The Mind/Body Connection (or, Where, Exactly, Are My Chakras?)
I guess I had nothing better to do on a Thursday night, so there I was, laying on my back on the scratchy commercial carpet in a shop that hosted seances and had more mediums than the Gap in this weird little strip mall in East Greenbush. The woman who was squatting above me was telling me to visualize my crown chakra and to breathe into my pain. I peeked through one squinted eye, and said, "Where, exactly, are my chakras?"
I wasn't asked back to the second night of the gong bath. Turns out there was no bathing involved at all. False advertising, if you ask me.
When I was in the height of anxiety, I would have eaten a bowl of spiderwebs if you told me it would make me feel better, so laying on that gross floor was nothing. I didn't understand, and certainly didn't want to hear, that there were invisible forces in my body that I had to hum to to feel better. I wanted action. I wanted pills. I wanted to beat this thing out of me... which didn't work either.
That's right around the time that I started listening to podcasts about anxiety.
I remember exactly where I was when I realized that my mind was part of my body, and that they are, in fact, connected. I was in traffic, on Hoosick Street. I was listening to Kelli Walker (my heterosexual life partner and the gin to my tonic) on her podcast, and she said, "Think of sucking on a big juicy lemon. Did you feel that pucker at the back of your throat and did your mouth start to water? Boom. Your mind made that happen." I'm clearly paraphrasing, but you get the gist.
So just thinking of something can make things happen in your body? It's like magic, and pretty far outside of my Irish Catholic comfort zone.
Here's another good mind/body experiment: think of the word yawn. Better yet, look at the person next to you and say, "yawn." I love this one. Your thoughts made that happen. And the person next to you now hates you.
Still don't believe me? Ok fine. Think of the last really horrible thing you said/did....did your "stomach drop?"
Or think of the last think that the person you love the most said/did that made you feel really loved...did you just get "butterflies?"
Have you ever had a "gut feeling?" You get the point.
After hearing Kelli and the lemon, I started wondering if the little pains in my body (that I had decided were cancer) may not be telling me the truth. These little pains brought me to the cardiologist three times, had me wear a heart monitor for 48 hours, had me go to the endocrinologist twice, urgent care three times, and had me give about of gallon of blood for testing. When all tests came back positive for anxiety and wasting everyone's time, I decided it was time to look into this voodoo of my mind being connected to my body.
Like all simple things, we can make this very confusing. Let me see if I can insult hard working fancy brain scientists by getting this all backward:
When something happens around us, our brain receives messages and then processes them to determine whether that something is safe and what to do about it.
Here's an easy example: you're in the car, and a huge truck comes out of nowhere at about a thousand miles an hour, and almost hits you. We've all been there. It's the worst.
The majority of what happens next happens in the limbic system in your brain: All of your senses report back to the hypothalamus, which is only concerned with keeping you alive (blood pressure, temperature, all that homeostasis jazz) - if something seems like a danger, this bad boy fires up and tells its besties "Thundercats Are Go", and your glands start releasing crap like cortisol, adrenaline and all kinds of sexy neurotransmitters, all in an effort to keep you alive.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the amygdala is over there pumping out emotions (mostly fear) so you know how to react to the stimulus. The stronger the sensation, the stronger the emotion.
And here's the kick right in the pants...the amygdala shares a downtown apartment with the hippocampus, which turns experiences into memories. So if you have a strong reaction to something like a truck almost running you over, and your hypothalamus tells your amygdala to freak out, the hippocampus takes a selfie with that fear and stores it in it's InstaG forever.
That forever is no joke...that's where the basil ganglia makes it a habit, and makes you afraid of that thing #4eva.
Ok, so, the truck comes out of nowhere: your eyes constrict to let in just enough light to focus on the danger; your bowels might evacuate (nervous squirts) to make you lighter to run; your heart pounds a mile a minute so your blood rushes to your torso to protect the organs (which is why your hands get cold); your air passages dilate; and your immune system just shuts down (because who cares about the flu if you're about to get run down by the Final Destination truck?).
To belabor the point: You get stung by a bee once when you're 4. Your hypothalamus tells your body, "well that sucked, lets protect ourselves here". You flood with hormones to keep you alive, your amygdala tells you to get the eff outta there, your hippocampus remembers it forever, and your basil ganglia tells you not to go near a bees nest again. In fact, freak out if you see a bee for the rest of your life.
For some of us, the bee is actually the grocery store...or a party...or walking down the driveway...or the gym.
All of this is pretty cool...for about a second. But this stress response - the flood of cortisol and adrenaline - is only supposed to last a short time to protect us. This nonsense we do to ourselves of living stress as a status symbol means that this stress response happens about a thousand times a day. No wonder we feel like crap and get sick all the time.
Here's where it gets wild. The brain does the same thing when it's a good stimulus...or what it perceives as a good stimulus. Our brains release things called neurotransmitters to make us feel good too (norepinephrine, GABA, Endorphins, Serotonin, etc.). These control and regulate energy, drive, focus, calm, pain relief, pleasure, emotional stability and self-confidence.
The bummer is that things like cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, and weed give mixed signals to your brain. The brain tries to self-correct, but it swings in the opposite direction, and we feel like we're in free fall. That's why when we go off of these artificial chemical boosters, we feel anxiety, lack of drive, overly sensitive, feelings of incompleteness, inability to experience pleasure, obsession, hunger and irritability.
Before you get on your high horse though, caffeine, sugar, booze, tobacco, and the angel of all drugs, Valium, do the same exact thing. So, there goes my Saturday night...
That's pretty much how it all works. I think. Look, I was a political science major. Give me a break.
Anyway, here's the thing to remember (...or the thing I remember, at least), your brain is amazing, but sort of annoying. For millions of people that suffer panic attacks, it may help to look deeper into this. That's what broke the trance for me. Understanding that my brain thought it was keeping me safe helped me develop ways to retrain my little limbic system, and now I can actually put pants and walk over to DeFazio's.
But don't think that you have to have suffered panic or major anxiety to believe in this infomercial. We can affect how we feel if we take care of our noodle. It's science man.
There are some Doubting Thomas' out there. That's cool. I totally get you. It feels very "my body is just a vessel" to me sometimes, and it weirds me out. For a long time, I just simply didn't believe that I could affect my overall health by taking care of my mind.
When Kelli was my anxiety coach, she explained things in a way my little western brain could understand: emotions will fizzle out on their own if we don't hold on to them, but in the mean time, there are some self-care routines that will help untangle the stress response, and help build new habits.
The main one being to stimulate the vagus nerve. This bad boy touches pretty much everything in your body, and getting it to calm down is the best pacifier for your limbic system. Things like sticking your face in cold water, deep breathing (I'm partial to the Navy Seals method), holding liquid in your mouth, singing and laughing all tell your vagus nerve to call up your brain and tell it to chill. It actually works better than drugs, and it's more sustainable. I'm not making that up, Google it.
Which is why yoga fixes everything. Or if you're not into bending find something that makes you equally present and relaxed. Look it, I don't get it either. Yoga digs stuff up and gets it out of you. It's why I cry sometimes when I'm there. I may never visualize my root chakra, or say namaste without laughing, but here's what I do get: when I do yoga, or scream-sing Moulin Rouge, or do some progressive muscle relaxation, I feel better. When I feel better, I do better. You should really want me to take care of myself...it's keeping me from going all MSNBC special on everyone around me.
So, look it, you don't have to believe me, and I know this wasn't overly interesting to read, but I promise that it's important. Eastern science says that there is energy blocked in places that makes us sick. Western Science is too cool to hop on the train, but their evidence doesn't disagree either. Erica science says, "when she does self-care practices like yoga, she's slightly less of a jerk."
And that's all the evidence any of us should need.