That Elusive Inner Peace

One of the stress hormones our bodies release is Norepinephrine ( NE). This is a sibling to adrenaline and works to enhance the fight or flight response. When it is first released, in small amounts, it produces a temporary euphoric high- this is how cocaine works. It can also induce a physical reaction  such as rapid heartbeat, increase in blood pressure and sweaty palms.

Flood some more, and you will start to feel edgy, anxious and restless. Insomnia often follows. Aggressive or Hostile behavior can result. Sleep deprived, senses heightened, even more reactive to pain than normal, this can set you up for an infinite loop of elevated norepinephrine levels that starts to make you feel just a little crazy.

Extreme or chronically high levels of  norepinephrine will induce panic attacks, phobias, inability to focus or think clearly. While small amounts of NE enhance memory formation, too much can actually block the formation of memory, causing cognitive problems.
Some of the symptoms of a panic attack are :

  • dizziness or feeling faint
  • shortness of breath
  • feelings of suffocation or choking
  • numbness and tingling of hands and feet
  • chest constriction and chest pain. 

The most common recommended action to help break this cycle is exercise- burn it off. But for someone who is physically unable ( either temporarily or permanently) this presents a challenge. And for those with chronically high norepinephrine, a little exercise is never enough and too much exercise is interpreted by the body as more stress, and only raises the hormone levels. 

There are some things that are recommended to lower norepinephrine levels, some of which have been successful for me so far, and some I have not yet tried.

  • Medication– if the cycle is sever enough, sometimes the only way to break it is to intervene chemically. If you have tried everything else and you are still suffering, work with your doctor to break this cycle. Drugs like propanol, which block NE or drugs that raise GABA levels can be effective here. 
  • Breathedeep , slow cleansing breaths slow down your body’s stress reaction and over time help it to return NE to normal.  remember that most natural methods are not going to have instant results, like throwing a light switch, they work by slowly breaking the cycle of increasing stress. this one really does help me, but i often find that once I am wound up, it is almost impossible to stop myself and just breathe. I can trick myself into breathing by turning on a very well known song and belting it out loud. It is impossible to not breathe when you are singing out loud. 
  • Progressive muscle relaxation– by alternately contracting and relaxing all the muscles in your body, this works to slow down your system and again slows down the stress response. I know this works, but lately have been prone to muscle cramps and sometimes this sets them off. Doing this in partnership with calming visualizations is particularly a good way to slow things down.
  • Having a calming hobby. this is going to be different for everyone. This is most likely NOT video games or computer games. Remember that what you think during the actively is actually impacting your stress. If you find seek-a-word puzzles mind numbing and relaxing, this might work for you. If seek-a-word puzzles make you frustrated and wishing you could rip pages out of the book, try something else. For some people this is needlework. needlework stresses meme out, more than anything. I am lucky that we are now entering into gardening season. For me, getting some dirt on my hands and between my toes is a very relaxing thing.  If you find weed pulling relaxing, come on over- there is always enough here for someone to help with 😉
  • Meditation. this is my challenge. Meditation got my through my divorce. I had a stump in the back yard and I would “stump sit” for a while. I had a big rock in a friend’s yard- I would go and sit on the rock. I know I need to return back to this practice, but I have not yet found the path. I know it has to do with feeling overwhelmed with things to do, and making my own self a priority- setting other things a side to just be. I will get there by the end of the summer, this is my current goal.  
  •  Massage. this is a big win for me right now. I have found this to be very very helpful. Not only is it slowing me down and relaxing things, but having a myofascial release is lowering my pain levels. While professional massages can be expensive, this does not have to be professional to help.  Having a friend or a loved one give you a massage can make a world of difference. There are tons of learning resources on how to massage available on the web or in book stores.
  • Diet Changes.- apparently lowering the tyrosine in your diet can help. Tyrosine is one of the building blocks that make up NE. Without a plethora of the building blocks, your body can not make as much.  Since NE is actually made from  dopamine, and dopamine is made from tyrosine, lowering tyrosine will impact more than just NE. Since other methods have been helping me, I have not experimented here yet- but others have with some apparent success. If you already do this, or you try it, I would love to hear your experiences.

While elevated NE levels from chronic stress can convince us that we are out of control and hopeless, can increase our aggression and hostility- effectively isolating us from support structures, and can turn our bodies into traitors- there is hope. We can actively combat the effects of chronic pain and stress in our brains and find and maintain that elusive inner peace. When I get there, I will light the candles and shine the light so it is easy for you to find. If you get there first- light a few for me.

    Cracking the Pressure Cooker

    Stress kept early humans alive, uneaten.
    Stress can be a motivator, pushing us past our mental hurdles.
    Stress is like alcohol- makes you happy in moderation, Destroys your body in overdoses.
    Stress is insidious.( cue movie trailer ;- 0)

    When we think of stress, we often think of outside pressures- paying the bills, getting a job, raising our kids.
    For some of us stress is also internal- push to succeed, self- expectations.
    What we forget is that stress is also a natural body process, triggered and set off by things we may not be monitoring at all.

    Our Brain, which both controls and is impacted by stress hormones ( cortisol,Growth Hormone and norepinephrine).  And our Brain is still convinced that we are wandering tribes of nomads, hunted by tooth and claw predators.

    Sleep Deprivation? Must be getting chased or on the move for too long, or… something horrible. STRESS.
    Too Few Calories? Must be entering a famine period- STRESS
    Chronic Pain?  Broken. bad. will be eaten.  STRESS
    Too long in one position? movement levels too low? Must be broken, must have an infection- Inflammation and STRESS.
     Afraid? Worried? Must be something  or someone after us. STRESS

    If we were really in those positions, cortisol does exactly what you want it to do, and has kept us live for millions of years. But when modern “realities of life” are misinterpreted as threats, the actions of cortisol produce more damage.  Cortisol, either directly or by triggering other chemicals,  blocks insulin, creating a sort of insulin resistance, stimulates the process that increase blood sugar levels, tells your body to store every bit of extra calorie it can as belly fat,destroys collagen, and inhibits bone formation or even breaks down bone. It increases gastric acid formation, inhibits the immune system and the inflammatory response and touches nearly every other metabolic pathway we have.

    Norepinephrine is involved in mental processes. It assists with focus and memory- in short doses. Too much and the regulatory pathways of the brain get messed up. At first, too much norepinephrine causes mania, increased heart rate and high blood pressure. Since it is also linked to dopamine, after prolonged raised levels it can also feedback and reduce the amount of dopamine in your brain, which can cause depression. It can also impact Glutamate levels, which impacts the pre-frontal cortex and cognitive function. Although Norepinephrine initially increases focus, over time it decreases focus.  End result? You end up either Hyperactive and unable to focus, or depressed, fog brained and unable to think clearly, or some mixed combination of these. Brain soup.

    Here is the real heat in this pressure cooker- Once you have what your body recognizes as a “stress event” ( pulling an all nighter, a weekend of fasting, etc..) the threshold needed to trigger the next stress event is lower. And the next is lower, And the next is lower.  So if you are in a situation of “chronic stress”, soon every little wiggle, every little variation is a STRESS.  Worse? It takes a long time for this to level back off.

    So- even if you solve all of your financial, marriage, friend and parenting stresses and you live on easy street, if you live in the modern world that moves fast, is over stimulated, sleeps too little and eats badly? STRESS.

    What a treadmill. Seems almost helpless. Add in any kind of chronic illness that also impacts these things and it seems like an impossible battle. Too much effort. Bend up and go home.

    For me, what it is taking to beat this is to step completely off the mental merry-go-round and scream “enough!!”.  

    Don’t get me wrong- this is not magical. There is no silver bullet and I am not “all better”. I still have days when every little thing makes me want to cry.  I have days when the pain hurts so much i just want to curl into a little ball and give up.  But I can start to see the difference.  In December, I could not remember a list of 3 things. My memory was GONE.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I had some cognitive testing done by a psychiatrist and my memory and cognitive functions came out as superior. It still seemed like more work than it should have been ( my memory used to be effortless), but the doctor told me I scored higher than he did.
    Back in December, it was hard to hold a conversation. From sentence to sentence, I could not hold on to my train of thought.  People could tell me things and four sentences later, I had forgotten.  Now I am back to writing and working. I have started podcasting and am actively job hunting. Socializing energizes me, rather than exhausting me and I can get up in the morning and remember what I discussed the day before.

    So what have I changed?

    • I am trying to get more sleep. From 4 hours a night to a target of 8. I do not regularly hit my 8 yet, but i also sometimes nap.  Almost every night, I get at least 6 hours of sleep. I will get there eventually. 
    • Vitamin B mix vitamin supplement. Not just the 100% of vitamin B in the regular multi-vitamins, but an overdose of Bs, especially B12 and niacin. ( you pee out extra, it is safe). 
    • Increase omega3s in my diet. Omega3s block the release of cortisol, lowering it and buffer the stress level that will trigger the next release. 
    • Distraction. Getting busy and thinking about something other than how much my body hurts and how miserable this all is. This seems like a mental trick, but remember part of the cycle is in the brain. The things you think impact your neurotransmitters. 
    • Making sure I eat well. whole foods, enough calories, a variety. Nothing my body could distort into a mistaken stress signal- especially since it is so “trigger happy” at this point of my life. 
    • Meditation and physical activity- both of which change neurotransmitters in the brain- even in little doses. 

    What is the stress in your life? How can you crack the pressure cooker?

    Most importantly, I know this will be a slow process of small changes- sometimes so small i can not even notice them, so i get feedback from the people around me and my goals are long term. This time next year, I hope to be out of the Stress Pressure Cooker and just merely grilling.

    Slowing it down

    Last night was a good night to just slow it down. Snow rolled in here at about 3:15, while we scampered about fixing an early dinner and wrestling conference calls. By 5pm the roads were slick to the point of treacherous. Thankfully, Xandra’s Girl Scout leader agreed and canceled their evening meeting. This meant that for the first time in weeks, we had an evening where no one had to be chauffeured anywhere. Xandra ended up taking a nap for a while. I tried to engage Sam with some TED videos ( she watched, but we ended up back on YouTube watching music videos.. sigh…) and I built a fire.

    During the winter weeks when the girls are at their dad’s house, building a fire is actually a common thing for me to do. When they are here and needing me to drive them places in the evenings, it is significantly less common… usually just on the weekends. During all the hustle and bustle and crazy driving, I forget how healing the calm act of setting and burning a fire is. I can lay in the giant beanbag chair with my laptop, letting the crackle and hiss of the wood burning soothe the workday crankiness out of me. Somehow in the act of burning, I release my tension and stress and return to a more basic mental state.

    These are not small dinky single log fires, I build a fire going that talks and sings. It also builds up a good bit of heat. These are embers in the bottom of the fire after 5 hours of fireplace use last night- this would be hot enough to melt glass.