The main thing I took away from my session with Therapist 2.0 today? Cortisol has a whole freakin lot to answer for! As does evolution***. She was explaining to me how emotional intensity affects people, in particular people like me who are extremely emotionally sensitive. When something happens that triggers us, our reaction is immediate and extreme. It takes us much further than someone who is less sensitive, and also takes us an awful lot longer to return to a baseline of stability. The bugger about this slow descent to stability is that anything else that happens while on the way down – even a thought – can send us skywards again, and so this is how the out of control spirals happen.
So where does cortisol come into this? It’s the hormone responsible for our fight or flight responses. She put it in very simple terms for me – our brains didn’t evolve for us to be happy, they evolved for us to survive. So, when there’s a perceived ‘threat’, eg I see Therapist 1.0 going about her business in Galway, my brain interprets it in the same way as it would if a bear were charging at me. My amygdala takes over, cortisol starts pumping, and my frontal lobe switches off. The frontal lobe just so happens to be where rational thought and logic live, but once the threat system has been activated, that’s not needed any more (as far as my brain is concerned) because the number one priority is now keeping me alive, not weighing up the pros and cons of running away from a bear. Once this process starts, there’s no point in trying to distract myself out of it, or persuade myself to think differently, because it’s beyond my control. My brain is hardwired to get me away from danger. Incidentally this is also why therapies such as cbt don’t work for borderline – our reaction is too immediate and too instinctive to allow time to rationalise our way out of it.
This all makes an awful lot of sense, although it does leave me with the issue of what exactly I’m supposed to do with all that cortisol. We started very simply earlier – I can’t think myself out of it, so I have to try and use my body to persuade my brain that actually everything is ok. Instead of tensing up and allowing shallow breathing to take over, I’ve to work on trying to relax myself physically, which should (in theory) tell my brain that I’m not actually in any danger and it can quit firing cortisol into my system. Easier said than done I know, but it’s a starting point.
As with everything she’s done with me so far, this is really helping me to see that my reactions are not my fault. It’s chemistry and wiring. What I’m also starting to see though, is that in time I will be able to do something to change this for myself. So, despite being absolutely shattered this evening and looking like I’ve done a few rounds with Katie Taylor (there was a whole lot of crying), I’m doing ok, which is a massive improvement on this morning.
***probably worth bearing in mind that listening to all of the above through an incredibly emotional filter means I may not have the finer points exactly right***