It’s a scary idea. That we might have a disease process going on with no symptoms or signs to help us know that there’s a threat. This is the concept that drives the importance of routine physical exams and doctors visits. And certainly some of the diseases that shorten our lives or lead to disabilities can be discovered in their earliest stages in these routine health maintenance visits. But there are some that cannot.
I discussed in my last column the work of Peter A. Levine1. He is the father of what’s called Somatic Experiencing2. It is his hypothesis that many diseases are created by past traumas whose memories we have suppressed. He is a scholar of the fight-or-flight response. He believes that when this response is thwarted that it becomes caught. The fight-or-flight response is extraordinarily powerful. It is what allows women to lift cars off of their children. One can imagine that when this powerful response has no effective outlet it may cause problems. It may lay in dormancy and because of its violent nature may be banned from contact with the conscious mind.
The fight-or-flight response is produced by an ancient part of our brain, the reptilian complex. We have more modern and sophisticated parts of our brain including the limbic system and the neocortex. The limbic system evolved and allowed us to experience and share emotions. The neocortex is our most modern achievement and allows us our most complex thinking. The ability to communicate with words is part of the neocortex.
The reptilian brain is hardwired to respond to fear or threats with the fight-or-flight response. If the body cannot effectively engage in either fight or flight, the response is bottled. Without being released it does damage. The damage is done primarily through a persistent hypervigilance that prevents the body from relaxing, resting, sleeping normally, and letting go. Many people live in a persistently hypervigilant state without knowing that it is not normal or healthy. Eventually however, most people run out of steam. In my kind of medicine this is known as adrenal fatigue.
The damage is done primarily through a persistent hypervigilance that prevents the body from relaxing, resting, sleeping normally, and letting go.
There are options for helping people who are exhausted from hypervigilance. Some of them include supplements that can help restore the adrenal glands to more normal function. In my experience it is rare that supplements alone will help the person get better however. Relaxation techniques can be useful and are important. Avoiding stress may actually be more powerful than relaxation techniques. Many people have to reengineer their lives. It is curious to me how many people who have trauma in their past are high achievers. Many workaholics are no doubt seeking some form of refuge from their persistently activated sympathetic nervous system. You can see how this pattern leads to the observation that many people are seeking answers in all the wrong places.
The relationship between the neocortex in the reptilian brain is an adversarial one. The neocortex considers the limbic and the reptilian brain to be primitive brutes. The neocortex wants to censor them, inhibit them, and civilize them. It is not much of a contest for the limbic and reptilian brain. They can’t use words. Modern life requires the effective use of words. Words prevail.
I am coming to believe that the work of Dr. Levine has much to say to all of us—our traumas can be big or small and, in order for us to find peace, we need to learn this new language. In order to let the pressure out of the caged fight-or-flight response, the reptilian brain needs to be taught how to communicate. The language of the reptilian brain includes images, impulses, and sensations. Learning this language is difficult for us. The neocortical sensor—a part of the internal committee jabbering at us to do better, is a distraction from some deeper truths. I recommend this new school of Somatic Experiencing to you.
To your Health!
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