Playback speed
Share post
Share post at current time

Part 14a: The Four Horsemen of the Autonomic Apocalypse: (Part One)

How Anxiety, Depression, Addiction, and Compulsion Can Team Up to Wreak Havoc in Our Lives. (20 Minutes)

Relevant Links for this Video:

In Part Three of “The Four Horsemen of the Autonomic Apocalypse”, we go in depth on the topic of what to do about the cycles of depression and anxiety that often underlies addictions and compulsions.

In addition to Parts One and Two, it is helpful to first watch the videos listed below as each are mentioned in this series. A good understanding of these videos will help you get even more from the present series:

Video Transcript


This is my newest video that covers the cycle of depression, how we can get stuck in it, how and why it can become “treatment resistant”. There's a big picture here that we want to look at that a lot of times we only see a few pieces at a time. And if we don't see the big picture, it's going to be difficult to treat everything that needs to be treated in order to turn it around. So I'm going to share a presentation on my screen so we can go through it one step at a time. Some of you may have seen this first slide here. This is good stress, and stress gets a bad rep because stress is not a problem. Stress helps us survive things that are very uncomfortable or maybe even difficult to survive, and it triggers our survival instinct. And there are several things that happen when we get that stress response going. It's called the sympathetic response because it's part of the sympathetic nervous system. Nervous system, which is part of the autonomic nervous system, which is inside the central nervous system.


So, the sympathetic nervous system is the one that triggers the fight-or-flight-stress response, or also known as survival mode. And what's supposed to happen is when we encounter a challenge or a threat that's sufficiently uncomfortable, it will trigger that response. And when the stress response is triggered, all our energy is devoted into, channeled into that response and out of other systems that are not necessary at the time, such as digestive system or immune system or reproductive system or a lot of unnecessary systems, including the thinking brain, because the instinctive brain takes over and this one works a lot faster than the thinking brain. And so all our energy is channeled into survival mode. And when we overcome the challenge, we're supposed to have a parasympathetic reset or a healthy relaxation response, which is a return to the normal baseline of comfort and relaxation so that all of our other systems can come back online, and that energy can be devoted evenly amongst all the systems. As a way of giving an example, you may be aware of a couple that has been stressed out because they want to get pregnant. And so they try and they try and they try.


Nothing and so they go to the doctor, they take fertility treatments, and still don't get pregnant. Finally, they just give up and they adopt someone, adopt a child, and then they relax. Nine months later, they got pregnant. So, this can be a function of overactive stress response and trying too hard. That's just an example of what can happen. Another example is when our immune system is powered down, opportunistic germs and diseases can take over, take the opportunity to strike, and so forth. So, it's not good to be in the stress response frequently, such as when we have chronic stress. Chronic stress looks like this. There's a challenge or a threat, we rise to the challenge. Maybe we meet that challenge, we begin to relax, but we have an inadequate relaxation response, so we don't get a full parasympathetic reset. We don't get out of the sympathetic nervous system and into the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the one where we can have that homeostatic balance that comes with all the other systems coming back online. Now, the reason we have inadequate relaxation sometimes is because maybe stressors are coming too fast and too furious and there's a lot of things on our plate.


And so we don't have time for the full reset or we don't take time for the full reset, or maybe we just have trouble getting a full reset because we already have some depression or anxiety or other issues going on. And if we have addictions and compulsions, then those can cause this staircase effect that we see here on the screen right now. And the staircase effect causes our survival mode to go into hyper-arousal, which is where we end up in fight or flight mode and that gets worse, and we can't continue that forever. So, we get to the top of the staircase and then we'll crash and burn, fall off the top and crash down into the bottom. Now, that feels like or looks like a parasympathetic reset, but it's not. It's a collapse into the depression side of the cycle. We'll see how that works here in a moment. But then sufficient to say we're not supposed to be outrunning a tiger 24-7. Maybe once in a while we have a trigger that puts us in this survival instinct, then we encounter the stress, overcome it, and have that healthy, parasympathetic reset. Again, creating that homeostatic balance internally where all the other systems, including our thinking brain and our immune system and everything else comes back online and powers back up.


So, there's this visual that I like to use for exploring where are we on that autonomic ladder, if you will. So there's three sections here. The red zone is hyperarousal. That's when the sympathetic stress response gets triggered. And the more triggered it becomes and the more we're on the staircase, we become overwhelmed, in difficulty thinking, or thinking becomes rigid or chaotic, one or the other. And then we have anxious, panicky, flight reactivity, or angry and critical fight reactivity. And you'll notice that the last bullet point is bolded because it's probably the most important. In the red zone, we cannot learn anything new because even the prefrontal lobes are powered down and that energy is diverted into the instinctive part of our brain. When we fall off the top of that staircase and we crash and burn into the blue zone down there, that's called hypo-arousal. That's where we have too little arousal. It's just the nervous system saying, I can't take it anymore, and just shuts down. So, we withdraw from others, we isolate, we have poor contact. We may not even want to leave a dark room if it gets bad enough and we numb our feelings either by cutting them off emotionally or by using something to help numb them, like eating or drinking or smoking or something else.


We have limited awareness of our sensations because we're not tuned into our body. We're not liking that shutdown. And the shutdown may get so difficult that we become unable to mobilize any resources at all. You'll notice too, the last bullet point on hypo-arousal is the same. There's no new learning that can take place there. So, what we want to do is get into that green zone, and you may have heard it called the window of tolerance. This is where change can take place. And look at the last bullet point here. New learning can take place when we get into this window of tolerance or in this green zone. And that is the parasympathetic reset that we're looking for. The parasympathetic relaxation response is activated so we can experience the full range of human emotions in this green zone. So this is not necessarily about being happy, joyous, and free. It's also about being able to grieve or do some other functional discomfort with the help of others. We're giving and receiving love. Let's say we're in a group of people who are trying to do something or someone important to us and a group of us get together and we support each other through that.


But the key here is that we can function on the full range of human emotions and not get into hyper or hypo-arousal. And so, then our mind is calm, it's alert, it's flexible, it's adaptable, even if we're in the grief process and especially if we're in the euphoric end of the scale. So we're able and willing to connect with others, new learning can take place. Now you'll also notice there are two yellow zones here, and if I'm in the green zone, then I want to pay attention if I start sliding into the yellow zone above or the yellow zone below. The one above is mild symptoms of hyper-arousal, and I want to take action there, and we'll talk about that later after we look at this cycle of depression coming up. The yellow zone into the blue zone shows mild symptoms of hypo-arousal. You can have mild, moderate, or severe symptoms of either. And the worse it is, the more difficult it is to pull out of it. So let's look now at the cycle of depression. If you start down here at number one where you see the depressive thinking styles, those depressive thinking styles will generate feelings of hopelessness, maybe even helplessness or worthlessness.


Those three sensations create anxiety, and that anxiety trips the trigger for the survival instinct at some point. And then when that happens, then the subconscious or the conscious mind begins to wonder, what’s going on? What do I need to do about it? And then what action should I take so I can close that loop? And that's the way we are. We encounter a threat, and we want to devise a way to cope with it, then we want to implement that and hopefully close the loop. Now, there are a lot of loops that can't be closed. Let's say that it's about some financial situation I can't take care of right away or some relationship problem and whatever it is, it triggers my core beliefs that come from a wounded childhood. If you looked at the iceberg lecture, you'll see how abandonment, shame, and contempt can cause these depressive core beliefs, and those begin to go round and round when they're triggered or when I'm triggered, and I start ruminating on them. That's what number two is. It's about ruminating on the negative, which is emotionally arousing, and it starts that ascent into the hyper-arousal after a while.


Have you ever wondered, why do we step into the negative thoughts and just chew on them and stew on them and go over and over and over again, making them over and over again? Making them worse because every time we fire off those neural transmitters in that loop, then it gets stronger because neurons, they fire together, wire together. We'll look at that too at some other point. But why do we do that? We step into the negative and we don't chew and stew on the positive. We don't re-experience it over and over and over again. We don't do that, which would create that green zone in us. Instead we do the opposite. Why do we do that? Because the depressive thinking style trips the trigger for the sympathetic stress response. And when that happens, the survival mode — the instinctive part of the brain is ruminating to try and figure out what to do. And like I said, a lot of these loops cannot be closed, so it keeps going and looping and trying to fix it. And we go to sleep at night with these open loops, things that make us feel hopeless or helpless or worthless or worthless even, maybe triggered from childhood abandonment issues or relationship problems or a toxic relationship, things that seem hopeless to us.


And when we're dwelling on those and ruminating on those and suing and choosing on those when we go to sleep, the subconscious mind takes over after we go to sleep. It starts setting up these metaphorical scenarios to try and close the open loops for us while we're sleeping because the subconscious mind works at night when we're sleeping. It grows our hair, our skin, it heals our body. It's supposed to help us recuperate, regather energy, and do our system maintenance overnight. it's trying to do all that, but it's also trying to close these emotionally uncomfortable, open loops by creating these metaphorical scenarios we call dreams. And those dreams are maybe weird sometimes, but the subconscious mind uses images or pictures or TV shows that we watched or books that we read or personal history even to put a scenario together, a symbolic scenario together. So, it's trying to find ways to close that open loop, but they can't be closed. Not until those core beliefs or limiting beliefs or depressive beliefs until they are healed, and they keep open. And so then there's a lot of over-stimulation, stress hormones being dumped into the system rather than recuperation and healing and so forth, and cortisol, adrenaline, and all of that lowers all the other systems that are unnecessary, such as the immune system again, and the thinking brain, and the digestive system.


Even if we are on a diet, we can't lose weight like this because that digestive system and the metabolism isn't as stoked up to where it should be so we can actually benefit from healthy living. With all that going on, the subconscious mind is working its tail off all night long and it's got no luck in closing a lot of those open loops and so we wake up tired and exhausted in the morning. Even if we got seven or eight hours of sleep, it was not restful sleep. So, then we have more loops that we go through. We go through impaired motivation because if we go through one night after another like this, then we start to have lethargy or apathy or lack of motivation. We don't want to engage in life and so we don't have as many pleasant experiences. We can't enjoy the enjoyable moments. And this then reduces our serotonin levels, which lowers our immune system, increases sensitivity to pain, and makes our sleep even worse. And so then we go around and around and around in loop number three here. And eventually we get frustrated, and the angry part comes out and we have trouble in our relationships.


We might be grouchy, we might be withdrawn, we might be sullen or sulking, or life is not good and we don't feel like exercising. We don't even have any goals, or we can't pursue those goals because they just don't matter. Everything's pretty hopeless by now. So, this is what it looks like when we're going through that cycle of depression. We have depressive thinking, which triggers the emotionally arousing, rumination, chewing, and stewing on things. And that continues even in our sleep, causing even more depletion, which causes us to wake up tired by morning and exhausted, feeling loopy. And that triggers the fight-or-flight response. So we go to the doctor and we say we're anxious, we're depressed, we can't sleep, everything is terrible, and he gives us some SSRIs or selected serotonin reuptake inhibitors to balance our serotonin levels. And that's important, but it's not the answer fully for this cycle, because if we take the medicine, it might lift us up out of the emotional basement, but it won't address the depressive thinking style, and it won't make the rumination go away, and it won't fix the past. And so we keep going around and around, and then the medicine doesn't work the way we want it to, so we get even more frustrated and angry.


And then when it gets more and more out of control, the inner critic comes on board. And it's got the Book of Sheds there and it says, We should do this. We should do that. What's wrong with you? Why don't you do this? And the inner critic starts beating up on the depressive thinker, which makes it worse. And so now that what I call the little professor with the question mark over there, he's got his job cut out for him because things are getting out of control, and he's got to figure out some way to hold all this together. And so he comes up with these things: smoking, drinking, drugging, gambling, sexing, working, video gaming, anything that takes me out of that loop so we can have a reprieve or some a lifting. We get into these addictive or compulsive behaviors, and they seem to be the only thing that helps. Without them, life is hopeless and worthless. It's not even worth living. So then the inner critic gets even more involved because, well, let me give you an example. Let's say we want to go on a diet. The inner critic says, we’re going on a diet.


We're going to live healthily. Losing weight is going to help us feel better and so forth. And so, it wants to go on a diet. But the kid in the candy store on the other side wants to eat everything in the pantry. We're all familiar with that struggle between the short term and I want to eat everything in the pantry and the long term, I want to fit my clothes and feel better. And so, when the addictions and compulsion start, the inner critic gets even more forceful and guilt-tripping and controlling and beating myself up. So then because it's a threat against the only things that seem to help, that little professor over there has to figure out a way to protect those things. So, he generates a king baby, which I call the kid in the candy store without parental supervision. And it's the one that protects with mental gymnastics my ability to continue to drink or smoke or do Coke or gamble or work all the time or whatever it might be, anything that makes me feel better. A wall of denial is put in place to protect that from the inner critic and from the other parts that know it's not helpful.


And so it may work really well for a while, but then because it's an unhealthy coping style, then more negativity comes into my life. I get DUIs, or I spend all my money, or I have self-esteem issue or broken relationships, and now the loop gets worse.

[End Part One]

This is the end of part one. I hope it lays out the problem in a way that's easily digestible. You can go back and watch the video a few times and then prepare to go on to part two, don't stop at the end of part one because part two is what do we do about this? How do we get out of this cycle? How do we change it? Thanks for watching and I'll see you in the next video.

Internet of the Mind Podcast
Featured Videos
The videos and lessons in this area have part numbers (Part 1, etc) so you can tell the order to watch them. These are the foundational courses and one lesson builds upon the previous lesson. They are meant to be studied, not just watched one time.
Remember the need for intensity and repetition. When you have seen these videos enough times to almost be able to present the information yourself, the Internet of Your Mind will have been transformed for the better as you get to know your True Self
Don Carter MSW, LCSW