Being Suicidal: What It Feels Like To Want To Kill Yourself

“One of the more fascinating psychotic conditions in the medical literature is known as Cotard’s syndrome, a rare disorder, usually recoverable, in which the primary symptom is a “delusion of negation.” According to researchers David Cohen and Angèle Consoli of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, many patients with Cotard’s syndrome are absolutely convinced, without even the slimmest of doubts, that they are already dead.

Some recent evidence suggests that Cotard’s may occur as a neuropsychiatric side effect in patients taking the drugs aciclovir or valaciclovir for herpes and who also have kidney failure.* But its origins go back much further than these modern drugs. First described by the French neurologist Jules Cotard in the 1880s, it is usually accompanied by some other debilitating problem, such as major depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy or general paralysis—not to mention disturbing visages in the mirror. Consider the case of one young woman described by Cohen and Consoli: “The delusion consisted of the patient’s absolute conviction she was already dead and waiting to be buried, that she had no teeth or hair, and that her uterus was malformed.” Poor thing—that image couldn’t have been very good for her self-esteem.


Still, call me strange, but I happen to find a certain appeal in the conviction that one is, though otherwise lucid, nevertheless already dead. Provided there were no uncomfortable symptoms of rigor mortis cramping up my hands, nor delusory devils biting at my feet, how liberating it would be to be able to write like a dead man and without that hobbling, hesitating fear of being unblinkingly honest. Knowing that upon publication I would be tucked safely away in my tomb, I could finally say what’s on my mind. Of course, living one’s life as though it were a suicide note incarnate (yet remember this is precisely what life is, really, and I would advise any thinking person to stroll by a cemetery each day, gaze unto those fields of crumbling headstones filled with chirping crickets, and ponder, illogically so, what these people wish they might have said to the world when it was still humanly possible for them to have done so ) is an altogether different thing from the crushing, unbearable weight of an actual suicidal mind dangerously tempted by the promise of permanent quiescence.

misanthropy central}}}: Butterfly Suicide GIF: Special Edition

In considering people’s motivations for killing themselves, it is essential to recognize that most suicides are driven by a flash flood of strong emotions, not rational, philosophical thoughts in which the pros and cons are evaluated critically. And, as I mentioned in last week’s column on the evolutionary biology of suicide, from a psychological science perspective, I don’t think any scholar ever captured the suicidal mind better than Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister in his 1990 Psychological Review article , “Suicide as Escape from the Self.” To reiterate, I see Baumeister’s cognitive rubric as the engine of emotions driving deCatanzaro’s biologically adaptive suicidal decision-making. There are certainly more recent theoretical models of suicide than Baumeister’s, but none in my opinion are an improvement. The author gives us a uniquely detailed glimpse into the intolerable and relentlessly egocentric tunnel vision that is experienced by a genuinely suicidal person.


According to Baumeister, there are six primary steps in the escape theory, culminating in a probable suicide when all criteria are met. I do hope that having knowledge about the what-it-feels-like phenomenology of ‘being’ suicidal helps people to recognize their own possible symptoms of suicidal ideation and—if indeed this is what’s happening—enables them to somehow derail themselves before it’s too late. Note that it is not at all apparent that those at risk of suicide are always aware that they are in fact suicidal, at least in the earliest cognitive manifestations of suicidal ideation. And if such thinking proceeds unimpeded, then keeping a suicidal person from completing the act may be as futile as encouraging someone at the very peak of sexual excitement to please kindly refrain from having an orgasm, which is itself sometimes referred to as la petite mort (“the little death”).

So let’s take a journey inside the suicidal mind, at least as it’s seen by Roy Baumeister. You might even come to discover that you’ve actually stepped foot in this dark psychological space before, perhaps without knowing it at the time.


Step 1: Falling Short of Standards


Most people who kill themselves actually lived better-than-average lives. Suicide rates are higher in nations with higher standards of living than in less prosperous nations; higher in US states with a better quality of life; higher in societies that endorse individual freedoms; higher in areas with better weather; in areas with seasonal change, they are higher during the warmer seasons; and they’re higher among college students that have better grades and parents with higher expectations.

Baumeister argues that such idealistic conditions actually heighten suicide risk because they often create unreasonable standards for personal happiness, thereby rendering people more emotionally fragile in response to unexpected setbacks. So, when things get a bit messy, such people, many of whom appear to have led mostly privileged lives, have a harder time coping with failures. “A large body of evidence,” writes the author, “is consistent with the view that suicide is preceded by events that fall short of high standards and expectations, whether produced by past achievements, chronically favorable circumstances, or external demands.” For example, simply being poor isn’t a risk factor for suicide. But going rather suddenly from relative prosperity to poverty has been strongly linked to suicide. Likewise, being a lifelong single person isn’t a risk factor either, but the transition from marriage to the single state places one at significant risk for suicide. Most suicides that occur in prison and mental hospital settings occur within the first month of confinement, during the initial period of adjustment to loss of freedom. Suicide rates are lowest on Fridays and highest on Mondays; they also drop just before the major holidays and then spike sharply immediately after the holidays. Baumeister interprets these patterns as consistent with the idea that people’s high expectations for holidays and weekends materialize, after the fact, as bitter disappointments.


To summarize this first step in the escape theory, Baumeister tells us that, “it is apparently the size of the discrepancy between standards and perceived reality that is crucial for initiating the suicidal process.” It’s the proverbial law of social gravity: the higher your majesty is to start off with, the more painful it’s going to be when you happen to fall flat on your face.

Step 2: Attributions to Self

It is not just the fall from grace alone that’s going to send you on a suicidal tailspin. It’s also necessary for you to loathe yourself for facing the trouble you find yourself in. Across cultures, “self blame” or “condemnation of the self” has held constant as a common denominator in suicides. Baumeister’s theory accommodates these data, yet his model emphasizes that the biggest risk factor isn’t chronically low self-esteem, per se, but rather a relatively recent demonization of the self in response to the negative turn of events occurring in the previous step. People who have low self-esteem are often misanthropes, he points out, in that while they are indeed self critical, they are usually just as critical of other people. By contrast, suicidal individuals who engage in negative appraisals of the self seem to suffer the erroneous impression that other people are mostly good, while they themselves are bad. Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt, inadequacy, or feeling exposed, humiliated and rejected leads suicidal people to dislike themselves in a manner that, essentially, cleaves them off from an idealized humanity. The self is seen as being enduringly undesirable; there is no hope for change and the core self is perceived as being rotten.

Suicide-Gif | Tumblr


This is why adolescents and adults of minority sexual orientations, who grow up gestating in a social womb filled with messages—both implicit and explicit—that they are essentially lesser human beings, are especially vulnerable to suicide. Even though we may consciously reject these personal attributions made by an intolerant society, they have still seeped in. If we extrapolate this to, say, Tyler Clementi as he was driving towards the George Washington Bridge to end his own life in the wake of being cruelly and voyeuristically outed over the Internet, I’d bet my bottom dollar that he felt even the songs on the radio weren’t meant for him, but for “normal people” more relatable to the singer and deserving of the song’s message.

Step 3: High Self-Awareness

“The essence of self-awareness is comparison of self with standards,” writes Baumeister. And, according to his escape theory, it is this ceaseless and unforgiving comparison with a preferred self—perhaps an irrecoverable self from a happier past or a goal self that is now seen as impossible to achieve in light of recent events—fuelling suicidal ideation.

This piquancy of thought in suicidal individuals is actually measurable, at least indirectly by analyzing the language used in suicide notes. One well-known “suicidologist,” Edwin Shneidman, once wrote that, “Our best route to understanding suicide is not through the study of the structure of the brain, nor the study of social statistics, nor the study of mental diseases, but directly through the study of human emotions described in plain English, in the words of the suicidal person.” Personally, I feel a bit like an existential Peeping Tom in reading strangers’ suicide notes, but it’s a longstanding cottage industry in psychological research. Over the past few decades alone, nearly 300 studies on suicide notes have been published. These cover a broad range of research questions, but because they tend to yield inconsistent findings, they have also painted a confusing picture of the suicidal mind.

This is especially the case when trying to reveal people’s motivations for the act. Some who commit suicide may not even be aware of their own motivations, or at least they have not been completely honest in their farewell letters to the world. A good example comes from University of Manchester sociologist Susanne Langer and her colleagues’ report in a 2008 issue of The Sociological Review . The researchers describe how the suicide note written by one young man was rather nondescript, mentioning feelings of loneliness and emptiness as causing his suicide, while, in fact, “his file contained a memo inquiring about the state of an investigation regarding sexual offences the deceased had been accused of in an adjacent jurisdiction.”

The more compelling studies on suicide notes, in my view, are those that use text analysis programs enabling the investigators to make exact counts of particular kinds of words. Compared to fake suicide notes, real suicide notes are notorious for containing first-person singular pronouns, a reflection of high self-awareness. And unlike letters written by people facing involuntary death, such as those about to be executed, suicide note writers rarely use inclusive language such as plural pronouns, such as “us” and “we.” When they do mention significant others, suicide note writers usually speak of them as being cut off, distant, separate, not understanding, or opposed. Friends and family, even a loving mother at arm’s length, feel endless oceans away.

Step 4: Negative Affect

It may seem to go without saying that suicides tend to be preceded by a period of negative emotions, but, again, in Baumeister’s escape model, negative suicidal emotions are experienced as an acute state rather than a prolonged one. “Concluding simply that depression causes suicide and leaving it at that may be inadequate for several reasons,” he writes. “It is abundantly clear that most depressed people do not attempt suicide and that not all suicide attempters are clinically depressed.”

Anxiety—which can be experienced as guilt, self-blame, threat of social exclusion, ostracism and worry—seems to be a common strand in the majority of suicides. As I mentioned in last week’s post, we may very well be the only species for which negative social-evaluative appraisals can lead to shame-induced suicide. It’s not without controversy, but the most convincing data from studies with nonhuman animals suggest very strongly that we are the only species on the face of the earth able to take another organism’s perspective in judging the self’s attributes. This is owed to an evolutionary innovation known as “theory of mind” (literally, theorizing about what someone else is thinking about, including what they’re thinking about you ; and, perhaps more importantly in this case, even what you’re thinking about you) that has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it allows us to experience pride, and a curse because it also engenders what I consider to be the uniquely human, uniquely painful emotion of shame.

Psychodynamic theorists often postulate that suicidal guilt seeks punishment, and thus suicide is a sort of self-execution. But Baumeister’s theory largely rejects this interpretation; rather, in his model, the appeal of suicide is loss of consciousness, and thus the end of psychological pain being experienced. And since cognitive therapy isn’t easily available—or seen as achievable—by most suicidal people, that leaves only three ways to escape this painful self-awareness: drugs, sleep and death. And of these, only death, nature’s great anesthesia, offers a permanent fix.

Step 5: Cognitive Deconstruction

The fifth step in the escape theory is perhaps the most intriguing, from a psychological perspective, because it illustrates just how distinct and scarily inaccessible the suicidal mind is from that of our everyday cognition. With cognitive deconstruction, a concept originally proposed by social psychologists Robin Vallacher and Daniel Wegner, the outside world becomes a much simpler affair in our heads—but usually not in a good way.

Cognitive deconstruction is pretty much just what it sounds like. Things are cognitively broken down into increasingly low-level and basic elements. For example, the time perspective of suicidal people changes in a way that makes the present moment seem interminably long; this is because, “suicidal people have an aversive or anxious awareness of the recent past (and possibly the future too), from which they seek to escape into a narrow, unemotional focus on the present moment.” In one interesting study, for example, when compared to control groups, suicidal participants significantly overestimated the passage of experimentally controlled intervals of time by a large amount. Baumeister surmises, “Thus suicidal people resemble acutely bored people: The present seems endless and vaguely unpleasant, and whenever one checks the clock, one is surprised at how little time has actually elapsed.”

Evidence also suggests that suicidal individuals have a difficult time thinking about the future—which for those who’d use the threat of hell as a deterrent, shows just why this strategy isn’t likely to be very effective. This temporal narrowing, Baumeister believes, is actually a defensive mechanism helping the person to cognitively withdraw from thinking about past failures and the anxiety of an intolerable, hopeless future.

Suicide GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Another central aspect of the suicidal person’s cognitive deconstruction, says Baumeister, is a dramatic increase in concrete thought. Like the intrusively high self-awareness discussed earlier, this concreteness is often conveyed in suicide notes. Several review articles have noted the relative paucity of “thinking words” in suicide notes, which are abstract, meaningful, high-level terms. Instead, they more often include banal and specific instructions, such as, “Don’t forget to feed the cat,” or “Remember to take care of the electric bill.” Real suicide notes are usually suspiciously void of contemplative or metaphysical thoughts, whereas fake suicide notes, written by study participants, tend to include more abstract or high-level terms (“Someday you’ll understand how much I loved you” or “Always be happy”). One old study even found that genuine suicide notes contained more references to concrete objects in the environment—physical things—than did simulated suicide notes.

What this cognitive shift to concrete thinking reflects, suggests Baumeister, is the brain’s attempt to slip into idle mental labor, thereby avoiding the suffocating feelings that we’ve been describing. Many suicidal college students, for example, exhibit a behavioral pattern of burying themselves in dull, routine academic busywork in the weeks beforehand, presumably to enter a sort of “emotional deadness” which is “an end in itself.” When I was a suicidal adolescent, I remember reading voraciously during this time; it didn’t matter what it was that I read—mostly junk novels, in fact—since it was only to replace my own thoughts with those of the writer’s. For the suicidal, other people’s words can be pulled over one’s exhausting ruminations like a seamless glove being stretched over a distractingly scarred hand.

Even the grim, tedious details of organizing one’s own suicide can offer a welcome reprieve:

When preparing for suicide, one can finally cease to worry about the future, for one has effectively decided that there will be no future. The past, too, has ceased to matter, for it is nearly ended and will no longer cause grief, worry, or anxiety. And the imminence of death may help focus the mind on the immediate present.


Step 6: Disinhibition

We’ve now set the mental stage, but it is of course the final act that separates suicidal ideation from an actual suicide. Baumeister speculates that behavioral disinhibition, which is required to overcome the intrinsic fear of causing oneself pain through death, not to mention the anticipated suffering of loved ones left behind to grieve, is another consequence of cognitive deconstruction. This is because it disallows the high-level abstractions (reflecting on the inherent “wrongness” of suicide, how others will feel, even concerns about self-preservation) that, under normal conditions, keep us alive.

A recent theoretical analysis by University of Rochester psychiatrist Kimberly Van Orden and her colleagues sheds some additional light on this component of behavioral disinhibition. These authors point out that while there is a considerable number of people who want to kill themselves, suicide itself remains relatively rare. This is largely because, in addition to suicidal desire, the individual needs the “acquired capability for suicide,” which involves both a lowered fear of death and increased physical pain tolerance. Suicide hurts, literally. One acquires this capability, according to these authors’ model, by being exposed to related conditions that systematically habituate the individual to physical pain. For example, one of the best predictors of suicide is a nonlethal prior suicide attempt.

But a history of other fear-inducing, physically painful experiences also places one at risk. Physical or sexual abuse as a child, combat exposure, and domestic abuse can also “prep” the individual for the physical pain associated with suicidal behavior. In addition, heritable variants of impulsivity, fearlessness and greater physical pain tolerance may help to explain why suicidality often runs in families. Van Orden and her coauthors also cite some intriguing evidence that habituation to pain is not so much generalized to just any old suicide method, but often specific to the particular method used to end one’s own life. For example, a study on suicides in the U.S. military branches found that guns were most frequently associated with Army personnel suicides, hanging and knots for those in the Navy, and falling and heights were more common for those in the Air Force.

So there you have it. It’s really not a pretty picture. But, again, I do hope that if you ever are unfortunate enough to experience these cognitive dynamics in your own mind—and I, for one, very much have—or if you suspect you’re seeing behaviors in others that indicate these thought patterns may be occurring, that this information helps you to meta-cognitively puncture suicidal ideation. If there is one thing that I’ve learned since those very dark days of my suicidal years, it’s that scientific knowledge changes perspective. And perspective changes everything. Everything.

And, as I mentioned at the start, always remember: You’re going to die soon enough anyway; even if it’s a hundred years from now, that’s still the blink of a cosmic eye. In the meantime, live like a scientist—even a controversial one with only an ally or two in all the world—and treat life as a grand experiment, blood, sweat, tears and all. Bear in mind that there’s no such thing as a failed experiment—only data.”

suicide gifs | Explore Tumblr Posts and Blogs | Tumgir

Source: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/bering-in-mind/being-suicidal-what-it-feels-like-to-want-to-kill-yourself/

HEALTH: Why Do I Have Chapped Or Sore Lips?

“When winter comes around, many of us experience chapped lips, which are irritated, dry, and peeling lips caused by disruption of the outer skin layer and inflammation, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the dermatology department at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. They are flaky and sometimes red or bloody, and they can be uncomfortable or painful. Chapped lips, also known as cheilitis, are very common, and they’re most often caused by cold, dry, windy weather. While chapped lips are usually harmless, it’s important to protect and hydrate them with the right treatment.

Common Causes of Chapped Lips: Wetness and Weather
Chapped lips are typically caused by environmental exposures that lead to irritation, including saliva and licking your lips, spicy foods, and cold, dry weather, says Dr. Zeichner. The common cold and sun damage can also cause chapped lips, he adds, as well as medication like cholesterol-lowering agents.

Ouch, chapped lips are a pain

Allergic or irritant contact is another common cause of chapped lips, where exposure to an external product causes a true allergic reaction or a direct irritation to the skin, says Zeichner. But most of the time, chapped lips are caused by dryness, and wind is a prime culprit, explains dermatologist Clay J. Cockerell, MD, founder and medical director of Cockerell Dermatopathology in Dallas.

Health Conditions That Can Cause Chapped Lips
Chapped lips can also be associated with a variety of underlying medical conditions, including thyroid disease, vitamin deficiencies, and inflammatory bowel disease, says Zeichner. Low thyroid function may cause dryness of the mouth and lips, and B complex vitamin deficiencies or low zinc or iron levels have been reported to cause chapped lips, he adds. Crohn’s disease can affect the entire gastrointestinal tract from the lips down to the anus, and if you have severe cracked lips that are not healing as well as belly pain, this may be a rare cause.

Angular cheilitis, or inflammation in the corners of the mouth, is another common condition that can cause dry or chapped lips. It’s typically caused by cold weather, yeast overgrowth, and/or irritation from saliva, and it’s usually treated with anti-yeast medication, anti-inflammatories, or skin protectants overnight, says Rebecca Baxt, MD, a dermatologist in Paramus, New Jersey.

Actinic cheilitis is the term given to chronic chapped lips that develop as a result of sun damage, explains Zeichner. This is a precancerous condition that typically affects the lower lip (which faces upward toward the sun, so is at risk for sudden damage). If you have chapped lips that aren’t getting better and you’re concerned, see a dermatologist.

How to Treat Chapped Lips: Start With Lip Balm
Chapped lips can sometimes heal on their own, but if that isn’t happening after a day or two, try using a lip balm, suggests Zeichner. Lip balms contain a combination of waxes and oils that form a protective seal over the skin, he explains.

Stay away from products that contain fragrance, camphor, menthol, and salicylic acid, because these ingredients can cause irritation of the skin, leading to disruption of the skin barrier and loss of hydration, which can make chapped lips worse, warns Zeichner. You also want to avoid exfoliating lips that are already dry and irritated because that can lead to more harm than good, he explains.

Eating a healthy plant based diet, making sure you are consuming a varied amount of nutrients could get your lips back to normal.

Dry Lips GIFs | Tenor

If you’re looking for a natural home remedy for chapped lips, Zeichner suggests trying coconut oil because it spreads easily without dripping. “The same types of products you use for dry skin can often be used for the lips,” he explains.

What to Do When Your Child Has Chapped Lips
Kids are at risk for getting a superficial skin infection called impetigo, especially if they get open or cracked skin, and it can easily be spread to others, says Zeichner. He recommends touching base with your pediatrician if your child has chapped lips that don’t go away in a day or two.

How to Prevent Chapped Lips: 3 Simple Strategies
Here are three simple ways to prevent chapped lips and keep your lips smooth and hydrated, according to Zeichner:

-Avoid licking your lips. People sometimes lick their lips to reduce the feeling of dry lips, but saliva actually worsens the situation.
-Pay attention to your lips. If they start to feel dry or itchy, apply a lip balm early.
-Skip spicy foods. If you have sensitive skin, try to avoid spicy foods, which can irritate the lips.”

Source: https://www.everydayhealth.com/skin-and-beauty/home-remedies-for-chapped-lips.aspx

Getting Unhooked From Thoughts

too many thoughts gif | Tumblr

Getting hooked means getting caught up in thinking and losing touch with what is happening outside of our minds. When we get hooked by unwanted thoughts it is as though they push us around or bully us, like a critical coach who stands on the sidelines giving harsh feedback.

Getting unhooked means stepping back from our minds and experiencing our thoughts without evaluating them, trying to change them, or pushing them away. That is, paying attention to the experience of having the thoughts, rather than focusing on their meaning (for example, “there must be something wrong with me).

That doesn’t mean you have to like or want the thought. It is more to do with acknowledging that you are having the thought and that pushing it away may not have been very helpful. The more you resist, the more the thought persists.

Shamanic Journeying To The Spirit Of Fibromyalgia

Samsara' [2011] - Olivier de Sagazan (FullHD) on Make a GIF

The shaman I am working with journeyed to the spirit of fibromyalgia recently as we wanted to find out how I could be helped and what is going on on a metaphysical level with fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Researchers believe that fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals. Basically, it feels like hot acid burning all over my body 24/7 brought on by many theories circulating – trauma, stress, infection.

The shaman journeyed into another realm of existence and said he saw a castle, a castle with traps all around it and a draw bridge. Inside the castle the shaman found a man wrapped totally and suffocating in bandages; he was wrapped in total fear. ABSOLUTE FEAR.

The man would not reveal anything. The only way to get through to him was to surround him with love, shower him with love. With that, the bandages started to unravel themselves. That’s all he found out…..

The Vagus Nerve: The Key To Wellbeing?

“Have you ever read something a million times only to one day, for no apparent reason, think “Wait, what is that?” This happened to me the other day for “the vagus nerve.”

I kept coming across it in relation to deep breathing and mental calmness: “Breathing deeply,” Katie Brindle writes in her new book Yang Sheng: The Art of Chinese Self-Healing, “immediately relaxes the body because it stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the neck to the abdomen and is in charge of turning off the ‘fight or flight’ reflex.” Also: “Stimulating the vagus nerve,” per a recent Harvard Health blog post, “activates your relaxation response, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure.” And: Deep breathing “turns on the vagus nerve enough that it acts as a brake on the stress response,” as an integrative medicine researcher told the Cut last year.

I liked this idea that we have something like a secret piano key, under our skin, to press internally to calm us down. Or like a musical string to pluck. At this point I was envisioning the vagus nerve as a single inner cord, stretching from the head to the stomach. In reality, the vagus nerve is a squiggly, shaggy, branching nerve connecting most of the major organs between the brain and colon, like a system of roots or cables. It is the longest nerve in the body, and technically it comes as a pair of two vagus nerves, one for the right side of the body and one for the left. It’s called “vagus” because it wanders, like a vagrant, among the organs. The vagus nerve has been described as “largely responsible for the mind-body connection,” for its role as a mediator between thinking and feeling, and I’m tempted to think of it as something like a physical manifestation of the soul. Also: “When people say ‘trust your gut,’” as one Psychology Today writer put it several years ago, “they really mean ‘trust your vagus nerve.’”

I became increasingly enchanted with this nerve, even as it felt like I understood it less and less. How does this all work? How does activating a nerve calm us down? Is this why I get so needlessly upset about things?

“Stimulating the vagus nerve to the heart has a really powerful effect on slowing the heart rate,” said Lucy Norcliffe-Kaufmann, associate professor of neurology at NYU-Langone. And this, specifically, is what relaxes us. The vagus nerve is basically listening to the way we breathe, and it sends the brain and the heart whatever message our breath indicates. Breathing slowly, for instance, reduces the oxygen demands of the heart muscle (the myocardium), and our heart rate drops.

The vagus nerve is essentially the queen of the parasympathetic nervous system — a.k.a. the “rest and digest,” or the “chill out” one — so the more we do things that “stimulate” or activate it, like deep breathing, the more we banish the effects of the sympathetic nervous system — a.k.a. the “fight or flight,” or the “do something!” stress-releasing adrenaline/cortisol one.


Put another way, “Your body senses your breathing and adapts its heart rate in response,” Norcliffe-Kaufmann told me. When we breathe in, she explained, the sensory nodes on our lungs (“lung stretch receptors”) send information up through the vagus nerve and into the brain, and when we breathe out, the brain sends information back down through the vagus nerve to slow down or speed up the heart. So when we breathe slowly, the heart slows, and we relax. Conversely, when we breathe quickly, our heart speeds up, and we feel amped, or anxious.

I was surprised by the idea that it’s specifically the exhale that triggers the relaxation response, but Norcliffe-Kaufmann confirmed: “Vagal activity is highest, and heart rate lowest, when you’re exhaling.” She mentioned that the ideal, most calming way to breathe is six times a minute: five seconds in, five seconds out. She also noted that in the study that determined this rate, researchers found that this style of slow breathing is also what practitioners naturally lapse into during meditation with mantras, and during the Ave Maria prayer with rosaries. “Each time you do either the rosary prayer or a meditation mantra,” Norcliffe-Kaufmann said, “it naturally synchronizes your breathing at six times per minute.” (“That’s fascinating,” I said. “It is!” she said.)

It made me wonder if there are ways of measuring the quality of the vagus nerve, or “vagal tone,” as Norcliffe-Kaufmann described it. This is basically how healthy, strong, and functional the nerve is. One way, she said, is to measure heart rate variability (HRV) — it’s a sort of “surrogate” for measuring actual vagal tone (barring open chest surgery). Heart rate variability is the amount that the heart rate fluctuates between a breath in (when it naturally speeds up) and a breath out (when it naturally slows down). That is, heart rate rises on the inhale and falls on the exhale, and the difference between those two rates essentially measures vagal tone. Athletes are known to have higher vagal tone, for example, whereas people who experience extended periods of bed rest — and astronauts in no-gravity situations — are known to have lower vagal tone. (How quickly your heart rate slows after exercising is also a good marker of vagal tone.) Vagus nerve stimulation has also been proposed as a way to treat addiction (some heavy drinkers, for instance, have low vagal tone).


Certain devices measure HRV — and I’ve personally tried a chest strap and a wristband, but I got stumped on what to do with the data — although Norcliffe-Kaufmann is skeptical about their reliability. “Those technologies are coming,” she said, “but it’s more important to focus on breathing and feeling calm and balanced, rather than on a number.” Some other practices believed to improve vagal tone (beyond deep, slow breathing) include laughing, singing, humming, yoga, acupuncture, and splashing the face with cold water — or having a full-body cold rinse. (Stimulation of the vagus nerve, both manually and with electricity, has also been used to control seizures in epilepsy patients, reduce inflammation, and treat clinical depression.)

Writing this story, and after talking with Norcliffe-Kaufmann, I found myself breathing more slowly and feeling calmer. Not necessarily happy, but steady. Slow breathing is boring, but it’s almost sad how effective it is. I’d usually rather spend hundreds of dollars to get a gadget to track myself than do this free and more-effective thing.

“If you’re in a stressful situation,” Norcliffe-Kaufmann said, “and you’re like, How do I respond, how do I respond? — if you consciously slow down your breathing just for one minute, or even a few seconds, you can put yourself in a calmer state, to be able to better communicate.””

Source: https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.thecut.com/amp/2019/05/i-now-suspect-the-vagus-nerve-is-the-key-to-well-being.html

SCIENCE: How the Nervous System Detects and Interprets Pain

“How does your brain know when you feel pain? How does it know the difference between the soft touch of a feather and a needle prick? And, how does that information get to your body in time to respond? How does acute pain become chronic pain? These are not simple answers, but with a little explanation about how the nervous system works, you should be able to understand the basics.

What the Nervous System Does
Your nervous system is made up of two main parts: the brain and the spinal cord, which combine to form the central nervous system; and the sensory and motor nerves, which form the peripheral nervous system. The names make it easy to picture: the brain and spinal cord are the hubs, while the sensory and motor nerves stretch out to provide access to all areas of the body.


Put simply, sensory nerves send impulses about what is happening in our environment to the brain via the spinal cord. The brain sends information back to the motor nerves, which help us perform actions. It’s like having a very complicated inbox and outbox for everything.



The Role of Nerves in Identifying Pain Sensations
Let’s say you step on a rock. How does a sensory nerve in the peripheral nervous system know this is any different than something like a soft toy? Different sensory nerve fibers respond to different things and produce different chemical responses which determine how sensations are interpreted. Some nerves send signals associated with light touch, while others respond to deep pressure.


Special pain receptors called nociceptors activate whenever there has been an injury, or even a potential injury, such as breaking the skin or causing a large indentation.1 Even if the rock does not break your skin, the tissues in your foot become compressed enough to cause the nociceptors to fire off a response. Now, an impulse is heading through the nerve into the spinal cord, and eventually all the way to your brain. This happens within fractions of a second.

The Role of the Spinal Cord in Pain Response
Your spinal cord is a complex array of bundles of nerves, transmitting all kinds of signals to and from the brain at any given time. It is a lot like a freeway for sensory and motor impulses. But your spinal cord does more than act as a message center: it can make some basic decisions on its own. These “decisions” are called reflexes.

An area of the spinal cord called the dorsal horn acts as an information hub, simultaneously directing impulses to the brain and back down the spinal cord to the area of injury. The brain does not have to tell your foot to move away from the rock because the dorsal horn has already sent that message. If your brain is the body’s CEO, then the spinal cord is middle management.

The Role of the Brain in Interpreting Pain
Even though the spinal reflex takes place at the dorsal horn, the pain signal continues to the brain. This is because pain involves more than a simple stimulus and response. Simply taking your foot off the rock does not solve all of your problems. No matter how mild the damage, the tissues in your foot still need to be healed. In addition, your brain needs to make sense of what has happened. Pain gets cataloged in your brain’s library, and emotions become associated with stepping on that rock.

When the pain signal reaches the brain it goes to the thalamus, which directs it to a few different areas for interpretations. A few areas in the cortex figure out where the pain came from and compare it to other kinds of pain with which is it familiar. Was it sharp? Did it hurt more than stepping on a tack? Have you ever stepped on a rock before, and if so was it better or worse?

Signals are also sent from the thalamus to the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain. Ever wonder why some pain makes you cry? The limbic system decides. Feelings are associated with every sensation you encounter, and each feeling generates a response. Your heart rate may increase, and you may break out into a sweat. All because of a rock underfoot.

Other Factors That Influence Pain Response
While it may seem simple, the process of detecting pain is complicated by the fact that it is not a one-way system. It isn’t even a two-way system. Pain is more than just cause and effect. It is affected by everything else that is going on in the nervous system. Your mood, your past experiences, and your expectations can all change the way pain is interpreted at any given time. How is that for confusing?


If you step on that rock after you have a fight with your wife, your response may be very different than it would if you had just won the lottery. Your feelings about the experience may be tainted if the last time you stepped on a rock, your foot became infected. If you stepped on a rock once before and nothing terrible happened to you, you may recover more quickly. You can see how different emotions and histories can determine your response to pain. In fact, there is a strong link between depression and chronic pain.

When Acute Pain Becomes Chronic
In this scenario, after your foot healed, the pain sensations would stop. This is because the nociceptors no longer detect any tissue damage or potential injury. This is called acute pain. Acute pain does not persist after the initial injury has healed.

Sometimes, however, pain receptors continue to fire. This can be caused by a disease or condition that continuously causes damage. With arthritis, for example, the joint is in a constant state of disrepair, causing pain signals to travel to the brain with little downtime. Sometimes, even in the absence of tissue damage, nociceptors continue to fire.1 There may no longer be a physical cause of pain, but the pain response is the same. This makes chronic pain difficult to pin down and even more difficult to treat.”

Source: https://www.verywellhealth.com/how-we-feel-pain-2564638