Friday, April 23, 2010

Perception, Fear, and Brain Retraining

Perception. It's a topic I've been thinking about a lot lately. So much of the way we experience the world, the way we react to ordinary, every day events, everything about us and the way we relate and function in this world - is all about perception.

So many things can affect perception. Perception is a far from objective thing. Human beings, and the way they experience and react to their surroundings, are both far an objective thing.

Most people with Asperger's or autism, I am sure, wish that the way the world worked was more predictable, and I am definitely one of them. But if you can't change the way the world works, can you change your perception of it?

I don't think, personally, that you can consciously change your perception of things without a lot of other things that you can't control also falling in line. You can say to someone all you want "Don't be scared," or "You can do this," or "That's a silly thing to be scared of, get over it," but it just won't work. It won't work, no matter how much the person themselves might want it to, unless they are in the right mental place. (And even then nothing is ever guaranteed!)

What puts a person in the right mental place? It's important to have relatively low stress levels in your life and relatively low general anxiety. If you don't, your brain is on survival mode all the time, and you can't possibly entertain any new ideas or new ways of thinking, because everything feels so life or death. You need to do and see things the way you always have, because if you don't you feel like you will absolutely come apart at the seams. You have no mental energy or space for risk.

However, if you're in a better mental space, and you feel more relaxed, you feel more able to take risks. You can overlook small problems much more easily. If you take a risk and something goes wrong, you can handle it instead of going to pieces. And if you take a risk and something goes right - well, then it builds confidence for just maybe being able to take more risks - and in the process, it builds the number of experiences you have in your life. The more experiences you have, the more your perception of the world changes.

At least that's my theory.


But while we're talking about perception, I think it's useful to also examine the topic of fear. It's simply amazing in how many ways fear - and the memory of previous traumatic incidents that often cause the fear of something - can control our lives, alter our perceptions and just get extremely embedded into both the body and mind.

It extends beyond fear to simply the perception of what is.
If you're bitten by a dog as a child, you will probably grow up hating and being afraid of dogs (or, some people would, anyway.) If you ate an entire super size bag of pretzels once years ago and threw up, you might consciously or unconsciously avoid pretzels even years later. If you saw an actor in a role you hated, playing a villain perhaps, and see him years later in another, more positive role, you might still harbor negative feelings against him on principle. Memory affects us in all kinds of ways.

Why have I been thinking about this? The reason is the recent doctor and dentist appointments I had in the last two weeks. I had literally tried for years to get up the nerve to make these appointments. Due to chemical sensitivities, it is very difficult for me to go into public buildings. After two years of moving across the country, trying to find a chemically safe place to live, my stress levels were through the roof. Taking an extra risk like going into a doctor's office was not something I could even begin to imagine.

After moving back to Maine, though, and finally falling into a stable living environment, I started to feel a little more confident and comfortable with the world around me. I started to think I could take the risk. It wouldn't be easy, but I would do it.

I did what I used to do when I had to go to an airport, which is an unfortunate neccesity when you are moving around the country. I hyped myself up for it, I talked about it. I visualized it. I imagined myself doing it and being okay; I imagined what I would do and how I would react positively if unpleasant things happened. I got the adrenaline going. Adrenaline has been an extremely important factor for me getting through difficult things.

And I was okay. Both in the dentist's office and in the doctor's office. It was not pleasant, and I had the "Oh my God, this is absolutely awful" reaction when I walked through the door of both, but I was not as agitated as I used to be. I was able to tolerate it better. I was able to acknowledge my dislike of it while not letting it overwhelm me. I knew it would be over relatively soon and I had in my mind the picture of how I would handle it. So I did.

And as a result, my cognitive functioning and reactions were much better than they ever have been before in such a situation. I could actually talk to the doctor and tell him everything I wanted to. In Montana, my doctor experience was so terrible, so traumatic, and the reaction to the building so great, that I literally could not talk more than a couple words at a time when I was in there. I paced back and forth the entire time I was there, including in the doctor's office. If I didn't, I felt like I would explode. I couldn't carry on a conversation with the doctor; I pointed to the print out I had brought. I felt terrible for hours afterwards. After an experience like this, is it any wonder I didn't want to go to a doctor's office again?

I am left to wonder, then, if my experience was better this time because of lower stress levels, which didn't send all my already excited neurons firing at a million miles per hour when I encountered something stressful, or because the building was less toxic. (That is likely, it was a small office, the Montana office was in a large hospital.)

Either way, I marvel at all the ways perception can be affected, and how it can change. If I could harness this power I would, but it has to happen on its own. Events change the way you feel about things. I couldn't have forced myself to be calm enough to go into a doctor's office in New York, Oregon or any of the other places I was in. But when the environment around you is good - emotionally and physically - your outlook, ie perception, changes.

This does not mean, for the benefit of those who may be reading and know me, that I am going to start going into lots of buildings or do all the other things such people probably want me to do, because I am simply not ready at this time. But I am entertaining the idea of it and what it would be like, and that means, in time, if things continue to go well, then I may feel that is worth a try. When I do try it is possible I will find that nothing has changed, that I still get the same reactions as before. And I will be dissapointed but not surprised. But then I may find the opposite. Time will tell, but time is not there yet. You can't push a person to be in a place they're not - and you can't push yourself to either.

I will most likely always be chemically sensitive, and always have problems with going into places. But if I can get my anxiety levels down enough, and if it is indeed anxiety that was causing the more nasty of my reactions, then perhaps I can get them down to a level where my reactions will be tolerable - as long as I don't do it too often.

But again, this is all in the future. A fantasy, if you will, that I keep entertaining. I am not ready for it now. But I hope sometime in the near future, I will be.

One more note on how past experiences can shape perception:
when I was told I'd have to give blood at my doctor's appointment, I was scared. It was a big deal to me. I even asked the doctor about getting a prescription cream to numb my arm. I vaguely remembered having it done in Montana two years ago and being more or less okay, but I was still scared.
I wondered if they'd miss my vein and how many tries it would take.

When they actually did it, it just felt like a pinch going in, and only hurt for a few seconds. I realized my perceptions about getting blood taken were not accurate. When I was a kid, though, because of a medication I took, I had to get my blood taken very frequently. And I apparently had very bad veins as a kid. They could NEVER get my vein on the first try. Or sometimes the second. Or the third. Or the fourth. I remember one memorable time when it took them eight tries! At one point my mom had the doctor give me the numbing cream so I wouldn't feel it anymore.

So, even though my veins are apparently easy to get these days, and even though the experience doesn't resemble that one at all, it is still the first thing I think of when asked to get blood taken. Or at least, I used to. Funny how memory works, huh? It can cloud an awful lot of things.


I recently read about a therapy called a stellate ganglion block. They cut something somewhere, change some neural connections somewhere, and according to new studies and research, it's kind of like resetting the emotional center of the brain - the amygdala, which is the center of the brain responsible for emotional memories and responses. A Chicago Tribune article by Peter Cameron says that "It's resetting the connection between the central nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system." The therapy is still very new but some PTSD patients have found great relief from the fears and anxieties that used to prevent them from going many places and having a normal life. The procedure is usually used to control some forms of chronic pain, and has only recently been experimented on with PTSD (post traumatic stress) patients.

It's an interesting theory to me, because I know from what I've read that the amygdala, and the emotions that come from it, control an awful lot of the way we experience the world. Some people with MCS and CFS (chronic fatigue) have been eagerly trying an "amygdala retraining" program by a man named Ashok Gupta.

Cort Johnson at has a good summary of the Gupta program. He says,

"Ashok Gupta recovered from chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)almost ten years ago. His research into his condition lead him to develop a new theory of the disease and novel techniques for treating it. He believes that the fear center of the brain - the amygdala - has become chronically activated - causing the body to over-respond to virtually every stimulus presented to it. Over time this results in exhaustion, hyper-sensitivity, increased pain, etc."

In an interview with Gupta, some interesting phrases popped out at me:

"Consider if you’re in a dangerous situation; your eyesight is sharper, your smelling is sharper, your senses are enhanced so that the Amygdala can take in more critical information to give you a better chance at survival. So the question for me is who opened the floodgates?

In CFS the body still thinks it’s being stuck in illness mode – it feels like it’s still being attacked. If you ask patients they’ll tell you that they feel like their body is under attack. They like their bodies are constantly overreacting; that they don’t feel right in their skin. They do feel anxious but it’s not a normal kind of anxiety; it’s a sense of a lack of control over their bodies."

Gupta says that this technique is not psychological, but neurological; it is changing the brain structure.

It's kind of like someone set a ping pong ball going , and it keeps going back and forth and back and forth and it never stops, and in the process creates all kinds of emotional AS WELL AS physical symptoms.

"Amygdala hypersensitivity to bodily sensations and symptoms increases it’s sensitivity to emotional threats as well."

In many ways that last sentence could very well describe my last two years of life. So is there hope in amygdala retraining? Are there actually ways to change our perception of things we'd rather not percieve? Only time will tell.

Beta blockers are another interesting theory - used to cut out physical anxiety symptoms when someone has, for example, performance anxiety. Do they have a place in changing perception?

Sometimes, it feels like help is so close, yet so far away. Most human symptoms and perceptions, I believe, are a mix of physical, emotional and neurological, and you need to work on all three to change perceptions. It is an ongoing process for all of us, but it doesn't hurt to be more aware of how perception alters the way you experience the world - and then let it go when you've done all you can to change what you want to change. Then you need simply to wait, because things usually change again when you least expect it.


  1. Now this is truly interesting!

    I'll have a look at the retraining method.

    Thanks for the words about pretzels and blood.

  2. Do you remember me mentioning Bruce Lipton,PhD, the biochemist who talks about the effects of thought/perception on neural pathways? I came across an excerpt from one of his books this morning that speaks to what you were saying in this article. There's no need to surgically remove or drug a necessary function in one's system (remember frontal lobotomies were also thought to be a good idea at one time!) when those processes have been proven to be able to change with a (simple? well, not really) change in our thoughts/perceptions. Here's the link... might be worth looking further into his works.

  3. Hi, I read your link, but he is only talking about the SYMPTOMS, not a way to cure them! No matter what you said I do not believe it is as simple as willing yourself to do it. I've tried that before, and found that changes can only come when you are ready and in the right place, and you can't purposefully rush things. But what do you think about Gupta? I still don't know much about him or his program, but I am told that at least he gives you a physical genuine (or not?) way to re train your brain and your reality, instead of relying on willpower.

    Thanks for the comment :)

  4. Unless of course there is more to his book than that and that is just an intro - does he propose any concrete ways to change your perception?

  5. "Willing yourself to be well" is NOT simple! It takes longer and much more work than surgery and drugs... which is why many people in this culture will choose those instead. However, the cure is permanent, rather than questionable and with side effects. It's a matter of taking responsibility for your part in the equation of your condition (which includes your thought processes) and doing what needs to be done, despite outside influences, rather than blaming and therefore giving responsibility and power to conditions and people outside yourself. And you know my health situation, so you know I'm not just some idealistic healthy person with a lot of ideas but no experience in what it means to be disabled. I've been working on these things with varying degrees of success for over 25 years.

    If you read further, yes, Bruce Lipton does give more physiological explanation (remember, his PhD is in biochemistry). He has very compelling evidence that the way we look at genetics is based on a wrong scientific assumption made over 50 years ago that the scientific world has been loathe to let go of. Once you've grasped the way cells work and how they're powered and what role DNA really plays, it makes more sense to turn to other modes of healing.

  6. All I'm saying is that if the guy really wants his theories to be a way for others to get well, he needs to provide specific, concrete steps towards this. I know it worked for you, and I'm glad it worked for you, but I just think a theory isn't any good if it can't be explained to other people how to do it, in concrete steps.
    But I didn't mean to start an argument with you - just was your interested in your opinion on it.
    I'd also argue that if we're talking about using the mind to change the body .... there are many different ways of doing that....subtle and not....and we all do it to some the degree that we are able to.

  7. Oops... sorry if my overzealousness was taken as argument. I see your point in needing specific direction to make it work in your own life.

    I think your comment about how there are many ways to use the mind to change the body also plays into it. There is an overwhelming amount of new information coming out in scientific fields (especially quantum physics), and it takes willingness to sift through it all. Our access and openness to that information is part of what dictates how fast we can change, and we do all learn and grow at different rates.

    As for Bruce Lipton, so far I've only read excerpts of this book, but I've seen him speak in other venues and he is more able than most I've seen to logically take you through the processes that explain and illustrate the mind-body interactions and help you understand in a way you can use it yourself. Many mind-body speakers/writers these days are either way out in woo-woo land or so scientifically sophisticated it's hard to get a grasp on what they're saying or how to apply the information. This guy has a common sense, logical way of presenting hard to grasp scientific information that makes it easy to understand.

    I can offer names of other authors/speakers from one end of the spectrum to the other (woo-woo to sophisticated science)... we all have such different learning styles (and biases) that that spectrum is necessary in order to find what we can best learn from. I'm thankful we have that much available to us!

  8. For some, the phrase "spring is in the air" is quite literal. When the winter snow melts and flowers bloom, pollen and other materials can wreak havoc on those suffering from seasonal allergies, usually causing a habit called "mouth breathing." The physical, medical and social problems associated with mouth breathing are not recognized by most health care professionals, according to a study published in the January/February 2010 issue of General Dentistry, the peer-reviewed clinical journal of the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD). Dentists typically request that their patients return every six months, which means that some people see their dentist more frequently than they see their physician. As a result, dentists may be the first to identify the symptoms of mouth breathing. And, because dentists understand the problems associated with mouth breathing, they can help prevent the adverse effects.

  9. Wow! That was very interesting! I think about perception, quite a bit, and I do think that there are things outside of our control that do affect perception, but thankfully there are things that are within our control, too - like positive thinking etc. Thank God we do have some control!

    I love the role-play and visualization technique you talked about; I really believe in that. I love how you visualize/imagine being OK in new settings.

    When you talked about Chemical Sensitivities it really blew me away. One of my sons went through intense anxiety at the age of 3 in a dentist office; it took him about 30 minutes to walk about 15 feet to get up on the chair to be seen. The Dentist was FURIOUS with both my son and I for "wasting his time." I knew my son was going through something, that he wasn't trying to be difficult, and really was trying so hard to walk over to the chair. I gently encouraged him. I knew I couldn't insist he get moving faser or pick him up and move him - that would have backfired in my face. The Dentist disagreed with me, but I stood my ground and made him wait for my son's sake. I'm glad I did. Dentist and Dr offices have always been very tough places for my boys to be in; I wonder if it is also due to Chemical Sensitivities. I am "WOWed." This is all so interesting.

    Thanks! :) Corine

  10. It's more likely to be sensory issues, there are a lot of new, scary sights and sounds and such in a dr's office. But chemical products are not good for anyone. They can still be bothered by smells in drs offices without having MCS, but most likely its just a scary place for them, they dont know what's going to come next, etc, its all so new.