The co-authors of Invasion of the Prostate Snatchers, blog alternate posts weekly. We invite you to post your comments.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fighting Stress: The Amygdala as Super-Hero


Writing about “Stress Management” has been a Pandora’s box for me. I am convinced that, along with taking charge of my own recovery, an understanding of stress—it’s nature, how it operates, how to manage it—has served me well in facing the dragon of prostate cancer. Whether you are newly diagnosed or coping with bone metastases, I hope my exploration of stress will serve you—and give you renewed hope.
Stress is a poisonous compound of worry, anxiety, exhaustion, regret, fear, despair, and all the other toxic tourniquets that bind us to the wheel of suffering. In most people’s lives, these negative feelings are registering in our bodies chemically and organically much of the time. So let’s take a close look at the factor of stress in our lives, and see how it weighs down and impedes the process of recovery.
Really ancient, the word “stress” is a form of the Middle English destresse, which is in turn derived, through Old French, from the Latin stringere, “to draw tight.” Used first in physics to refer to strain on a material body, by the 1920s stress was being applied in medical circles to refer to mental strain, or harmful environmental “agents” that cause illness.
In 1926, Harvard Physiologist Walter Cannon used the term “stress” for its clinical significance, describing external factors that disrupted what he called “homeostasis,” a steady state or  equilibrium ideal for our well-being and healing. Moreover, Cannon’s book, The Wisdom of the Body, was the breakthrough in understanding that we actually have a capacity to self-correct from stress, and restore homeostasis.
It goes without saying that a potentially life-threatening situation, like cancer creates the kind of stress that persists over time, taking a significant toll on the body and seriously disrupting homeostasis. So what can we do to alleviate chronic stress?
While I was looking for fresh ways to manage stress in my life, I came across an exotic “game” created by high school teacher and psychologist, Justin Galusha.  His game asks you to create 17 “Superheroes, Villains and Sidekicks” for "17 areas of the human brain.” In order to “play,” you need a name for the character, a description of that character’s super powers and/or weaknesses, the brain area where the character is found, and what it actually controls in the brain. Among the areas (and characters) he includes Cerebellum, Thalamus, Hippocampus, Temporal Lobe and the Amygdala. Since we’re not playing the game, we don’t have to look at all seventeen,  focusing on just one—the one that coordinates all the others—the amygdala.
I was already aware of the power of the amygdala to process emotions and manages stress, particularly when feelings of anxiety or fear are involved. Seated at the center of an exquisitely tuned and coordinated emergency response system, the amygdala is a small almond-shaped structure, buried deep within the temporal lobe, part of the brain’s limbic system.  For his game, Galusha describes the amygdala as “governing emotions related to self-preservation . . . in particular stimuli that are threatening to the organism.” And he means life threatening, So that’s what this is all about—self-preservation.
In Galusha’s brain game, here is how the role of the amygdala—dubbed “Amyg’DaMan”—is described:

Blessed with a heightened amygdala thanks to a freak accident in the Vidal Sassoon mouse testing facility, Amyg’DaMan knows when he can win a fight or when he needs to take flight . . . With only his superhuman ability to read facial features and govern emotions, Amyg’DaMan never gets in over his head. He sports a caveman like costume as a shout out to his ancestors. . .  Had it not been for their amygdalas they wouldn’t have known when to run from predatory trolls with extra arms or stay and slaughter innocent docile foes. This one’s for you Amygdala guy—and the quick judgment that saves your life.

The whole idea—including a hairy caricature of his club-wielding caveman hero—made me laugh. And while the conventional fight or flight options described here are not available to a man with newly diagnosed with prostate cancer, the primitive emotions are the same. Stress is the result. Laughter is one antidote. And self-preservation is the objective.
I’d say laughing at the vision of Amyg’DaMan whooping those four-armed predatory trolls is good anti-stress activity.
In my next blog I will consider stress as three-tiered, one toxic, one tolerable, and one (I was surprised to learn) both positive and useful, capable of improving the function of the immune function.

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