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The Ups & Downs of (Mis)Interpretation & (Over)Reaction (2nd of 2)

We began a series yesterday on the massive impact of interpretation and reaction upon the mood and anxiety disorders. You’ll recall I approached the topic within the real-life context of waiting for an elevator. Here’s a link to Part 1 if you’d like to get up to speed.

So let’s get back to work, okay?

Back we go to the 11th floor with an edited script (this did not really happen)…

There I was enjoying a beautiful view through this massive floor to ceiling window as I waited for the elevator. All was well with the world until out of nowhere the window was gone, leaving nothing but open air.

And there I stood within two feet of that very messy catastrophe I’d considered when I knew I was safe and sound. Reading the new script, here are the biochemical events that are going down in my brain…

My brain’s sensation receiving hub, the thalamus, is soaking up signals from my sense of sight that the glass is gone. It’s receiving the word from my sense of hearing that the wind’s blowing and there’s road noise below. And it’s receiving a signal from my sense of touch that the wind’s blowing against my skin.

Well, after receiving these messages my thalamus begins to send information to other components of my brain. One message is headed toward my amygdala and the other is on the way to my prefrontal cortex. But, it’s important to note the message to my amygdala is the more expedient of the two.

When my amygdala receives its message it sounds the alarm because it’s not interested in interpretation. Its job is to fire, and entertain questions later. As a result, my HPA axis gets cranked up, and that leads to the secretion of cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.

So now my fight/flight response is chugging along like a locomotive. Oh, and my amygdala is also sending a message to my brainstem to facilitate additional adjustments to heart rate and respiration.

Well, the slower message finally arrives at my prefrontal cortex and it’s time for some reasoned interpretation and decision making. And after a lightening quick analysis it sends a message back to the amygdala to continue firing because this is definitely a life threatening event.

And with that, my fight/flight locomotive chugs on and if I can manage to thaw from my full body freeze, I’m out of there!

But, wait, a true danger didn’t exist. Remember? We’ve already established I was safe whether or not the glass was in place. That being the case, my prefrontal cortex misinterpreted the signals from my amygdala, resulting in a perceived threat. Within this context, the events could have gone down very differently.

Had my amygdala received a message from my prefrontal cortex that, indeed, no true danger existed it would have turned off the alarms and in short order calm would have been restored. And I’d have stood there facing the breeze from 110 feet up without batting an eye.

To me, what I’m presenting is very logical and theoretically correct. And I believe striving for this kind of reason is foundational in resolving our irrational thoughts, hence our emotions. However, thought alone isn’t going to get the job done.

No, facilitating management over our myth-generating reasoning takes practice. And with sufficient amounts of motivation and effort we can make great strides toward holding our mood, affect, and anxiety in check.

As you consider these dynamics, go back to my 11th floor scenario and remind yourself that with the exception of a silly one-quarter-inch thick piece of glass, nothing on the two sets was different.

And that includes a poorly disciplined prefrontal cortex that allowed misinterpretation to run rampant.

There you go – the series complete. Always, always, always  – want and need your comments! How ’bout it???