Kindling: Building an Emotional & Mental Fire

First of all, this isn’t going to be a discussion of how to build a fire. Rather, this is a review of a fascinating physiological phenomenon that I consider a very significant contributor to the mood and anxiety disorders.

And that’s because the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, is highly susceptible to the effects of kindling.

In the strictest sense, kindling is the term used for the generation of brain seizures by electrical stimulation. The pioneer of kindling, Canadian scientist Dr. Graham V. Goddard, believed kindling is a process of “message formulation” induced by repeated natural electrical stimulation of small and selected groups of brain cells.

Now, scientists can also trigger these epileptic seizures in animals through repeated mild electrical stimulation of deep-brain structures. Curiously, as this electrical stimulation commences the effects are barely noticeable. However, sensitivity to the stimulation intensifies with repeated administration, ultimately leading to the animals seizing spontaneously. Yet, in spite of all this electrical zapping and seizure activity, physical damage to the brain is undetectable.

In the real-life world of brain physiology, chronic life-stress can generate kindling-like stimulation with accompanying mental, emotional, and physical manifestations.

Drug abuse and withdrawal, particularly involving alcohol and cocaine – and the ingestion of antidepressants by those enduring bipolar disorder – can, as well.

Obviously, this expression of kindling is of great significance, as it appears to stimulate and exacerbate mood cycling both in the immediate and down the road. Indeed, a specific life-stressor may initiate the kindling process with no symptoms in the present, only to have expressions of mood cycling pop-up later in life without the influence of a specific stressor.

Kindling may also be very much involved in the generation of anxiety.

Now, it’s important to note that research isn’t suggesting this is a matter of having actual epileptic seizures, as we may traditionally know them. It’s more an issue of a similarity to the strictest definition of seizure-generating kindling we reviewed in the second paragraph.

At the beginning of the article we talked about how electrical stimulation of the brains of laboratory animals generated barely noticeable seizures in the immediate. But, we also learned that the sensitivity to this electrical stimulation intensified with repeated applications, and the animals ultimately begin to seize without any stimulation whatsoever.

Well, chronic over-stimulation of the amygdala, or any number of our forged neural highways, may lead to a hypersensitivity to fear-generating stimuli and a propensity toward hyperarousal. Doesn’t that make sense?

I mean, consider the scientifically confirmed dynamics of neuroplasticity, the notion that neurons that frequently connect tend to establish long-term working relationships. Well, I believe kindling and neuroplasticity sit in the same section of the ballpark.

So, let’s consider a real-life example of kindling to bring the point home. I’ve written about our HPA axis and noradrenergic (having to do with the neurotransmitter and hormone norepinephrine) systems in previous articles. As it applies here, let’s just say the end result of their work is the activation of our fight/flight response; and we become rough and ready to deal with the threat at hand.

Well, research has noted that early life trauma may have something to say about how all of this works, and it’s thought to go like this. Someone who’s been exposed to such trauma develops a hypersensitive HPA axis and noradrenergic system due to their overuse so soon in life. It seems our bodies just weren’t designed to deal with excessive amounts of their secretions so early on. These secretions include cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.

So, as a result of being chronically overworked, these systems become super-sensitive and super-reactive to stress. And as the years go by, any exposure to stress, even in what would seem to be tolerable measures, only serves to agitate and exacerbate this already hypersensitive and exhausted stress response.

Ultimately, one ends up attempting to live life as an adult with out-of-control biochemistry. And this goofiness well exceeds design tolerances, resulting in any number of physical, mental, and emotional outcomes; including mood and anxiety issues.

Yes, in this case, early life trauma, and its snowballing biochemical fallout, actually alters neurophysiology in the immediate, as well as stimulating psychopathology in the future.

Interesting stuff, don’t you think? Why not share your thoughts in a comment? We’d all love to read what you have to say.