Quieting Anxiety and Depression Processes.
To feel attached and connected to others requires smooth, harmonious involvement of many parts of your brain. A secure feeling of attachment is the most powerful process you have for calming down when distressed. In order to quiet your critical, judgmental thinking you need to match up seeing yourself from the inside, while imagining how the world sees you. The most demanding judgmental thinking is pushed strongly from the left Frontal Lobe using language. Thoughts such as, “I am not good enough” take on a life-of-their-own, organizing your understanding of how you fit in the world.
If you want to have healthy relations with others there has to be a coordination between the right side of the Frontal Lobe; and your feeling based core, your Limbic System, including; the Amygdala, Hippocampus, Hypothalamus, Thalamus. Last week’s article, IMAGINING YOUR BRAIN AND BODY ON ANXIETY, talked about these two most basic systems. Today I want to talk about how empathy regulates your brain and your body, and particularly how it reregulates your body/brain when you feel anxious or depressed.
Panic and empathy are routed through the opposite sides of the Amygdala. The Amygdala is a horseshoe shaped wad of nerves, about the size of the top of your thumb nail in the middle of your brain. The left side of this horseshoe administers your Flight, Fight, Flop & Freeze response (FFFF). The right side of your Amygdala is the coordinator of your feelings of empathy. This tiny part of the brain routes all the data coming up from body and your brainstem. You need both empathy (right Amygdala) and the sensitive impressions of your Frontal Lobe to be able to communicate with others. The most powerful calming skills you have as a human being is to you feel someone is attuned to your distress. When you imagine someone (your dog) knowing how you feel, many calming processes automatically operate. It is the naturally soothing to sense someone connecting with us.
I call this calming process, “falling apart and coming back together”. It is as important to be able to handle ‘falling apart’, as it is to be able to ‘come back together’. Self-soothing starts with reducing the distress of disturbing thoughts and feelings, which accompany ‘falling apart’. While you are ‘falling apart’ habitual trains of thought will dominate your awareness and be magnified by distressing feelings. You must learn to notice these anxious or depressive patterns of thinking. Simply being aware of these thoughts allows the automatic calming processes built into your brain to function. 90% of the functioning of your Frontal Lobe simply inhibits or calms impulse coming up from lower regions. We call this filtering process judgment.
Your Frontal Lobe is extremely sensitive at interpreting signals of touch, smell, vision and hearing. The separate, yet interconnected segments of the Frontal Lobe have similar, yet different functions on the left and right side. I will explain the function of some of the segments on the right side of the Prefrontal Cortex of the Frontal Lobe because the right side has more connections to the limbic system, and therefore more ability to calm our emotions. The first segment to the right of center in the Frontal Lobe lights up when trying to sense the meaning of the tone of voice, (prosody). The third segment to the right of center lights up when looking for, and giving, facial cues. In between is the second section, the Right Orbital Frontal, (ROF) cortex. The ROF, the story of yourself, is helping to coordinate brain development in the last trimester in utero, and keeps working until you die. However, the right side of the Amygdala (empathy) is dominant in coordinating brain development until language is developed to a point of 2000-3000 words (18 months old). The ROF becomes more and more dominate in coordination of brain development. The Amygdala continues to coordinate new brain connections, however not as dynamically as the ROF after 18 months.
The Limbic System, the feeling center of your brain, can also be thought of as the crown of the coordination of your body and instinctual sensations. Your instinctive core includes many quite vicious impulses, along with loving kind feelings. Healthy attachment utilizes deep input from our instinctive core. You need to feel a sense of belonging will filter out stimuli directing you to be ruthless. The “terrible twos” are a time frame in development when the innocent, self-centered viciousness gets out of control, because the later forming social and civilized functions are not yet doing their jobs. Those of you who have trouble with impulse control (maybe most people), need to develop more attachments in your lives.
The difference between feelings of internal harmony and feelings of distress can be effectively viewed as either: you are alone in the world; or you have connections. The Guru who sets on the mountain top long enough will report a feeling of well-being because of feeling connected to the universe. You and I need ‘enough’ connections with others. The brain parts explained in this article all function most smoothly when we feel close to people who are important to us. When functioning smoothly we feel organized inside. When those parts get disorganized; pain and confusion are the result. If you think “I am worthless and my life has no meaning”; you cannot be imagining someone caring about you.
A group of trusted friends and family is the answer. You need to start the process of loving yourself and changing small parts of your life. Be realistic. Predicting a horrible future is a sure way to be miserable. Add small routines which help you feel more organized and healthy. Activities that get you regularly around like-minded people are another necessary step. Your Left Frontal Lobe attempts to trick you into believing your self-worth only can come from what you do. The truth is self-worth is about accurately seeing the worth in your ‘being’. Seeing your ‘being’ can only happen with caring reflections from others.
Bill Maier sees patients in Portland, OR. He is available for consultation by email, phone or Skype.