Contemplating that what “I Am”

In a previous blog we looked at how centring prayer helps one get “out of self”. This contemplative prayer or meditation is more than simply not being in self regulation. It is a deeper commune with what one is, beyond this self regulation.

Contemplation may be more profound than the training of attention on certain sensations or on the ephemeral nature of being.

Contemplation is an absolute attempt at giving up self, letting go completely so as to intermingle with some union with a cosmic force, higher power, divine life, God. It is a waiting for this to happen,  not to make it happen. It happens in God’s time not ours.

This is why this technique for me is more difficult that meditation as it requires that I let go completely and wait to receive Grace.  A free gift of Love.

For a control freak like me this takes time and effort and can be difficult. When it does occur it is as Thomas Merton describes so profoundly in this video, the most beautiful description of contemplation that I have come across. please take a moment to listen to his words of insight.

It is ultimately “being touched by God”.

 

Getting out of “self” via Prayer and meditation

When I first came into recovery I constantly heard the refrain about “getting out of self” – in fact steps 10-12 help one do so. Step 12, by helping others in recovery and step 11 which encourages prayer and mediation.

Can we get out of “self” by prayer and mediation? I will be dedicating a number of blogs to mediation so will just briefly consider prayer here.

In one study Franciscan nuns had their brains imaged via SPECT which looked at blood-flow in their brains while they were engaged in a type of mystic union called  ‘centring prayer’ which involves opening themselves to being in  the presence of God (and not in “self”).

In centring prayer the nuns had a “loss of usual forms of space  During prayer there was demonstrated increase in blood flow in the PFC inferior parietal and inferior frontal lobes  and a decreased flow in the superior parietal lobe, which is related to feelings of “self”.

Centering-prayer

I mention this type of meditation, also because it is a meditation/prayer that I do myself. Click here for more information on this wonderful prayer technique and how it is used by Fr Frank Keating and 12 step groups  –

I alternate with this and vispassana meditation

which also makes one feel like they are no longer in “self”, that the self is an ephemeral reality, always changing so not static, fixed – the self is thus an illusion in a sense as it is constantly changing. Regardless, of their different origins, both when practiced can transport one to a place seemingly beyond feelings of being in self. The self seems to blend into a widen sense of consciousness without parameters or boundaries such as limited by self.

In this state of being, one can view the fleeting images  of the self dispassionately, not being moved by them or reacting to them. Images of the self dissolve like into snow flakes in snow.

As we we will see in other blogs, meditation also reduces stress, improves neurotransmission in neurostransmitters effected by chronic addiction, e.g. GABA and strengthens neural regions of the brain that are very important to recovery.

The findings of these and other studies of prayer bear some similarity to studies in meditators such as on Tibetan Buddhist meditators (1) so I would not get hung up on the apparent religiosity  or non-religiosity of these ways of meditating. to me they achieve something very similar. It they work they Work!

The meditative and spiritual experiences are partly mediated through deactivation of the superior parietal lobe which normally helps to generate the normal sense of “self” (2)

Christianity_Jesus_meditating_golden_light

A  beautiful and enriching respite from self regulation and a profound sense of wholeness, and connection with something beyond self whatever that being beyond self is.  Therapeutically we have to somehow move beyond a reactionary self to a mindful one. From an emotional distressed one to a serene one. The brain is healthier after mediation than before.

 

As mentioned in other blogs, without emotional distress this condition can be quite dormant.

 

References

1.  Newberg, A. B., & Iversen, J. (2003). The neural basis of the complex mental task of meditation: neurotransmitter and neurochemical considerations. Medical hypotheses61(2), 282-291.

2. d’Aquili, E. G., & Newberg, A. B. (2000). The neuropsychology of aesthetic, spiritual, and mystical states. Zygon®35(1), 39-51.

From Hijacking the Brain

At Risk Adolescents have Emotional Dysregulation?

Following up from our previous blog on the abnormalities in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex  (vmPFC) in alcoholics,  brain regions which govern emotional regulation, we came across another study which appears to show that adolescents at increased risk for later alcohol use disorders (AUDs) may also be showing an emotion regulation difficulty.

This emotional regulation difficulty may be a biomarker for later alcoholism, which is in keeping with our previous proposals that an emotional processing and regulation difficulty or disorder underpins the aetiolgy of of alcoholism. In order words it is part of the pathomechanism – or the mechanism by which a pathological condition occurs- of later alcoholism.

 

 ventromedial-prefrontal-cortex

 

The area in this study, the vmPFC,   showed relatively increased cerebral blood flow (CBF) in bilateral amygdala and vmPFC and relatively decreased CBF in bilateral insula, right dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and occipital lobe cuneus of high-risk adolescents. This suggests that adolescents at relatively high-risk for AUD exhibit altered patterns of resting CBF in distributed corticolimbic regions supporting emotional behaviors.

The authors’ hypothesized that the relatively increased amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal CBF may contribute to increased emotional reactivity and sensitivity to environmental stressors in these individuals while diminished insula/occipital cuneus and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) CBF may lead to poor integration of visceral and sensory changes accompanying such emotional stress responses and top-down regulation of amygdala reactivity.

Thus we see our model in a snapshot even in adolescents potentially.  The emotional processing deficits we have discussed previously implicate the insula and ACC, as there appears to be a difficulty in alcoholics in reading emotional or somatic signals/states and integrating these signals into the identifying, labelling and processing of emotions. Equally there appears to be a hyperactivty in the vmPFC and amgydala as with alcoholics which implies emotional dysregulation, a hyper reactive emotional response and a tendency perhaps to a more “fight or flight” response, distress based impulsivity and short termist decision making, wanting it NOW rather than later.

 

References Lin, A. L., Glahn, D. C., Hariri, A. R., & Williamson, D. E. (2008). Basal Perfusion in Adolescents at Risk for Alcohol Use Disorders. In Proc. Intl. Soc. Mag. Reson. Med (Vol. 16, p. 60).

Predicting relapse via extent of emotional dysregulation?

Predicting relapse via extent of emotional dysregulation?

by alcoholicsguide

Even the most experienced counselors have difficultly spotting a recovering alcoholic in danger of relapse. Brain imaging scans might do a better job according to a study last year by researchers at  Yale University.

They suggested that alcoholics with abnormal activity in areas of the brain that control emotions and desires (reward) are eight times more likely to relapse and drink heavily than alcoholics with more normal patterns of activity or healthy individuals (1)

“These areas in the prefrontal cortex are involved in regulating emotion and in controlling responses to reward,” said Rajita Sinha, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry and professor in the Child Study Center and of Department of Neurobiology. “They are damaged by high levels of alcohol and stress and just do not function well.”

Or both perhaps, i.e. chronic alcohol use impacting on already impaired emotional regulation networks in the brain.

 

Figure6_ADHC_revised_2_7_12

 

This graphic highlights areas of the brain where Yale researchers found significant differences in responses to stress and relaxation-inducing stimuli between alcoholics and healthy controls. Alcoholics who exhibited such patterns of activity during fMRI scans were much more likely to relapse than alcoholics that more closely resembled control subjects.

Areas of the brain governing emotional regulation such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex which suggests chronic difficulties in emotional dysregulation, which  potentiates the reward network, lying adjacent, and promotes higher relapse – click image for study. 

 

Ironically, the damage shows up on fMRI scans when alcoholics imagine being in their own most relaxing scenarios, like sitting at the beach listening to the waves, or taking a bubble bath. In non-alcoholics, these brain regions regulating emotion show markedly reduced activity during relaxing imagery, as anticipated. However, in alcoholics most likely to relapse, those brain regions remain hyperactive. On the other hand, when recovering alcoholics imagine their own recent stressful events, these control regions of the brain show little change, while in non-alcoholics, they show marked activation in response to stress. Such disrupted responses in areas of the brain governing emotions and reward lead to high cravings in the recovering alcoholic and an increased likelihood of subsequent relapse.

These brain scans in the future might serve as a diagnostic test to help professionals identify those most at risk of relapsing and suggest specific interventions to normalize brain function and prevent high rates of alcohol relapse, Sinha said.

“The findings show the prefrontal region is important for maintaining recovery for alcoholism,” Sinha said.

This is in accord with much of our writing in this blog – alcoholics, in recovery or otherwise, appear to have profound difficulties in regulating stress and emotion, as if the hyperactivity in the ventromedial pefrontal cortex, seen here, is indicative of a brain that never emotionally shuts off, is always on the go (whether this is the consequence of allostasis, the continual readjustment of the brain to stress needs to be further explored) and is primed to relapse effectively via a “fight of flight mechanism, or a distress based impulsivity.

 

References

Dongju Seo; R Todd Constable; Kwang-Ik Hong; Cheryl Lacadie; Keri Tuit; Rajita Sinha
Disrupted ventromedial prefrontal function, alcohol craving, and subsequent relapse risk.
JAMA psychiatry (Chicago, Ill.) 2013;70(7):727-39.