Like many ME/CFS sufferers, I experienced debilitating brain fog for most of the time when I was ill. For those of you that haven’t experienced this symptom, brain fog is the term used to describe impaired mental and cognitive functioning. Years ago when I used to attend an aerobics class, I remember the teacher telling the class to imagine we were moving through mud (although the reasoning behind this is totally irrelevant to the issue in hand, I think the idea behind this is to imagine resistance so that the muscles of the body have to work harder!). Well, for me, brain fog is the cognitive equivalent of trying to move through mud. My thought processes seemed to go in slow motion and no matter how hard I tried to formulate a coherent thought, it was like trying to access information from some very slow, archaic computer, which clunked along seemingly operating but either not retrieving the correct information, or doing so so slowly that I had forgotten why I wanted it or garbling the information causing me confusion and frustration. Holding a sensible conversation was totally impossible; I could not follow logical trains of argument on even the simplest of topics let alone formulate responses. Following a short television programme or reading a few pages of a book, likewise ended up in a garbled and addled brain, confused, befuddled and exhausted by the sheer effort of trying to follow a linear trail of information.
Brain fog is an extremely common symptom for ME/CFS sufferers and I think I can safely say that all of our clients with ME or CFS have experienced this for at least some of the time before their recovery. But what exactly is brain fog? Well one hypothesis is that any stress impacting on the sufferer can exacerbate this symptom, the reason being is down to how our brain physiology changes when under stress.
Our brains have evolved significantly from the time 6 million years ago when we began to stand up and walk. Scientists believe that back then our brains were not so different from reptiles today. They could handle the essential functions of survival and little else. Eating, temperature control, running away or fighting, reproduction just think of what the average lizard does and you get the picture. As we evolved we developed new parts of brains with new functions. The first of these new areas is often referred to as the mammalian or limbic part as it has characteristics you associate with mammals. Emotions, feelings and basic communication are things you would normally associate with a dog or a horse. Look into a reptile’s eyes and you don’t see much emotion, but look into your dog’s eyes and we can often detect the emotion. The final new part of the brain is the cortex or neocortex; this is the clever part of brain that is involved with creativity, complex thought and language.
So how does this relate to stress? When stressed it is that old reptilian brain that takes over, and the rest of the brain goes on hold for a bit. If you think about it, this makes sense. When faced with a tiger, prehistoric man had few options. ‘Thinking’ would be likely to slow us down and result in a painful death! The part of the reptilian brain responsible for this prioritising of functions is known as the Amygdala. Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, uses the phrase ‘Amygdala hijack’ to explain what happens, which I think sums it up very well. When the amygdala interprets a situation as a threatening it hijacks the brain, beginning the cascade of reactions involved in the fight or flight response.
Along with creating problems with our thought process, the amygdala also affects our memories. How many people remember of the details of a life threatening situation? How often does it all appear a “bit of a blur”? This is because stress affects our ability to store and retrieve memories[i]. Chronic stress in particular can negatively affect memory and learning[ii] Even now, when I try to remember fine details of my illness before I recovered, it still seems a blur, because I don’t think my brain really focused on storing this information at the time; it was too busy counteracting the stress I was under and the stress associated with the condition itself.
Stress effectively robs us of the ability to think of anything more complex than running away or fighting and chronic stress hampers our ability to remember and learn. I don’t know about you but this certainly does sound like Brain Fog to me.
Thankfully, once I had started on my holistic journey back to health the fog did gradually clear, as I took control of stress and my limbic brain took over again and thinking through mud became a thing of the past 🙂
Sky Blue River
[i]Kuhlmann, S., Piel, M., Wolf, O.T. (2005). Imparied Memory Retrieval after Psychosocial Stress in Healthy Young Men. Journal of Neuroscience, 25(11), 2977-2982.
[ii]Pasquali, R. (2006). The Biological Balance between Psychological Well-Being and Distress: A Clinician’s Point of View. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 75, 69-71.
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Lots of people ask me how our programmes compare with the Lightning Process, so I will give a brief overview of my understanding of that process.
The Lightning Process is often done by those with physical conditions who understand that the mind and body are linked. This is a scientifically well known fact that is often completely overlooked. There is a HUGE body of growing knowledge and evidence that shows how the stress response impacts us physically. I’m talking about the 1400 chemical reactions that take place when we encounter stressful stimuli that change the way our body functions. Most of that change is harmful long term and certainly reduces your bodies ability to heal and recover from a lot of conditions.
In essence the Lightning Process was developed to teach people how to break the cycle of unhelpful thoughts eg stress (or any other unhelpful thinking patterns) and trigger a more resource state that facilitates the body’s natural ability to heal. It is a training programme teaching you techniques to use rather than something that is done to you. As with most skills it relies on regular and consistent use of the techniques for you to gain the full benefits. You need to give it 100% to get the benefits, but that is the same with most things. Even medication can be less effective if you don’t believe it will help you. That is another scientific fact often overlooked.
The Lightning Process was developed by a chap called Phil Parker and at least initially was based on the techniques from of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). After developing the process he turning it into a business training others to be facilitators. Many people find the process so life changing that they choose to train and offer the process to others. Phil seems like a fairly astute businessman and has created almost a franchise approach.
I have come across many people that have found the Lightning Process life changing and worth the money. In my opinion the techniques are useful in certain circumstances and I have taught similar approach to many people. However, we have also had clients who have previously done the Lightning Process and then lost faith in what was taught. The people that we have worked with complained of little ongoing support, no understanding of why they were doing the techniques or why sometimes it just did not seem to help them. Many Lightning Process practitioners only seem to do the Lightning Process and perhaps lack a deeper understanding of how to help people. As with Doctors there are good ones and bad ones out there.
The Lighting Programme is only going to be beneficial for those with unhelpful thoughts and beliefs about their condition, because those thoughts potentially mess up your body’s ability to heal itself. We all have that ability and it is well documented. I have also heard of trainers who seem to think that people will magically become physically fit after their programme. By fit I mean able to walk every day and perform physical tasks from being chronically ill. Muscles and physical stamina do not work like that, they do need to be regained gently and slowly.
If it’s ok with you, I’d like to tell you a bit about my approach? Because my approach is rather different.
I have been teaching and coaching people most my life and I find people appreciate knowing a little about why and how things work. That understanding is beneficial because often there are set backs to your healing and knowing why can help keep you motivated. I also teach a several different techniques because some techniques are better than others for some people and some situations. I also believe ongoing support is also important and offer that via email, calls and top up sessions. The ethos behind both programmes are the same though, that the body has amazing abilities to heal given the opportunity and both programmes aim to teach you techniques that will give your body that opportunity to be as healthy as it can be. However, I also believe that to create optimal health and the potential for healing you should take nutrition, activity, connections and spirituality into account.
I recently sat talking to a lady who had completed a free course for people with chronic health conditions provided by the local hospital. Her opinion was summed up as “It’s ok if you believe you can think yourself healthy”. It was not the time or place to question that, but it was interesting to hear her opinions. On the face of it the course had covered many of the things we include on our courses. However, this lady had obviously discarded much of the content as it had failed to open her mind to the possibility that her thoughts do effect her health.
The lady did go on to mention that at least one member of the group seemed to have their own agenda, interrupting others when they spoke and attempting to monopolise the conversation. This of course is the draw back of free courses put on by the public health system, by their nature they are open to anyone with the relevant condition, so it becomes a matter of chance whether you get a group of like minded individuals who support and revel in each others success or a group closed or scared of the fact that their thoughts and emotions effect their physical health.
Many people argue that if a process works it does not matter whether you believe in it or not, although that opinion is dis-proven by most drug research. For a change I wont go on to talk about the placebo effect but rather tell a story often told by those with an interest in hypnotherapy. In Auo. 23, 1952 the British Medical Journal printed an article entitled “A case of -congenital ictrhyosiform erythriodermia of brocq treated by hypnosis”. The article described how Dr Mason treated a boy who he believed had an extreme case of warts using hypnosis. The warts originally covered much of the boys skin, for example it was recorded that 80% of the boys arms were covered. However, 10 days after a session of hypnosis using suggestions that the skin would heal 95% of the arm was clear. Other areas of the body responded with vary success rates too. This in itself may not have surprised Dr Mason if it had not been for the fact that the boy did not have warts but a genetic condition known as congenital ictrhyosiform erythriodermia known at the time to be ‘untreatable’.
Interestingly I have heard it said that Dr Mason went on to try and help many people with that condition with far less satisfactory results. When asked about this Dr Mason believed that his lack of success with other patients stemmed from his knowledge that he was now treating a condition known to be ‘untreatable’ and the seed of doubt that created in his mind.
I do think that is a nice story and it goes some way to explain why we think belief in the process is important. Hence we do our best to ensure that by the time you get on one of our courses you have the belief that that you can improve and the course will help.
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If you are interested in FREE webinar I am running signup here: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/5316282007670467840
Lets look at the science underpinning what we do. Because there is research underpinning our approach. Some of it mentions CFS while others mention ME but it is all relevant.
Whether ME and CFS are the same condition continues to be a contentious issue; there are those who state quite clearly that they are different. However, as frustrating as this is for those that believe and support this hypothesis, people in the UK are diagnosed by Doctors in the NHS where the guidance says ME and CFS are the same thing. So any studies that apply to CFS may also apply to those diagnosed with ME/CFS in the UK.
The myth that mental stress cannot affect health is simply wrong and outdated. There is now significant amount of evidence (*1) suggesting that stress responses can cause immunosuppression and other types of immune dysfunctions. We are not saying ME/CFS in all in the mind, far from it, we believe that ME/CFS is a physical illness with biological markers (see our other posts). However, it has become well recognised that our thoughts do affect our physical condition and can result in those biological markers. For example studies(*2,3,4,5) have found links between markers of oxidative stress and psychological distress. There have also been psychological factors correlated with DNA damage. (*6). Another study (*7) found that prolonged stressors interferes with our natural regulation of inflammation which is involved in many diseases. So there is plenty of evidence that mental stress, which is a thought process, physically effects us and long term is detrimental to our health. Research like that mentioned above has fuelled many articles such as: Stress May Be Tougher on Women’s Hearts Than Men’s, Stress, Inflammation and Cancer, chronic stress damages our DNA and of course most relevant are the articles that state physical, mental, and emotional stress exacerbate CFS(*8,9) There are also studies that suggest that the biomarkers associated with CFS/ME could be perpetuated by chronic stress(*10) . Other studies (*11,12) point out that stress has also been shown to cause changes in the immune system through the alteration of the ratio of T cells, lymphocyte proliferation, natural killer cell number and activity, and antibody responses. So the next issue is…
Can Changing thought patterns positively affect my health? This is often disbelieved by many CFS/ME sufferers as well as those suffering from other chronic illness, is becoming more scientifically believable all the time. The relatively new study of psychoneuroimmunology has shown that there is a relationship between the mind and the human immune system. For example one study(*13) found that the ‘relaxation response’ invoked by meditation, yoga, tai chi, Qi Gong or repetitive prayer etc positively affects DNA, with just 8 weeks of meditation changing the expression of 1561 genes. Many of genes expressed differently were were involved in cellular metabolism and in the body’s response to ‘oxidative stress’ and the researchers proposed that the ‘relaxation response’ via any method may counteract cellular damage due to chronic psychological stress. Another study(*14) found Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function. However, while research suggests psychological stress is a perpetuating factors for ME/CFS (*15,16) studies on the effectiveness of various techniques to alter this situation are still in progress with various organisations working to gain more acceptable scientific evidence that support the vast amount of anecdotal evidence that is there.
Of course there are plenty of other hypothesis about CFS/ME, some believe its a virus, some beleive it’s caused by differences at a genetic level, but non of them have actually helped anyone recover. They are stuck studying the problem, rather than looking at similarities in those that have recovered.
So it seems that those sufferers of ME/CFS who are looking for more concrete evidence at this precise moment in time have to consider two options: You need to ask yourself whether it is preferable to
1) remain in your current situation, waiting for someone to prove to you that their hypothesis for CFS/ME is correct, or
2) recognise that there is a scientifically justifiable benefits for our programme and find out more.
If you are one of those that would like to know more we often run free webinars.
(*1) Pruett, S.B. (2003). Stress and the immune system. Pathophysiology 9, 133-153.
(*2)Irie M, Asami S, Nagata S, Ikeda M, Miyata M, Kasai H, 2001 Psychosocial factors as a potential trigger of oxidative DNA damage in human leukocytes. Jpn J Cancer Res 92: 367-376.
(*3)Irie M, Asami S, Nagata S, Miyata M, Kasai H, Ikeda M, 2001 Relationships between perceived workload, stress and oxidative DNA damage. Int Arch Occup Environ Health 74: 153-157.
(*4)Irie M, Asami S, Ikeda M, Kasai H, 2003 Depressive state relates to female oxidative DNA damage via neutrophil activation. Biochem Biophys Res Commun 311: 1014-1018.
(*5)Epel E, Blackburn E, Lin J, et al, 2004 Accelerated telomere shortening in response to exposure to life stress. PNAS 101:17312-17315.
(*6) Biol Psychol. 2006 Jun;72(3):291-304. Epub 2006 Jan 10.
The relation between psychological factors and DNA-damage: a critical review.
Gidron Y, Russ K, Tissarchondou H, Warner J.
(*7)Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Doyle WJ, Miller GE, Frank E, Rabin BS, Turner RB. Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Apr 17;109(16):5995-9. Epub 2012 Apr 2.
(*8)Toni Whistler, James F Jones, Elizabeth R Unger and Suzanne D Vernon, Exercise responsive genes measured in peripheral blood of women with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and matched control subjects, BMC Physiology 2005, 5:5 doi:10.1186/1472-6793-5-5
(*9)Jens Gaab, PhD, Dominik Hüster, MSc, Renate Peisen, MSc, Veronika Engert, BSc, Vera Heitz, BSc, Tanja Schad, BSc, Thomas H. Schürmeyer, PhD, MD and Ulrike Ehlert, PhD, Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis Reactivity in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Health Under Psychological, Physiological, and Pharmacological Stimulation, Psychosomatic Medicine November/December 2002 vol. 64 no. 6 951-962
(*11) Vegard B Wyller, Hege R Eriksen and Kirsti Malterud Can sustained arousal explain the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? Behavioural and Brain Functions 2009, 5:10
(*12) Marketon & Glaser, 2008 [ref]Marketon, J.I.W., & Glaser, R. (2008). Stress hormones and immune function. Cellular Immunology 252,16-26.
(*13) Dusek JA, Otu HH, Wohlhueter AL, Bhasin M, Zerbini LF, et al. (2008) Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2576. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002576
(*14) Richard J. Davidson, PhD, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD,Jessica Schumacher, MS, Melissa senkranz, BA, Daniel Muller, MD, PhD, Saki F. Santorelli, EdD, Ferris Urbanowski, MA, Anne Harrington, PhD, Katherine Bonus, MA and John F. Sheridan, PhD Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation, Psychosomatic Medicine July/August 2003 vol. 65 no. 4 564-570
(*15) Maes M, Twisk FN. Why myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) may kill you: disorders in the inflammatory and oxidative and nitrosative stress (IO&NS) pathways may explain cardiovascular disorders in ME/CFS. Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2009;30(6):677-93.
(*16)Maes M, Twisk FN.Chronic fatigue syndrome: Harvey and Wessely’s (bio)psychosocial model versus a bio(psychosocial) model based on inflammatory and oxidative and nitrosative stress pathways. BMC Med. 2010 Jun 15;8:35.
There is a nice blog on Edie Summers and her experience with CFS/ME <a href=”http://thedeliciousday.com/health/chronic-fatigue-syndrome-cure/#comment-2200″>here</a>