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Looking after your self: Part Two - reconnecting heart-mind-body

Updated: Aug 5

The connection between heart and mind, whilst cliched, is rooted in fundamental brain-body mechanisms that contribute to sense of self. In turn this is relevant to how we process the events in our lives, particularly past traumas that can impinge on day to day functioning later on. With insights from the science behind PTSD and depression there are interventions and techniques at our disposal to help restore balance and be in control of our responses to stress (and memories of stressful events experienced).





In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!

“It is important when experiencing stress, where possible, to moderate one’s response in that moment... This can incorporate calming techniques (such as breathing control) and positive appraisal of the situation to offset a tendency towards negative reactivity. But this is also important downline when re-experiencing the memories of this, using similar techniques... it is possible to re-establish the appropriate connections and keep our mental capacity focused on the things that matter in life, purposeful and balanced on goals and aspirations"

Rewiring the self


Some people have a unique way of dealing with stress and trauma. They seek out dangerous or thrilling situations where a mistake can have very serious consequences!


I have had more than one person approach me with accounts of how past traumas led them to gravitate towards extreme sports as a means to channel their energies in a positive direction.


The adrenaline and context of the activity, whether that is skydiving, BASE jumping or motocross (jumping motorbikes) give stimulation as an outlet. It is not sufficient to say that it’s all about the adrenaline, as the effect of this may well attenuate over time with increased exposure. Indeed, many extreme sports activities require careful progressive learning of skills, execution of good judgement, and a calm, strategic approach. This can make the pursuit something of a cognitive exercise (this is very much the case in technical SCUBA diving which requires a slow-burn methodological orientation). Setting objectives and working towards them becomes a mainstay of pursuing the activity. This draws on level-headedness and higher cognitive (executive control) processes that are task-focused, detail-centric and strategic, rather than impulsive and cavalier! As such this links to the account of brain networks that can overcome the stress response and remain ‘online’ and adaptive to circumstance, not so much instinctive and reactive.


Some interventions that have been shown to help overcome conditions such as PTSD include mindfulness, breath control, and cognitive methods that train improved mental functioning.


Mindfulness training has been widely shown to act upon regions such as the default mode (and salience) network to help tune down overactive self-related and dysfunctional emotional processes. ‘Body scan’ awareness meditation for instance helps normalise emotional awareness linked to perception of one’s own bodily signals. This serves to rebuild connections across the key brain networks and restore normal functioning.


Control of breathing is a tried and tested method by which we can modulate the stress response (be that in the experienced moment or in the recalled aftermath). Heart rate variability (HRV -as previously talked about) can be used as an index of one’s ability to deal with stress. Also referred to as RSA (respiratory-sinus-arrhythmia), this serves to reduce a tendency towards hyperarousal (as can be experienced in PTSD or generally in a shock response) through the parasympathetic nervous system (which we have earlier seen has a calming or ‘rest and digest’ function). We can measure this with wearable devices such as chest straps and heart rate monitors. Keeping track of HRV is useful to see how this changes from day to day and in different situations. As a rule of thumb, controlled, slow breathing prolonging the exhale slows the heart and induces paraysmpathetic activation key to positively enhance HRV.


Lower HRV has been observed in depressive individuals, and is a potential indicator of the risk of cardiovascular disease. Exercise can help improve HRV, along with a healthy, balanced approach to life. It is interesting to note that the RSA/HRV and heart beat can induce certain brain rhythms in the default mode network, stimulating or moderating self-related thoughts. At the same time, this paves the way towards other methods for influencing brain and heart activity (such as neurofeedback to train individuals to reduce brain activity associated with anxious thoughts for instance). Again this is a detailed area in its own right beyond current scope for discussion, mentioned for those interested in pursuing further.


It suffices to say that breathing (and mindfulness) techniques can influence the brain functions that are involved in the processing of traumatic memories and dealing with stress generally (both in the present and based on the past). For further interest please get in touch for in-depth discussion!


Moreover, cognitive remediation is a means to promote stronger executive control by training core mental processes that focus attention, processing information and striving to perform better on purposeful tasks. When the executive control network is activated, the default mode is turned down, preventing the (negative) self from causing distraction.

The bottom line is that there is much better understanding these days of how mental health issues such as depression and PTSD (and general stress management) relate to brain-body mechanisms. And with this, approaches that target these mechanisms with the intention of measuring progress using psychophysiological techniques.


In summary, when we experience stressful events and form memories of these, this evokes a capacity to reignite the physical symptoms to a degree in future recall. It is important when experiencing stress, where possible, to moderate one’s response in that moment (as per earlier discussions). This can incorporate calming techniques (such as breathing control) and positive appraisal of the situation to offset a tendency towards negative reactivity. But this is also important downline when re-experiencing the memories of this, using similar techniques.


Ultimately, the ‘self’ is a narrative we construct, and rooted in the default mode network regions of the brain. As we can see these regions have different levels of connectivity depending on how well they are functioning. When ‘traumatised’, the connectivity can change, being disrupted and not ‘normal’. This can lead to rumination, anxiety, obsessive thinking, along with the accompanying physical symptoms of stress. Yet, taking into account the connections and co-operation with other key networks (executive control and salience), it is possible to re-establish appropriate connections, refocusing mental capacity on the things that matter in life, purposeful and balanced on goals and aspirations.


The car crash I experienced in part one thankfully was not so serious after the initial confusion and shock of assimilating what happened. In the aftermath there is the inevitable procedural tedium of talking with insurance brokers, recounting what occurred, and of course asking soul-searching questions: what did I do, could I have done this or that to avoid it, will I be more tentative driving in future? But it is important to process and move on, to acknowledge with emotional detachment that the experience has occurred, there are positives to take from it, and its not the end of the world! Should the blood pressure start to raise, it can be brought back down again with some calming breathing and mindfulness!


As an aside, I was on my way to a health check when the incident occurred. Unsurprisingly, my blood pressure was indeed elevated. I asked the technician to take the reading again. I performed some breathing and calming visualisation exercises whilst waiting for the machine to ‘warm up’. Hey presto! My blood pressure had significantly dropped back down to its usual laid-back status within moments of my taking control over my autobiographical self!


Q.E.D!



References


Lanius RA, Frewen PA, Nicholson AN, McKinnon MC. Restoring large scale brain networks in the aftermath of trauma: implications for neuroscientifically-informed treatments. Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2021 Feb 1;12(Suppl ):1866410.


Lanius RA, Terpou BA, McKinnon MC. The sense of self in the aftermath of trauma: lessons from the default mode network in post traumatic stress disorder. Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2020 Oct 23;11(1):1807703.


Park SM, Jung HY. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia biofeedback alters heart rate variability and default mode network connectivity in major depressive disorder: A preliminary study. Int J Psychophysiol. 2020 Dec;158:225-237.


Tonhajzerova I, Mestanik M, Mestanikova A, Jurko A. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia as a non-invasive index of 'brain-heart' interaction in stress. Indian J Med Res. 2016 Dec;144(6):815-822. doi: 10.4103/ijmr.IJMR_1447_14. PMID: 28474618; PMCID: PMC5433274.


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