The Lethal Cocktail of Fear with an Existential Crisis

3 October 2016

There is the long story and the short story. Out of respect for the lay-readership I’m going with the short version. (The reference at the end is a link to the long version for the so-inclined.)

The paradigm has shifted – your thoughts and feelings impact comprehensively on your immune system and other fundamental physiological functions. Your immune system in turn engages with your neurochemistry and profoundly influences your thoughts and feelings.

And so we recognize that fear and/or anger is associated with raised levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline which is useful if we’re being chased by a lion and we need to jump over a six foot wall! But if we’re not being chased by a lion, that persistently raised adrenaline-noradrenaline mix is going to increase the levels of our inflammatory mediators (pro-inflammatory cytokines) resulting in chronic inflammation. This is somewhat worrisome when one reviews the literature and notes that chronic inflammation is the precursor of cardiovascular disease (heart attacks, strokes and the like), neurodegenerative conditions such as Altzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease (including Lewy Body Dementia), Motor Neuron Disease and cancer.

Unfortunately the raised adrenaline-noradrenaline mix also suppresses our reasoning ability (pre-frontal cortex) as well as the stuff that mediates our reward centre (dopamine). That’s a bit of a bind since we need to reason our way out of this fight/flight victim zone, needing in addition the reward gratification to sustain the effort. One final little thorn in the side is that the reward centre and the fear-anger centre work in opposition to each other. So when the reward centre is compromised in terms of function, the fear-anger centre (amygdala) rages unchecked, producing copious amounts of the adrenaline-noradrenaline brew! And so the cycle is perpetuated.

But then comes the second whammy! Those multiple existential crises, or periods of hopeless-helplessness that we all experience at some points in life are associated with decreasing dopamine and serotonin levels which once again give rise to raised levels of inflammatory mediators. This is not a good thing because not only does it predispose to the ills mentioned above, but also because the inflammatory mediators diminish the availability of dopamine and serotonin resulting in ..... you guessed it, an aggravation of the mind state of hopless-helplessness! The lowered dopamine of course allows the fear-anger centre to rage unchecked with its own consequences.

Now when you’re in the thick of it, you can’t see the wood for the trees! You’re lost in neurochemical subjectivity. So what to do? Some suggestions:

1. Chill, breathe deeply and confirm that you're still alive and functional

2. Remind yourself of your blessings, achievements, talents and gratifying moments

3. Engage in a gratifying activity and then add ‘purposeful’ to the mix (pushes up dopamine)

4. Add regular exercise (pushes up dopamine and serotonin)

5. Connect with another person or people – talk, have coffee, hug, have sex. It all pushes up oxytocin levels which increase dopamine, decrease inflammatory mediators and calm the amygdala (lowers the adrenaline-noradrenaline brew)

If that doesn’t restore the balance, you may need to consult the professionals – psychiatrists (generally for a chemical fix unless you’re fortunate enough to come across one that will actually counsel you!), therapists – to get a handle on who you are, where you’ve come from and where you’re probably headed (change will be your prerogative), life-coaching – to strategize an action plan to take you to a better place.

If all else fails, eat chocolate!

Reference

http://www.pninet.com/articles/Memory.pdf

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