Guest post written by: Mike Ritter
Johnny bit the dog.
The dog bit Johnny.
Same exact words, completely different order…especially if you’re Johnny.
As someone developing a healthy primal lifestyle, sometimes the order in which you think and do things can make all of the difference. In order to gain control of your allostatic balance, let’s begin with the sun in your universe: the brain.
As most of you know, your psychological makeup and state has a direct downstream effect on your physiological output. In fact, sports psychologists have been chewing on this for years. Some would say this psychology thing doesn’t work for them but I would argue that your physiological output begins in the brain; not within the confines of psychology, but biology.
The feelings of being stressed out express themselves physiologically in the forms of sleep deprivation, overeating, and over-exercising, which each have a trickle-down effect on the rest of your life. The effect of sympathetic or parasympathetic dominance can lead to disease, behavior irregularities and kinetic damage. Also, studies have shown chronic allostatic load causes some remodeling effects in the brain, in particular the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Modulating these precious tissues have been associated with irregularly low self-esteem and cognitive impairment. Chronic stress produces structural changes and neuronal damage especially in the hippocampus.
The hippocampus, located in the limbic brain, is the driving force between this autonomic nervous system which essentially regulates these two systems by eliciting the hormonal response mentioned in section 2. The limbic brain, our most primitive portion of the brain, is responsible for feelings and allostatic auto-regulation of the cardiovascular, reproductive, endocrine, digestive systems. Our newest brain, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for cognitive functions such as rationale, language and math.
The two way communication system of the limbic brain and cortex performs almost identically to the relationship between the SNS and PNS. The best metaphor for the prefrontal cortexes and limbic brain’s relationship was used in Matthew Perryman’s book “Squat Every Day.”
Imagine a rider atop of an elephant. The rider represents the pre-frontal cortex and the elephant represents the limbic brain. Throughout their long walk/ride the elephant obediently follows every push and pull the rider gives, commanding the elephant when to turn, stop and start walking again. At first glance the rider appears to be in complete control of the beast. He only appears to be in control because the elephant allows him to be…that is, until it sees a rat on the trail. Frightened, the elephant spontaneously reacts and you see the mighty brawn of the elephant and the rider is rendered helpless. He is no match to regain control of the elephant until the elephant determines it feels safe. Although our rationale is powerful, it is no match for our primitive needs.
This relationship is also a huge part of decision making. When you listen to a salesman’s offer you are analyzing more than just the price sheet. You are subconsciously analyzing his/her body language, speech patterns, eye contact, and some more subjective feelings such as personal connection. You may rationally agree with everything he/she is saying but still decide not to buy. Not because the math on paper doesn’t make sense, or he/she offered incorrect information, but something didn’t feel right. That “gut feeling” you are experiencing comes from the limbic brain. The limbic brain, hypothalamus and pituitary gland are the auto-regulatory system which controls the SNS and PNS. The most powerful and primitive part of your brain controls the most powerful of its functions and has a direct influence on your health.
Since the pre-frontal cortex (rationale) and limbic brain do not need to be in agreement for an autonomic response to occur, it is understandable how you can be stressed out yet effectively ignore it. Symptomatically, you can experience stress without your consent. Your limbic brain can signal unhappiness, yet you have the ability to rationalize reasons to continue the current task (a workout, project or unpleasant conversations). This is where we are today with a lot of modern day Western Society. Saying “I’m ok,” does not necessarily mean you are ok. That’s your pre-frontal cortex’s attempt to override the limbic brain just like the rider on the elephant. This stress coping behavior is called “dissociation”, more on this later.
A temporary pre-frontal override is a pretty awesome system because it allows us to push through physical pain, survive rigorous school, CPA’s exams and essentially drive through stressful situations despite our limbic brain telling you “this task is harmful, turn back.” When you do this, you are acting against your natural instincts to achieve something greater than yourself. But these are actions we eventually can train ourselves to believe are ok but, as explained in sections 1 and 2, they are harmful to our health in the long run without proper balance.
In effect, you can become accustomed to your SNS overload and rationalize it to be normal and therefor unnecessary to deal with. This is why you cannot simply rely on your perception of stress alone as an indicator that you need a shift in balance. Perception of stress is important but physical symptoms (described in section 1) are better indicators of how much influence your external environment has on your brain. These factors play a great role in allostasis, even without your consent.
Riding the Waves “downstream”
Your thoughts are all interpreted as brain waves flying through your brain at hundreds of cycles per second. Your every thought is expressed in patterns which begin a response. When the limbic brain is triggered by an external stimulus, it stimulates a sympathetic or parasympathetic hormone response, thus creating the downstream effect on the physiological outputs.
Your stream of consciousness is interpreted through these waves. Your daily calculations, reasoning, response and ultimately stress are found here. The more your day is filled with heightened stream of consciousness the more stress you are ultimately under. Most adults spend a vast majority of their day experiencing Beta waves and their cognitive motor.
2) Alpha– The Deep Relaxation Wave (9-13Hz)
During light meditation at the end of yoga class, during a relaxing walk in nature or during a daydream is when Alpha waves are present. It’s that place of relaxed consciousness when your brain slips away from Beta and into Alpha mode. You are not slipping into sleep (Theta -> Delta) but your imagination, learning and visualization skills become alive. You are not completely conscious and not yet into subconscious. Those who spend more time in Alpha tend to be more intuitive and experience moments of profound thinking. This is the beginnings of a parasympathetic response.
3) Theta– The Light Meditation and Sleeping Wave (4-8Hz)
Your deepest connection with visualization, intuition and creativity is in Theta. You are not yet asleep but far away from Beta and rationalization. This is an ideal place for maximum creativity and unlocking your greatest insight. This is the final border between consciousness and sleep. Masters of meditation are able to deliberately make it here without actually experiencing Delta. It is said that your deepest connection with self and the universe is experienced in Theta.
4) Delta– The Deep Sleep Wave (30Hz)
In delta you have completely unattached from any stream of consciousness and are experiencing a deep, dreamless sleep. Because of the inability to touch the conscious mind Delta waves do not allow a direct means of healing psychological stress but sleep has many benefits of healing and rejuvenating the body which indirectly affects the perception of your relationship with your body and others. Although, often thought of as a form of relaxation, sleep is not the same thing as meditation. A lack of sleep, less than 7-9hrs can have a great negative impact on your health.
5) Gamma– The Insight Wave (Below Hz)
New research is coming out about the fastest of all waves, Gamma. With still much to learn about this state of mind, Gamma has been linked with extremely high level information processing and sudden moments of insight.
Interconnectivity of the brain
Dr. Jeffrey D. Thompson at the Center for Neuroacoustic Research observed waves below Gamma in patients back in 2000. They described a “white light” type of experience and described subjective signs of higher being, psychic abilities and out of body experiences. He also found that other researchers were observing extraordinarily high brain waves in patients experiencing 100 Hz and higher. Some were as high as 200Hz. These were later named HyperGamma frequencies. Interestingly enough they described nearly verbatim the same subjective experiences at those much higher frequency suggesting there is an interdependency between the extremely high brain wave frequencies and the low ones.
Also, by looking through the extremely low (now named Epsilon) frequencies you see tiny incremental frequencies resembling those of 100-200Hz. In conjunction, by stepping away from the HyperGamma chart revealed the quick HyperGamma frequencies ride along the crest of a larger, longer Epsilon wave. This suggests that these waves are not actually plotted out in a linear fashion but in a more circular flow. This neural flow paints the interdependency of how our limbic brain works and that two ends of the spectrum are not separate but actually interconnected like the rest of our limbic system.
Interconnectivity of external stressors: Environmental effects on allostatic load
As mentioned in Section 1: The average American works between 49-59hrs per week and gets 6 hrs of sleep per night. In the work force, according to the chart below we have become 28% more productive and only 8% more compensated in 13 years. The work forces we have are continuously more productively and not proportionately compensated. Most work indoors, eat a standard western diet heavy in grains, inflammatory oils and are constantly in Beta. In other words, the people who would benefit most from reading about this topic likely can’t sit still long enough to read it.
When you wake up in the morning you have a natural mechanism, started by the sun to jump start serotonin production. This natural jump start mechanism requires 2,500 lux to up-regulate. That is 1,000 lux higher than your typical office. This natural jump start mechanism is centered on the production of a hormone called serotonin. In all animals, the time of day, quantity and quality of lighting is crucial to their health and well-being. The average fluorescent light bulb is approximately 400 lux, which means the 4 fluorescent bulbs your office are giving you roughly 1600 lux of brightness to stimulate the brain and let you know that it is daytime and it’s ok to keep working. On the other hand, the average cloudy day provides you with nearly 1-5,000 lux and a sunny day providing 50,000 lux or higher. Is this a big deal?
Serotonin is a natural mood booster, helps to fight depressive emotions, as well as a signal to the body to wake up and become alert. Three ways to boost serotonin are a diet rich in tryptophan, exercise and sunlight. Without those three it’s no wonder everyone in the office is dying for a pick-me-up by noon.
Chronic artificial lighting exposure has been linked to multiple medical and behavioral disorders, all connected with the downstream effect of the brain on the limbic system.
Attention Deficit Disorder
Reduced muscle strength
A Natural Change- When the dog bit Johnny, Johnny bit the dog
You can purposefully change the stress your brain is handling by changing the external environment. Nature has many stress reducing benefits. It’s important to reiterate here that a reduction in stress allows for all of the benefits of parasympathetic exercise by also a well-rested sympathetic nervous system. On the physical side, spending time in nature is associated with a welcome decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and sympathetic nerve activity. Studies have shown the impact nature has on the brain includes replenishment of will power, attention span, and focus. And maybe more importantly so, connecting one’s self with nature stimulates alpha waves spawning feelings of creativity, deep happiness and connectedness.
An even more fascinating connection with the artificial/natural environment with the brain is the correlation between the outdoors and its healing powers over disease and depression. Patients at the Prouty Garden of Children’s Hospital in Boston who experienced 20 minutes or more frequent exposure to the outdoors experienced fewer surgical related complications, smaller dosage s of pain medication and shorter stays. What’s even more amazing is: so were the kids who were provided an outdoor window view of the gardens.
Surf Therapy and horseback riding has been used recently to help treat PTSD in former military who aren’t seeing progress in traditional therapies. It gives them the hormonal benefits of nature, sends them into a different state of mind (alpha) and provides them with a challenging non-traumatic task that can ease them into progression. Natural environment therapies including surf therapy have shown to make progress in treating low self-esteem, ADHD, Behavioral disorders, and Addiction.
PTSD: Stress under a magnifying glass
The best example of stress therapy is the treatment of PTSD. Although most of the people walking into a health club won’t include this population, this challenging disorder magnifies two specific states in which humans analyze and respond to stress. PTSD treatment provides enormous insight into the state of those who are psychologically disconnected with their state of stress and provides us methods to help integrate them to a normal sense of connectivity and autonomic function. Peter A. Levine, Ph.D and author of Waking the Tiger, explains that our 3 autonomic functions (fight, flight or freeze) and their hormonal drivers are primarily triggered by fear and discomfort. But only the proper doses create a recoverable scenario. Too big of an acute trigger can lead to a great spiral-like collapse in someone’s psyche. Most people, whether they are suffering from PTSD or not, learn to cope with their stress in two different ways. The type of behavior someone displays provides clues on how to stimulate progress for a long sustainable period of time.
Dissociation– Unawareness of state of stress. These people describe very little connectivity with their body or symptoms. They are typically parasympathetic dominant therefore need to learn to connect with their body and environment. Taking incremental steps are very important for them not to have an adverse effect.
Hyper-association– A heightened awareness of the state of stress. These people may describe many problems at once and have a very difficult time focusing on one thing. They are essentially stuck in a sympathetic and beta oriented state.
All people are walking around with some sort of unawareness or hyperawareness of their stressed state. By starting a healthy downstream effect the right way means creating that awareness and developing a strategy to help improve that state. These aren’t just conditions of PTSD, these are also personalities. In an interview with licensed psychotherapist Nancy Iben, she recommends, “Too much high intensity activity to the hyper-associated person ramps them into a manic or euphoric state making it even more difficult for them to come down. Eventually everyone does though and when they do they tend to collapse because they haven’t learned how to think or act incrementally. Dissociated types of personalities will retain their fear and likely never show up again.” Further, hyper-associative people tend to be task oriented. So, after a high-intensity workout they will move onto another task keeping them in Beta, eliciting more allostatic load on the body and not permitting a parasympathetic response unless deliberately cued otherwise. The dissociated person is very parasympathetic dominant and can be stimulated so fast they become uncomfortable creating a stressful and fearful environment. They can experience numbness in the hands and feet when experiencing too much stimulation, therefore, these people need more time to acclimate themselves.
A study conducted in Switzerland confirmed there are two types of stress responses; they called them high reactive and low reactive. The team that performed the study observed 164 children who were categorized into the two categories based on their reactions to behavioral and psychological tests. The children were observed at infancy (4 months old), 2 yrs. old and again at seven. The study also found 3 very important outcomes:
- High reactive children, who developed anxious symptoms, were subdued in their interactions, made fewer errors in tasks requiring inhibition of reflex, and they were more reflective than the low reactive.
- The results were consistent from infancy to childhood.
- The children showed no different reaction when exposed to fearful or aggressive pictures.
These two types of personalities exist in everyone and they appear to be pre-wired and exist from birth. No matter which type a person is, the downstream effect from limbic brain through the body of both types is universal. The research done on PTSD and behavior magnifies the states of mind that exist in the modern human. By understanding these two types of psychological states and stress response we can identify them sooner and help them become healthier more efficiently. They will then sustain their psychological and physiological gains much longer.
Furthermore, based on this information you could effectively choose a training stimulus based on the state of the person’s stress, personality and lifestyle, not vice versa. When chronically stressed, sleep, meditation, walking, exposure to sunlight, performing lower intensity weight lifting with music or acting out relaxing emotions are much better than too much stimulus. Purposeful meditation, adequate sleep (7-9hrs) also shows a strong correlation with sense of purpose, creativity and clarity. Most obstacles in relationships, occupation and in training will be managed to their best possible outcomes with a greater sense of purpose, creativity and clarity. A great bill of health includes all of this. A body without a healthy command center is ready for a wreck, and it must be treated first. As a coach, this will help your retention, and as a human you can apply these principles for sustainability rather than “getting on and off the wagon” of your health programs.
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