Friday, May 20, 2011

bipolar illness - bipolar awareness

Illness or Denied Instincts
For 25 years I believed I had a bipolar illness in line with the long standing model of medical disease, only changing my belief after much study into the neurobiology of human development with its increasing awareness of complex brain and autonomic nervous system interactions.

Interactions in which emotions affect our metabolism and help organize the brains early development while simultaneously affecting the maturing nervous system. Systems theory is now changing our understanding of human behavior and the biology of affective disorders. A new bipolar awareness has changed my belief in bipolar illness to a disorder rooted in the autonomic nervous system and initially organized by the negative affect/emotions of traumatic experience.

As I write this article I am recovering from three weeks of dengue fever which challenged my bipolar awareness and my new beliefs about bipolar illness. The extremely low energy states caused by such a harsh physical illness triggered natural dips in mood that could have easily triggered an episode of depression. In the accepted medical model of bipolar disorder this was a life event that would certainly qualify as a trigger for bipolar symptoms.

Yet despite the ravages of such a harsh physical illness I was able to use new found insights to avoid being triggered into the kind of depressive mood swings that have so disabled me in the past. I won’t pretend that it was all smiles and serene plain sailing though, for as the chosen picture shows the illness brought feelings of despair and defeat so familiar to bipolar people. Dengue fever is no picnic in the park and such savagely negative feelings fired old neural connections in my brain associated to my previous experience of depression.

The brain is a brilliant pattern matching machine as some writers have noted, and I was aware that the limbic area of my triune brain was matching past experience during this illness and firing previous responses of conservation/withdrawal. This natural instinct for conservation/withdrawal had accumulated into depressive defeat in previous times when my understanding and awareness was weak. Education has led to the kind of insights which now allow me to be aware of emotive sensations without becoming overwhelmed by them. Mindfulness has become best practice in all mental health therapies these days, as the intellectual advances of our technological combine with the age old wisdom of the body and natural healing.

In coping with my bipolar condition I now use the insights gained from education to be mindful of my emotive energy states and how they affect my brain and nervous system. My new paradigm of self help has become a mind-less letting go of the emotive energies that stimulate classic bipolar symptoms. Ten years ago I would not have believed that I could deal with the classic mania energized sleepless nights without a magic sleeping pill intervention. Indeed that was mostly how I managed my bipolar disorder for twenty five years, using self medication rather than psychotropic drugs, when their side effect issues always became chronic. 31 years after my first manic episode, insight and sanity has prevailed for me and despite such a harsh physical sickness my mood has stayed within a normal range, further confirming my ongoing recovery from what I thought was a disease, a mental illness.

Insights gained over the last decade and particularly the last 12 months, have taught me that I can control my own sensations, my symptoms, and that I can manage the electrochemical surges in my brain and nervous system. First and foremost during this trying period was the practice of NOT thinking to much, understanding now that thoughts amplify affective energy states and maintain their stimulated sensations. Finally understanding that my trauma conditioned bipolar defense was due to an overactive autonomic nervous system. I am find it much easier these days to let go and sink down into relaxed muscle sensations during normal health.

I’m sure many bipolar readers will identify with the notion that deep relaxation is difficult for us and usually avoided like there is some kind of enemy deep down inside us. It seems to be a very common expression amongst all those labeled mentally ill, that we “cannot feel comfortable inside our own skin.” Such is the trauma conditioned response of trapped survival energies seeking to be discharged, yet held captive by a heightened nervous system activity, that becomes an habitually braced defense against this enemy within.

Because the activity of the autonomic nervous system is unconscious, the source of my own uneasy approach to life had remained hidden from my conscious awareness for decades. Yet my birthing experience of a three day labor and crude forceps delivery had tensioned my nervous system with a heightened distress that had remained switched on. Like a silent smoke alarm my nervous energies held this background buzz for decades, with my high strung personality stimulated more by a need to control this inner alarm, than respond to external events.

My understanding of bipolar and my awareness has changed to a felt sense of what caused the conditioning of my nervous system and how to tone down the unconscious smoke alarm of my trauma energized defense. Physical illness stimulated all the familiar sensations of this enemy within as I braced myself against the pains of Dengue fever which fired well worn patterns of neural connections in my brain. The negative affect of illness brought an unconsciously familiar response that could have spiraled all the way down to helpless depression without my educated insights and a solid change in my awareness of autonomic conditioning.

During three full weeks of draining illness I have been tempted by old familiar feelings of defeat and a desire for depressive withdrawal. An unconscious pattern of braced defense prevented me from sinking fully into restful relaxation and its restorative process. My bipolar disorder condition is caused by the trauma trap of a frozen response, as background distress prevents a proper rhythmic flow of internal energies. A sense of defeat was stimulated by an inability to flow along with my real needs as the old trauma conditioned alarm blocked a deeply needed and natural restoration response.

As I write I can feel the old frustrations of this braced defense which soaks up so much energy, life becomes a bi-phasic roller coaster of over-activity & collapse. During this illness my creative drive was thwarted and I became angry with myself, wanting to impose my willful mind on my natural body process, yet simply amplifying any negative affect/emotion. Every day during this period I have wanted to write, to get on with my life, wishful thoughts that ignored the reality within and the cognitive deficits stimulated by an unconscious natural processes. On too many days I tried to force myself to think, not wanting to surrender to the wisdom of my body and its instinctual nature. Perhaps I'm seduced by this hedonic age where life has become defined by the proficiency of our objective thinking as though the mind itself is the primary process of being alive.

We are all hard wired for dependent attachment and it drives our willingness to believe in others, while an instinct for immediate ease and comfort makes us more than willing to believe a plausible idea. My own belief in bipolar illness helped maintain my condition for over 25 years, and now after five years of solid research into the biology of my brain/body I'm undergoing the experiential integration of a new awareness, as I continue to improve my capacity to feel my own sensations without fearing them. Gone is the belief that I was stuck with a chemical imbalance that I could not control, a belief that simply sustained the manic depressive cycle by blocking a surrenderer to the innate processes and wisdom of my body.

Our responses are conditioned by our affective circumstances like my circumstance at birth and when an innate process stimulated my first manic episode circumstances of medical mis-perceptions thwarted a natural process. Today I might have found my way to a body psychotherapist armed with the new knowledge of our autonomic nervous system and my circumstantial experience would be different one. Perhaps instead of being re-traumatized by the bewilderment of hospitalization and heavy medication whose side effects brought more feelings of defeat than all my previous low grade depressions. Perhaps after returning to normal energy levels the new practice of mindful body awareness would have helped me resolve this unconscious nervous system conditioning, rather magnify any previous negative affect/emotion with a sense of helplessness that just reinforces the trauma trap.

The medical model of mental illness is presented to us in a very fatalistic way. It's your brain chemistry & you're stuck with it; suggesting you can't change the chemistry of your brain in any way and ensuring a sense of helpless defeat. Breathing changes brain chemistry, so does exercise, the food you eat, the thoughts you think, the words you speak, as well as how often you smile. Insightful education has taught me that movement and posture are primary processes that proceed the activity of my mind. My mistake was my minds hierarchical denial of the body and its raw animal instincts which produced the survival energies that were trapped in an unconscious trauma conditioning of my autonomic nervous system.

Now a solid change in belief and a new practiced ability to feel my own sensations without fear, is dissolving decades of negative affect/emotion experience in my brain chemistry, wiring a new expectation of positive affect/emotion that is becoming equally self fulfilling. A high density of negative affect/emotion produced my braced defense with its self fulfilling expectation, yet now that I understand the process I am able to let go the false perceptions of mind as I practice letting go the trauma conditioned sensations. This new phase of my life is starting to build a density of positive experience that is conditioning my autonomic nervous system to positive expectations.

After recovering from such a harsh physical illness I can feel this new positive conditioning in my muscular posture, old tensions in my jaw which had surfaced with the stress of illness has dissolved again. I can feel my relaxed breathing and body movements, with this more open posture bringing positive reactions from others too, further enhancing my unconscious expectations. The key has been an educated change in belief and a new practiced way of embracing my body sensations minus the negative affect of fearful doubts, ignorance and uncertainty. All my past rationalizations about mental illness now feel like I was lost in a subjective fog, my mind like a ship seeking the landfall of my body, and at last I can see my way home.

As I write these final lines I can feel my life long tendency to escape body sensations by intellectual conceptualization, a gentle form of dissociation. I console myself by rationalizing a need to explain a complex process to you, haunted by habitual dissociation yet aware that this is the minds way, and all dissociation is only a question of degree. I'm also aware of the need to continue this process in my journey of self discovery, further cementing my recovery from what I once believed was a mental illness.

Neuroception?-An Unconscious Perception?