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 www.ei-resource.org 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.
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