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November, 2005, Vol. 05, Issue 11

The Inside-Out Paradigm: Survival vs. Quality of Life Part 1

By Dale G. Alexander, LMT, MA, PhD

Editor's Note: Part 2 of Survival vs. Quality of Life will appear in the December 2005 issue of Massage Today, along with a complete list of references.

The survival-oriented prime directives of our biology and nature's endowments for implementing these directives have reached a tipping point in our collective evolution.

They now are competing with our capacity for quality of life and have become contributors to many of our most common chronic ailments. Chronic conditions emerge from how human physiology accretively tends to react to stressful and traumatic circumstances, over time. Let us begin by reviewing a distillation of the research of Hans Selye, M.D., who is considered the father of our modern understanding of stress.

Dr. Selye was an endocrinologist, thus, his initial research was launched with the intent to discover the linkages between chemoreceptors, which were potentiated by hormonal influence. What he discovered were central basics of physiology which continue to be guideposts for our profession today. Most notably, he concluded that the inflammatory process was the body's stereotypic biochemical response to a host of ailments which afflict humans: spanning infections, injuries and trauma.

Selye's notion of stereotypic responses and my 25 years of investigation have inspired me to extrapolate that nature has evolved other similar default responses. Physically, all soft tissues do basically one thing, they contract. Contraction both produces motion and inhibits motion. Consequently, in response to stress or trauma our soft tissues contract, sometimes morphing into varying states of contracture or painful spasm. Mentally, when humans are stressed, they tend to dissociate, allowing nature's primitive programming for fight/flight/freeze to take over. More specifically, we distance ourselves from our bodies and present time awareness is diminished. Conscious choice and taking responsibility for the effects of our behavior also diminishes.

Let's expand even further to explore the survival legacy of human experience. As I see it, the prime directives of biology relate to four survival mandates:

  1. Fit in to the social grouping into which you are born.
  2. Don't fall.
  3. Build fat reserves and preserve fluids.
  4. All of these serve nature's end game: live long enough to reproduce.

Nature's prime directives are designed help to ensure survival and reproduction, to ward off individual death and species extinction. Of course, nature has provided us with specific endowments which assist the completion of these prime directives: The Mind, creates survival-based models of the world; Hormones, crucial to initiating and lubricating physical growth and reproductive maturity, but significantly decrease between the ages of 35 to 55; Righting Reflexes, nature's hedge against pre-mature traumatic death; and Sympathetic Dominance, which governs our primitive responses of fight/flight/freeze.

Now, let's walk through our biological prime directives and nature's endowments beginning with an infant's first task to Fit In. As babies, we must survive the protracted time of our dependency upon our caretakers. We perceive energetically and feel everything around us. We do not distinguish where we end and others begin. Our experience of events is timeless: always and never. Thus, human learning is an inverted pyramid beginning in utero, more reflective of the energetics and emotions of our caretakers than any symbolic capacity to describe or physical ability to act upon our environment. We are immersed in our environment. There is no separation.

As we grow, we learn through association, building a matrix through our five senses. Somewhere between 2 1/2 and 4 years of age we have compiled enough symbolic sets to develop models of our world and can express them through language. These models grow from sets of "do's" and""don'ts" and associated cause and effect relationships. Sadly, the models typically reflect a massive number of motoric inhibitions. The permissions for exploration that do remain are reflected in the""old saw" that humans only use 10% of their mental capacity. More accurately, the Mind consumes 90% of our neural capacity, leaving only the remaining 10% for curiosity, exploration and experimentation in order to fit into our birth family's social grouping.

The Mind is nature's primary endowment for the creation of these models. It's not wrong or bad. Its goal is survival. We are its beneficiaries. However, the mind is not our brain and spinal cord, nor our psyche, and is certainly not our soul or spirit. It's only a sliver of consciousness: a slice of the pie, not the whole pie by itself. The mind gathers the associations compiled in our early life and retroactively "assigns meaning" to these experiences. This is how the basic models which guide our decision making are initially formed.

Our extraordinary capacity to adapt to the circumstances of our upbringing is a mixed blessing, for it leaves us restrained from updating our models of the world as we age. Consequently, we tend to be""perfectly adapted to circumstances in which we no longer live." A corroborating corollary of this notion is reflected in the difficulty we have with changing our first impressions. What seems to expand this enormous restraint and fixity is new sensory experience through touch and movement and emotional discovery.

The basic apparatus of the mind keeps us playing ping pong with the hurts and self-doubts anchored in the past and caroms us forward in time to fret and fume and worry about future scenarios. Much of our energy and creativity is consumed by this ping-pong, yet it's the self-talk familiar to us all.

Anticipation is a wonderful thing when it's harnessed toward positive outcome. However, its dark side can plummet one's body chemistry into the abyss of inflammatory and/or immune suppressing states with the accompanying feelings of anxiety and depression, doing a dirty dance of inner torture with our physiology. The mind does this by commandeering the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system to drive the adrenals. This is another link to Dr. Selye's research, which concluded that the adrenals were neurally driven rather than regulated via the hormones of the endocrine system.

The prime directive of Don't Fall generally is accepted as our species singular genetically linked fear. Our large body righting reflexes are sub cortically regulated, (i.e., we don't think about them, they simply take over in times of emergency). Most of the time they transmute a major accident to a minor scrape. However, in my clinical experience, these reflexes tend to be perpetuators of chronic musculoskeletal dysfunction following traumatic episodes.

The endowments of the mind and the righting reflexes together reflect our species' collective genetic genius to be able to adapt to damn near anything. The problem is that once we have adapted, whether to our family of origin and/or to trauma, our mind and our reflexive calibrations resist new experience, new information and expansion beyond the set of parameters that have come to be considered normal. It's usually only when what used to work becomes very dysfunctional and painful that we look to changing the core elements of our being.

Click here for more information about Dale G. Alexander, LMT, MA, PhD.


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