“So Which Does Come First: The Mind, The Brain, or The Body?”
by Susan French, Clinical Hypnotherapist
When I first studied psychology and then hypnotherapy, the same nagging issue kept hammering at me. Over and over again, I found a ‘disconnect’ between how and where we looked for causes of illness as well as for unwanted behavior.
The medical doctors looked for causation in the body. An infection. A diseased body part. Some organic, physiological dysfunction. The mind/brain folks in psychology looked at our experiences and how we responded to them. But in the same way that the lack of communication between the FBI, CIA and local law enforcement impeded the capture of dangerous criminals, the ‘disconnect’ at the neck, between the brain and the body, impedes relief and wellness.
What I’ve been discovering as I expand my own knowledge, is that you can’t ignore the body when trying to heal behavior/response nor can you ignore the mind/brain when trying to heal what we call “illness” or “dis-ease.” Or, do so at your own peril, as well as the peril of those you want to help.
Panic disorder and PTSS treatment is one of the best examples of why you have to see the mind/brain/body as a whole and treat it as such.
Let me explain:
There is a tendency to think of emotion as occurring in the mind, which most of us think of as being mainly in our head where the brain is. However, consider this: If all sensation in your body were blocked from your neck down, would you be able to know how you “feel” (feel=emotion in this case, rather than sensation)?
The answer, according to researchers, is no. We can only know how we “feel,” by recognizing the signature sensations of each emotion. If you feel fear, the cascade of neurotransmitters results in a message which our body interprets as freeze, fight or flee. Those neurotransmitters pull blood from one place in the body and send it to other places for maximum efficiency in the momentary struggle to survive.
Certain nerves become less sensitized and others more sensitized. The heartbeat and respiration slow down or speed up depending on the conclusion of the subconscious mind. All of these processes result in a signature sensation that we recognize as “fear.”
How about love? Again, the mind tells the brain and body to release different neurotransmitters. Those neurotransmitters send different messages to the heart, lungs, liver, muscles, nervous system, skin, resulting in a different sensory signature. Love evokes a much different sensory message than fear.
Or anger? Same thing. The mind/brain assesses the information in the environment and uses neurotransmitters to tell the body what to do in response to that information. Pursue pleasure or avoid pain. It’s basic.
Then behavior (i.e., response) follows the sensory message. The behavior causes new messages and they go round and round in a circular flow until the sufferer’s quality of life is destroyed or someone helps them to break this cycle. The worst thing about any anxiety disorder is that it reinforces itself; self-regulation is most difficult for suffers of anxiety related issues. They become terrified by the fear of feeling terrified.
If you’re not familiar with this information, read Candace Pert’s seminal work: “Molecules of Emotion” or watch the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know?” In fact, reread the book and re-watch the movie even if you have already. You’ll be glad that you did. It’s such a complex subject, but the supporting scientific facts are there in abundance.
This whole process happens so quickly and SO below our conscious radar, that we perceive it as one response. Indeed, it really is one response but it involves mind, brain and body all at the same time.
Hopefully we’re on the same page. We receive information from the environment through our five or six senses. That information causes physiological changes that become messages to the body as to how to respond: freeze, flee, fight if there is a threat or, if the message that it is now safe, we can go back to what we were doing.
When we experience something that we perceive as traumatic, this biochemical tragicomedy plays out. The messages from the environment (taken in through the five or six senses), cause a neurologically-driven response in the body. The primary brain/body chemical in the fear response is adrenaline: a naturally occurring biochemical that speed up all of our bodily processes.
The rushing of adrenaline into the body causes its signature response. The message: take blood from the internal organs and send it into the extremities. That “feels” a certain way and we come to recognize that sensory signature as the emotion we call “fear.”
The heart rate and respiration speed up. Blood sugar is pulled from any location in the body it is stored: cells, liver, etc., and is poured into the bloodstream for extra energy. In fact, even the brain function changes. The prefrontal cortex, the “thinking, reasoning” part of our brain disengages and body function becomes directed by the midbrain and lowest (reptilian) brain. There is no time to “think.” We have to act: freeze, flee, fight. Or die.
So far: no distinction between brain/mind/body. No separation. None of this information so far is new. It’s well-known. However, what has been discovered more recently by researchers is that when that original response to a serious threat hasn’t had a chance to cycle out properly, that response never moves from active threat part of the brain (the limbic system) to old, no longer active, memory.
In other words, the memory of the event seems to stay active, as if the threat were still present. This sets the scene for the chronic excessive fear response that we call panic attack or even PTSD (or the preferred PTSS, post-traumatic stress syndrome).
If the fear response was not able to complete its natural cycle, it gets “stuck” in the brain/mind/body as being a “live” or still active threat. The natural cycle should be awareness of the threat, adrenaline release, freeze, flee or fight or freeze again, until the threat has passed. The end of the cycle needs to include the discharge of all of the adrenaline fueled energy through shaking, sweating, running, crying, screaming, until all of the excess energy is discharged.
It is when the person cannot scream, or shake, or cry, or run, that those ‘termination’ responses stay frozen in the cells, hidden from conscious awareness. It is only when something or someone helps the sufferer to discharge this frozen memory, so that the event can move from the active threat area of the brain to the location in the brain where old (no longer active) memory is stored that the sufferer can find relief. You know this has occurred when you can recall an event without feeling active emotions.
Without going into the why’s at the this point, or the how to heal, think about those people who have had traumatic experiences and keep re-experiencing them, as if they are happening again and again.
Here’s the tricky part. This re-experiencing may very well not occur until much later (delayed reaction response), so the sufferer and his many healers are often baffled. And it may no longer even be triggered by thoughts of that event. Thoughts and memories of that event might well be suppressed. But the trigger remains active.
Suddenly, an unexpected loud knock on the door can retrigger that excessive fear response. Or it could occur when walking down the street and hearing another’s footsteps. For some sufferers, the idea of leaving the house or driving a car becomes overwhelmingly terrifying and immobilizing. Boom! There it is again: pounding heart, sweating, shaking, blood moves around, a feeling of impending doom. Thoughts of: “Oh my God, am I dying?” flood the brainwaves.
And the poor sufferer learns that he or she has absolutely no control over this disruptive response, nor can he or she predict when it will be triggered. Here’s the rub, the sad, sad rub. The poor sufferer becomes terrified of triggering that excessive fear response: i.e., he’s frightened. That fear of triggering the panic response triggers the panic response and we have one, huge loop that keeps on giving.
Still we have an inextricably interwoven mind/brain/body response that is feeding itself like the snake swallowing its tail.
If your approach to stopping that cycle is only psychological: stop the thought, stop the response, you’re missing half the picture. If you address only the response (i.e., medication), you’re still missing half the picture. And the abysmal results make my case.
My approach to panic attacks, PTSS, is to first help the sufferer to understand the physiology of what happens once the adrenaline has been released into the body. It’s the same as if you mainlined four pots of coffee: you’re going to shake, sweat, all systems go, as if the gas pedal were stuck, until the adrenaline is burned away and the body can then activate a part of the nervous system that sends calming neurotransmitters to the body to offset the effects of the adrenaline.
Mind/brain/body. When they understand that what they’re experiencing is natural and that it has a naturally occurring END POINT, they can tolerate it better. When they understand that they can trigger the release of the calming neurotransmitters to speed up the calming down process, they tolerate it better.
When I teach them that a certain kind of breathing gives them almost instant control, not only do they gain faster control over the process, but focusing on their breathing distracts them from their fear, so again, the experience becomes more tolerable and relief occurs more rapidly.
Mind/brain/body. They learn that they can control a part of their body (breathing) easily. And that that control changes the chemical messengers. And gaining that control allows them to be able to control the thoughts that trigger that fear response.
If anyone can show me how you can separate the mind from the brain from the body and get the same results, I’m happy to learn. In the meantime, this approach has opened up the way I approach most problems that clients bring me. It helps with pain, sleep, depression, stress, stress-driven behavior. It even helps with sports performance and sexual performance. A lot of bang for the buck, as they say.