Category Archives: stress and cortisol

“Oh, What’s Occurring?”

I am indebted to BBC Radio 1’s Scott Mills, for inventing this game, based on Nessa’s catchphrase from the beloved BBC sitcom, Gavin & Stacey.

In Scott’s game, a current event or star-du-jour that ought to be known to most Britons, is formulated as a question, which is then put to a “random sample” of 10 people on “Stupid Street” [a street right outside the London radio studio] by a BBC staffer. Let’s say, for instance, “Who’s Andy Murray?” The point of the game is not to guess the truth [the right answer]; but to guess the most frequent answer given by the 10-person sample on Stupid Street: also known as popular opinion.

Ponder the epistemological implications of this innocent little game for a moment. Since the truth about such objective, scientific matters as the human role in the rapidly melting polar ice caps [or whether Lili’s crippling condition, degenerative myelopathy, can be definitively diagnosed by a DNA test] is still being debated among the researchers themselves, it is tempting to default to the “received wisdom” of vox populi. Except we try to hedge our bets by avoiding the populi on Stupid Street. Our sources [we believe & hope] are reliable. They know whereof they speak. Nar’mean?

Because I’m a curmudgeon, I enjoy trolling the pages of the Science sections of the NYTimes & WaPost, not to mention my favorite discredited source BBC online news, for their uncritical, wildly-extrapolated-beyond-the-data, later retracted, proclamations on [not to put too fine a point on it] How To Avoid Death. Regular readers of this blog will know I prefer the wisdom of Epictetus & Marcus Aurelius on this subject: accept that you are going to die of something, sometime; and live each day as if it were your last on earth. This is not to be confused with fatalism or Nihilism. Nor is it a simple-minded call to Acceptance [an overhyped new form of psychotherapy]. It’s a call to Do Your Best and nil desperandum [pace Horace].

The non-Classical, dog-Latin variant of this last phrase, “nil desperandum illegitimi” [Don’t let the bastards get you down.”] is the take home message of the “Oh, What’s Occurring” game. Are others humiliating you with their ill-informed opinions about what’s wrong with you/your dog? Do they tell you “It’s a Judgement” [handed down by their otherwise loving God]? I have several patients coping with health issues, which their “God-fearing” co-workers blithely attribute to Retribution. I urge them [my patients, not their persecutors] to play “Oh, What’s Occurring?” by assuming their insensitive critics live on Stupid Street. I suggest that on the way to work, they try to predict what prejudiced opinions these quidnuncs are likely to voice. When they guess right, they can award themselves 100 Scott Mills points. Hurrah! It is actually quite an effective cortisol-buster, to predict correctly what slings & arrows will come your way today.

This week on Lili’s walks the denizens of Stupid Street have opined that she has hip dysplasia and needs aspirin [whereas increasing numbness is actually the problem]; that I am over-exerting her [whereas the recommended treatment is a daily long walk]; and that they saw on YouTube that you can fit a paralyzed dog with wheels [oh, Zeus, give me patience]. To which I hum the theme song to “Oh, What’s Occurring?” Right out loud.

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Filed under attribution theory, comic relief, Epictetus said..., stress and cortisol

“hooked on the sound like it’s nicotine”

This apt metaphor comes from the current BBC Radio 1 hit, “Make Peace Not War” by the BritRap DJ, Skepta (known to his Nigerian-born parents as Joseph Junior Adenuga). I highly recommend its addition to your MP3 player, if only for the addictive hooky sample, “Everybody Dance, Now.”

As you may have guessed, the nicotine addict pictured above is not Skepta, but my own dear, long-since departed father (known to his Irish-born parents as “Red,” and to his shipmates as “Rosie”). Indeed, this picture comes from the official Naval book, U.S.S. WALKE, Korean Cruise, October 1950 to August 1951. What’s he like, eh? While everyone else in the book is pictured in uniform and smiling, the editors chose to let the Executive Officer’s inner wolf flag fly: “The Exec…If you felt you’d been [on deployment] too long, if you weren’t completely happy with your work, if you had any little problem at all, you just brought it in to this kindly old soul. He knew just how you felt.” [Note the use of the Poetic Speech function.]

A propos Memorial Day weekend, I will quote further from the book: “At 0740, June 12, 1951…a heavy explosion. In one stunning moment the full agony of war came home to us. In that moment 26 shipmates lost their lives and 40 more were wounded. Out of disaster came heroism and determination. The wounded were brought to safety and then we saved the ship. In the ordeal that followed a good ship became a great one…and the WALKE and the men who sailed her lived to fight again.”

One is tempted to say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it, North Korea!” However, alas, it was Rosie, and many of his fellow Americans, who did the smoking; and this post is yet another attempt to understand why.

The research I will quote comes from an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, published on 17 June 2010: “Nicotine Addiction,” by Neal L. Benowitz, M.D. He begins with the usual grim statistics. “Cigarette smoking remains a leading cause of preventable disease and premature death in the United States and other countries. On average 435,000 people in the United States die prematurely from smoking-related diseases each year; smoking causes 1 in 5 deaths. The chance that a lifelong smoker will die prematurely from a complication of smoking is approximately 50%.”

So, what gives? Are all those smokers (including smart, brave, stoical Rosie) just Crazy Like a Fox? Maybe. “The pharmacologic reasons for nicotine use are enhancement of mood, either directly or through relief of withdrawal symptoms, and augmentation of mental and physical functions.” Wait, what? Don’t tell your “Kangaroo” [aka attention-challenged] children; but Benowitz cites lab animal & human research studies suggesting that nicotine improves concentration and adherence to task. The evidence is more compelling [and also ethically distressing] in the rat studies, since one would presume that the rats are responding only to the cholinergic effects of the nicotine, not to the learned social cues and expectations so exhaustively explored on MadMen.

To totally simplify his neuroscience-speak, the initial chemical effect of nicotine on the brain is to increase available dopamine [leading to a sense of calm well-being & “in-the-zone” mental/physical performance]. But soon the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (known to their friends as nAChRs) become desensitized, “demanding” ever higher doses of nicotine, just to forestall (in rats) “anxiety-like behavior and the release of corticotrophic-releasing factor (CRF) in the central nucleus of the amygdala.” Aha! Our old nemesis, the howling wolf [amygdala, yah?] is flooded with toxic CRF, resulting in (unaccountable) fear (aka anxiety), and pain & suffering. No wonder those in nicotine withdrawal are so cranky!

Benowitz is not a big fan of [comparatively inefficient] nicotine-replacement delivery systems [such as gum or trans-dermal patches]. He believes in shielding the nAChRs from the depredations of nicotine in the first place. Short of psychosurgery or serendipitous Traumatic Brain Injury, however, no such nicotine-eluding technology yet exists.

Like a hooky song you can’t get out of your head, once you take “Nico” on board, you may have a “shipmate” for life.

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Filed under crazy like a fox, limbic system, stress and cortisol

Who’s Got Your Back?


While watching Wimbledon tennis on telly with the sound muted, I’m listening to Radio Wimbledon, which provides commentary on all the matches [from Center Court to Court 14], as well as traffic, transport & weather advisories for those in the stands. If you’re in SW19, Radio Wimbledon’s got your back. As young girls in the 60s, clutching General Admissions tickets to the grounds and CheapDayReturn train tickets back to our town, my sister & I had each other’s backs, too, minding the time to make sure we had enough of it to hoof it back to Wimbledon Station and get our tickets punched by the Station Master before rush hour [when our CheapDayReturns expired]. All this, without the aid of Radio Wimbledon, cellphones, debit cards, or even wristwatches! What a team we made.

We still do. The British relationship therapist, Dr. Sue Johnson, quotes “a traditional Irish saying” [although I can’t find it in any of my aphorism reference sources] thus: “We stand in the shelter of one another.” Or, if we are gazelles @ the LA zoo, we lie down in the shelter of one another. If Chris had used a wider-angle lens, you could have seen a spindly-legged baby gazelle, toddling around under the vigilant gaze of these 3 “lifeguards,” all of whom had its back.

Ah! It’s soothing, just to see them. No, really. Watching a cohort of furry creatures tend & defend their vulnerable members has been shown [in those studies I’m not wild about, for ethical reasons] to lower cortisol, not just in the creatures themselves, but in the observer. [Except maybe not in would-be predators, like those leopards from the previous post, who chunter to themselves, “Curses! Foiled again!”]

The Radio Wimbledon commentators make frequent reference to each contestant’s looking up to the Player’s Box where their entourage of “lifeguards” [coaches, family, friends] are sitting, “seeking their sympathy, or approval, or their righteous indignation at a bad line call.” The exchanges are all done non-verbally, but sometimes with operatic intensity. Unfortunately, when members of a player’s cohort see themselves on a telly camera [via the Jumbotron], they tend to stiffen up, cast their eyes down, and leave their vulnerable Young One momentarily undefended. That’s why it’s heartening to hear the radio accounts [or to be there in person, to see the authentic exchange of give-a-damn looks]. As my favorite Radio 1 Scottish DJ, Edith Bowman, says, wherever in the world Andy Murray is playing, she is listening, “Willin’ him on, just willin’ him on!”

Such fan support helps the player [if he or she is aware of it, and our Andy is a keen Twitterer]; but it also helps the sports fan. Remember the truth about oxytocin? It makes you want to tend & defend those in your reference group, but not the opponent. Nar’mean?

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Filed under reference group, stress and cortisol, zero-sum-gaming

"Dai-jo-bu!" ["Everbody cut footloose"]


Where would the business based rom-com [from The Pajama Game to MadMen, which, don’t kid yourself, is a comedy, whatever its Emmy category] be, without the office party, or better yet, the off-site office picnic? Nowheresville, that’s where! (Hold that thought.)

How do drug/bomb/corpse-sniffing dogs learn their trade? Through rewards for accurate scent detection, sure; but what’s the most commonly used reward? Why, play time with the “Boss.”

In the Navy, we mice learned at “salute school,” there are 3 basic postures, in the presence of the Boss Cats: “Attention on deck” [stand up straight, “eyes in the boat,” and don’t move]; “At ease” or “Fall out” [you are free to mill about smartly]; and (for me) a useless middle-ground position, because it was less comfortable than standing to attention [hands folded at the small of one’s back, as if handcuffed] “Parade rest.”

Lili’s trainer [a former Marine] taught us to tell her “Zen-zen” [literal translation, “Never”] for the “Don’t move” command, which we were encouraged to extend, for distance and duration, as we left her in the “Down/stay” position in an open space. The release command, “Dai-jo-bu!” [literally, “All right!”] is more festive than merely “At ease,” or “Fall out.” It means “Party time!” It’s an exhortation to “cut footloose,” to do a little dance of joy, to “play with the Boss Cat,” not just to follow orders.

And therein lies the conundrum. In the Navy, a junior officer used to parse a “command performance” [an “invitation” to a social event that one could not refuse, without negative consequences], using a Germanic funny voice, “You will come! You will enjoy it!” So, too, do some reluctant attendees to the company party/picnic mutter to themselves, “Aye, aye, sir. Three bags full, sir. It’s not ‘play’ if it’s required, no matter how much booze is on offer.” The well-meant but ham-fisted proclamation of the Boss Cat(s), “Let the revelries begin!” is experienced as an intrusion into one’s private time off. Worse, if one “befriends Ethyl” [gets drunk] to get through the event, one risks humiliation or even the fear of the Boss Cats’ displeasure.

So, what’s the upside of such jollifications? Well, believe it or not, they work best if the captive merry-makers are divided [randomly] into teams, to compete in a bit of low-stakes zero-sum-gaming [ranging from silly, pseudo-athletic events to charades and Trivial Pursuit]. To promote the “We’re all in this together” spirit, the Boss Cats have to muck in with the mice [at least one per team], thereby showing what Jolly Good Eggs they are, really. To encourage reference group cohesion, each team should devise a clever name for itself [not necessarily by democratic means]. If all goes well, the use of the Poetic Speech function [jokes, plays on words, mimicry, and general Mick-taking] will increase, and laughter will follow. Stress will decrease. Cortisol production will be slowed.

The “play drive” in dogs has long been recognized and used strategically by their Boss Cats, to increase on-duty “productivity.” [“All work and no play makes Jack a burnt-out, distracted dog.”] It is also a powerful motivator in humans, as taught in Management Courses for Boss Cats. No matter how deadly serious the mission we’re on, inside of each of us there is a Party Animal, waiting for a moment of comic relief. Waiting for the release command, “Dai-jo-bu!”

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Filed under comic relief, reference group, stress and cortisol

Caged Beasts


Even if you don’t live in the DC area, you are no doubt aware that we here are waay past “Winter Wonderland,” and into “Wonder When It Will Ever End?” Let me count the ways this heinous weather pattern has gotten up all our noses. Intrusion: we are all under house arrest today, no matter how many hours we have already spent shoveling our driveways. Fear: as the howling winds threaten to blow our tall, spindly trees onto our house [and maybe even our heads]. As I write, we have so far been spared loss of power; but thousands have not, and are already enduring the pain & suffering of no heat, no light and [here in the countryside] no water. But, as usual, it is humiliation that seems to have turned the area’s no-ruder-than-most drivers into what-are-they-thinking-damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead suicidal/homicidal maniacs. As today’s [soggy] Washington Post Op-Ed article put it, “The snow has fallen, and the flakes are on the road.”

Unlike folks in, say, Michigan, who have grasped through years of trial & error [and no-fault collisions], the humbling fact that 4-wheel drive vehicles are not laws-of-physics-defying Batmobiles which can overcome anything Mother Nature can dish out, these Mid-Atlantic road warriors…have not. Yesterday, for a change, it wasn’t even actively snowing; and I witnessed 3 harrowing collisions, not to mention many flip-overs, all involving SUVs. They “didn’t spend all that money on an all-weather’ vehicle, to wuss around at half-speed just cuz of a little snow!” It’s loss of face they can’t abide, not loss of traction.

Meanwhile, this Winter of Our Discontent has taken its toll on Lili, who is used to her daily one-hour constitutional, featuring brisk trotting and exuberant running. Chris & I found one plowed section of road on the school grounds [about 100 meters long] over the weekend, and ran her to-and-fro between us like a yo-yo, commanding her, “A so ko” [over there] and “Oy i [d]e” [come to me], until [like the old mare, Dusk] she slowed to a walk. No such cleared road exists in our county today, however, so it’s plow through the 4-ft-deep snow in our yard, or pout on the porch, for our caged beast.

So far, I must say, she has maintained her “good sense, good judgment and self-control,” better than most of the snow-bound humans around here have. [I figure, it’s because she is dealing with less humiliation, innit?]

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Filed under born to run, gets right up my nose, limbic system, stress and cortisol

Janus, the Gatekeeper


As the month named for the Greek god of “Shut it!” draws to a close, here’s a meditation on knowing when to say “Enough, already!” An article in the LA Times this week reports the results of an Australian study [through whose methodology one could drive a “ute,” but, oh, well] published in Circulation [as in cardiovascular, not newspaper] asserting, on the basis of subjects’ self-report of their hours spent watching telly in one week [What if it had been this week, and the Australian Open Tennis Tournament was on? S’truth!], that those who watched more than 4 hours per day were “18% more likely to die” than those who watched under 2 hours a day. So, what, if you have no access to telly, you’re going to live forever? Outta sight!

Their point was meant to be that prolonged sitting leads to poor circulatory health. “Switch the bloody thing off and go walkabout!” Sound advice, even if not convincingly proven by their data. I have another theory, having to do with the content of the programmes [it was Oz, after all] watched. In the photo accompanying the news release in the LA Times, a guy was doing a vigorous workout at the gym, while viewing a widescreen telly tuned to a 24-hour news channel. Was this a wry editorial decision, on the part of the newspaper of record for the TV & movie capital of the world, to undercut the message that telly viewing precludes exercise? Pretty cute, if so. Also, it’s grist for the mill for my alternative theory of what’s hazardous to one’s health: 24-hour news channels. All that vicariously traumatizing news, infinitely looped, ineptly analyzed, spun, repeated [you should excuse the expression] ad nauseam: it’s a major producer of cortisol [which the researchers did measure in their 4-hour-plus subjects, and lo, it was sky high].

I’ll wager that 4 hours spent watching comedies, well-made dramas, or sporting events [including horse racing, which produces adrenaline, not cortisol] would be much less toxic than 4 hours of looped news. Wonder if the researchers asked their subjects to list shows by name, or even by genre. Some great data-mining to be had, in them thar hills…

Whenever my clients complain of insomnia, I advise them to reduce their intake, not of caffeine, but of TV news. It is designed to hook you, to instill Fear Of Missing Out in you, to compel you to keep watching. I suggest substituting a cooler medium [in the Marshall McLuhen sense], such as newspapers [or online news sites]. They are less “in your face.” They give you the option to skim, or even [gasp!] skip, cortisol-agenic news items. To be the gatekeeper of your vicarious trauma. To say, “Enough, already!” and get back to your own, possibly less distressing and certainly more relevant, life challenges. I’m not saying you should care less about the calamities of your fellow earthlings. I’m saying you should watch less.

It’s not too late for a New Year’s resolution…

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Filed under confounds, murky research, stress and cortisol, vicarious trauma

Gratitude


No doubt, most gatherings of family, friends & invited strangers seated around the table on this Thanksgiving were given an opportunity to express their gratitude, either individually or collectively, either sincerely or flippantly [depending on the group demographics]. Whatever was identified as a cause for giving thanks, the very act of doing so [according to Martin Seligman and other mavens of Positive Psychology] did the “thanks-giver” good.

In fact, the more unfortunate and hard-done by an individual is feeling [like Lili on the Penalty Box Rug], the more beneficial it is, to “Accentuate the Positive” [as the lyrics of a Depression-era song advised]. Irony is almost unavoidable, and totally okay, in this exercise. Such as, in the genre of joke that ends “…unless you consider the alternative.” [Usually, being dead.] I wonder if there is, even now, a jolly japester fashioning zombie & vampire jokes in this vein…

As part of my dawn get-ready-to-face-the-day routine, while zoning out for 50 minutes of aerobic exercise [in the convenience & privacy of my basement, for which, I give thanks], my iPod playlist includes at least one tongue-in-cheek [but also sincere] “gratitude” song. For years, it has been a song off of The Holloways’ album, So This Is Great Britain? [“Generator”], the refrain of which is, “May I remind you that you don’t live in poverty? You got your youth, and you got food in your belly.” [Well, c’mon, folks, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, nar’mean?] These days, it tends to be a song off of Paolo Nutini’s 2nd album, Sunnyside Up [“Pencil Full of Lead”], which is a Dixeland-meets-Gilbert & Sullivan-patter-song enumerating the things for which the diminutive Glaswegian son-of-a-fishmonger is grateful, featuring the chorus, “I’ve got food in my belly and a license for my telly.” I feel the BBC should be grateful that young Poalo makes the payment of Britain’s mandatory TV & radio license fee [of 139 pounds, 50 pence, Sterling] sound so fabuloso, with every refrain.

Beyond any metaphysical benefit daily gratitude bestows upon the thanks-giver, at the corporeal level, it blocks the production of cortisol and encourages the production of endorphins. I find it a helpful antidote to the 4 horsemen of what-gets-up-my-nose, on any given day. “It’s 5.15 in the bleedin’ morning, and you’re alive & able-bodied enough to be down here working up a sweat.” [There! Intrusion and pain & suffering neutralized, with one co-ordinate clause.] “While I’m busy here in “the bike room,” Lili is having a barkfest at Arnold, her neighboring German shepherd, thereby adding some joyful chaos to the morning.” [Boom! Intrusion and humiliation re-framed and diminished.]

I could go on, but you get the idea.

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Filed under Epictetus said..., limbic system, stress and cortisol

"It would have made a cat laugh…"


“or a dog; I’m bid to crave an audience for a frog!” This first citation of a common British idiom [meaning, “so ridiculous, it would coax a laugh out of an improbable source”], is from The Queen of the Frogs, the last of 176 plays written by James Robinson Planche, in 1879. Besides turning French fairy tales into satirical comedies for the London stage, he was the father of the English costume drama. [Helpful for 19th Century “Kangaroos,” don’t you know.]

Now, back to what makes a rat laugh [according to Jaak Panksepp and his merry pranksters]. Before I tell you what, I’ll tell you how he knows [that a rat is laughing]. He uses the Mini-3 Bat Detector [made by the Ultra Sound Advice company, of London]. Cue the Pied Piper, in historically accurate costume. I’m not making this up. Laughing rats [also cats, dogs, primates, and human children] emit ultrasonic vocalization patterns (USVs) at the frequency of 50 KHz, which Jaak calls “chirping.” [This is in contrast to “long-distress” USVs @ 22 KHz, which express negative emotions, such as fear, “social defeat,” or anticipation of pain & suffering.] So, how do you make a rat laugh? Tickle him [or let him self-administer cocaine]. Seriously. And how do you bum a rat out? Mix cat fur into his cage bedding [or take away his blow]. Whom shall we call first: the Nobel prize committee, or PETA?

While you’re pondering that, you should know that these rats have no personal experience of cats as predators; but even one cat hair in their cage freaks ’em out. Panksepp opines that lab researchers who own cats skew rat-study data all the time, due to this overlooked fear factor on their clothing or person.

But we humans have more degrees of freedom than lab rats, many of us. What other stimuli (besides tickling & coke) might make us laugh? The ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, thought they had the definitive answer: a feeling of superiority. According to this cynical lot, all human hilarity arises from Schadenfreude: delight at another’s humiliation. Hmm. Maybe for grown-ups. Not so much for human babies and other young mammals [who are suckers for the tickling]. Heroditus [484 – 425 BC], used historical vignettes to explain how tears of joy can so quickly turn into tears of sorrow. [How the USVs can drop from 50KHz to 22 KHz, in the blink of an eye.] He tells, for instance, of Xerxes, who is kvelling over his fleet at a regatta at Abydos, then suddenly becomes all verklempt; and when his uncle asks him,“Boychick! Was ist los?” Xerxes says, “In 100 years, all these people will be dead, and no one will know how powerful I am!” Solipsistic, much?

In 1979 psychologists Efram & Spangler posited that all tears [whether of sorrow or joy] occur during the recovery phase of limbic arousal. “All tears are tears of relief.” Miss America cries because she was so afraid she would lose. Mourners cry [according to these guys] because they are so glad that the bells are not (pace John Donne) tolling for them.

Back to our putative laureate, Panksepp. He would assume that all tears [whatever the frequency of our USVs] contain cortisol: that the relief we are experiencing [whether we label ourselves “over-the-moon” or “down-in-the-dumps”] is, whatever else, neuro-chemical.

Personally, I’m saving up for a Mini-3 Bat Detector, to find out what makes a dog [like Lili] laugh. And meanwhile, I suggest we all take careful note of what makes us laugh and/or cry. I just know there are more triggers for mirth than tickling, blow & Schadenfreude. Tell you about some of them next time, yah?

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Filed under catharsis, comic relief, confounds, murky research, stress and cortisol

Turn On the Waterworks


What’s the good of crying? [That’s not a rhetorical question.] Sir Henry Maudsley (1859-1944), a neurologist and psychiatrist who took care of shell-shocked Australian soldiers during World War I, knew the answer: “Sorrows which find no vent in tears may soon make other organs weep.”

Ancient Greek dramatists knew it, too, staging tragedies so shockingly blood-thirsty [remind you of a current genre?], that audiences were guaranteed to have a good, cathartic cry. Today on the Beeb [BBC radio 1, that is], as Trueblood makes its UK debut, a group of media mavens were asking each other, “What is this current fascination with vampires and such?” One pundit opined that “in times of economic distress, people need an outlet for their own misery and fear, so they give themselves a socially acceptable reason to weep and wail.”

Cue the Possibly-Mad-Scientists. My personal fave is Jaak (not-a-typo) Panksepp [originally from Estonia], who coined the term “affective [pertaining to the emotions] neuroscience.” He studies the vocalizations of animals, such as rats, and has found that they wail with distress and laugh with delight. [Today’s post is no laughing matter. Later for that.] So, guess what familiar substance is found, in significantly elevated levels, in the saliva of wailing rats (inasmuch as they do not shed tears of sorrow)? CORTISOL. It’s also found in the tears and saliva of crying humans, folks. Talk about catharsis!

So, when Lili makes that keening noise as she is sent [or, these days, sends herself] to the basement, for the misdemeanor of barking at the UPS guy, an analysis of her saliva would likely show a whole lot o’ cortisol, which she cleverly lets “Duck” [her comfort stuffed animal] absorb, as she holds him in her mouth. In a few moments, she regains her composure and is back upstairs, happy as Larry [an Australian idiom, meaning “very happy”]. Very few of Maudsley’s wartime patients were Happy as Larry, one gathers.

How lucky for Lili (and Jaak’s rats, and human children), that society permits them this low-tech method of ridding the body of toxic cortisol. How unfortunate, that when grown-ups (especially men, or women in non-traditional jobs, such as the military) weep, they are humiliated with labels such as “weak,” “manipulative,” or “suffering from a Mood Disorder.” Recent research purporting to demonstrate that weeping only makes men more distressed [especially studies using my least favorite research tool, the fMRI], have been critiqued as culturally-biased. The subject’s (radio-active) brain is registering the anticipated, negative social consequences of crying, not a “hard-wired” neuro-chemical consequence. The brain of a male actor anticipating an Oscar nomination for his convincing on-screen crying [I hypothesize] would look very different in such a study, from his brother, the Marine Corps Drill Sergeant.

Which reminds me of a harrowing but invaluable class in our acting school, in which male & female students alike had to produce real tears on cue, for a grade. In keeping with the school’s Method Acting approach, no artificial means of lacrimation [such as onion juice on one’s fingertips, or a tack in one’s shoe] were permitted. The actor must Prepare: conjure up a powerful, tear-jerking memory, and use it as the spigot, to Turn On the Waterworks. Just imagine the endorphin hit which follows the [male or female] acting student’s right-on-cue crying jag. Talk about tears of joy!

Which we will, in the next post.

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Filed under catharsis, murky research, semiotics, stress and cortisol

"Nana Window"


I just finished reading the cover story in this week’s NYTimes magazine, which I knew would get my amygdala aroused [and it did]. It’s about people whose amygdala gets aroused “too easily.” Oh, yeah? Says who? Jerome Kagan has been doing a longitudinal [Bad Fairy at the Christening] study at Harvard, starting with babies in 1989, whom he identified as either highly reactive [to novel stimuli], somewhere in the middle, or “low-reactive.” I’m going to let anyone interested look up the article; and instead I shall cut right to the chase. “Mary” was one of his “high-reactive” subjects, and he predicted that she would grow up to be a worrier. And, lo, she did. She’s worrying her way through Harvard as I write this. To which I respond, “Oh, come on! If that’s ”bad outcome,’ whaddaya call ‘good outcome,’ Jerry?”

Many pages into this up-till-then uncritical review of Kagan’s findings, the NYTimes author cites a researcher with a quibble: Dr. Robert Plomin of King’s College, London, wonders if, perhaps, subjecting these kids to the daunting fMRI, itself, might not account for much of their amygdalar arousal. Nar’mean?

Towards the end of the article, other dissenting voices are quoted, wondering why all of the “high-reactives” haven’t developed clinically significant anxiety [as predicted by Dr. Kagan]. Turns out some of the subjects are schmizing themselves into interpreting their racing pulses and dilated pupils as “being jazzed,” which they describe as “vaguely exhilarating or exciting.” Others [T.S. Eliot is mentioned] somehow manage to channel their amygdalar arousal into creating works of art [for the amusement & edification of the more laid-back among you, apparently]. Yet, the Bad Fairy gets the final word: “In the longitudinal studies of anxiety, all you can say with confidence is that the high-reactive infants will not grow up to be exuberant, outgoing, bubbly or bold.”

If that weren’t such an obvious load of old cobblers, I [the Exemplar of “High-Reactive” infants] would find it humiliating. Anyway, for those of you who would like a low-tech coping strategy to deal with anxiety, go to YouTube and look up “Nana Window.” On 23 April 2009 [St. George’s Day in England], the usual gang on the Chris Moyles [BBC Radio 1] show were joking around with Carrie, who had said, “My Nan always puts one in her window on St. George’s day.” [Her grandmother displays the Cross of St. George flag, which is England’s (red-cross-on-a-white-field) part of the United Kingdom’s “Union Jack.”] Chris & Comedy Dave chose to find a double-entendre in her innocent remark, and immediately improvised a Reggae song with the following lyric: “Nana Nana window. Nana window.” If you can’t find it on YouTube and still want to sing it, it’s all on one note, except for the “dow,” which is a 5th higher. Commence singing at the first sign of anxiety and repeat until you feel better.

In scientific point of fact, singing almost any song will reduce most anxiety symptoms, for the following reasons. Singing regulates breathing [thereby countering hyperventilation]. The sillier the lyric, the more likely you are to laugh [thereby relieving muscle tension]. The louder you sing, the more adrenaline you expend [thereby restoring homeostasis to your body]. Cognitively, you are likely to distract yourself from the alarming stimulus for long enough to get some perspective on it. [Is the irritant really awful or just…you know the mantra by now.]

The lyric “Nana Window” is the latest in the long and worthy tradition of non-lexical vocables [such as “Hey nonny nonny” from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and more recently, “Ob-la-di-ob-la-da” from the Beatles’ White Album], which multitask, by fulfilling [at least] two Speech Functions. They are Phatic [imparting no factual information, just keeping the listener listening] and/or Poetic [since they may, indeed, be a secret code for something else[such as “Carrie’s Nan is displaying something in her window.”]; and they often are also Emotive [expressing a particular feeling]. [“Hey nonny nonny,” according to Shakespeare scholars, expresses dismay.]

Here is Lili, displaying herself in the window, while keeping [hypervigilant?] watch for intrusions. The other day, I was upstairs brushing my teeth, when I heard [evidence of] her aroused amygdala: barking. I planned to go down and assert my Pack Leader status over her, by telling her to “Yaka mashie. Asoko.” [“Be quiet. Go down to your room in the basement until you can compose yourself.”] But before I could even rinse my mouth out, there was silence. I discovered that Lili had piped down and taken herself downstairs, all on her own. Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! So, okay, our amygdala gets aroused easily; but we humans, too, can learn to tell it to “Yaka mashie. Asoko,” [perhaps by singing the “Nana Window” song], and thus stand ourselves down from our many alarums.

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Filed under comic relief, limbic system, murky research, stress and cortisol