I’ve been writing in this column about trapped fight-or- flight responses as the origin of post-traumatic stress disorder. The theory is that the primitive part of the brain that controls our nervous system’s response to threat needs to come to completion any time it is startled into action. The body wants to fight or flee and if it cannot, the energy of those powerful impulses are stuck. Imagine your accelerator and brake both on “full.” This part of our brain doesn’t easily listen to the more modern part of our brain—the part of our brain that is logical, verbal, and capable of abstract constructions. That rational brain can tell the more primitive part that everything is OK but the primitive brain might not believe it. The unresolved fear response (accelerator and brake on at the same time) sends out contradictory messages to the body. Over time the body is harmed by the activation that has no effective resolution.
The body wants to fight or flee and if it cannot, the energy of those powerful impulses are stuck.
As I’ve studied this way of understanding our bodies, I’ve observed my own reaction to anxiety, stressful situations and, yes, even fear. My rational mind keeps telling me “why worry—it only makes you uptight and all those things you worry about never seem to happen.” As I’ve observed my reactions to stress and my rational mind’s not-very-successful attempts to console, I’ve been observing things that make my worry worse and those that actually are consoling. What is it that calms the primitive brain?
Thinking doesn’t seem to help.
As I’ve said above, there isn’t much cooperation between the cognitive brain and the part of the brain that is more intimately connected to the body. Isolation makes things worse. I am an introvert and do some of my very best problem-solving, creative, modern brain work by myself. But when I feel threatened I obsess, inflate negative possibilities, begin to blame—both myself and others. My head is a bad place to be when I’m worried or afraid.
I have begun to notice that being with other people whom I trust and can confide in can help. It is our secrets that hurt us. Of course we don’t want to go blurting our secrets to people that will use them against us so we need to develop a network of allies. Allies are people that we have known over time and who know us and accept us for who we are. We don’t need to inflate ourselves with these people—that would undermine the solid ground where we can let down our defenses and be who we are and only who we are. Sometimes the power of these relationships lies only in the act of coming clean. Sometimes my friends have good, practical ideas about how to cope.
What is the negative power of secrets?
In this formulation of an inner war between our modern brain and our primitive one, secrets are, in part, what the primitive brain is trying to tell us and what we don’t want to hear. Our primitive brain can shame us and make us feel vulnerable, immature, out of control. So our civilized brain wants to suppress these feelings. Resolution of PTSD and other symptoms associated with fear such as panic attacks, pervasive anxiety, insomnia and many other somatic symptoms associated with digestion, nervous system and immune function may not resolve until the primitive brain is allowed to express itself.
That doesn’t mean we need to act out our aggressions or our impulse to flee. It only means we need to get in touch with these somatic experiences and allow our bodies to feel them—not just recognize them cognitively. I don’t think this can be done in isolation—that is by oneself. It looks like therapy for these disorders has to been done in partnership—with another—someone you trust and with whom you can allow yourself to share your secrets.
My balancing act for keeping anxiety at bay.
So my balancing act these days is to allow myself time to be by myself to explore information, concepts, plans. I am a woodworker and I love to be in my woodshop. I get great satisfaction from the creative work I do there. I may allow myself some escape through reading or watching movies or listening to music. But that time doesn’t make me feel safer. I am learning that comfort comes from others. This is not my native recourse and it takes an act of extreme bravery on my part to call and invite a confidant to dinner. But I am observing that sharing secrets in that or in a therapeutic relationship is where I can calm the inner beast the best.
To Your Health.