My Amygdala: A Love Story (Part II)
This is Part II of my story, continued from last week (see Part I). I had just recounted my discovery of CPTSD in my desperate attempt to understand why I suffered so much pain in my relationship with Vee. It was at this juncture that, by pure happenstance and the serendipity of a well-worded Google search, I discovered Peter Walker’s book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. His book was a head-nodder. I got it. He got me. I got me! And so I was off and running, deepening with every book I could find, with every scholarly journal article, my understanding of the roles that trauma and my brain had played in my life.
Let’s pick up with some science.
The sympathetic nervous system is part of our involuntary physiological response system. This system — which includes that part of our ancient brain known as the amygdala — is a trigger and warning system that, for lack of a better way to put it, tries to help us survive. Ten thousand years ago, our ancient brain (or lizard brain, rear brain, etc.) kept us alive when faced with the dangers of the wild. A typical example: we see a saber tooth tiger. Our amygdala springs into action, pushing the panic button and sending a red alert to our hypothalamus, which in turn dials up our sympathetic nervous system and orders it to secrete the right hormones– the hormones and neurotransmitters that will help us survive. Adrenalin, cortisol, etc. course through our bodies. Our fight-flight-freeze response is activated. In a very real sense, this system could be referred to as our neurological survival system. But despite its obvious utility, the sympathetic nervous system can go off of the metaphorical rails. Unconscious perceptions and associations from our past can trip our amygdala into action, even when we are, in fact, quite safe; at least, safe in the sense that we are not being chased by a tiger with six-inch fangs. A misaligned sympathetic nervous system, an easily-triggered amygdala, can hijack our ability to think clearly, to reason, to see reality as it is. It can, quite literally, take us back to a place when, as children, we were entirely vulnerable; to a time and place when we were experiencing unspeakable trauma. In a quite quixotic sense of the tragically ironic, our amygdala and sympathetic nervous system can set us to battle against windmills that today pose us no threat at all.
And so, this autobiography of mine is in fact the story of my amygdala. My amygdala protected me when I was young. It was a turbulent childhood, and my survival probably hinged on my brain’s more archaic functions. As I aged, my amygdala all but destroyed me. And only now, in the soon-to-be twilight of my days, have I come to understand just how completely it has shaped my existence.
Vee and I live together. I adore her. She is magnificent. Her values, steeped with reverence in a commitment to a moral universe, align with her actions. She has single-handedly raised five powerful, wonderful daughters. She is funny, brilliant, creative, empathetic, giving. Being with Vee is a delight beyond words. We have chosen each other. But my amygdala often tries to write a different story.
When Vee and I lie in bed watching The West Wing and she gets a text on her phone, and when I am rooted in the present and in my rational front brain, it’s all good, just another moment in a busy and vibrant day. When she talks about her male friends, friends like Chris, and I am centered and dwelling firmly in my rational mind, I feel neither threatened nor distressed. But when Vee gets a text on her phone and, for reasons I often do not know or recognize or understand at the time, and I’m in a place of cognitive vulnerability — or when she mentions a conversation with her mentor Paul and I am uncentered or invisible and susceptible to the whims of my brain chemistry — my amygdala jumps into action. The feelings of dread precipitated by my renegade brain chemistry get interpreted poorly by my mind, a mind deeply habituated to suffering. All of a sudden I’m off and running: Vee has met another man, a better man. He is more lovable. Dan, you are in danger!! Without acute awareness and the ability to intervene, the spiral has begun.
I have a wonderful life. And I am deeply committed to addressing these questions: How do I keep from having these big, disorienting, and at times excruciating feelings move me away from my goals, from my dreams? How do I manage to carry on during times of brutal emotional turbulence? How do I keep gut-wrenching feelings from distancing me from those I love and cherish? How do I not engage in irrational acts of self-sabotage, personally and professionally? How, during such tempests, do I stay the course?
The answer I have discovered, the solution, lies in daily practice. It is simple, but not always easy. It takes discipline and time and devotion and work. But the power that my amygdala holds over my daily life now is, for the most part, and the majority of the time, mercifully attenuated. By engaging in a series of daily practices aimed at quieting, at disempowering, my amygdala — just as the alcoholic attends AA meetings and works the 12-steps in order to remain sober — my susceptibility to amygdala hijack is minimized. So here’s what I do, what I try to do, to stay amygdala-sober. For others, specific practices may vary. Regardless, if I want to recover and to live a life as free as possible from the flaws of the brain, the habits that have derailed me time and time again, I must live with such intention.
It starts with the brain, and it ends with the mind. Of the many miracles of our minds, one near the top of the list has to do with something called neuroplasticity. In lay terms, we can, to a great extent, employ our minds and our intentions as a way to retrain our brains. Simply put, with daily attention and action, I can change the course of history, of my history. I can turn a tragedy into a love story that knows no end. The answer lies in assiduous attention to daily mindfulness practice.
What follows is the regimen I try to adhere to each day. For me, it must become like food and water. If I am resolved and diligent in my practice, my life is abundant. I am convinced beyond doubt of this truth. Here then is my mindfulness workout schedule.
I begin each morning with a ten to fifteen-minute meditation on healing my inner child. Addressing the inner child with mercy helps me start my day with compassion for me, with love and understanding for the child who suffered so. (There are myriad resources online. Finding the guided meditation works best for you is simply a matter of trial.) I like to follow this practice with a ten-minute interlude, during which I watch a favorite Ted Talk about love and compassion. Hearing others speak so eloquently about these topics is reassuring and hopeful. Next, I participate in a guided meditation — again, ten minutes of directed work is sufficient — on gratitude and thankfulness. For me, it is very important that I consciously work on developing feelings of gratitude for those people that, without attention, could feel like threats to my amygdala’s interpretation of my well being: people such as Chris or Paul, both of whom I mentioned earlier. Being thankful, practicing thankfulness, quiets my panic response. I consciously and with intention thank Chris for the ways in which he loved and took care of Vee. I thank him and extend love to him. I do this in meditation and with warm new age music playing through my sound-canceling headphones. Next on the agenda is a ten-minute meditation in which I imagine all people as the innocent children that they, that we all, once were. Sometimes I look at pictures of children at play while listening to new age music and considering the innocence and perfection of all children. Again, I think about all of the adults I know and conjure images of them as children, playing and laughing. This helps me feel only compassion and empathy for my sisters and brothers who have been wounded by time. Finally, I do a ten-minute meditation on grief. For me, this usually takes the form of a reflection on my son Eli, on his beauty and utter vulnerability. Eli has a profound disability. Considering his life brings me to tears very quickly. Tears are a critical part of disarming my ever-vigilant and hyper-aggressive amygdala.
Ten minutes inner child meditation
Ten minute Ted Talk
Ten minutes thankfulness and gratitude meditation
Ten minutes “we are all just children seeking home” meditation
Ten-minute grief meditation
One hour of my day, that’s all. Of course, there are no guarantees. But hear me. My life is worth it! The neural pathways I developed as a child run deep. My brain holds power that is both mysterious and unpredictable. And yet I know from experience, from daily practice, from attention and awareness, from all that I have learned; I know that I can live and love and feel joy. I know that I can weather the storms. I know that I can be the man I have always wanted to be.
So that’s it. That’s the story of my life. And in the end, I guess it is a love story. It’s a story of discovery that has no end. It’s a story about embracing my shadow and my history. It’s a story of despair and reclamation, of turbulence and still seas. And it’s a story about finding my way out of hell. The journey continues.
I’m almost 58 and live in the hills of Southern Vermont. I’m engaged to a woman worthy of sainthood, have two children from my first marriage and five step-daughter equivalents, teach history at a small private high school, and sing Grateful Dead songs in the shower. All in all, a pretty wonderful life.