May 11, 2015

Stress, Memory & Moving Beyond Fragmentation.


“I discovered what it was like for people who had never been safely and securely held […] These were people who […] did not yet have inside themselves a visceral experience of that calmly abiding center; I discovered that patients who did not have enough of a taste of this experience had a terrifying sense of shakiness, fragmentation and impermanence at the core of their sense of self.”
~ Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope

I recently read this book by Kripalu Senior Teacher Stephen Cope, and it is rife with many perspective shifting ideas that I’ve slowly been digesting.

When I first read the above quote, it resonated so deeply that I had to pause and check in, running through my head all the times I’ve felt this sense of fragmentation and impermanence.

The story of my early childhood is likely the current American standard; I grew up coping with the fall-out of divorcing parents and the instability of an uncertain home environment. My parents did the best they could, but they certainly had their own grief and fall-out to cope with.

Ultimately, it’s only been in my adult years that I’ve developed any capacity to cope with emotional stressors effectively, or to feel like I had an ongoing presence in the world.

I’ve spent a lot of my life living in fear (or maybe even in desire) that I would just stop existing—others would no longer recognize me, I would no longer be important to them. I lived in such a constantly stressed state that I processed my own experiences as a series of freeze frames without a coherent flow from one experience to the next.

I constantly felt like a deer in headlights—uncertain of where to run, how to act, who to be, how to accept myself. I had a sense of perpetually existing on a fault line, like any moment the ground beneath me would crumble. I have very limited memories of my young life, and only recently have I begun to see some improvements on this front. I feel like I’m starting to develop the capacity to self-soothe, to check in with my own calm, abiding center, to move slowly, calmly, and fully through my life.

The neuroscience behind my subjective experiences explains quite a lot. Chronic stress activates the HPA axis, a major component of our stress response, partially responsible for the release of cortisol, one of the main stress hormones. Cortisol has a myriad of negative impacts, such as its neurotoxic effect on the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for higher level thought and planning; it also stimulates the activity of the amygdala, the brain’s alarm system, and shrinks the size of the hippocampus, the site of memory encoding and learning.

As a result, our fear and emotion-based responses are exacerbated, while learning and long-term memory storage are impaired. There is a very clear physiological basis for this feeling of fragmentation I have felt and that Stephen Cope describes seeing in many of his psychotherapy patients.

In yogic terms, when we act from our stress-based response systems, we act from more instinctive, automated habits and movement patterns—characterized by jerky, inconsistent movements, aggressive and defensive reactions; we follow more primal drives like hunger, greed, anger and sexual desire. We become immersed in the kleshas, the five afflictions that cause suffering—ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and fear of death. We lose our awareness of our connection to brahman, the ongoing, unchanging reality that exists in perpetuity. We lose our capacity to experience life fully, immersed in our moment-to-moment experience instead of losing ourselves to automated behavior and reactions.

But there’s good news! There are many ways to move away from chronic stress-based living and the associated consequences!

Exercise: Increases brain-derived neurotropic factor, which strengthens brain cells and neuron connections—especially aerobic exercise.

Yoga! Beyond the general positive benefits of exercise, yoga, and to some extent meditation, activate the relaxation-response, the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby limiting the stress response. Additionally, one study published in The Indian Journal of Psychiatry tested a six month long yoga intervention on a group of elderly individuals and found a significant increase in hippocampus size.

Furthermore, moving slowly and deliberating helps activate the neocortex, taking us even more away from our lower brain level responses.

Meditation: Mindfulness-based meditation practice has been shown to shrink the size of the amygdala, minimizing our emotional and fear-based responses. Beyond that, meditation increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, improving attention span and awareness.

Those are my personal favorites, and after several years of incorporating those activities into my life, I am beginning to feel the subjective differences of my physiological changes. As I shift more to slow, deliberate awareness, I live from a place of witnessing, of non-judgmental self-awareness and compassion. Start small, even five to 10 minutes a day is enough to show an effect in stress-reduction; the key is maintaining a steady, regular practice.

In time, these practices put us in touch with our own calm, abiding center and welcome us into the cohesive flow of life all around us.



Pema Chodron: How to do Tonglen, a meditation practice for difficult times.


Author: Leah Van Winkle

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wikipedia

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