadequacy.

The psychologist Phillip G. Zimbardo has gone so far as to propose that “most mental illness represents not a cognitive impairment, but an (attempted) interpretation of discontinuous or inexplicable internal states.” Tonic immobility, murderous rage and non-directed flight are such examples.

Tonic immobility demonstrates that anxiety can be both self-perpetuating and self-defeating. Freezing is the last-ditch, cul-de-sac, bodily response where active escape is not possible. Where flight and fight escape have been (or are perceived to be) unlikely, the nervous system reorganizes to tonic immobility. Both flight-or-fight and immobility are adaptive responses. Where the flight-fight response is appropriate, freezing will be relatively maladaptive.

Biologically, immobility is a potent adaptive strategy where active escape is prevented. When, however, it becomes a preferred response pattern in general situations, it is profoundly debilitating. Immobility becomes the crippling, fixating experience of traumatic and panic anxiety.

Underlying the freezing response, however, are the flight or fight and other defense orientation preparations that are activated just prior to the onset of freezing. The “de-potentiation,” of anxiety is accomplished by precisely and sequentially restoring the latent flight or fight defensive responses that occur at the moment/s before escape is thwarted.” _Peter Levine PhD.

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So was my reaction to the bad news and feeling of being trapped, a “blind” nervous system reenactment of past experience? Not rational, not logical, but the powerful subconscious energies of “involuntary” survival responses, and a traumatic experience of birth that was never resolved, as I went on to adapt to a life of degrees of tonic immobility? Its important for me now, to let go of my previous mechanical, cause and effect logic, which like psychology and psychiatry, could only understand such experience as an absolute condition, rather than the more fluid reality of a real-life continuum of experience, measured by fluid degrees of sensation awareness, and not the mind’s square boxed sense of objectivity. Please consider more of Peter Levine’s unique wisdom gained from forty years of trauma resolution work;


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 coarse 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 coarse of action. This is how we are made, it is our biological nature, hardwired into brain and body.

These bodily reactions are not metaphors, 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 coarse of action, then all is well, if not, they live on in the theatre of the body. (p, 183)

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. (p, 184)

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. (p, 208)

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. (p, 225)”

Excerpts from “In an Unspoken Voice,” by Peter Levine, PhD.

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A "blind" reenactment stimulated by subconscious forces?
Consider this excerpt from a recent book on healing developmental trauma;

"Building Blocks of Nervous System Organization: 

Within the brain are some 100 billion neurons, each capable of synaptic connection with 60,000 to 100,000 other neurons— a tremendous organization of neuronal networks with an almost infinite potential. When new information enters the nervous system, whether of internal or external origin, it activates unique patterns of interconnection, or neural assemblies, that are governed by specific laws. Since much of the work in NARM addresses the regulation of the nervous system, it is helpful to know some of the laws by which the nervous system grows, organizes, regulates, and changes.

Hebb’s Law:

This law is simple: cells that fire together, wire together. If two neurons are electrically active at the same time, they will automatically form a connection. If they are already weakly connected, the synapse between them will be strengthened. Neural firings gather all aspects of an experience together into a neural assembly that is encoded in memory. Indeed, it is believed that the firing is the memory. This activity-dependent wiring together is the basic mechanism of all learning and adaptation.

With new learning comes the growth of new neurons and the branching of dendrites that allow the brain to change and expand the established connections among existing neurons. We can conclude that at the physiological level, supporting growth and healing involves tapping into the processes that build and modify the cells of the nervous system and the firing patterns of neural assemblies.

By working bottom-up— by specifically slowing down the pacing of a session in order to give attention to sensations and emotional responses as they are experienced in the moment— a NARM therapist makes room for new learning opportunities that can directly contribute to changing neural connections and building new networks.


We are born with an overabundance of synapses, which represents the potential connections among neurons that infants might need in order to create internal maps and models of the world. In the neonatal period a pruning process begins: because the development of neural circuits depends on our experience, neural paths that are activated remain, whereas those that are not activated and incorporated into a developing structure are eliminated, leaving only the more adaptive synaptic configurations— a “use it or lose it” rule.

The nervous system is shaped by experience--either pruned or reinforced in response to safety and stress. When stress levels are consistently high, neural pathways connecting the limbic system to the cortex are pruned, while other circuits that are more adaptive to distressing interactions are formed and strengthened. As a result the neural landscape becomes vulnerable to emotional and social dysregulation. Adults whose brain and nervous system were patterned by distress at the beginning of life often feel helpless in the face of their symptoms; they do not have the neural circuits to imagine a different way of being. Thankfully, the brain is constantly changing. It is the goal of a resource-based therapy to stimulate and nurture the development of neural circuits that contribute to connection and stability.

Qualia and Reentry:

Contrary to popular belief, the brain does not operate like a camera that takes in a whole scene. It is more like a feature detector that detects individual stimuli, (for example, edges, contours, line orientation, color, form, pitch, volume, and movement) and processes them in separate regions of the brain. The term quale (plural qualia) refers to discreet attributes of reality such as green, round, or hot; the experience of a quale (say green) is generally never in isolation of other attributes (long, sharp, cool). Given the absence of a computer-like central processor in the brain, each quale is processed in its own separate region of the brain and has its own neural networks. The experience of qualia is based in the wiring and activity of an individual’s nervous system. Each and every perception is actively constructed from the building blocks of individual sensory cues under the guidance and influence of emotion, motivation (motor-vation), and prior experience.

Through a process known as reentry, the brain weaves together the information entering in different regions to create a full picture of what is happening. Foe example, information entering the visual cortex (dark, red) is automatically connected to information in the auditory cortex (loud, sudden) and vice versa: what we see influences what we hear, and what we hear influences what we see. The attention we give to qualia and our brain’s capacity to blend them together comprise our perception of reality. It is believed that reentry could be the unique, single-most-important feature of higher brain organization, the vital component of integrated, complex cognitive tasks.

Under normal circumstances, all the aspects of an experience come together into one coherent whole. One of the markers of trauma is the failure to integrate the sensory imprints associated with an event into a coherent whole--a failure of the reentry function. When reentrant functions are blocked, as they often are with trauma, unprocessed sensory information remains in disconnected fragments. For example, a client may be triggered by the color blue but have no other associations as to why this particular color triggers a stress response. As a result incomplete memory fragments surface that do not allow sufficient recall for full processing. For a traumatized individual, missing qualia interfere with the capacity to put together a coherent narrative, and certain features of an event may become so prominent as to distort recall."

Excerpt from "Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship." by Heller, Laurence Phd; Lapierre, Aline Psyd.

"It is believed that reentry could be the unique, single-most-important feature of higher brain organization, the vital component of integrated, complex cognitive tasks."

My seemingly negative experience of trauma reenactment, which if I'd rushed of to hospital or a mind Doctor for help, would have most likely been diagnosed as a symptom of mental illness, was a learning experience. A much needed reentry experience of my brain/nervous systems and the drive for mature awareness of the reality of my experience. Appropriately processing this sensation experience and the dream that followed that night, is building new neural connections and estblishing new networks within my brain/nervous system, as explained by these new approaches to emotional healing;

"By working bottom-up— by specifically slowing down the pacing of a session in order to give attention to sensations and emotional responses as they are experienced in the moment— a NARM therapist makes room for new learning opportunities that can directly contribute to changing neural connections and building new networks."

Over the past three years I've engaged in kind of DIY version of therapies described above, and in doing so I shifted my appreciation of my life-story from a tradition "narritive" focus of cognitive awareness and understanding towards the burgeoning new understanding of the primary processes of the body, which are the foundations of our higher capacity of  mind. Yet like a house with shaky foundations, the mind is also susceptible to stress fractures and cracking up in times of emotional turmoil. My DIY therapy continues.