Today I attended a relaxation workshop run by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Kate, the presenter of the course, did a good job of explaining the various topics, kept the group on track, and made sure to keep people interested throughout the day.
The day started with a quick overview of how stress works in the body, focusing on the role of cortisol and how the limbic system interacts with the pre-frontal cortex. This was new information to me. Although I knew about cortisol, I did not know the details of how the amygdala & hippocampus work together for threat identification, or how the pre-frontal cortex could affect the basic limbic system.
In my simple laymen’s terms:
- The hippocampus is involved in converting short-term memories into long-term memories, and spatial navigation.
- Amygdala has a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions.
- Cortisol stimulates the amygdala and supresses the hippocampus. This primes you to identify & respond to threats quickly but also turns off your greater capacity to analyse the moment and think about the perceived threat.
Of particular interest to me is the research on chronically stressed individuals, and by stressed I mean elevated cortisol levels. Long term high cortisol levels can result in permanent changes in your brain’s structure whereby the amygdala grows and becomes permanently more active. Essentially long-term exposure to high-stress levels makes you more inclined to perceive threats around you, and react with a fight/flight/freeze response. This gels with my some of my life experiences.
We talked about various factors that contribute to stress: sleep, PTSD/anxiety disorders, physical pain, eating habits. We also discussed various ways to reduce the stress such as ways to distract the brain, ways to help the brain process events of the day, ways to clear the mind, ways to physically relax.
As a group we went through several guided imagery scripts, and these types of activities tend to work well with my imagination. We also tried physical relaxation through progressive muscle tension/relaxing, but I find that doesn’t work as well.
One of the big things I took away from the day was the mental image of the brain having an internal queue of things to be processed from your day. So as you go about your day, your brain takes note of events that occur then pop them on an internal mental queue for processing during sleep, learning from experiences and generally making sense of the world around you. When things interfere with your queue processing – lack of sleep, stress – then you stop processing the message on the queue, which causes stress plus prevents you from learning and adapting.
Relaxation helps the brain deal with that internal message queue by clearing the way for the queue to be processed (reduction of cortisol etc.) and reducing the number of things that need to be processed.
Handy Decision Tree
The following decision tree was offered as a way to help reduce incoming stress, and I think it is quite a good quick guide to what to think and do when someone asks us to do something for them.
The only negative from the day occurred when Kate called upon the group to stand up and do group exercises. For instance, “the spaghetti man”: this involved starting bend over at the waste with your arms hanging down, then coming up right before exhaling forcefully and letting yourself fall over loose (like you are made from spaghetti). Group events that involve physical activity are one of my triggers, and today I just froze in panic. I literally could not move a muscle in my body until the group event was done. I am fully aware that by freezing and being the only person not participating in the silly stuff made me stand out all the more, which is exactly why my mind was freezing my body – to avoid detection, and avoid humiliation.
I just remembered one other negative from the day. Kate had organised the lunch to be a group dining experience at the hotel next door, which given my social anxiety and phobia about the noise of mastication caused me to freak out slightly. Thankfully Kate had noticed my reaction to the group exercise, and also picked up my reluctance to attend the lunch. Kate checked in with me, and I explained the whole trigger thing, and Kate made me feel ok about having lunch on my own elsewhere and not having to participate in the group physical activities. Kate is a trained psychologist with 25 years of trauma experience, so yeah she knew how to handle one nervy grown man.