In the last post in this series, we discussed three general areas of the brain: the Prefrontal cortex, the Amygdala, and the Limbic Brain. Explaining how the prefrontal cortex is the power plant of empathy and relational connection. Trauma and emotional memory are stored alongside our creativity and imagination in the limbic brain. We also stated that our conscious, recollective memory is merely a memory of the last time we remembered an event, rather than being a memory of the event itself. Finally, we wrote about the amygdala being our reptilian brain. It is our built-in early warning and security system. The amygdala responds to threats and danger with one of three generalized ways: fight, flight, or freeze. It is the quickest reacting portion of our brain. Its sensitivity to threats is determined by the thickness of the cortisol in which it swims. If the layer of cortisol is thick, the amygdala is more hyper-vigilant. Thick cortisol also allows more “lethal” responses to danger, simply because of practice.
The amount of cortisol surrounding the amygdala is determined by the amount of trauma or danger one has faced during life and the amount of long-term security that they feel. Finally, we noted that the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex cannot each operate optimally at the same time. If the prefrontal cortex is online and functioning at a high level, the amygdala is resting and at ease. If the amygdala is hyper vigilant, the mirror neurons in the prefrontal cortex and the ability to feel empathy are turned down or completely off. This is the biological explanation for John’s statement that “perfect love casts our fear” (1 Jn 4).
Finally, we noted that the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex cannot each operate optimally at the same time. If the prefrontal cortex is online and functioning at a high level, the amygdala is resting and at ease. If the amygdala is hyper vigilant, the mirror neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which determine one’s ability to feel empathy connect emotionally to another, are turned down or completely off. This is a biological explanation for John’s statement that “perfect love casts our fear” (1 Jn 4).
Conflict always hides or reveals fear. The closer you are to another the more room there is for fear, for there is much more to lose. This is why people choose not to let people get close or push people away. The walls people build or the exertion to drive others away from them and keep them at a distance are defense mechanisms. What would happen in your relationships if you were mindful of these tendencies and what laid behind them?
Typically, when a spouse, or a child, or a parent, or a friend responds defensively, our first reaction is to become defensive ourselves. The amygdala creates this response. We’ve been, “triggered.” To love, we must move beyond our amygdalin response and jump start our mirror neurons. This requires something I call “psychic space.”
Let me explain that concept. I ride a motorcycle because when I ride, I feel free. I have space around me. The world seems bigger than when I am in a car. I feel nimble, quick and even fast. When I am in a small dark place, I tend to shut down. I may or may not be scared, but I am aware of the constraints surrounding me, and I do not like them, so typically I try to sleep and escape to the wide open spaces in my mind. For some, the feeling of freedom occurs when they hike, or when they look at the ocean, or the mountains, or the plains or forests. Some find it while sailing or skiing; others backpacking; still, others when they swim or run or lift weights. But that feeling of space that we create when we are in those places rather than feeling constrained and hemmed in matters and affects the way we can respond to those we want to love.
The question arises, how do people create space. Our bodies play a role in that. First, we need to activate the Vagus nerve. That is most easily done by deep breathing while focusing on our breath. Our minds need to “re-enter our bodies,” and leave the fantasies that our loved one’s defensive posture triggered. We have to return to the present moment in our physical bodies to realize that the danger is a creation of our minds. We do this by breathing in deeply through our noses, filling our diaphrams that are housed below the lungs. Only then can we begin to move away from an amygdalin response.
Once we’ve started to breathe and focused our attention on it, we may need to create more space to respond well. Because sometimes the physical space we occupy is not a safe space because of the angry, defensive presence of the one we want to love. At that point, we need to create physical space to find psychic space. There are other tools you can use when you are alone to create space. Exercise can help, stretching, and yoga are other tools that bring us into our bodies and the present moment. EFT tapping is another useful and easy tool. The purpose of creating “psychic space” is to allow a more loving entrance into conflict. If this can be done a stronger relationship will form. Arguments and conflicts are not bad, nor are they to be avoided. Avoiding the person and / or the situation is a the amygdalin response: flee. Instead, enter into those conflicts cognizant of the effect of the engagement has on both your and the other’s brain having created space so that your mirror neurons are engaged as much as possible.
When people involved in the conflict can see the conflict through the other’s eyes, it changes the nature of the conflict and allows for creative and synergetic solutions and partnerships to emerge.
One other important outcome of understanding how the brain works is that suddenly everything doesn’t have to be about me. Sometimes, something occurs that triggers a loved one sending their brain to crazy places and causing them to act in ways they typically would never choose to act. If we can understand this while not excusing their behavior, we will avoid creating new unnecessary conflict. After a traumatic event: a car crash, accident, break-in, embarrassment, or shaming; people are not able to respond well to life. We have to allow them to find space to change gears. When we choose to challenge them because we don’t like how they are engaging with us, or we only want them to feel better because their emotional state worries us, we create unnecessary conflict that needn’t have occurred.
From all of this, it is easy to see that even our physical posture in these conversations matters. When I turn away from you, your amygdala informs you that I must not like you. It can’t help it. It is part of the reptilian brain and simply reacts in set fashions. That message is sent based on the fact that I am not fully facing you. We need to physically turn toward one another. We need to be able to meet but not demand the other’s gaze. Tone affects our amygdala more than the words that are said. It hears inflection, reading the emotion and the threat behind it. Since it is nonverbal, it only evaluates visual cues, energy levels, nasal, and tonal issues when assessing the risk.
Please be aware that memory can also trigger amygdalin responses. A nasal memory can trigger memories of trauma and set off a powerful, visceral, emotional, mental, verbal, and physical reaction.
I can say things differently to my wife than I can to my daughter or my son. When engaging with my ex-wife I need to be cognizant that I am communicating on a completely different plane. People are different with varying experiences in the world. That reality means that their amygdala may act differently than you think it should. And I will say to you that you cannot judge another’s amygdalin response. Because you have no way of knowing why it developed the way that it did. To engage another cautiously does not necessitate that I am fearful and not loving. Sometimes caution is a function of love rather than fear. In those instances, caution is wisdom.
Knowing how our minds are wired does not solve all the problems. It can lead to manipulation in the wrong hands. It can also help us love more wisely and avoid creating needless conflict while walking into necessary conflict with a posture that allows synergy rather than destruction. In the end, we simply need to pay attention and be present. When we do so, we imitate Christ, who became incarnate to be present with us here.
I finished my 2nd step about the same time that my psychologist referred me to a psychiatrist to do a medication check. After the separation and divorce, Doctors prescribed Wellbutrin for me which changes patient’s moods by affecting our dopamine and norepinephrine. Wellbutrin is a unique medication as it does not fit nicely into other anti-depressant categories. While it is a second generation antidepressant, it does not address serotonin levels and so is unique in its field. There were several good reasons my psychiatric nurse practitioner prescribed it. I was obviously overweight, and Wellbutrin is an appetite suppressant as well as an anti-depressant, and it would help alleviate some of my ADHD symptoms as well.
The issue for me, however, was Wellbutrin is a sexual stimulant. As a sex addict trying to get clean, taking a sexual stimulant is probably not a good idea. It certainly wasn’t for me. When my counselor did extra reading on my case and discovered that Wellbutrin was a sexual stimulant, he was astounded that my nurse practitioner prescribed it for me and wanted to see if a psychiatrist would approach my case differently. As a lay person in the field of medications, he thought that eliminating the extra sexual stimulation, and perhaps even adding a sexual depressant could help me.
Though it is hard to find a psychiatrist who could fit me into their schedule; once I did, he agreed with my therapist and began to search for the right medication for me. It was a long process. As nearly all psychiatric providers explain. Prescribing psychiatric meds is as much art, as it is science.
My psychiatrist wanted to find a drug in the SSRI anti-depressant category. SSRi stands for “Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. SSRi’s are “Second wave” antidepressants and are generally more effective with fewer side effects than first wave anti-depressants. They work by inhibiting serotonin levels in the brain. There is an extensive list of SSRI’s to try. They all work slightly differently to achieve the same ends, and effect different people in different ways.
First, we tried Prozac. I do not remember if it didn’t work, why I didn’t like it, or why we decided to try something else, but we did. We tried Paxil which I took for nearly 2 years. it had the desired effect of creating space and slowing my mind but slowly, its effects waned. So we pivoted to Zoloft. I hated Zoloft. It made everything fuzzy. It was as if my mind was running through knee-deep, wet cement. This surprised me because most of my recovery friends were on Zoloft. Indeed, it could have been that fact that led me to urge my psychiatrist to take me off Paxil to try it. My friends referred to Zoloft as “Vitamin Z;” and it worked for them. So, I wanted to try it too. It didn’t work for me like it did for them, though.
Celexa ended up being my long-term solution. I stayed on it for over eight years. It took a few weeks to find the right dosage, but once we found it, I noticed, just like with the Paxil before it, that I had immediate freedom from compulsions of any kind.
My shrink told me that his goal was to give me a split-second gap between my thoughts and my actions. The speed on which I moved was one of my biggest strengths. It helped me get ahead. I was afraid to lose it and gave voice to those fears to both my Psychiatrist and therapist. But they convinced me that what I relied upon on as a strength and viewed as integral to my being was also killing me. My ADHD mind didn’t provide me the psychic space I needed to overcome my compulsivity. That needed to change and I needed to surrender my quick thinking if I was going to survive.
Looking back, I understand now that my early traumas led to some neural disruption and/or disconnections in my prefrontal cortex where my behavioural inhibitors and filters reside. In prescribing the SSRi’s my psychiatrist attempted to help stimulate those neural connections enabling them to give me clarity about my actions and their consequences. And while medications were not the whole answer for me, they were a major piece of my sobriety pie.
My parents and church raised me to be suspicious of medications being a reasonable response to mental and emotional issues. In their world view, the need for medication somehow diminished humanity’s moral responsibility. We blamed original sin for peoples’ poor choices and felt that people needed to take full responsibility for their actions. While we were not completely anti-psychiatry; seeing the need for people struggling with psychosis, schizophrenic disorders and the like; we frowned upon antidepressants as medications that displaced the Holy Spirit’s role in discipleship, etc…
I needed to repent of that belief. And I hope that cultural reality is shifting given all that we know about the mind/ body connection. It is surprising to me how much the suspicion of psychiatry exists in AA & NA 12-step recovery rooms. Anyone that was addicted to a mood altering substance has every right to be suspicious, and yet they also need to heed what research is revealing. While neurobiology is still in its infancy; I, for one, can hardly wait to see what advances we make as we unlock more of our mind’s secrets.
Please note that I do not want to suggest in any of this that I was not and am not entirely responsible for the choices I made before seeking medical intervention. And without medical intervention, I would not have been able to enjoy long-lasting sobriety.