You Are Not Alone, A Different View: Altering the Biochemistry of Stress

A Different View of “You Are Not Alone”: Altering the Biochemistry of Stress

“Out of control” and “alone” are universal states that are provoked by the challenge to conceive and carry a baby to term. No doubt you’ve been shocked to watch your peers float down the river of fertility, while you find yourself in the tributary of infertility, floating helplessly where you don’t want to go.

No need. While it’s a no-brainer that the only solution to this nightmare is bringing that baby home, the agony of infertility can be mitigated. And for now, that’s as good as it gets—and—it is a lot!

2015-blog-challenge-badgeSure, alone usually means apart from others and Resolve™ wisely created this opportunity to connect, which can go a long way to “soothing the savage breast,” as Shakespeare would have said. (www.resolve.org) But—and it’s a big but—alone can also be looked upon as apart from yourself. In fact, the stress of infertility is so gigantic that while your body may be walking the earth, it’s likely that your mind is touring the solar system. This mind/body disconnect is an impediment to your well-being, intensifying the feelings of being out of control and alone. Research supportsithis and research also supports the correlation between meditative practices and rates of conceptionii, in addition to increased pregnancy rates as a result of hypnosis.iii

I’d like to suggest that you reframe “alone” in order that you can get to feel empowered to reconnect mind and body so that you are not apart from you! Here is the science behind WHY this can really matter:

As reported recently in the New York Timesiv, there is a so-called “bliss molecule” that is like a natural marijuana, which is produced by a genetic mutation in the brain. Those who have less of the enzyme called FAAH have more of the bliss molecule, anandamide, rendering them less anxious and more able to metabolize fearful and unpleasant experiences. In most of us FAAH deactivates anandamide, the bliss molecule, and conversely, people with the FAAH mutation have an increase in anandamide. This results in a stronger connection between their prefrontal cortex (the executive control center) and their amygdala (the organ in the limbic system of the brain which processes fear).

The good news is that you need not be born with this genetic mutation in order to titrate stress. Biology does not call all the shots. Far from it. The environment you create by building a stronger connection between your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala can, with practice, trump genetics. You can build a stronger connection between your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala without the bliss molecule and without pharmacological intervention.

This is yet another piece of research which dovetails with cutting edge brain science that says that we can use our minds to change our brains. Said another way, if we decide to use our prefrontal cortex to create an environment that faces anxiety deliberately with mind/body meditative techniques, then we can provoke an increase in anadamide or the production of GABA both chemicals of which bind to the same site as anti-anxiety drugs. We can use our minds to increase the flow of these two natural anti-anxiety “drugs” which then allow an anxious mind and body to reconnect. You will feel better because physiologically you will no longer be “apart” from yourself.

To clarify even further, picture this:

  • The brain stem controls all of the autonomic functions like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. While these functions are involuntary, we can volunteer to focus on breathing with consciousness, thus taking advantage of the breath as a built-in tranquilizer. To simplify, let’s call the brain stem “the body.”
  • The prefrontal cortex among many other things, controls awareness of our environment and of ourselves. To greatly simplify, let’s call the prefrontal cortex “the mind.” We can use our mind to imagine ourselves in a place of serenity or hold serene thoughts in mind.
  • The limbic system, which processes fear (read: anxiety), is an internal organ system that only knows what the brain stem and the prefrontal cortex tells it. If the brain stem is breathing long, slow, deep—the limbic system says, “I guess I’m safe; I can relax.” If the prefrontal cortex is imagining relaxing on a beach or in a garden, the limbic system does not know that we are not where we imagine ourselves to be. In other words, it assumes we are at the beach. The combination of the impact of the brain stem (breathing consciously) and the prefrontal cortex (focusing attention on something pleasant) allows the limbic system to break the spasm of stress!

As you well know, infertility does a bang-up job of ramping up the normal anxiety of living on planet earth. Here is one exercise of many in which you can learn HOW to reunite your mind and your body for empowerment and relief.

The Relaxation Response™ is a simple approach to stress reduction. All it takes is a decision and a purposeful determination to coordinate the breath (the built-in tranquilizer that calms the amygdala) by saying a pleasant word or affirmative phrase mentally (using the mind to impact the amygdala). A word (like peace, or love, or a word from nature like sunset) is repeated over and over, to yourself, each time you exhale. A phrase, (such as “I am … at peace”, or, “I can … make it through”) is repeated half on the inhalation and half on the exhalation. You will be likely to lose your place. Let it go, and start again. That’s it!

You can try it now and experience yourself back in control—not of being on the fertility quest but of how you’re on it. On a scale from zero to ten, zero being totally relaxed and ten being totally crazed, identify what state you are in. Then select a word or phrase (or even a phrase from a prayer). Close your eyes and take a deep cleansing breath and then rest in the natural rhythm of your breathing. Begin to coordinate the word or phrase you’ve chosen with your breath. While this is recommended for ten to twenty minutes per day, I regularly see this be effective in one minute when I teach my stress reduction classes!

Do the Relaxation Response with your partner or with a support group and you are not alone in the more traditional sense of the word. And most important, the stresses of infertility can be managed so that your mind does not lose contact with your body.
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iA.D. Domar, P.C. Zuttermeister, R. Friedman, “The Psychological Impact of Infertility: A Comparison with Patients with Other Medical Conditions,” Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, 14, sup (1993):45 – 52.

iiNathalie Rappoport-Hubschman, et al., “Letting Go Coping is Associated with successful IVF Treatment Outcome,” Fertility & Sterility 92, 4 (2009): 1384 – 1388.

iiiEliahu Levitas, et al., “Impact of Hypnosis During Embryo Transfer on the Outcome of In Vitro Fertilization—Embryo Transfer: A Case Control Study,” Fertility & Sterility 85, 5 (2006): 1404 – 1408.

ivRichard A. Friedman, “The Feel Good Gene,” New York Times, opinion page, Sunday, March 8, 2015.

Helen Adrienne, LCSW, BCD
April, 2015

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