My Anxious Brain

I’ve just finished reading Joseph LeDoux’s most recent (2015) book Anxious: The Modern Mind in the Age of Anxiety, in an attempt to get a better handle on why I feel so anxious as I recover from CFS, and what I might be able to do about it.

LeDoux is the neuroscientist whose earlier work inspired Ashok Gupta’s amygdala hypothesis for CFS. Another fun fact about him is that he plays music in a band called The Amygdaloids. I’ve noticed that a lot of highly intelligent and creative people love playing music, even if it’s not their main gig in life. My guess is that it exercises the emotional side of the brain that often gets neglected in our overly analytical western society. Writing books about how emotions work in the brain isn’t the same as actually feeling something.

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Anyone experimented with Heart Rate Variability measurement?

If the theory about CFS being caused by an infection of the vagus nerve leading to chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system is correct, then it should show up in Heart Rate Variability measurements. HRV is supposed to correlate with parasympathetic nervous system arousal. I saw a psychologist a few years ago who was right into it when I was really stressed out and this technology first hit the market, but the devices at the time were specialized and expensive and I never asked him to test me, so I never actually got my HRV measured.

Now HRV measurement devices are relatively cheap though, and a friend of mine recently put me onto the EliteHRV app, which works on an iPhone with a relatively inexpensive Polar H7 Heart Rate Sensor.

The basic idea is that the more time your body spends in parasympathetic arousal, associated with higher HRV readings, the more recovery/healing you get.

I’ve just started this morning with my first Morning Readiness reading; so it’s too early to give any concrete results. I have noticed that my HRV drops while playing Yousician Piano, presumably because I’m still learning and the challenge of getting the notes right is mildly stressful. I hope this changes as I play better, since I play music to relax; not to get more stressed.

Anyone else experimented with HRV measuments?

Vagus Nerve Infection?

A relatively new friend who I told that I’m now coaching people with CFS just pointed me to this interview with Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Michael Van Elzakker, who hypothesises that CFS might be caused by an infection of the vagus nerve.

Wikipedia reckons it looks something like this. "Gray793" by Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body. Gray's Anatomy, Plate 793. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
Wikipedia reckons it looks something like this. “Gray793” by Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body. Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 793. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Listening to the interview, it sounds like a pretty compelling theory. On the same day, another friend of mine who has suffered depression and fatigue for a long time messaged me to say that supplements he was taking to boost his acetylcholine, which happens to be the principal vagal neurotransmitter, are working wonders for him.

This article suggests that acetylcholine can also be boosted by being kind and compassionate to others, which could explain why I feel better physically when I’m putting my attention on helping other people. It also mentions chanting; I joined a chanting/kirtan group a few months ago, and find that singing just plain feels good. Perhaps the reason it feels good is because it stimulates the vagus nerve.

If doing this reduces the stimulation/inflamation/whatever-mechanism-makes-us-feel-bad then the symptoms lessen because the brain no longer believes that the body is under attack. I’ve noticed for a while that we get symptoms when we’re under stress, like people with HSV-1 get cold sores when under stress. Most of our stress is interpersonal (I heard someone once say “all stress is social”), which could explain why the assertiveness keys of Mickel Therapy seem to work.

I also really liked Dr Van Elzakker’s compassionate attitude to people with CFS. Researchers seem to come in for a lot of criticism online, and it’s awesome to hear him saying things like: “If your doctor believes that your condition is psychological, fire them.” He also had some good practical advice for dealing with symptoms while waiting for the magic cure. I found just listening to the interview gave me a greater sense of inner peace about the whole thing.