I’ve changed. My brain has changed! It’s true. I overrode my automatic Post-traumatic Stress response last night. There I was lying in bed, enjoying an Esther and Jerry Hicks video, when I noticed the LED light behind me reflected onto my computer screen. Freak out! That round, bright light hovering over me (the computer was on my belly and the screen tipped toward and above me) captured my gaze and sent alarm bells clanging. I was caught in a PTSD moment……..momentarily.
A part of me came to the rescue. What’s going on, I asked myself. OK, the light is mimicking one of those surgery lamps that I saw as a baby. I put the computer aside, thinking that I’d have to ride out the freeze response in which my body goes into paralysis mode. But then I heard myself say, No, I’m not doing that. I want to watch my video. I sat up so that the reflection was gone and snap, just like that, I was back watching the video where a woman was saying that she cured herself from cancer without chemo or radiation. Amazing!
Afterward, I realized the magnitude of my achievement–I’d sidestepped Post-traumatic Stress! A few months back, I’d written a poem about my major PTSD moment with the heating lamp (myincision July 15, 2012). Last night, instead of going into “deer in the headlights mode,” I basically told myself, Been there, done that and went on with my life. Sound simple? It was and it wasn’t. In the moment, it was rather easy but I’ve been working on this stuff for years. Now I’m finally harvesting the fruit.
Here’s what I think happened in the words of Dr. Daniel J. Siegel* from his seminal book Mindsight, The New Science of Personal Transformation. “Traumatic experiences, in particular, can sensitize limbic [area deep within brain that helps us evaluate ‘feeling states’]** reactivity, so that even minor stresses can cause cortisol [stress hormone] to spike, making daily life more challenging for the traumatized person . . . Finding a way to soothe excessively reactive limbic firing is crucial to rebalancing emotions and diminishing the harmful effects of chronic stress” (18). In other words, post-traumatic stress can be soothed. How? According to Siegel, by using a different part of our brain to “override” the agitation.
Here’s how Dr. Siegel puts it: “The middle prefrontal region [of the cortex] has direct connections that pass down into the limbic area and make it possible to inhibit and modulate the firing of the fear-creating amygdala [a cluster of neurons important in the fear response]. Studies have demonstrated that we can consciously harness this connection to overcome fear–we can use the “override” of our cortex to calm our lower limbic agitation” (28). In other words, we can soothe our fear when our limbic area gets triggered if we are aware and react consciously to agitation.
I’m feeling pretty damn proud of myself right now. I’ve come full circle on this surgery lamp thing. I have other PTS triggers too, but this is the first time I’ve been able to override a PTS fear in seconds and stay focused on what I was doing before the freak out hit. Dr. Siegel states, “As neurons fire together, they wire together” (40). So I can say with confidence, my brain changed. I’m newly wired!
*clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, and executive director of the Mindsight Institute.
**words in brackets [ ] are mine