Recently I learned about a phenomenon termed sensory flooding:
At the base of the brain where it connects to the spinal cord are the brain stem and the Reticular Activating System (RAS). Most of our nerves pass through the brain stem and RAS on their way to other parts of the brain. The brain stem is in charge of processing information regarding basic survival – breathing, digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, our awake/sleep cycles, etc. The RAS is a filtering system. It filters the massive amounts of information that come through our senses. It filters according to motivation and emotion and tells us where to place our attention. If the information is unneeded we don’t pay attention to it, sometimes we don’t even register it. There’s just too much going on to attend to it all.
When the RAS is overwhelmed, the filters cannot process the influx and information floods through all at once, unsifted, creating a sensory tsunami; an inability to sort out where to focus. Everything is important, there are no relative priorities and the on/off switch is stuck “ON.”
What causes the RAS overwhelm? Stress generally. Sensory systems that cannot efficiently process the signals they get causing a fight/flight/fright reaction. This, in turn, causes the body to go into survival mode while the RAS flood gates are locked on open – creating Attentional Chaos!
Fascinating. This article focuses on sensory flooding as it relates to children with ADHD, but check out what this says:
The basic premise of the biological or physiological explanation for the occurrence of fear and anxiety is that problems with brain functioning lead to anxiety disorders. For example, current research indicates that generalized anxiety disorder is caused by excessive neurological activity in the area of the brain that is responsible for emotional arousal, and this increased level of arousal is experienced as anxiety. This excessive neurological activity is thought to stem from the fact that certain inhibitory neurons whose purpose is to reduce neurological activity are not functioning properly. The neurotransmitter that is released by the inhibitory neurons is known as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). It is believed that low levels of GABA result in the failure to inhibit the activity (neural transmission) of other neurons, which leads to a high level of neurological activity in the areas of the brain that are responsible for arousal, and this high level of activity is experienced as anxiety.
Panic disorder, which is an anxiety state generally characterized by brief and intense spontaneous anxiety, is now thought to occur in individuals who have overly sensitive respiratory control centers in the brain stem. Current research has shown that in these individuals, even a relatively minor reduction in oxygen intake will result in the feeling that the person is beginning to suffocate, and it is this feeling of suffocation that leads to panic.
All of this comes together for me as I contemplate another sleepless night. It was awful. I was awake until 4:30 this morning. I tried to get comfortable. I prayed. I cried a little. I know that the Lord spoke to my soul; He reminded me that He was there and that I wasn’t alone. For a few sweet moments, that calmed me. I began to relax. And then – BAM! Wide stinkin’ awake.
The brain doesn’t necessarily jump off the anxiety carousel just because the soul knows and accepts what is true. There just isn’t always a direct relationship between how we feel and how the body behaves. My emotions were settled, and I even felt better for having allowed the stream of worry to roll out of my heart. But my brain didn’t recognize that fact. Chemicals and neurons and whatever else is up there were off and running in overdrive. I wanted to sleep. My brain was like, “Let’s stay awake and FIX ALL THE THINGS. RIGHT NOW.”
And that was frustrating. Incredibly so.
I have forgotten something that I learned in therapy: Anxiety can’t kill you. The best thing to do during a panic attack? Ride it out. Make the bed, fold some towels, listen to soothing music, do some stretches. The feeling will pass. Your heart won’t burst and your brain won’t come oozing out your ear. You might need a nap afterward, but that’s okay.
So, too, insomnia. My body doesn’t function properly. I can’t help that. But I don’t have to let the sleeplessness (or the sleepiness) throw me into the spin cycle. I don’t have to let the aches and pains, the random sore throats and the swollen glands convince me that I can’t do anything, that I don’t have what it takes. I can ride it out. I can fold those towels or listen to that music or read a book. It will pass.
Anxious people, let’s unite in our determination to remember that it will pass. The floods will recede. Most importantly, let’s remember that we are not ever, not once, alone. The Lord calmed the sea. He can – and will – calm us as well.