Your Narrative Brain and Trauma Recovery

I’ve been thinking about the idea of catastrophizing and feeling suspicious.  Both of these fall under the larger heading of hypervigilance.  Bear with me as I explain this because it’s very important.

What is hypervigilance? It’s “an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats.  Hypervigilance is also accompanied by a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion.”  (online source)  It is common for those who experience PTSD to also experience hypervigilance.  People with anxiety disorders are often hypervigilant.  People who suffer from chronic pain or chronic illness can also experience hypervigilance.

The two things that interest me here are the two states of mind that can often characterize, or add specific flavor, to a hypervigilant experience–existing in a suspicious state and/or consistently anticipating negative outcomes.  These two states of mind are often what make living with something like PTSD, for example, next to impossible because the suspicious, catastrophic free-flowing thoughts and tale-spinning seem impossible to manage.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t mind the startle response.  Feeling suspicious of others all the time and consistently anticipating a thoroughly negative outcome? I would rather be rid of those two altogether.

So, how do we do this?

I have and continue to study trauma and the latest research and clinical approaches to healing it.  My latest therapist, whom I chose based on his PhD in neuroscience, specializes in extreme trauma and trauma recovery.  I’ve put in years of work around recovery over the years, but I have never been able to shake this sort of hypervigilance.  None of the clinicians I’ve seen has addressed it adequately.  Frankly, that’s not good enough for me.  I don’t want to manage this.  I want to cure it.  So, how?

Let’s start with a premise.  I postulated that PTSD (and even C+PTSD) is an adaptation that enables survival.  It is not a disorder in terms of a mental illness diagnosis even though it exists in the DSM-V.  It is an expression of a human’s ability to adapt and survive even the most extreme circumstances.  After all, all people with PTSD have one thing in common–we all survived.  That is nothing to sneeze at.  That is actually a very big deal.  My therapist agreed with all of the above.  This is a point of view that is emerging in the clinical field.

There are people who can become very protective of the idea of hypervigilance and any other PTSD experiences as a pathology, and that is understandable.  Chronic PTSD can be disabling and create a strong feeling of “otherness”.  It can be the cause of extreme ontological alienation.  I’ve been there.  If it’s viewed as a pathology, however, which is what a disorder is, then it can’t be fully healed in a meaningful way.  We develop coping strategies in order to manage pathologies.  The Western Cartesian model of viewing and treating human beings and their pathologies doesn’t function from a “cure” paradigm.  I am, however, very tired of coping with hypervigilance.  I want a more elevated life experience.

I’m going to be blunt for a moment to prevent any accusatory emails.  This blog is almost seven-years old.  I can’t expect anyone to know what I mean by “trauma” in terms of my personal experiences because who has time to read all the contents and therein my background? At the same time, I don’t think that anyone should have to take out their Trauma and Suffering CV in order to gain credibility or gravitas, thus, permitting them to contribute to the larger discussion.  At the same time, I understand the urge to desire that.  People find it difficult to listen to another person’s opinions on something so personal as recovering from trauma without epistemic trust.  I thoroughly relate to this. I don’t like to be lectured on how to manage my fear by someone who has never been through anything terrible.  You need the epistemological connection.

So, for the record, I know trauma.  I’ve experienced incest, a childhood of systematic and ritualized sexual, verbal, emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse.  I was abducted and trafficked across the country.  I have lived most of my life in fear of someone.  Being found.  Being killed.  I have survived a highly unusual set of highly traumatic circumstances all of which represent extremes.  I should not be alive.  I know all about law enforcement. the realities of not getting justice, and keeping secrets.  So, when I write about recovering from trauma, what it looks like, how to do it, what’s hard about it, stalling out, and the next steps, I do not write about it from a removed, academic place.  I write about it from the arena.  I’m down there with you, taking ground and keeping it.  Sometimes I’m just trying to keep the ground I’ve got.

A few months ago, I set about to read about catastrophizing and suspicious thinking, and I haven’t found much.  It’s all very “Calm down to calm down.”  For real.  I was once told by a clinician that in order to calm down I simply needed to calm down.  Brilliant! Can I generalize that? “To stop bleeding simply stop bleeding.”  In other words, what currently exists in the therapeutic mainstream is the Band-Aid approach:

“Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion.  Change your cognitive approach.”

The cognitive behavioral approach can be effective, but it does not address the cause.   Let’s look at the cause then, and to look at that we must look at the brain and its actions:

“Our minds form cohesive narratives out of disparate elements all the time: one of the things we are best at is telling ourselves just so stories about our own behavior and that of others. If we’re not sure, we make it up – or rather, our brain does, without so much as thinking about asking our permission to do so.” (Our Storytelling Minds)

This is a very true statement.  This is something that my therapist discusses with me.  The brain does not rest.  It is incessantly active, forming memories, making connections, and reinforcing neural connections while pruning others.  It doesn’t need your permission to do this.  This is simply what it is designed to do.  You will find yourself making connections based upon how your brain fills in the blanks for you, not based on facts or truth.

“Consider a famous problem-solving experiment, originally designed by Norman Maier in 1931: A participant was placed in a room where two strings were hanging from the ceiling. The participant’s job was to tie the two strings together. However, it was impossible to reach one string while holding the other. Several items were also available in the room, such as a pole, an extension cord, and a pair of pliers. What would you have done?

Most participants struggled with the pole, with an extension cord, trying their best to reach the end while holding on to the other string. It was tricky business.

The most elegant solution? Tie the pliers to the bottom of one string, then use it as a pendulum and catch it as it floats toward you while you hold the other string. Simple, insightful, quick.

But very few people could visualize the change in object use (here, imagining the pliers as something other than pliers, a weight that could be tied to a string) – unless, that is, the experimenter seemingly by accident brushed one of the strings to induce a swinging motion. Then, participants appeared to spontaneously think of the pliers solution. I say spontaneously because they did not actually remember the stimulus that prompted them to do so. It was a so-called unconscious cue. When subjects were then asked where their insight came from, they cited many causes. “It was the only thing left.” “I just realized the cord would swing if I fastened a weight to it.” “I thought of the situation of swinging across a river. I had imagery of monkeys swinging from trees.”

All plausible enough. None correct. No one mentioned the experimenter’s ploy—and even when told about it in a debrief session, over two-thirds continued to insist that they had not noted it and that it had had no impact at all on their own solutions – even though they had reached those solutions, on average, within 45 seconds of the hint. What’s more, even the third that admitted the possibility of influence proved susceptible to false explanation: when a decoy cue (twirling the weight on a cord) was presented, which had no impact on the solution—that is, no one solved the problem with its help; they were only able to do so after the real, swinging cue—they cited that cue, and not the actual one that helped them, as having prompted their behavior. Explanation is often a post-hoc process.

Our minds form cohesive narratives out of disparate elements all the time: one of the things we are best at is telling ourselves just so stories about our own behavior and that of others. If we’re not sure, we make it up – or rather, our brain does, without so much as thinking about asking our permission to do so….Split-brain patients provide some of the best evidence of our extreme proficiency at narrative self-deception, at creating explanations that make sense but are in reality far from the truth. But we don’t even need to have our corpus collosum severed to act that way. We do it all the time, as a matter of course.”  (Our Storytelling Minds)

Apply this paradigm to your catastrophic and suspicious inner experiences, and, suddenly, it starts to make sense.  The brain is filling in the unknowns in your life with what is known–making estimations for you.

We humans don’t live with uncertainty well.  in order to make plans, you must fill in the blanks with some kind of anticipated outcome.  In order to get up in the morning and cultivate willingness to approach life, you have to have a sense of what daily outcomes might look like.  This is exactly how human beings have survived for thousands of years.  How will your brain solve for your unknowns then?

Well, if your childhood was catastrophic and subsequent relationships have been full of betrayal and abuse, then your brain will solve that equation for you–the outcomes will be catastrophic.  It’s not a question of values per se.  The brain is acting as the actuary.  According to your life experiences, it creates the most plausible outcomes within a template unique to your life, presents it to you, and then lists out a series of potential outcomes.  For example, what if you’ve experienced few positive outcomes in your life? What if your most recent outcomes were damaging and painful? Your brain is seeing to it that you survive, but, take note of this:

“W.J. (a man who had his corpus callosum severed to treat his epilepsy) came into the Sperry lab from his home in Southern California to find Gazzaniga waiting with a tachistoscope, a device that could present visual stimuli for specific periods of time—and, crucially, could present a stimulus to the right side or the left side of each eye separately. The patient had no problems identifying objects in either hemisphere and could easily name items that he held in either hand when his hands were out of view. Gazzaniga was satisfied. W.J. went in for surgery, where both the corpus collosum and the anterior commissure (a thin tract of white matter that connects the olfactory areas of each hemisphere) were severed. One month later, he came back to the lab.

The results were striking. The same man who had sailed through his tests weeks earlier could no longer describe a single object that was presented to his left visual field. When Gazzaniga flashed an image of a spoon to the right field, W.J. named it easily, but when the same picture was presented to the left, the patient seemed to have, in essence, gone blind. His eyes were fully functional, but he could neither verbalize nor recall having seen a single thing.

But he could do something else: when Gazzaniga asked W.J. to point to the stimulus instead of speaking, he became able to complete the task. In other words, his hand knew what his head and mouth did not. His brain had effectively been split into two independently functioning halves. It was as if W.J. had become two individuals, one that was the sum of his left brain, and one, the sum of his right.

W.J. was Gazzaniga’s patient zero, the first in a long line of initials who all pointed in one direction: the two halves of our brain are not created equal. And here’s where things get really tricky. If you show a picture of, say, a chicken claw to just the left side of the eye (which means the picture will only be processed by the right hemisphere of the brain), and one of a snowy driveway to just the right side of the eye (which means it will only be processed by the left hemisphere), and then ask the individual to point at an image most closely related to what he’s seen, the two hands don’t agree: the right hand (tied to the left input) will point to a shovel, while the left hand (tied to the right input) will point to a chicken. Ask the person why he’s pointing to two objects, and instead of being confused, he’ll at once create an entirely plausible explanation: you need a shovel to clean out the chicken coop. His mind has created an entire story, a narrative that will make plausible sense of his hands’ discrepancy, when, in reality, it all goes back to those silent images.

Gazzaniga calls the left hemisphere our left-brain interpreter, driven to seek causes and explanations—even for things that may not have them, or at least not readily available to our minds—in a natural and instinctive fashion. The interpreter is responsible for deciding that a shovel is needed to clean out a chicken coop, that you’re laughing because the machine in front of you is funny (the explanation given by a female patient when a pinup girl was flashed to her right hemisphere, causing her to snicker even though she swore she saw nothing), that you’re thirsty because the air is dry and not because your right hemisphere has just been presented with a glass of water (another study in confabulation run by Gazzaniga and colleagues). But while the interpreter makes perfect sense, he is more often than not flat out wrong.” (Our Storytelling Minds)

What this evidence has demonstrated is that our brains are often wrong.  

Our brains are performing a task, but those stories that seem to intrude on us when we find ourselves engaging in our daily lives, relating to others, trying new things, or surmounting obstacles are seldom true.  They exist within the template that our brain put together based upon what it interpreted as correct at the time.  Those interpretations may all be wrong.

In order to take control of that, we have to change that template.  Is it hard? Yes.  Why? It’s hard because you don’t have the neural connections to support a new template.  Yet.  Your current traumatic template is well-developed and functioning on autopilot.

So, where do you start?

That’s the next post.  Knowing, however, that catastrophizing and suspiciousness are functions of your brain attempting to interpret your experiences and environment might be the glimmer of hope that you need to be willing to keep going.  It can and will get better.

Further Reading:

Our Storytelling Minds: Do We Ever Really Know What’s Going on Inside? by Maria Konnikova



One Comment on “Your Narrative Brain and Trauma Recovery

  1. Pingback: The Red Herring Effect | Out of the Mire

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