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  • Writer's pictureCandy Widdifield

Dear Candy Q & A: The Science Behind Brain Function During Chronic Conditions

Candy Widdifield

Jun 13, 2022

7 min read


Last post I stated I would offer a brief recap to help promote our understanding of what is happening in the brain that results in chronic conditions. For the purpose of our discussion here, I am going to focus on Gupta's explanation (while adding my own bits and pieces) simply because I find it to be more comprehensive than the DNRS version, although the basic premise is still the same.


How do these conditions start? There are three categories of precipitating factors that lead to an overstimulated and over-responsive limbic system:

  1. Predisposing Factors such as genetic expression & upbringing, including early childhood experiences

  2. Acute Stress experiences leading up to the condition, which could be physical, emotional, psychological or biological stressors, or a combination thereof

  3. Viral, bacterial, or other triggers (such as food poisoning in the case of IBS; mono, Epstein Barr virus, or another virus in the case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; injury, accident or localized pain in the case of Fibromyalgia; or exposure to strong chemicals, mould, or EMFs.)

It is a combination of these factors that lead to a trauma in the brain that affects the insula, amygdala and hippocampus, among other brain structures (the amygdala is our fight or flight center, and is also involved in immune and pain responses. The insula takes in all incoming sensory data from the body, processes it and triggers the appropriate response in the nervous and immune systems. It is also involved in managing pain signals. The hippocampus is our memory storage and retrieval center. Other centers involved include the anterior cingulate, which chooses where we focus our attention & plays a role in mood regulation; the thalamus, which brings together all our senses; the hypothalamus, which regulates our autonomic nervous system; and the prefrontal cortex, which we will discuss later on.) As a result of these brain structures being affected by the combination of precipitating factors (or perfect storm), the brain learns to become over-defensive, hypersensitive, and our short term memory retrieval and perspectives can be altered. This all happens below our conscious awareness.


This learning becomes a conditioned response in the brain and as a result our brain sends signals to the nervous system to be in a state of chronic sympathetic arousal (or stuck in fight or flight). The brain overgeneralizes stimuli or input that suggests the presence of danger. This affects our immune system, resulting in mast cell activation, oxidative stress & abnormalities in the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis (HPA axis). Any external stress we experience also feeds into this conditioned response. In simpler terms, the brain is the control center for the immune and nervous systems and our brain tells our nervous system and immune system what to do through the amygdala, hypothalamus and insula. Because of the now conditioned response, the brain perceives threats where there is none and keeps signalling the nervous system and immune systems to continually respond to danger.


It is the over-responding of our nervous & immune systems that causes the symptoms we experience. When we have a cold or flu, the symptoms we experience are caused by our own defences, not by the actual cold or flu itself. It is the same in these chronic conditions - it is our own defences being overstimulated that cause the symptoms (and it is the calming of these defences that alleviate our symptoms, which is what we are doing when we re-train the brain). The exact presentation of symptoms may differ from one person to the next as some of the defence responses may be unique to each person.


The chronic state of overarousal in our system can also lead to secondary illnesses because our body cannot repair when in a state of chronic hyperarousal. Secondary illnesses include (but are not limited to) adrenal exhaustion, allergies & sensitivities, mitochondrial dysfunction, brain inflammation, & vagus nerve abnormalities. Sleep rhythms are affected, leading to more exhaustion, increased inflammation, decreasing our cognitive function, and in some cases more physical pain.


The brain becomes sensitized to the presence of symptoms in the body, and the continual detection of these symptoms in the sensory thalamus and cortex parts of the brain signal the amygdala and insula to keep the stress response going. This becomes a vicious cycle where the brain signals the body of danger, the body responds with symptoms which then signals back up to the brain to confirm the danger, and so on.


Our thoughts and feelings also play a role in this, as when there are symptoms we may have feelings of worry or concern and tend to dwell on the symptoms. This signals the brain through our conscious mind that there is something to be concerned about, which then also triggers the amygdala and insula to perpetuate the stress response. Over time we become more sensitive to people, events, tasks and situations, leading to a hyper sensitization (otherwise known as central sensitivity). This makes it even easier for the stress and danger signals to go off in our brain and has a greater effect on the body.

Over time, as a result of the constant cascade of stress chemicals in the brain and body, our frontal lobes and hippocampus can shrink, and blood flow to the brain is decreased. This can result in having a hard time recalling memories, thinking becomes fuzzy, we might struggle with seeing the bigger picture perspective or making decisions. The body can no longer respond to stressful situations because it is running on empty, our detoxification and digestive systems don't work properly because they are non-essential systems when there is a danger (or perceived danger) present and we have to fight or flee for survival. This results in a temporary increase in toxicity in the body (until we rewire the brain). The constant overstimulation also results in less serotonin and dopamine in the brain, making it harder to feel happy, relaxed and positive. The conditioned response in the brain ultimately affects every single cell and organ in the body, affects our emotional state & thinking, and leads to more expressions of illnesses and symptoms in various ways.


What we want to keep in mind here is that all these symptoms and secondary illnesses that may develop are a result of the way the brain is operating. It is a problem with the software, not the hardware itself, meaning that there is nothing wrong with the actual organs, cells, or the structure of the brain itself. The problem is with the function of the brain and the signals it is sending through the nervous and immune systems to the organs and cells of the body. Thankfully, we can change the function of the brain. Equally as wonderful is that we can thicken our prefrontal cortex and insula, and regrow our hippocampus back to regular size and function through brain retraining and calming the nervous system. The hippocampus is actually one of the parts of the brain that regenerates the quickest, which is why our thinking becomes clearer and our memory starts to work better usually earlier on in the retraining process. As the insula becomes thicker and larger, we are able to process information better and take a more rational perspective. The prefrontal cortex, the most evolved part of our brain, intelligently regulates our thoughts, actions and emotions. It influences our attention, impulse inhibition, and promotes both cognitive and behavioural flexibility to be able to respond to a changing environment. It is involved in personality expression, decision making, being the curious observer of self, making evaluations and gaining insight, moderating social behaviour, planning complex cognitive behaviour, and executive functioning. The prefrontal cortex has extensive connections to other parts of the brain and is designed to be the control center from which we are meant to operate. With this understanding of the prefrontal cortex, it is easy to see how our thinking, behaviour, and perspectives can become a little distorted with these conditions, and how people start to "feel like themselves" again as the prefrontal cortex thickens and comes back online.


To see a diagram of Gupta's explanation, which he calls the Amygdala/Insula Hypothesis, click here (you will have to scroll down till you see the diagram, as there is a lot of other information on the page).


So, how does brain retraining change this dynamic of over-activation of the stress response and defence mechanisms, and ultimately change our brain function?

In order to get our brain out of the vicious cycle or trauma loop, we need to manually go in and override the habituated (or unconscious automatic) response. We need to do this repeatedly for a period of time. We do this by doing the brain retraining rounds, meditating, and elevating our emotional state. To stop further activation of the loop, we also cultivate our curious observer to catch automatic negative thoughts, feelings and focusing on symptoms, and when we catch them we actively redirect our brains. When we fully engage our mind in something stimulating, distracting and enjoyable, the danger and worry signals can't get through. The brain then concludes that you aren't in danger anymore and as a result shuts off the stress response and sends different signals to your nervous system and immune system. This results in symptoms & inflammation decreasing and your brain deciding that you are okay/safe. As our symptoms/inflammation decrease, the body is no longer signalling back to the brain that we are in survival. As our thoughts and emotions change, they are also signalling to the brain that all is well. Our nervous system can then come out of a stress response and go back into the "rest, digest and socially connect" state that we were designed to live in as our baseline. Our immune system increases and our cells and organs of our bodies get the resources required to go back to normal functioning. Our prefrontal cortex takes back control of our brain rather than letting the limbic system run the show. When we are in this regulated state, the stress response only turns on in the event of a real threat, and turns back off when the threat has passed. We have both the psychological and nervous system flexibility to be resilient in our lives. As a result, our wellbeing increases.


Hopefully this explanation helps to enhance your understanding that all of these chronic conditions (regardless of their specific expression) originate in the brain and that brain retraining is key to optimal health & wellbeing.


Until next time!


If you have a question, please email me at dearcandyquestions@gmail.com

 

Candy Widdifield is Registered Clinical Counsellor, Wellness Coach, and Registered Reiki Master Teacher in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. She has a background in nervous system regulation, trauma, grief & loss, mindfulness, & positive psychology. She taught the DNRS in-person program for 5 years, has over a decade of experience coaching brain re-trainers & provides mentorship to other coaches. Candy works with people all over the world, helping them to optimize their wellbeing and thrive in their lives. More information about Candy can be found at www.candywiddifield.com

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