When I first realized that the symptoms I was experiencing were not due to a deadly, chronic ailment, but due, instead, to an overactive, nonstop “fight or flight” response, it was a revelation. How could this be? How could symptoms of dissociation, insomnia, strange bodily sensations such as tingling and “electricity flowing through every nerve of my body” be something other than a serious illness? Many of the answers to what I was experiencing were in the illuminating, groundbreaking book, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences by Peter Levine. I experienced all stages of the body’s survival mechanism: fight, flight, and freezing, and they were nothing short of terrifying. I didn’t sleep for the better part of a week and was stuck in a “negative feedback loop.”
Whatever you do, don’t Google your Symptoms. The more I tried to figure out what was wrong–what’s known as “self-diagnosis”–the bane of many a medical practitioner–the more frightened I became. Symptoms that I read about somehow “matched” my own; my fears were made real by a brain simply “recording” what I was reading and internalizing. Fear tingling? That’s gonna happen. Fear vibrations? Have some more. Loud noises startled me. I felt completely disconnected from the world, my family, everything (what’s known as “dissociation”). I was lightheaded most of the time and felt like a zombie. I underwent many tests (blood work, MRI, sonogram–all of which came back normal), and saw two neurologists, one of whom was very clear in his diagnosis: You have extreme anxiety. Without quoting me the details of what that involves, and without explaining the “how” and “why” of the symptoms I experienced, I didn’t believe the guy. I thought I had MS or any number of other disorders, and he saw it right away: “What do you think you have, exactly? MS? Lou Gehrig’s? I’ve seen this before. One guy actually couldn’t feel his arms and lost sight in one eye. All psychosomatic.” A well-regarded specialist with over 30 years of neurological medical experience said, and I quote, “The worst case of extreme anxiety that I’ve seen in two months.” He recommended some SSRIs and strongly suggested that I see a good therapist. Luckily I knew a good one who made it her mission to stabilize me and get me the help that I needed. When she explained that somatic symptoms were a well-documented and known reality associated with unresolved trauma and extreme anxiety, I finally accepted what was happening to me. It started to sink in: maybe my brain really is creating these symptoms. I eventually came through to the other side, but not without a great deal of help and support, meditation, exercise, therapy, and a lot of other tools, including extensive research into what was happening inside my brain and body.
The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness works to help people understand the latest science regarding how the ancient parts of our brain impact our modern lives. The latest research indicates that we are victims of survival mechanisms that have evolved over millions of years. Our medical establishment hasn’t caught up to the latest science–and has very strong financial incentives to keep from doing so. Unfortunately, this comes at a cost in lives lost and those who live in hellish circumstances for weeks, months, or even years.
Somatic Symptom Disorder. The symptoms that I experienced fit into an obscure category of prognosis known as Somatic Symptom Disorder. As described by psych central,
Somatic Symptom disorder involves being distressed or having one’s life disrupted by concerns over a physical symptom. A person with this disorder may worry excessively over a certain health sensation/symptom (e.g., stomach pain), believing that this sensation indicates serious illness (e.g., stomach cancer), although they may not have objective evidence (e.g., by a doctor) to substantiate their concerns. A person may also go to great lengths to attend to or to investigate these health symptoms. A person must exhibit signs of this disorder (e.g., concern over physical health or anxiety over somatic sensations) for at least 6 months (though the actual pain or symptom does not have to be present the entire duration).
Yep, and there you have it: your humble author and editor in a “nut”shell. This stuff is “real,” unfortunately, and the physical symptoms occur in the real world. The thing of it is, this is also a form of trauma that was driven (I can identify the “emotional break” I experienced back in 1996, and with health in general when I was a mere 18 months old) that helped fuel this particular fire. Knowing that there are triggers that lead to these kinds of things has been empowering; working with mindfulness meditation and a therapist has been life-affirming, if not outright life-saving. I never received this diagnosis, not from the two neurologists I saw, not from the two primary physicians I saw, and not from the sports medicine doctor I saw, who was interested mainly in collecting fat fees for having very little to offer, other than expensive tests and office visits.
Why I’m doing this. As the editor of The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness, I’m not a doctor or a therapist, just someone who makes a living explaining complex information to a lay audience. I’ve turned that skillset to this blog–and am adding the expertise or many others–toward this very widespread phenomenon, of how our ancient brains are undermining the quality of life of millions today. But the good news is that there are solutions. The Ancient Brain explores these and more, surrounding this growing, but still small trend, in understanding why our brains can be our biggest liability–and our best asset–in developing emotional and physical well being.
Yours in Mental Hygiene,