Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dog Gone . . . a Trivial Grief Observed

This will be one of those posts that I will live to regret.  I hesitate for two reasons. For one, once again I'm in a hurry and I have a lot to say to make my point, so there were be typos.  But more concerning to me is that I will attempt to talk about something trivial . . . especially trivial in the eyes of someone out there who is feeling the grief of non-trivial loss.  I know that there are people who read this who have lost children, spouses and have had romantic loves walk away.  I know that others have watched as their world system of thinking . . . such as Christianity . . . seems to have walked away leaving them in a collapsed universe. In the midst of this, I'm going to be talking about my Dog Coco . . . and the fact that I'm loosing her. Yes, this is trivial in comparison.

The reason I'm even sensitive to this situation, where I talk about my dog while other people's worlds are going to hell, is that it reminds me of a personal experience.  So here we go . . . the first tangent.

About twenty two years ago, I was in the midst of the greatest crisis of my life.  I won't go into details but to say I was deeply depressed, seriously considering suicide as my universe had caved in on me.  But I remember while in this state of severe agony I was attempting to attend a church in Marquette, Michigan.  One Sunday evening, as usual, we had an "open mic" time to share prayer request.  And, as usual, a young girl, Ann, dominated the time.  Often she had us praying for twice removed cousins who were contemplating getting an abortion even after Ann had "shared Jesus" with them several times (I really think the point of the prayer requests was to paint herself as the super-Christian).  That night Anne shared about her dog having pups . . . eight if I remember right. She wanted prayer for each one, by name.  Two of them were fighting over the same teat as the mother only had seven.  But she wrapped Jesus around the prayer because she would smile and say, "Isn't Jesus wonderful that he loves us so much, that he cares about our puppies."

At that moment, I felt like the Tin Man.  I felt "other" not just from Ann but from all Christians, and people in general.  They were made of flesh and bones, with concerns of puppies, rainbows and smiles.  I was metal, hollow and different from anyone else in the room.  I wanted to open my mouth . . . as it was “open mic” and scream, “I’m living in hell here . . . please someone help me!  Please, by the mercy of God help me! I don’t give a damn about puppies . . . God have mercy on my soul . . . please someone help me!”  But my mouth was frozen closed as by an ancient rust.  And that was a good thing.  If I had screamed out for help, in the middle of the puppy story, I’m sure that I would have regretted that until this day. For one, my wife would have been totally embarrassed.  But the church would have reacted in horror . . . “truly there sits a lunatic.”  Maybe someone would have handed me a Joel Osteen book afterwards, something about God Loves the Smiling Man.      

So, my digression is over.  My point is . . . now the tide is turned and I’m the one talking about puppies where there are people out there dying like I was.  I just want you to know that you deserve this mic much more than I do as I have no real crisis in my life right now.

My best friend, Coco, is dying.  She has cancer.  Each day, I think might be her last . . . then she peps up and looks almost normal, except for her intense limp on her bone-cancered front leg.

I’ve always been a dog man . . . Saint Bernards to be percise.  She is the fourth one I’ve had. But I’ve had her for eleven years and she and I have bonded as much as a inter-species bonding can be.  As they say, a dog is a man’s best friend and in this case, it is literal.  I look into her brown eyes and I can see her soul.  While she only understands about five English words, she and I communicate clearly. 

While she would be lying on the floor half a sleep, I would sometimes lay down near her.  I would catch her looking at me . . . then she would start sliding in  my direction across the hardwood floor until she could stretch and very gently touch my cheek with her huge, clumsy paw.  There was no misunderstanding about it. She was saying, “I love you.”

She invented a game where she would run in figure of 8s, with me at the center.  With each swing past, she would get closer and closer as I would try to catch her.  Then I would tackle her and the two of use (equal in weight) would hit the ground and roll.  She loved that game.

This is an especially poignant parting.  As I have become an empty nester (after raising 5 kids) and have very little conversation with my wife these days, who works part time, is in graduate school full time and is in the gym two hours a day . . . I talk to Coco more than any human.  I will miss her so much and my heart has been hurting for a week.

Each time I mention her plight, having been diagnoses a week ago, people always say coldly, “just put her down.”  But I don’t want to take her life from my personal convenience. I pray that she will die peacefully in her sleep. If the time comes and I have to take her life, it must be an act of unselfish love.  She would have to suffering. But for now, helping to carry her 100 lb frame (she has lost a lot of weight) down the steps so she can go potty, isn’t a reason to end her life.

She has lived longer than most Saint Bernards.  That offers me no comfort.  I remember when I was in this exact same circumstances with my father, people would try to comfort us by saying . . . “He survived Normandy . . . so that was a blessing.”  Sure it was a blessing.  But loosing dad hurt. It hurt badly. I felt like I had to go through that valley alone.  I had dreaded that day from the time I first realized that humans died (age 4?).

The time with my dad was more hellish of course.  I loved him far more than Coco. It was also a terrible situation where I lived 600 miles from dad.  I couldn’t take any time off to be with him as I was the only bread-winner for a family of seven. Even my one flight down for him put us in debt and family strain.  It was an awful time watching my dad die by phone.  I had wished so much that I had not been the bread winner so I could have gone and been with him for his final eight weeks.

But I’m dragging this on.  I had no great point but to share my grief. I will say, that as  monist, I do believe that this earth is real and glorious . . . as are all the beast there in.  While Coco may not be created exactly in God’s image . . . she was created by God’s good favor . . . and He created her well.  I love C. S. Lewis imaginary.  I'm looking forward to riding up the water fall on the back of Coco with her big cold nose splitting the falls in half as we fly deeper in . . . into the glorious new earth. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fearfully Made . . . Celebrating the Gift of Terror Part XIII

Bending the rebar.

I wanted to mention some habitual wrong ways of thinking, which support a continuing cycle of anxiety.  Along with that, I want to present new ways of thinking to apply a constant pressure in the right direction. I'm not talking about Pollyanna-ish, wishful thinking. I'm talking about changing the the way our cognitive interpretation centers produce conclusions. We need to retrain the brain to start interpreting the input more realistically. It takes time.  With months of practice, there is a subtle change. Years more moderate. Decades . . . significant. 

I must also again state that for many of us, we can never have a fully healthy brain when it comes to anxiety . . . not in this lifetime.  For some of us the genetics flaws or early childhood trauma are just too strong.  I will also point out that this takes time, years or even decades.  But substantial improvement can achieved.  The list I'm about to share is taken from the book, Thoughts and Feelings, The Art of Cognitive Stress Management, by M. McKay, M. Davis and P. Fanning (1981). 

Fifteen Styles of Distorted Thinking

1.) Filtering: looking at only 1 element of a situation to the exclusion of everything else:

Example: Employer compliments you for quality of project, but ask if you could get it done a little quicker next time. You go home having decided that your boss thinks you're dawdling.

Fix: Think about what you can do to correct your mistakes and to consider what you did right.

2.) Polarized Thinking: All or None/Black or White thinking.  Everything is at the extremes and no middle ground, especially when it comes to judging yourself.  You are either brilliant or an idiot. There is no room for mistakes.

Example: You are a complete looser because you took the wrong exit. and had to drive several miles out of the way.

Fix: Remember that all behavior and feelings fall along a continuum. Ask yourself, honestly, on a 1-100% scale, how often are you a looser.

3.) Over-generalization: Take a button and sew a button on it. Making broad, generalized conclusions based on 1 specific event.

Example: I'll never be able to be trusted again.

Fix: Avoid using words like all, every, always, nobody.  Use words like may, sometimes, often.

4.) Mind Readers: Making snap judgments about others. Jumping to conclusions concerning what other people are thinking. No evidence, but it seems to fit.

Example: My husband only brought me flowers because he must be feeling guilty about something.

Fix: Better off making no inferences at all.Stick to what you know for sure . . . if you down't know, try to find out or forget about it.

5.) Catastrophizing (my favorite): A small leak in the sailboat means that it will surely sink.  Usually starts off with "what if."

Example: What if my car breaks down in the middle of nowhere.  What if I don't get into the program.

Fix: As soon as you catch yourself, make honest assessment of situation in therms of odds and a percent of probability -- are the chances 1 in 20, 1 in 19,000 or 1 in a million?

6.) Personalization: Tendency to relate everything around you to yourself.  When things go wrong, believe that is was directed to you personally or caused by you. Continually comparing yourself to others.

Example: I'm the slowest person in the office.

Fix: Force yourself to prove what the problem has to do with you.

7.) Control Fallacies: Seeing yourself as helpless and externally controlled or responsible for everyone around you.

Example: You have to right every wrong, fix every problem, take care of every hurt.

Fix: Besides natural disasters, you personally are responsible for what happens in your world.  You make day-to-day choices that affect your life.

8.) Fallacy of Fairness: Seldom do people agree about what fairness is. Getting locked into your own point of view.

Example: If he loved me, he would help with the housework. If they really valued my work here, they'd get me a better office.

Fix: Outside a court of law, concept of fairness is too dangerous to use, instead say what you want or prefer.

9.) Emotional Reasoning: Belief that what you feel must be true. Emotions by themselves have no validity. They are products of what you think. If you have distorted thoughts and beliefs, your emotions will reflect that. Always believing your emotions is like always believing everything you read. Don't confuse thoughts with facts.

Example: I feel like a loser, therefore I am a loser.  I feel ugly, therefore I am ugly.

Fix: There is nothing sacred or automatically true about what you feel.

10.) Fallacy of Change: The only person you have much hope of changing is yourself.  This type of thinking assumes that others will change to suite you if you just pressure them enough. Usual result is that the other person feels attacked or pushed around and doesn't change at all.  Underlying assumption here is that your happiness depends on the actions of others, when in fact, it has much more to do with the millions of large and small decisions you make during your life.

Example: If I can get my spouse to go out every other night with me, stop smoking, start wearing better clothes, and learn racquetball . . . our marriage will be much better.

Fix: Your happiness depends on you--you have to decide to stay or leave, say yes or no, continue at your job or not.

11.) Global Labeling: Labels may contain a grain of truth, yet ignores all contrary evidence, making your view of the world stereotyped and one-dimensional.

Example: All republicans are a bunch of money-hungry jerks. The person who refuses to do you a favor is a stupid fool.

Fix: Limit your observations to that particular case.

12.) Blaming: There is much relief in knowing who's to blame (someone else or you).  Often involves making someone else responsible for choices and decisions that are actually your own responsibility.  In blame systems, somebody is always doing it to you and you have no responsibility to assert your needs, so no, or go elsewhere for what you want.

Example: Blaming your friends for asking you to go to a lousy party.

Fix: It is your responsibility to assert your needs, say no, or gl elsewhere.  Thre is a difference between taking responsibility and turning the blame on yourself.

13. Shoulds: Operating from a list of inflexible rules about how you and others should act. Due words: ought, must, should.

Example: I should be the epitome of generosity, unselfishness, courage, strength and dignity. I should be the perfect spouse, lover, parent, friend.

Fix: Think of 3 exceptions.  Remind yourself it is impossible to be "perfect."

14. Being Right: Usually on the defensive, continually proving your viewpoint is correct. Having to be right makes you very hard of hearing . . . and lonely.

Example: I know I'm right. Don't you believe me?

Fix: Active listening, communicate by repeating what you think you heard in order to make sure you really understand.

15. Heaven's Reward Fallacy: Always doing the right thing in hopes of a reward.  Sacrificing and slaving so you can collect brownie points.

Example: Housewife cooking elaborate meals for the family, keeping an immaculate home and waiting hand and foot on the family while waiting for special appreciation which never comes.

Fix: If doing good means you're doing things you really don't want to or are sacrificing things you resent giving up, you're not likely to reap any benefit at all.

I might come back and finish with another story about B . . . but again, I may have beat this dead horse long enough.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fearfully Made . . . Celebrating the Gift of Terror Part XII

I will finish up this series on anxiety disorders in this post and one more.

So . . . in summary, anxiety disorders are caused by either a genetic predisposition or through life (often early life) experiences . . . and often a combination of the two.  I differ from Christian counselors because I don't think the sufferer is the main contributor to their anxiety. Sure, they can make some wrong moral choices that aggravate their anxiety.  In my fictional account, B could start dropping acid in her twenties to escape her pain . . . or she could become a hooker to try and fill the void of emotional abandonment. But it wasn't like one day she just decided that she was going to make a moral choice of being anxious.  It is a real disease and the beginnings were no fault of her own.  The way God made us, the way He intended, is for all of us to have perfectly loving parents.  It wasn't B's fault that she didn't.

My second main point is that actual brain structure changes (or was developed as a fetus in error) so "repentance" or just choosing to stop worrying doesn't work. The whole issue of prayer can be debated for pages, but in my  humble opinion (as I've stated before) the major-league type of answered prayer it takes to heal one from an anxiety disorder is very, very rare.

But God has given us the tools to push against it. In the same way the inner tube pulled a constant pressure in the direction away from the door on the rebar, we can apply a constant pressure on our brains to reform away from anxiety. Yet, I do believe that some of us will never see complete healing in this life time. That is the same reason that I wouldn't let a pedophile, who had since met Jesus and repented, be alone with my kids.

The pressure we apply is in the most malleable part of the brain . . .in the frontal cortex areas of reason and interpretation of sensory input.  The complex limbic system is not easily malleable and that's why we can't just stop being depressed and be happy by will.

But before I dive into what is called cognitive re-structuring (what the Bible calls the renewing of the mind) I will mention medications.

A long time ago when I was an evangelical and was studying psychology with the hopes of being a "Christian Psychologist" I went to dinner at one of my friend's houses.  His father was the CEO of a regional pharmaceutical company.   During dinner, and just to be nice, his father asked me what I was studying. I told him. Then his father (again to be nice to his son's friend) said, "We are working on some exciting medications to help depression and anxiety."

I responded with a very stupid, "Drugs can't solve any of those problems . . . they just cover them up."

There is certainly a place for medications.  Some people have such severe disorders that they must be on them for life.  The rest of us need them for times of exacerbation.  I was never on a daily medication for anxiety, however I should have been.  I do have an emergency supply of Ativan (20 per year) if I'm facing a very particular amount of anxiety.

But the best long term solution is changing the brain by changing the way we interpret sensory input and by exposure to the offending situation.  I mentioned before that I have acrophobia. In response to that, I took up rock climbing and rappelling.  It still can scare the hell out of me, but if I hadn't done it, my universe would start to close in.

In cognitive re-structuring,  you start to listen to your erroneous self-talk. "When I get up in front of the church to read scripture, I may choke up. If I choke up, the whole congregation will think I'm a fool and a spiritual wimp.  If they think I am a spiritual wimp, then I really am a spiritual wimp.  My value of a person will drop. God will like me less and I will have no friends."  You have to go back and wrap an inner tube around the end of that though and pull it in the direction of, "I've spoken in front of churches hundreds of times and my voice only cracked once.  Even that time, the majority of the people didn't notice. If they did notice, hardly anyone would care.  If someone did care, and think less of me because my voice cracked . . . then they are the ones messed up . . .  not me."

But it is not a kind of repentance where you replace that thought once then all is well. Because if you replace that thought just like I described, then the very next time you are asked to speak in front of a group . . . not the new thought, but the old thought will pop up. So, you have to once again press against it with the new, inner tube, thought.  It is a constant pressure and active rethinking.

I will close next time with common wrong thinking and what new thinking should look like.

But us anxious people are NOT children of a lessor god.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fearfully Made . . . Celebrating the Gift of Terror Part XI

Imagine that you built a dream home on a gorgeous but remote Greek island.  The setting was magical, on a hill above town of whitewashed houses with pale blue domes clinging to the rocky outcroppings above the grape-juice blue waters of the Mediterranean.  It was a dreamer’s fantasy long fulfilled.  But there were a few blemishes to threaten an otherwise utopian realization.

While the scenery was world-class the workmanship was a bit third world, or so it seemed to you. After the construction crew had left you noticed that your new whitewashed concrete home overlooking the sea had a few imperfections, some of them that really bugged you.  The most noticeable one was a nasty piece of one inch thick rebar sticking out about sixteen inches from one of the supporting post beside the front door.  It was more than an eyesore.  Because it curved towards the door it was in the way. Each time you entered or left your home, that piece of irritating metal would scrape the door, making it difficult to open or close it. Once you had it open you had had to duck or for certain you would hit your head on the sharp, rough iron.

So you called the builders several times to come and fix it.  They promised each time to come “the next morning.” But being a boat ride away, they seemed to have dropped off the ends of the earth once they had been paid for the original construction. Each day as you entered and left your house you would sustain a nasty scrap on your forehead or temple.  You finally decide to take matters into your own hands.  You search for metal cut off saw to get rid of the rebar once and for all . . . but there were none in your quaint fishing village. So, you decided to find just a simple old hacksaw and use elbow grease to take off the rebar.  To your dismay there wasn’t even a hacksaw to be found.

For a while you resorted to just living with the rebar, but it was a constant thorn in your flesh, almost literally, enough so, it was about to ruin your dream. One day in frustration you try your best to bend it out of your way by pushing with all your might . . . but it didn’t budge.  Then you beat it with a large rock but it didn’t compromise its stiff resilience. Despite a whole morning’s effort the rebar still stuck out from the post precisely at seventy-five degrees, towards and right in the way of the door.

Next you consider just living with it, as your proverbial albatross but it didn’t take long before you reached the limits of your patience.  You picked up a bigger rock and pounded away with all your might and pent-up frustration.

About that time, an old, retired fisherman was making his way up the mountain on his bicycle and paused to watch this strange foreigner beating the side of his house with a small boulder, held in both hands above his head, more like a mad man than Vulcan.

“What do you want?” You yelled out in anguish.  

“Oh . . . nothing.  Just a bit courious,” replied the old man.

“Well . . . do you have any better ideas?”

The old man stroked his gray chin beard as he paused for a few minutes then answered, “Actually I do.”

“Then show me!” you shout back at him.

He walked up to the house and studied the piece of rebar. He pulled on it a bit. “Hmm . . . that is a sturdy iron.  That means your house is built very, very good. It will withstand the earthquakes that we have here.  You had very good builders.”

“But the damn thing keeps hitting me in the head!  I’ve about broken my door as I have to kick it open to just leave the house.”

“Oh, I see.  But we can fix that . . . but you must be patient. This house is built to last for generations, like all of our homes, so it takes a little time to fix its errors because they are equally strong.”

So the old fisherman studied the rebar a bit more. Then he looked at the olive tree which stood just a meter to the side of the door.  He scratched his head and walked over to his bike.  Meanwhile you just sit on the dusty ground to watch in exasperation. He flipped his bike over and removed one of his wheels. Then he took off the tire. Once the tire is off, he pulled the inner tube out of it and walked back towards the house.  He took out his old knife and cut through a two-inch limb of the olive tree just at the right spot.  Then he looped the inner tube over the stubbed limb.  He walked backwards from the tree, towards the door of the house, pulling and stretching the inner tube with all his might.  Then he looped the other end over the very tip of the rebar.  “There.”

“There what?  That didn’t do a thing.  If me pushing it with a hundred pounds of force didn’t move it, certainly a piece of rubber pulling fifty pounds against it isn’t going to move it.”

“Of course it will,” said the old man.  He took off his wool, black, Greek fisherman’s hat and wiped his brow. “But you have to be patient. Persistent and patient.”

You grab your protractor and hold it up with the rebar at the center.  “Look. It is still at seventy-five degrees!”

“Of course,” said the old man. “I will be back one week from today then you will measure it again.  On that day, I will tighten the rubber a little more.”

A week passed and you try to ignore the metal bar, but you still scrape your head a couple of times.  You did notice towards the end of the week that the door was a bit easier to open.  On Saturday morning, just as he promised, the old sailor climbed the hill on his bike with an apparently mended wheel.  He smiled and asked for the protractor.  You pulled it out and measured the rebar exactly as you had the week before.  Now its lean towards the door was seventy-eight degrees.  “Hmm,” you say. “I guess it did move a bit. But that’s still not a lot of difference.”

The fisherman smiles, “Three degrees in one week, that’s pretty darn good. That means in just five weeks the rod will be sticking straight out and not in the way of the door.  Give it about thirty weeks and it will point away from your door, clearly out of your way, and at just about the right angle to make a beautiful place to hang a lantern or a basket of flowers from it. Then your problem will be solved. All you have to do is to keep the force against the rod and give it time.  This is much better than pound on it for months with nothing to show for it.” He then put a stick in the middle of the stretched out inner tube and tightened it by twisting it a few turns. Then he tied the stick in place with a string. “I will be back in one week.”

When it comes to anxiety disorders, the cure is the same. It involves persistence and a constant pressure away from it’s defective position. The reason is anxiety, depression, OCD and you can name many other mental disorders are based in the concrete structure of the brain. It can be the result of inborn errors, echoes of the great fall, or it can be learned. But learning it, through traumatic experiences or just being taught to be anxious , changes the actual structure of the brain, neurons actually grow new dendrites and axons. The very complex chemical messaging system also changes.  These are very real changes, based in the real, three dimensional world.  So it is not a spirit that can change on a dime by simple will.  Repentance does not change the structure of the brain instantly.

Some of these structural changes can never be fully unraveled in this world save a miracle that works against the way that God has created nature. It would be a miracle on the order of a thirty year old man, who was born without legs, growing both legs over night.  Maybe God dose things like this, but it is rare.

But virtually all people can do better than they are. That improvement (or repentance), is a commitment to turn the tube and tighten the force against the disorder day after day after day.  The results are not immediate.

So, this is getting long and I will pause. I will come back to describe how this “turning of the tube” works on in anxiety disorders.  It can come under the heading of cognitive therapy, or . . . as the Bible says . . . renewing of your mind.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Fearfully Made . . . Celebrating the Gift of Terror Part X

So what can we do about anxiety?  Is there any hope? The hope lies in my parable of the steel rebar rod protruding out of the concrete. I will get back to that later.

First I will say that I do not believe in quick fixes. Some things that present at instantaneous relief include repentance (as mentioned last time), discovering repressed memories and being healed from them, and even as an answer to prayer. I've already talked about repentance so I will move on to repressed memories and other kinds of psychological healings.

Imagine that B was in her thirties and still wrestling with anxiety. Then a "repressed memory" (probably Christian) psychologist takes her back through hypnosis to her childhood.  She remembers, vividly, her father's tantrums and his kick in her side.  Then the repressed memory theorist, through suggestive manipulation, gets her to remember things that didn't happen (for example sexual abuse). This therapist then leads her in prayer for forgiveness and deliverance. He then assures her she had been delivered and is now free of the bondage of fear.

This is no better than the youth pastor's prayer and laying on of hands for an instantaneous deliverance from demonic oppression.  Both of those are cheap and quick like a microwaved dinner. It makes the youth pastor feel better about his value (of finding the problem to a pretty young girl's problems and being her knight in shinny armor) and it helps the psychologist demonstrate his great talents as a mental healer . . .  but neither does a thing for B.  Indeed, she may eventually be worse off because she discovers that the anxiety is still there and months later, after the euphoria of being "delivered" wears off, she will be more depressed about her anxiety.

What about one more instantaneous relief . . . the simple and humble petition of the sufferer to God . . . in other words, prayer?  Someone has already mentioned in the comments of this blog how they have prayed so hard for help and deliverance and none have come. Is God impotent?  Is God deaf or doesn't care?

Because anxiety disorders are deeply imprinted into the brain's structure and chemistry, to be instantaneously fixed by prayer would be a SUPERNATURAL event . . . in the same order of someone who was born without a leg, suddenly growing one. It is my confident view, not based on a theological position, but as an honest observer of real life, that true--SUPERNATURAL--miracles are rare.  Do you know anyone raised from the dead or grew a new limb?  Most of what we use as proofs of answer to prayer are subjective and easily subject to wishful thinking.  To even talk like this I am quickly put in  my place by Evangelicals as someone of little faith, or who doesn't really know the true God.

This prayer issue is another posting series in itself, but I'm not at all implying that God is not listening nor is He impotent. I'm just saying that Evangelicals (and other Christians) have created a mythology that God is constantly doing supernatural things, when most of that is wishful thinking.

I know that during  the years that I was constantly attesting to miracles, that I was self-deceived at best and often I was telling all out lies.  In my heart of hearts I knew that they were lies.  I decided to come clean.  It is a simple observation that God typically works within the wonderful system of nature. This is where this discussion goes back to the point of monist Vs dualism.  The dualists see this physical world, the laws of nature, the laws of human philology as being other than God or outside of God's goodness. But I see these as part of God wonderful works.  I've quoted Einstein many times where he says that there is only two ways to look at the universe, as if nothing is a miracle or as if everything is.  I see the universe as all a supernatural miracle, when I use "natural" the same was as the evangelicalism.  So when I use "natural" as meaning without God, then the only natural state is complete nothingness. No matter, no energy . . . absolutely nothing.  So, as the moment that the big band occurred, everything side of that is supernatural.  So, in my opinion, God doesn't have to bend the rules of nature to intervene. The way He has made things is wonderful and most solutions come within that system.

With this view, I don't feel betrayed by God when He does not work instantaneously to change things outside the natural laws which He has created. Now, since I got so far along this tangent, I have run out of time and space. Next time I will talk about what I think is the solution to this problem of having an anxiety disorder.  But I will warn, that I do believe that for some of us there is no true hope of complete resolution this side of having new bodies.  In the same way I don't believe that there is complete resolution to my friends with spinal cord injuries or amputations in this life.  There are big improvements that can be made, but the hope of being normal again awaits the great restoration after this life.

Sorry about typos. I'm with a group and suddenly we have to leave the coffee shop before I had the chance to proof-read.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fearfully Made . . . Celebrating the Gift of Terror Part IX

We too often discount worrying as just an annoying habit, when instead it is sin. Jesus plainly tells us not to worry, so when we do anyway, we’re essentially saying, “Lord, I know you care, but I don’t think you can handle this one.”

The above quote form MacArthur's book is in a nutshell the view of Christians towards anxiety for ages. The  main point of my posts is that I have a very different view of anxiety and I think this traditional one has caused more harm than good.  It leaves the anxious person believing that their anxiety is all their fault, and what is even worse, if they were good Christians they would repent from anxiety today and live a life full of fearless confidence. The fact that fearless confidence doesn't come, is a constant reminder to them that they are failures as Christians . . . which in turn makes the anxiety worse.

I have to agree with the mainstream Evangelical view that anxiety disorders are the result of sin but that is our only common ground.  I differ first all, as the point which I've been trying to make, is that anxiety in its raw form is God-given. It is good.  God created our biological systems of perceiving danger and avoiding it.  The typical Evangelical labels all anxiety as sin and I disagree with that completely.  I honestly believe in my title here that we were made, by God, to be creatures of fear and anxiety. That is how we survive.  We avoid the cobra when it is ready to strike.  We don't walk out on thin ice.  The list could go on and on of how anxiety is God given.

The aberration of anxiety is the results of sin in the world.  The fall of Adam has cast a handful of sand in all the gears of the beauty of life, rendering it not ugly, but just not working the way it was intended.

There may be better theological terms to describe this, but I see sin on three levels. First is the big, impersonal influence of the fall of Adam on all of us. That is why we get cancer and why our cars don't start. Things just don't work perfectly . . . not necessary due to anything that we have done wrong . . . except to be born in this broken world. So, when we are born with errors in our cognitive interpretation centers, which cause us to mis-read benign   sensory input as dangerous, that is no more our fault than being born with blue eyes.  The same is true for being born with errors in our limbic system where our emotions don't work right . . . such as anxiety or depression.

The second level of sin is sin directed at us, personally, by others.  In my story about B, her father's sin was directed at her.  She absolutely did nothing wrong to deserve how her biological father treated her.  Leaving her toys in the floor didn't justify her drunken father's physical abuse.  Her stepfather's issues, which made him to be a superficial, un-nurturing father didn't help nor did her mothers coping skills (suddenly become superficially religious).  B didn't cause the girls at the Christian school to manipulate and bully her. It was their personal sin of jealously that drove them to do that.

None of us grew up with perfect parents because we are in an imperfect world.  Some parents are more hellish than others.  Those who have been seriously abused as children (and I certainly was not) are often broken deeply in their psyche's.

The last layer of sin is our person choices.  We can make choices that make our anxiety worse. I know that I have and I am fully responsible for those choices.

Speaking metaphysically again, I also differ tremendously from the Evangelical mainstream in the remedy for our fears.  If, as MacArthur suggest, that all our anxiety is the product of personal sin, and we are all born the same way but some of us choose (because we are just bad people) to sin and be anxious, then the solution is simple . . . repentance. It would be the same if wearing red shirts were considered sin so repentance is where one day you burn all your red shirts and never wear them again. It is solved once and for all. But this goes back to the notion that our souls are fluid and inhabit an empty skull with no relationship to the circuits of the brain. So it is metaphysical.

When you believe the above, you feel worse and anxiety then grows. If you fear people, like many of us do, then you believe that you are a bad person because you are anxious and then you become even more socially anxious because you are fearful that you will not measure up to the standard and they will find out that you are inferior. If your voice trembles in front of the church, they will see that you are a sinful, fearful person . . . thus you become more anxious.

I'm out of time but I will next post about what I think is a healthy way to approach anxiety.      

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fearfully Made . . . Celebrating the Gift of Terror Part VIII

I’ve written a lot about the basic biology of anxiety but now I want to move into the realm of how it is manifest and how we should approach dealing with it in a more healthy way.  I will say right up front that I believe most of what we are taught in Christian settings is very wrong.

So we can be born with structural/chemical problems in the cognitive processing center or in the emotional response (limbic) system of the brain causing us to be anxious or we can have bad experiences in life to cause it.  Sometimes I wonder if that being born with it is my problem because my mother was very anxious and I had symptoms of it at a very young (3 years old) age.

We can also have our brain modified through bad experiences that cause us to be more anxious. PTSD, is a good example of this.  In my story, B seemed to fit in this category.  I will add too, that the younger our brains are when they are exposed to these horrible experiences, the more damage is done.  The brain is more malleable the younger we are.

So, I think there is evidence I was born the way I was, however, I’ve also had some traumatic experiences that made it much worse.  I went though such a one 15 years ago and my anxiety level greatly increased for many years afterwards.  I think this is a common pattern, where someone was biologically prone to anxiety, then had a very severe personal trauma and it became much worse.

But before I start talking about our response to anxiety, I want to talk a bit about the “software” of the problem.  Up until now I’ve focused on the “hardware.”

There are different types of anxiety.  Generalized anxiety, what I suffer from, is where we are anxious, as the name suggest, in a generalized way. Then some people have focused anxiety, such as social anxiety.  In the case of the latter, they feel fine taking great physical risks, parachuting, hang gliding, running with the bulls, but are fearful of people only.

I think most people who suffer from anxiety do so in a general way, suggesting that they were either born with a defect in their limbic system or, through trauma, their limbic system changed and now processes anxiety at a higher intensity.

Social anxiety is one of the most common and disabling so I want to focus on it.  It is more disabling because it deeply affects the way we live.  If we just had acrophobia, most people would never know. We would simply avoid being in high places.

A couple of posts ago, I made the comment that there are two types of fear, bodily harm and being devalued.  I also suggested that the later was the most intense.

It is my personal opinion that virtually all human behavior pivots on an insatiable desire to feel that we have value.  Speaking theologically, God created us with infinite value, because He made us in His image. However, through the Fall of Adam, guilt covered all of humanity.  Guilt is the fear or feeling of being devalued.  The rational process is that I have no value because I’m not perfect.  It, as an echo of Adam, haunts the most inward chambers of our being.  It is comprehensive and suffocating. 

I’ve also said before that the purpose of the Gospel was to eradicate the influence of this guilt, however, even the greatest Christian on earth never—in this life—fully recognizes the benefits of the Gospel.  The journey of life is trying harder and harder to know that we are perfect and completely restored to an infinite value in God’s eyes.

So by nature all of us are obsessed with trying to restore our own value.  Most of our behaviors are defined by those motives.  I write on this bog hoping that someone reads it, thus telling me that I have value.  We go to work every day to earn money to help us know that we have value. We raise families, hoping to do a good job so that we can convince ourselves that we have value.

Social anxieties are deeply entangled in the intense fear that, rather than being torn apart by a lion, someone will judge us, and that judgment will be that we are of low value.

I have a fear of talking to people at times because I fear that I will say the wrong thing and they will judge me to be inferior, thus taking away my value.  My brain’s cognitive interpretative center, is so fearful of this devaluation, that is misreads signals from other people as proof that they have devalued me.  When people devalue us, we actually take it as actually having less value, not just their opinions.

Public speaking is considered one of the most frightful things people can do.  Once again, it is this intense fear that you will not come across well then, rather than one person, hundreds of people will conclude that you are 1) not smart, 2) not cool and if your voice trembles, 3) not sane.

Fifteen years ago I had just gone through this terrible experience and I knew my anxiety disorder had been shaken awake and was at a much higher level. Then one Sunday, the pastor walked up to me minutes before the church service started and asked me to read scripture from the pulpit.

As I sat down near the front and watched the 500 people come in and take their seats, I felt a full panic attack ensue.  I didn’t know what to do.  I waked up to the pulpit and tried to speak but my voice was so shaky. It was shaky because my hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis was activated and I had a huge amount of adrenalin in my bloodstream.

When I came back to my seat, I felt a huge embarrassment.  Embarrassment is the acute manifestation of the fear that we have lost value.  I felt that 500 people now saw me as 1) sissy or fearful, 2) stupid, 3) very unspiritual because a true man of God is bold, confident and cleaver and lastly 4) untalented as a speaker.

So, is there hope?  More later.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Fearfully Made . . . Celebrating the Gift of Terror Part VII

 The Model of Anxiety:

   Sensory input --------> Cognitive Interpretation <------------->Limbic System (deep emotions)-------------> Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (the release of adrenalin and cortisol).

I'm not smart enough to know how to draw in this blog, so I will have to add another dimension via text, which is memory.  Memory has direct input into the cognitive interpretation process and limbic system.  Notice too that the arrows between the cognitive system and the limbic system have points on both ends. The same is true between memory and those two areas. This means that emotions and memories directly effect the way we perceive, or more accurately interpret, the input of our senses and our interpretation of the senses directly influences memories and emotions.

So, lets look at how the fall of Adam can impact this process, rendering us as anxious people.

I can't imagine how errors in the first step, a broken sensory input, can lead to anxiety.  It can lead to deafness or blindness.  So the first really vulnerable spot is the second point on the graph, the cognitive interpretation of the senses. The second vulnerable spot is the limbic system. I will lump memory in with those two systems.

There can be disorders of the last part, the Hypothalamic-Pituary-(+Thyroid)-Adrenal Axis, but those are rare.  In those cases you would have the physical feeling of a panic attack, fast heart rate, shakiness, without the emotions of it.  The most common example is a thyroid storm. Another example is a tumor (which secretes adrenalin) called a pheochromocytoma. But I'm not going to talk about those influences of the fall on humans, because they are rare and don't represent true anxiety.

So, the major problems come down to disorders in the first two areas, cognitive interpretation and limbic systems.  God designed the system to help us defend ourselves against threats.  I think there are two areas of threats, bodily and value.

In the area of bodily, we fear physical pain, and death.  But the later issue is greater, and that the intense fear of being devalued.  I say it is greater than the fear of death because people will commit suicide if they think they have no value.

So the fear of bodily harm is pretty simple. We (think of us living in Africa) walk into the savanna where lions habitually sleep.  The senses come into the frontal lobes where we start to deconstruct and find meaning in the sensory input.  It is recognized that this is lion habitat. The memory of watching a lion tear apart one of our clan members will enhance that interpretation. In a very healthy way, that repackaged information is sent to the limbic system, where it creates the general fear response.  The God given purpose of that anxiety is to make us either avoid the area altogether or to proceed but with a heighten state of awareness. This is a good thing . . . actually a very good thing. The anxiety, working backwards though the system, then starts to increase our sense's abilities to perceive danger.

If a lion was to suddenly stand up from the deep grass and start charging towards you, the limbic system would then trigger the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis causing the sudden dump of stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol.  Once dumped, the stress hormones are irresistible (until they are metabolized and leave the blood stream).  You are prepared to run, fight, or in some cases fall down and be catatonic.

I know that I'm being redundant but I just wanted to make sure I was clear in that. It is truly a gift. Without this system in our brains, we would surely die quite young. We wouldn't have the apprehension that keeps us from climbing over the fence at the Grand Canyon rim, or walking out in traffic, or looking down the barrel of a loaded gun.  Fear is a great gift of God as is anxiety. The panic mode is a great gift as well.

When I was in college, I once fell (more like slid) off a cliff onto a frozen river in the dead of winter.  As soon as I broke through the ice (actually the moment I started my slide down) the adrenal glands kicked in.  I felt a complete panic.  My hiking friend was able to reach  me with a long limb so I could crawl out.  We were about three miles from the nearest road so I ran the whole way back to the truck.  I think my fight or flight response saved my life because my running stopped me from getting hypothermic. Once again, it is a gift from God.

The way that this wonderful system can malfunction can be from nature or nurture or, most commonly, a mixture of both. First I will talk about the Fall's influence on the nature of our anxiety system. When I speak of nature, I'm speaking of genetic influences or, less commonly, injuries to the system in the womb.  Nonetheless, both result in a proneness towards anxiety.

I would be foolish to describe what these errors could be, as even the scientists who research anxiety, don't have it mapped out yet. But it would involve the brain's hardware, meaning neurons, how they connect and the chemicals, such as dopamine, which they use to communicate with each other.  So, many people . . . due to no fault of their own . . . come out of the womb more anxious than others. So as Lady Gaga would say, they were "Born that Way." But I certainly would differ from much of Christian teachings by opposing the notion that "God created us that way" or, due to our sin we became that way. It is old sin. The sin of our forefathers, the fall of Adam on the universe that has caused these defects.  Those who suffer from them are completely innocent victims in the same way someone is born with one leg . . . or blind.

The second area of course is in the nurture.  I said the brain is like a supercomputer . . . but again different. It is different because the brain is not static silicon chips with electrons setting on them creating a charge. But the brain is biological and dynamic. The structure of the brain is constantly changing.  A computer's structure never changes on its own unless you physically upgrade it. The brain changes by growing dendrites and axons and changing the way certain neurotransmitters (chemicals) are released or suppressed.

Lets go back to the savanna.  If you had never seen a lion, your brain's system for processing the sensory input of the savanna and interpreting those senses would be vastly different if you were from a clan where you had been an eye witness of hundreds of brutal killings of your fellow clan members by lions.  The memory part of your brain is closely tied to your limbic system and your cognitive interpretation system. Just the smell of the grasses of the savanna would automatically cause the hairs on the back of your head to stand up if you were the later person.  You would fill a strange feeling in your stomach (as the blood is being redirected from your GI track to your skeletal muscles) and your palms would get sweaty.  The other person, the one who had never seen a lion, would stroll into the grasses like he or she were walking into their living room. They wouldn't experience anxiety because they do not have the neurons circuits in their memories and limbic system.

So, a real threat, say B's father storming into her room in a drunken rage, creates a deep memory and circuits in her limbic system. These are real, physical, changes in her brain.  While some other person, who's memory of their father was him hugging her, building her doll houses and singing her praises, wouldn't have these circuits.

In this later case, the fall is manifest by the sin of others. The abuse and mistreatment.  Once again, the sufferer of the anxiety is the innocent victim.

This post is getting too long so I will stop. But next time I want to talk about how the individual (the person suffering from the anxiety) can change their own brain structure. It isn't easy nor automatic. There is no magic trick or vitamin that fixes things. There are no simple spiritual exercises which can do it either. It is hard, long and arduous.  I also want to compare that to the misinformation promoted in Christian circles, that anxiety is the opposite of faith or trust in God or simply sin.  I also want to explore this other, more common area, of fear and that is the intense fear of insignificance or loss of value.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fearfully Made . . . Celebrating the Gift of Terror Part VI


I wanted to create a post that clearly explained how the brain creates the feelings of anxiety and panic.  However, I can not do the job justice in a simple posting.  I've spent the majority of my 30 year career in neurology and I think I understand the brain much better than most people. However, the complexities of the brain, especially when it comes to things like anxiety, are far too much even for me to understand, not to mention trying put it in laymen's terms here.  Part of the problem too is that even the scientists, who study such things, know only about 25% of the story.  So I will cover some basics.

First of all, I must continue my philosophical argument from last time that the brain is real, its circuits and chemistry determine how we think and how we feel.  This would sound like a no-brainer (pun intended) however, Christians, and in some ways the general public, don't really believe that.  They see the head as an empty tank holding this vapor (as Plato would see it) which we might call the soul.  The soul isn't based in electrical circuitry or chemistry, but purely on moral choices.

But the brain is real, physical and created by God as a masterpiece. Like I said last time, by the influence of the fall (and an atheists would say from genetic mutations) the brain isn't perfect but has flaws. The flaws can be in perception, processing and in emotional response.  There are two levels of perception, the physical and the cognitive.  The physical is made up of the senses; vision, hearing, touch and etc. The cognitive perceptions is how our brain interprets the physical perceptions or incoming data.  I honestly believe that most mental illness occurs in the cognitive perceptions of the incoming physical perceptions. A paranoid schizophrenic would see your eyes glancing somewhere else while they are talking to you as a deliberate insult in exactly the same way as if you had slapped them and walked away.  They mis-interpret reality in a way that can be so off that eventually they can loose all touch with reality.

So the way that God created the brain to work, when it comes to anxiety, is that we see, hear, touch and that information comes into the brain. The fundamental processing of that raw data occurs in the parts of the brain, which are responsible for the senses such as the occipital lobes process vision in-put.

That sensory input is then sent to the cognitive processing areas (for example the frontal lobe)  where the data is interpreted. Next, that re-packaged data is then reacted to via emotion, autonomic nervous system and integrated with memory. I know, all basic stuff.

I will add one more caveat.  The brain does have similarities to a computer but it is not identical.  For one, the brain is many times more complex than a supercomputer. They both use memory (the brain many times more) but there is a difference in how this memory is stored. In the brain, memory is store in a dynamic process of living tissue.  Neurons actually grow dendrites and axons to create bridges of memory in the brain while a computer (form what I know) it is a static process of electrical charge, huge numbers of 1s an 0s. The charge is present or not. I won't even mention quantum memory because that is totally different.

So if the brain's memory is biological and dynamic, what does that mean?  It means that the structure of a brain can change based on incoming data.  A computer's structure does not change.  I will come back to this when we talk about anxiety. The brain, like a PC, comes pre-loaded (at birth) with software.  But that software is fluid and will change with input.

Now back to anxiety.  So when data comes into the brain via the senses, then it is processed in the cognitive part and interpreted, it is sent to the proper part of the brain.  One complex system is the emotional one often represented by the limbic system. The Limbic System includes more familiar names of brain structure such as the thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus and amygala. These are responsible for how you feel on a very visceral and even subconsciousness level.

So if the cognitive part of the brain perceives the incoming data as threatening, it will send the signal to the limbic system in a way to initiate a fear response. Then fear or anxiety is preceived as an emotion. If that emotion is great enough, then the next step, the hypothalamus releases chemicals that go to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland in response releases chemicals which tell the adrenal glands to release epinephrine and cortisol.  This part of the system is what gives us superman type powers to either go catatonic, to put up a big fight or to run like the devil.

So, in the case of a lion approaching you, the senses bring into the brain that information.  The brain then cognitively processes the data and determines the threat level (think Homeland Security here).  If the lion rushes towards you, the brain kicks it to the next level.  The fear becomes acute. The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal glands (it is called the "axis") kicks in. The epinephrine (also know in laymen's terms as adrenalin).  When epinephrine enters the blood stream, it is like a bucket full of keys looking for the right locks. The locks are scattered throughout the body, in the airways, blood vessels, heart, eyes, skin, muscles and etc.  When the epinephrine keys hit those locks they do things such as; dilate blood vessels to the muscles and lungs and constrict those in the digestive tract, they cause the airways to dilate to allow in more oxygen, they open the pupils so you can see better and they make the muscles more jumpy and ready to act.  So all of these things turns you into a type of "Incredible Hulk" where you are transformed into a super version of yourself.  When this happens and you are in front of a crowd speaking, or like B on a school bus, it is called a "panic attack."

So nothing I've said should amaze anyone as they've heard this since middle school biology.  But you can see the gift of this system.  God designed it to keep us safe.  The anxiety causes us to avoid the places where the lion sleeps. The ramped up systems allows us to either fall down and play possum, fight back or run for escape. It is truly a wonderful gift.

But I want to next talk about how errors in different parts of this system causes us to suffer from over anxiety or panic attacks. I want to look deeply at why these things happen, why it is a good thing and why the sufferer should not be ashamed.  Those Christians who have never suffered from anxiety love to use the lack of anxiety as proof of someone's faith or spirituality.  It puffs them up. But Satan's work in this world is to accuse, tell you that you are unclean.  That's how he ruins our lives.

More later.  Is anyone still out there?  Should I continue?