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Gentle Reader,

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.

My journey to faith. (15)

What Depression Means to Me: the Gift that Keeps on Giving


Gentle Reader,

A few weeks ago my therapist presented me with information about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR , through the use of a light bar, finger tapping or auditory stimulation, seeks to replicate the eye movements associated with Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. During this phase of rest, the eyes move at random and dreams occur as the brain sorts through information in an effort to create meaning. This is the brain’s God-given way of healing and restoring itself. When trauma occurs this process is interrupted. Sleep is no longer comforting, as the information now within the brain is overwhelming and often nightmare-producing.

EMDR is primarily used in therapy when the patient suffers from disorders that have roots in distressing life experiences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. While the memories are never erased, the goal is to reduce the “re-experiencing” of the distressing experience. The therapist uses the process to stimulate the brain’s natural restorative cycle, which has often been suppressed, in order to help the patient deal with the experience and heal from it.

This all made sense to me. I nodded my head, signed the forms, asked a few questions. What I didn’t realize until later was that my counselor was telling me that she saw evidence of real trauma in my life. As I sat down to complete the timeline that all EMDR clients must craft, I was overwhelmed by all of the painful events listed there in black and white. So overwhelmed, in fact, that I had to lay the project aside. I never went back to it; I just gave her the little I had finished.

Today my counselor went over the treatment plan with me. She wanted to make sure that I understood all the components of EMDR as well as a non-clinician can. My blood froze for a moment when she read the official diagnosis:

“Post-traumatic stress disorder (delayed and chronic) exhibited in symptoms of depression and anxiety…”

She must have seen the startled look on my face, because she very quickly reiterated to me that there were some truly terrible things on that timeline of mine. Still I struggled to accept it. Post-traumatic stress disorder? Isn’t that something that military people get?

The National Institute of Mental Health lists the following as symptoms of PTSD:

1. Re-experiencing symptoms:

  • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts.

Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person’s everyday routine. They can start from the person’s own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing.

2. Avoidance symptoms:

  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
  • Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past
  • Having trouble remembering the dangerous event.

Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.

3. Hyperarousal symptoms:

  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense or “on edge”
  • Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts.

Hyperarousal symptoms are usually constant, instead of being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic event. They can make the person feel stressed and angry. These symptoms may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating. – PTSD

Somehow this is more difficult to own than depression and anxiety, but, looking over the list of symptoms, there’s no denying it. Just yesterday I saw a car that belongs to someone who really hurt me in the past. In mere seconds I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach (my breath was gone), tears pooled in my eyes and my heart began to pound – exactly what I felt during our last intense confrontation. I wasn’t just remembering how bad it felt – I was back in that moment.

The set of symptoms that I experience most frequently are in the second group. I will go out of my way to avoid anything that looks similar to what has gone before; it’s only been the last few months that I can drive past the church my husband and I used to attend without wanting to scream, and even then my palms are sweaty and I’d rather be anywhere else. When I can’t do a simple task like wrap a Christmas present, I am back in kindergarten, ashamed to sit at my desk and grapple with cutting out a picture of Santa Claus while everyone else goes to storytime. So, I put gifts in bags. There are a million and one ways to engage in avoidance.

EMDR will bring me face-to-face with my trauma. I won’t be able to avoid it anymore. I’ll have to do the work of understanding and healing. I’m scared to death. Yes, I want to come out of this dark valley, but I sure don’t want to turn around and do battle with the monster that’s been following me. He’s big and nasty.

He is quite possibly of my own making. My own fears. My own inability to process and forgive.

John the Beloved Disciple wrote about big, nasty monsters in his first letter to unnamed church. He told that little flock how to discern between spirits that came from God and spirits that did not. In that context he added this bit of encouragement:

You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. – 1 John 4:4 (NKJV)

My God is bigger than the monster. He’s better than this gift that keeps on giving. I have to hold to that.

My journey to faith. (15)

 For all the posts in the What Depression Means to Me series, go here.