The Origin of Disease & the Mechanics of Thriving
Below is an explanation of my understanding of how suffering and dis-ease happen and how we can work to heal, restore, replenish and thrive. This is not an internet “soundbite” article. It will cover a lot and may be worth re-reading. Health cultivation is both easy and hard. It requires commitment and investment and provides the most rewarding dividends. I encourage you to invest in reading this article, which is relevant to anyone who suffers and for anyone who wants to optimize and enhance their life. What follows is not just about “trauma” and how to recover from obviously traumatic past experience and it is not just about severe mental illness. The mechanisms of healing from past wounds or chronic mental illness are the same as they are for optimizing high functioning nervous systems and living a #wholehearted life by design.
Most people spend the majority of their time in states of “survival” that, ironically, ultimately cost them their life, or at least the life that they want.
The nervous system has 2 modes: surviving mode and thriving mode. There is no neutral.
Our surviving mode can be turned on for 2 different types of threats: actual or perceptual.
When our surviving mode is turned on due to actual threat then we are dealing with the present moment, with what is actually happening, in a manner that is appropriate to context. In surviving mode we have 3 ways of responding to actual threat:
Fight - and activating the related emotions of anger
Flight - and activating the related emotions of fear
Freeze - hiding, playing dead, numbing, checking out (dissociation) and activating the related emotions of “depression”
These are all effective and necessary ways of responding to actual threat and they activate automatically at a moment’s notice prior to our conscious awareness of danger - WE DON’T ACTUALLY CHOOSE TO ACTIVATE THESE SURVIVAL MECHANISMS. This is an important point to remember because when surviving mode gets “stuck on” the experiences we have of fear, anxiety, worry (flight); anger, frustration, criticism, resentment (fight); and hopelessness, helplessness, numbness, and dissociation (freeze) are not issues of morality, ethics or will. They are powerful neurobiological imperatives that humans have developed over millennia to ensure our survival. These modes were purposely evolved to happen prior to and without our conscious awareness in a split second. Thankfully, we also developed a prefrontal cortex that can step back, assess our situation after the fact, and decide to do things to turn off this automatic surviving mode in situations where it is not necessary and results in more harm than good.
All dis-ease - physical, “mental”, emotional, spiritual - begins and thrives in a nervous system that is stuck in surviving mode.
When our surviving mode is turned on due to perceptual threat we are not dealing with the present moment as it actually is, but are reacting to present moment stimuli filtered through perceptual lenses based on past conditioning, learning, and memory. This also happens automatically. This part of our brain doesn’t care about our happiness. It’s only job is to keep us alive. Therefore we have evolved to prioritize filtering our experience through the lens of safety first. This also happens prior to conscious awareness, instantly, in the deeper recesses of our mammalian and reptilian brains. However, our “human brain,” the seat of our conscious awareness, may want to have its cake and eat it to. We don’t just want to survive. We want to thrive, love, embrace, write poetry, sing songs, taste fine foods, be #wholehearted. So, we need to learn to purposefully override the ingrained neurobiological tendency to remain in surviving mode.
Most people don’t know this. We need to CHOOSE to be happy. And if surviving mode has been stuck on for a long time, which is often the case, we can actually become “addicted” to the neurobiological stew surviving mode produces and the body can ironically be threatened even by positive change because it deprives our system of the surviving mode fuel it has grown accustomed to.
Regardless of why our surviving mode is turned on it is “expensive” to do so. In the case of actual threat, the cost is worth it because these biological resources save our lives. This is the proverbial energy that enables a mother to lift a car off her child. But even if the cause is worthy, if surviving mode is turned on too often it will eventually deplete us and cause wear and tear: body, mind and spirit.
If surviving mode is turned on frequently for actual or perceptual reasons it can become “sensitized” or habitual: meaning it begins to be turned on more easily for a wider range of reasons, even to the point where it can become “stuck on” for no apparent reason most or all of the time - hence, generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, depression, PTSD, bi-polar disorder, psychosis, impulsivity, anger, insomnia, poor immune functioning, lack of satisfaction, inability to enjoy things, excessive worry, chronic fatigue, hyper-vigilance, impending sense of doom, difficulty focusing on what we want to focus on, hyper-focusing on what we don’t want to focus on, and the list goes on and on. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said nervous systems stuck in survival mode are the origin of ALL disease. Surviving mode can become our standard operational norm and the survival ways of thinking, feeling and acting become the perceptual lens through which we continue to filter present moment stimuli, leading to a vicious cycle of thinking and feeling in a way that justifies our experience, and experiencing in a way that justifies our thinking and feeling.
FIGHT - If our perceptual lens is geared towards anger due to past conditions then we will interpret the present through this lens and perhaps react to the person who cuts us off in traffic as if they were purposefully causing us harm. We may then speed up to try get next to them to give them the finger, but when we do we not only go too fast but we also cross a double yellow line that we didn’t notice because our thinking, rational brain was turned off (so that we can fight without having to think about it) and we were hyper-focused on the object of our perceptual threat. Due to our tunnel vision, we also didn’t see the police officer on the side of the rode who immediately puts on his lights and pulls us over. “Great,” we think as we curse under our breath, “the world is really out to get me to today” - a bitter thought, that confirms our perceptual bias that life is deserving of our anger.
FLIGHT - As the police officer approaches, our anger starts to turn to panic - perhaps because our history as a person of color has contributed to our learning that routine traffic stops can be dangerous. We have no idea that this police officer happens to be a really nice guy, who’s racial bias is pretty in check and he has a long history of being fair and reasonable. But because of the past we start sweating and breathing hard and fast. No matter how much we tell ourselves to calm down we can’t. Our physiological reactions are beyond our conscious control. We start to feel light-headed and worry if we might be having a heart attack. The police officer, now at our window, can see that something is wrong and starts to wonder if we are on drugs. He asks us to step out of the car and is calling for backup. As back up arrives there’s a rookie cop on call who’s not so reasonable as the original officer. From the moment he arrives on scene he’s got his gun pulled and we have another very valid experience to justify our perceptual bias of fear.
FREEZE - As soon as we see the revolver and notice we are surrounded by cops and flashing lights, the next thing we notice is that we feel very dizzy and nauseous. Next thing we know we wake up on the ground and hear the officer calling for an ambulance. The officers are now convinced we are on drugs. Once the ambulance clears us medically, apparently diagnosed as “just fainting”, we are arrested and brought to jail on the presumption that we were on drugs and for reckless driving. Thankfully we are bailed out right away by a loving relative and since we don’t have an arrest record and get a clean drug panel the serious charges are dropped. But we still have some big fines and court fees to deal with, and our boss doesn’t take kindly to our missing work without proper notification. We wake the next day feeling super depressed: heavy, lethargic, sad, and numb and can’t muster the energy to get up for work. Two missed days in a row will likely result in being fired. The world seems overwhelming and hopeless and our perceptual bias towards depression is confirmed as a valid reaction to life.
The surviving mode being turned on too much, too often or all the time is the origin of all suffering as well as physical, mental, and emotional dis-ease. No exaggeration. When surviving mode becomes habituated to turn on or stay on when there is no actual, present moment threat, it is like keeping your car in neutral in the driveway with a brick on the gas pedal…. Eventually, with the RPM’s revving all the time, even though the car isn’t going anywhere it is going to break down.
Whether surviving mode is turned on for actual or perceptual reasons it: turns off the rational, thinking, creative part of the brain (so we don’t waste time planning our escape, we just ESCAPE!). It also diverts energy away from immune system functions, away from normal growth processes, and away from the nervous system activation required to experience enjoyment, pleasure, creativity and rational thought. Again, this may all be worth it because we need massive amounts of energy to fight or run for our lives. But, if surviving mode becomes habituated for any reason the short term loss of joy, pleasure, immune function, social connection and the accompanying states of suffering (anger, anxiety, depression) eventually lead to “diagnosable” mental and physical illness.
If we notice that we are habitually in surviving mode, that is usually because we are dealing with perceptual features overlaid on present moment stimuli and/or we are interpreting present moment stimuli as life threatening when it is actually not: i.e. worrying about a bill that may be important, but reacting to it neurobiologically as if it were a tiger about to pounce on us. We may find that we are regularly experiencing one of these states or vacillating between states of “fight” - anger, frustration, impatience, irritability, criticism, bitterness, resentment, hatred, rage; “flight” - fear, anxiety, panic, worry, nervousness, sense of impending doom; and/or, “freeze” - shutting down, apathy, numbness, lethargy, depression, suicidal ideation, lack of motivation, isolation, withdrawal, confusion, dissociation, psychosis.
All of these states not only have physiological components, they ARE physiological. There is NO DIFFERENCE between the “mind” and the “body.” Anger is clenched jaw, activated neck muscles, tight fists, increased heart rate, increased warmth, auditory and visual acuity, tightened abdomen, and adrenaline. Fear is jitters, shakiness, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, butterflies, lightheadedness, vertigo, muscle tension, adrenaline. Depression is heaviness, numbness, feeling frozen, shallow breath, weak heartbeat, lightheadedness, fatigue, faintness, and naturally occurring opiates. People stuck in these modes often end up with many doctors telling them it’s “all in your head” and being unable to explain various physical health complaints. Or they “fix” one medical problem after another with symptom driven medication only for another problem to arise shortly after, or the patient is told “you have a lifelong illness and you will always need to be on medication.” Sometimes these people try every health fad out there, spend tons of money on supplements, seek alternative therapies, and are always trying a new diet routine…all for naught. Psychopharmacology might keep things under wraps, but healing is unlikely and quality of life may be compromised. If surviving mode is stuck on, none of this will work.
Remember, this is the power that enables mom’s to lift cars off their kids. Supplements, diets, drugs aren’t going to do the trick. Nor, by the way will sex, drugs or rock and roll, a new car, a promotion, winning the lottery or the super bowl. Mother Nature is more powerful than any potential “fix.” Thankfully, by turning off surviving mode and turning on thriving mode we can work with Mother Nature and unleash healing and health naturally and automatically. More on that later.
If the examples are too extreme or pathological to relate to, consider also that you might be the type who relies on adrenaline-like energy to kick ass in the world, to get a lot done and be a huge success. Heart attacks don’t “just happen.” Breakdowns, burnout, and all manner of recognized diseases have been in the making for potentially decades before they are symptomatic.
It is my sincere hope that none of you are regularly in these states because of actual threat. If you are, please get yourself to safety and honor your instincts to fight, run away, or hide. But I know many of you are habitually in these states due to perceptual and habitual reasons. I know I because I see it everywhere. I am intimately aware of these states, and how to shift out of them into thriving mode, because I’ve had to: over and over and over again, for two decades now since I first began healing from my own perceptually driven states of anger (fight), anxiety (flight) and depression (freeze).
A multi-pronged approach is required once surviving mode becomes a habit. A habit is anything we do automatically without having to think about it. In this sense, a habit is “easy.” Creating new habits is not easy. Once we have determined that our various states of suffering stem from our surviving mode being stuck on most or all of the time, we can decide to make a new habit, and that takes work and effort… until we’ve switched from surviving mode to thriving mode enough times that it, too, then becomes easy and automatic (habit).
In thriving mode our nervous system allows for and seeks that which we truly desire: healing, health, growth, restoration, rejuvenation, vitality, creativity, intelligence, joy, love, kindness, connection, spirituality. Just like we don’t “try” to be in a state of panic when our surviving mode is turned on, we don’t have to “try” be healthy and happy when our thriving mode is turned on. It’s natural and spontaneous either way.
Please allow me to re-emphasize: our nervous system will NOT ALLOW access to any of these various types of enjoyment and/or health/healing if it does not FEEL safe regarding actual and/or perceptual threat. It is not a choice. It is not because we don’t want to engage with life in a more enjoyable way. It is not because we are lazy. It is not because we are bad. It is not because we are being punished. It is not because we are undeserving. It is not because we don’t love our partners. It is not because we are incompetent. It is not because any of the guilt/shame that people, society and/or ourselves lay on us. It is not because we are broken, not good enough, or lacking.
Our nervous system works perfectly well according to what it believes to be true: that there is danger about. If we can step back and assess that there is not, actually, present danger then we can begin the work of re-habituating the nervous system to remain in one of the 3 states of social engagement most, or all of the time when there is not an actual, present threat. This does not mean that if there is an actual threat we won’t be able to respond appropriately to it. The opposite is true. When we don’t habitually activate surviving mode for perceptual reasons then we have ample stores of energy to do what it takes to survive when we need to.
This work of re-habituating the nervous system is work. Even though all the experiences and benefits of thriving mode are obviously preferred, if we are used to surviving mode they won’t feel “natural” at first because it’s not habitual yet. Remember, it is the brain’s default to stay in surviving mode because it’s priority is survival not happiness. If we want to be happy, we need to override this tendency assuming we are actually safe. If suffering and dis-ease have become our habit that means it feels natural and normal. We take our experience for granted as “truth” and don’t recognize that our perceptions create our experience. We even begin to identify survival states as who we are, “I am anxious.” Approaching life in a different way will feel weird, foreign, unfamiliar, uncomfortable… unnatural, even… until it doesn’t. We can’t wait until we feel like it to start re-engaging thriving mode. We will never feel like it until we do it enough times to taste the benefits first hand and even then surviving mode will continue to re-assert its dominance until we have thriving momentum on our side.
As mentioned previously, one of the trickiest aspects of switching from surviving mode to thriving mode is that as we become identified with surviving mode as “just the way things are,” then we actually become neurobiologically addicted to the associated ways of thinking, feeling, acting, perceiving and experiencing of surviving mode. And, in one of the strangest ironies I know of, switching to thriving mode actually feels like a threat and triggers surviving mode because we have become so accustomed to the chemistry of surviving mode coursing through our every cell.
Our brain prefers the “familiar known” of the past because, again not caring about happiness, it knows we’ve “survived it.” The unknown future, even if we intellectually prefer or want it, represents a change in the neurobiological status quo and alarms the mechanisms in our nervous system that attempt to maintain homeostasis. You know this pattern colloquially as “self-sabotaging”. We continually revert back to thinking, feeling, acting, perceiving and experiencing in the same old ways. For better or worse, we are all “addicted” to our state of being, which is a 24/7 cocktail of hormones, neurotransmitters, blood chemistry, heart rate, organ activity, etc. Through deliberate, dedicated actions we can take charge of our nervous system and create a neurobiological state that actually serves us.
If we have been suffering, understanding the “why” beyond what you’ve understood in this articular about the mechanics, will not by itself enable us to switch into thriving mode. Understanding why things have come to be this way may even be completely unnecessary, and often the search for understanding becomes a fool’s errand that doesn’t produce the results we’re hoping for. Typically, I’ve found that “talking about”, “figuring it out” and searching for the “cause” of our suffering usually keeps us stuck: frustrated (fight) or frozen (hopeless), because it reactivates surviving mode.
It can however be very helpful to understand the mechanisms of our nervous system so that we can effectively work with, rather than against our nature. We need to rewire our nervous system and that is achieved through physiological processes and a 3-pronged approach of thinking, feeling and acting in new ways in order to “prune” the neural networks related to habitually enacting surviving mode and to “sprout” new neural networks that foster thriving mode.
When in thriving mode we have 3 ways of responding to present moment stimuli, all requiring a FELT, neurobiological sense of safety, which enables us to socially engage:
At rest - perhaps enjoying the simple pleasure of a beautiful sunset
Mobilized - play, competition, achievement (enabled by the same parts of our nervous system that have us fight and/or run away when in survival mode)
Immobilized - intimacy and the willingness to be still and vulnerable in the presence of other (the counterpart to “freeze”, but with the requirement of feeling safe).
When thriving mode is on we make good investments with our energy. By that I mean, whatever we put out, we get more back. We get good returns even when we spend a lot of energy. Take for example: a fun, engaging competition requires intense energy output, but it makes us stronger, faster, healthier, and happier.
Surviving mode produces wear and tear, while thriving mode restores and rejuvenates. There is no neutral. In thriving mode healing happens automatically and we have access to all the nervous system’s resources for everything human beings truly desire: connection, joy, creativity, health, achievement, spirituality, wisdom and love.
The majority of this explanatory piece has been about surviving mode, because most people seeking counsel benefit from recognizing their predicament in the explanation in order to inspire willingness to do what it takes to heal and thrive. This begins with a decision to focus a whole lot less on problems and a whole lot more on solutions because what we focus on grows, for better or for worse.
There are many effective modes of health cultivation that can help us thrive. My experience, study, passion and desire has led me to gather skills and resources to cultivate a practice of therapy based on a plethora of Neurobody Exercises and Personal Facilitation Tools delivered in the context of a safe, trustworthy, non-judgmental, patient and compassionate therapeutic relationship, in order to assist clients in becoming empowered to rewire their own nervous systems so that they can unleash all of the benefits of thriving mode.