Fibromyalgia and our memories, our brains

March 9th, 2014

” Our memory is in large part the starting point for how we think, how our preferences form, and how we make decisions”, Maria Konnikova

Several weeks ago on CBC radio when I heard an interview with Dr. Konnikova regarding the science of memory , I became intrigued with the ways in which she has based an understanding of neuroscience upon the brains and memories of two fictional characters- Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Being a Holmes lover and extremely interested in how the brain works- as my readers will well know from my many blogs, I hastened to read this amazing book regarding these two distinct minds which she dubs the brain attics. This term she pilfers from Holmes who said: “I consider a man’s [sic] brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose” (cited in Konnikova, p. 26).

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Fibromyalgia: Women and Men ‘Differences’?

March 1st, 2014

“The happiest women, like the happiest nations, have no history”, George Eliot

I have based my unproven theory about why more women than men are diagnosed with fibromyalgia upon a feminist analysis of the political and cultural roles of women in societies in general- both historically and at present, and how gender is socially constructed. I have not changed my mind on this issue, but it is indeed more complex than that. However, I have begun to look less at statistics in regard to the ratio of women to men because I believe that fibromyalgia is a catch-all term that includes both genders who suffer from chronic pain and  that it is under-reported by men. In my view the concept of fibromyalgia developed as more and more women began to speak out about  similar characteristics and symptoms which encouraged physicians to deem that it was  primarily a  condition that afflicted more women than men. There isn’t any way to be accurate about how much of the population of any country has fibromyalgia. In many places there isn’t even a term for the condition; more to the point many men are hesitant to report the symptoms to a health care professional for fear of being seen as less masculine. There is little doubt that for bi-sexual and transgendered people the issues are even more complex.

It is widely known that women, more so than men, are more prone to seek medical attention for both their families and themselves. Furthermore, women are generally more sensitive to bodily changes and other nuances that are often difficult to describe. An example of this is the reported “sense of impending doom” that women often experience weeks or days before a heart attack (I can attest to that!). Yet, when women mention to their health care providers symptoms that should be suspiciously attributed to heart disease, there is still a general misconception that heart disease is  primarily a man’s condition. Conversely, when a woman discusses her chronic pain, fatigue and other symptoms, the label of fibromyalgia is more readily applied. If a man admits to having chronic pain  the affected areas are more likely to be vigorously examined and attributed to, for example- a disk, muscular strain and so on. It is my view that emotions, in particular, anxiety, is responsible for fibromyalgia. Since emotions are culturally and socially defined girls are perceived to be sensitive and emotional whereas boys are rewarded for being dominant. However, the differences are in how emotions are expressed rather than experienced.

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A strategy for treatment of fibromyalgia

February 25th, 2014

Shutting off our fight-or-flight response is key to reducing or eliminating the symptoms of fibromyalgia”, Lars, Clausen

“Every time you experience an emotion, at that very instant you create a peptide that corresponds to that emotion” (Clausen, p.27).  Stossel (previous blog on anxiety) and Clausen (featured here) have embraced the language  of peptides that has become commonplace since about the late 1990s . The work of  the late Dr. Candace B. Perk – Molecules of Emotion (1997)  specifically addressing the relationship between peptides and emotions, has formed a framework for Clausen’s approach to healing fibromyalgia. However, the similarities between Clausen and Stossle is not a big one as their intent differs; it is an indirect relationship that I find intriguing .

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Redefining Fibromyalgia: Links to Anxiety and the Highly Sensitive Person

February 24th, 2014

“My anxiety remains an unhealed wound that, at times, holds me back and fills me with shame-but it may also be, at the same time, a source of strength and a bestower of certain blessings”, Scott Stossel

I have begun to think of fibromyalgia as an extreme case of prolonged anxiety that began in early life, perhaps in utero, or even as an inherited gene. In addition to this epiphany of mine, the concept of a ‘highly sensitive person’ (HSP)  has changed for me to mean the ‘highly anxious person’. Having just read both Smith’s (Monkey Mind)and Stossel’s  (My Age of Anxiety) memoirs (and Stossels’ science and historical account of anxiety) I have become convinced that fibromyalgia is another word for heightened anxiety. Since I am not a therapist, I can only speculate about the definition/cause of fibromyalgia, but to this date my proposed theory is that anxiety, hypersensitivity and fibromyalgia are identical triplets. I have just within the past year ‘come out’ (as Stossel has)  as a highly anxious person, rather than one who has the fuzzy label of  fibromyalgia.

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Fibromyalgia and winter: Breaking the cycle of the ‘Season of Desolation’

February 3rd, 2014

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     Photo- Gabrielle Cordella-Chew . Nova Scotia scene.

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Fibromyalgia and Laughing Yoga

January 20th, 2014

“Today I don’t feel like laughing at all, but I will try”, Dr.Madan Kataria

http://laughingyoga.orgLaughingYogaGoddess1

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Fibromyalgia- anxiety embodied

January 6th, 2014

” The truly gripping thing about anxiety had always been how physical it was”, Daniel Smith

I have little doubt, but no absolute proof, that anxiety is the root cause of fibromyalgia. I know many anxious persons who do not have fibromyalgia, but I do not know any person with fibromyalgia who does not suffer the plague of anxiety. It could be the chicken/egg dilemma but I suspect fibromyalgia is the result of long term anxiety which shows itself in the form of body pain, among other physical manifestations. The book featured here by Daniel Smith, while somewhat a bit too sexually graphic at first reading, is one in which anxiety in the extreme is presented honestly and sometimes overwhelmingly. It is a sad, yet funny documentary about the many ways in which this condition can affect our bodies very dramatically.monkey mind book 003

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Fibromyalgia, self-criticism/self-compassion

December 27th, 2013

“Self-compassion is a more effective motivator for change than self- criticism”, Kristin Neff

Those of us with a chronic health condition are generally very critical of ourselves. Our self talk is filled with anger for not “pulling ourselves up by the boot straps”and living life in a more positive way, instead of succumbing to anxiety and depression. We often feel like failures, particularly when we hear of others who might have the same degree of suffering that we have but who appear to be doing so much better than we are. We are much more kind to others than we are to ourselves.eating and compassion pics 001

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Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue:Medically Unexplained Symptoms (MUS)

October 31st, 2013

“Open your heart to your suffering”, Toni Bernhard

summerfall 2013 014

There can be little doubt that those of us with fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue have challenges that have forced us to live life differently than those who have ‘health privilege’ (a term I am unashamed of borrowing from Carolyn Thomas- www.myheartsisters.org). Often thought of as malingering, hypochondriac, weak, attention seeking, depressed people we often live in quiet desperation. By now we recognize that we have developed these conditions because of an over-stimulated nervous system which cannot sustain itself in a healthy manner any longer. It is as though we have over stretched the central nervous system just as a rubber band might become less elastic after constant over stretching. Whatever normal is, our hyperaroused nervous system is suffering from years of responding to stimuli that are too overwhelming for our sensitive natures and has become  functionally abnormal . In spite of the fact that fibromyalgia is not a disease, but a dis-ease, perhaps precipitated by an illness or accident, or long-standing stresses from general life experiences, we have become chronically ill because of the pain, fatigue and myriad of other symptoms with which we are faced.

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“It is what it is”: Living with a Chronic Dis-ease

September 21st, 2013

“In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality”, Virginia Woolfe

The phrase: “It is what it is”,  rooted in Buddhist philosophy, is beginning to irritate many people. But, personally I like it; it is an apt description of my health status. The words resonate with me and do not have a mystical quality as Woolfe suggests. It gives me a sense of acceptance for that which I can’t change.

Today I bought the October issue of Mindful magazine. As I was reaching for a candy bar while paying for the magazine I laughingly asked the young man if he thought that if I meditated more I might get over my sugar addiction. A lovely, calm looking guy, he said in a sweet voice: “No, but you will become at peace with it”. In short, it will always be my challenge, the same way that fibromyalgia and heart disease will be. It is how I will choose to live with them in a mindful, non judgmental  way that is the secret to some degree of peacefulness . It is coming to the realization that I cannot change my diagnoses but I can come to accept them without constantly looking back into the past to wish I had lived my life  differently, which may have caused or accelerated my conditions. It is also not about predicting a bleak future, which is not now a reality, but living in the moment and finding ways to arrest those negative thoughts and self talk that have such a profound effect on my everyday life.

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Emotions and fibromyalgia

September 9th, 2013

“Having that sense of anger leads people to actually feel some power in what otherwise is a maddening situation”, Jennifer Lerner

There can be little doubt that emotions play a large part in a fibromyalgia flare-up. The emotions can be happy , sad, fearful, anxious or  any of the myriad of those which affect us through out the day. While I have often written about the ways in which we can work with emotions I have been struck with the continuous evidence based research regarding meditation and exercise and so I try to do so every day.

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Fibromyalgia: The Mark of Shame?

June 9th, 2013

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”, Maya Angelou

On June 3rd I heard a documentary on CBC radio talking about the mark of shame, the culture of shame and how it makes one feel. There is so much about the visibilities of women’s bodies that cause us to hide  perceived imperfections, in particular the dyeing of our hair so as not to look old, plastic surgery to hide our wrinkles, over use of cosmetics, whitening of our teeth, even the marketing of products to enhance the colour of vaginas!  We can never measure up to the standards set for us by the big businesses of the  multi national corporations  who prey on our insecurities. The cosmetic industry is constantly thinking up new ways to make us feel insecure and shameful if we do not keep up appearances of a youthful woman. We must always be thought of as sexually desirable dictated by our outward appearance. That isn’t to say that I am morally judging those who use whatever means they can to feel good about their outward appearance. Rather, it is meant to point out that we are often prone to hide the fact from ourselves that we cannot stay or look like we are in our 20s forever.While none of this understanding of women’s attempt to look like the Hollywood definition of beauty was any surprise  or new to me, having taught in a women’s studies program for many years, nonetheless it got me to thinking about  conditions that are invisible and about which we have shame because we cannot measure up to standards of health, for example, with fibromyalgia.

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Medications, Medications and more Medications: Fibromyalgia Medicalized

May 27th, 2013

“Doctors are men who prescribe medicine of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, in human beings of whom they know nothing”,Voltaire

Those of us with chronic conditions are constantly seeking relief from the myriad of symptoms that make our lives very challenging. Pain, fatigue, lack of physical abilities, sleep disturbances, depression, rashes, to name but a few of the minor to serious struggles with which we are faced lead us to desperately wanting relief in the form of medications. Living with any one of the daily distressing symptoms affects our quality of life and it is little wonder that we seek help in the form of chemicals to help us get through the day. Many, in fact, are essential to our conditions without which we could not survive. Others are prescribed from the sheer frustration of physicians who want to help but medical answers to many perplexing conditions are not yet available to them. Such is the case with fibromyalgia. What to do with a patient who has chronic pain but to prescribe a pain medication, that may or may not help? If the patient cannot sleep there is a solution: sleep medication. Depression and anxiety? Medications for altering moods.The list of medications for all sorts of conditions is limitless. Pharmaceutical companies are big booming businesses whose profits know no bounds.Physicians could not possibly remember the vast array of information that the drug reps tell them about their efficacy or that they learn about on line. More to the point ‘new’ diseases and conditions are constantly being ’discovered’ for which new drugs must be invented. Read : The Medicalization of Everyday Life by Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist, whose work in mental illness was compulsory reading for me as a medical sociology student in graduate school, many years ago.

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Mindfulness Meditation/ Fibromyalgia/Anxiety/Depression

May 5th, 2013

“If you are cultivating mindfulness in your life, there is not one thing that you do or experience that cannot teach you about yourself by mirroring back to you the reflections of your own mind and body”, Jon Kabat-Zinn

Over the past years I have written about the fact that meditation is evidence based, that its scientific credibility has been shown by fMRIs as being capable of changing brain pathways. Neuroplasticity, the ways in which the brain is capable of changing itself has brought new hope to many. Neuroscientists have shown that meditation practice is not a New Age airy-fairy endeavour but that it does have scientific value and emotional benefits in a world desperate for ways in which to end the suffering of many.
I am currently in the middle of a program of mindfulness, the third of such meditative training practices I have undertaken in the past 20+ years. For me, a cardiac patient and one who lives with fibromyalgia, the process of daily meditation is one which is imperative for an acceptable, if not good quality of life.001
While I have written extensively about meditation in general, based upon my earlier experience of meditation at the Shambala Centre, and one of the ‘courses’ I took at the university, I have not discussed the more specific mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression as it is new to me.
For those of us with chronic pain, anxiety and depression are constant companions. The comments and letters I receive daily from readers tell me that the same is true of most who live with fibromyalgia. For that reason I have been taking the MBCT program offered in the city where I live, in particular because my anxiety level is so very high now that I have had a heart attack. It has helped tremendously. I am working on living moment to moment, trying not to look back nor into the future. It isn’t easy and requires discipline to do the practices daily.
I am fortunate to be in a program led by two extraordinary women who are experienced as a meditator and are able to handle groups in a very relaxed, kind, thoughtful way for two hours. There is meditation, discussion and education happening at various times throughout the program and we are all made to feel as though our thoughts and feelings are important. Even more fortunate this is offered without cost within a safe environment. Unfortunately, it became one more undertaking at a time when I was doing a heart rehab program. Nonetheless, I knew that this was an important part of my training to accept yet another struggle with health issues.
The ‘aha’ moments for me happened when I truly began to understand a few years ago that fibromyalgia is a life long challenge and that the only person who could help me was me. Reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s works further enhanced my realization that I expended many hours anticipating pain and fatigue, worrying about the next flare up, filled with regrets about the past, and how distraught I am with the label of the fibromyalgia. In spite of this condition being non life threatening, my quality of life was not what I wished it was. Sitting still for twenty minutes a day was not something I relished. Meditation takes a great deal of commitment as it is not something one can do haphazardly, but when I practiced regularly I found I was able to be less reactive when the flare ups did occur. My nervous system loves it when I work to train my mind to become more calm. I can change those neural pathways and take another route through my mind.!
For the first two months following my heart attack I did not meditate. I was filled with anxiety and depression. While there was a heart rehab program dealing with diet, exercise and medications I could not find what my body and mind craved more…help for those emotional challenges that were self-destructive to my well-being and peace of mind. By chance I found the open Mindful group and subsequently an 8 week course that I was so desperate for during this crisis in my life. I am back on track with meditation and hopefully will continue with the discipline that is required to practice every day. Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness:” It is the process of observing body and mind intentionally, of letting your experiences unfold from moment to moment and accepting them as they are” (Full Catastrophe Living, p.23). It is not easy and requires a commitment and daily practice, and there isn’t anyone who can do this for me. One would think that sitting still, allowing thoughts to emerge as they will, then labelling them “thinking” and gently pushing them away and focussing on the breath (over and over I might add) would be an easy task. It sounds so simple, yet it is perhaps the most difficult task I have undertaken- that is why it is called ‘mindfulness meditation ‘practice’!
Now living with two chronic conditions I will perhaps always be an anxious person but the earlier days of deep depression have lifted and there is something to work towards- a future with a recipe for hope, one where negative thoughts are just that…thoughts that can be dispelled.

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Chronic Illness/ Stress/ Anxiety/Depression

April 20th, 2013

“Pleasure is oft a visitant, but pain clings cruelly to us , John Keats

Living with fibromyalgia, heart disease, asthma, arthritis, COPD to name but a few chronic conditions, is often overwhelming; it is little wonder that anxiety, panic  and often depression accompany our everyday lives. The myriad of symptoms such as pain, fatigue, and/or breathing difficulties pre-occupy us and curtail our activities of daily living. The stressors we endure on a constant basis under ‘normal’ circumstances are exacerbated once we have become labelled with a particular diagnosis. We are daily inundated with messages of fear, gloom and doom: wars, unemployment, bombing, climate change, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, fast paced technological living…the list is endless.  With at least one debilitating health condition to contend with we have an increase in our stress levels. What is to be done? What is to be done with those of us who face living with serious conditions that can inhibit a good quality of life and  seem to require constant vigilance ? There isn’t an easy answer and we usually have to become the experts of our own lives. While vigilance is an appropriate response to our health issues, it is hyper-vigilance that can be debilitating as this is a major stressor.

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Fibromyalgia, Heart Disease and Women

February 25th, 2013

“One out of two women are going to have, live with,and/or die from heart disease and stroke,…It is amazing women are still not getting that message, and one has to ask why.” Dr. Martha Hill

On January 19th I suffered a heart attack. For that reason I have not written much in the past several weeks. Writing about the ‘event’ is not easy. I could not have survived emotionally without the wonderful advice, support and  assistance I received from myheartsisters.org.  The owner of this website, Carolyn Thomas is an extraordinary woman and a  heart attack survivor herself. Please go to her website and educate yourself.www.myheartsisters.org.

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Fibromyalgia. Frustration.Forgiving.

December 22nd, 2012

“Forgiveness is the sweetest revenge”, Isaac Friedmann

Anger is not good for those of us with fibromyalgia. It activates our nervous systems to an unhealthy pitch and can bring about a flare-up. I personally have many anger issues that I struggle with, like  against: those who make war, kill others, abuse, steal, lie, are homophobic, sexist, racist,classist  and are not concerned about issues of social justice. Now I am angry with  a new breed of people, those who hack. My website was hacked by someone who doesn’t understand what it is to suffer from chronic pain, fatigue and a host of other symptoms that present us with daily challenges. Why this website? The people who write to me are those with day- to- day difficult living issues.

So, now after a few frustrating days, the site is up and running again and it is time to let go thinking of all those hackers out there. It is important to dismiss all anger that isn’t going to bring about social/political change and over which I have little control. So, I will stop being angry with you hackers out there. I forgive you for your mean mindedness.

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Fibromyalgia and winter

December 15th, 2012

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home”, Edith Sitwell

The winter blues descend upon us if we aren’t careful. This is a melancholy time of year and one which can bring about loneliness, depression, fatigue, anxiety and hopelessness. We remember that the ancients saw this as a time to bring in some boughs, a tree, and to light candles to celebrate the hibernation of the season. Trees, decorations, lights, wreaths are not  religious rituals, but that which our ancient ancestors celebrated at solstice, reminding us to welcome a season of rest.

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Fibromyalgia and Transforming the Brain

November 15th, 2012

“Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds”, Daniel J. Siegel

While much has been written about the brain and the ways in which it can change , rewire itself, create new circuits, little has been written about the mind itself as the conduit for the brain. The majority of neuroscientists embrace the materialist theory that what can’t be seen or touched does not exist.

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Fibromyalgia and Panic Attacks: Cognitive and Somatic Sensitization

July 17th, 2012

“If you are experiencing strange symptoms that no one seems to be able to explain, they could be arising from a traumatic reaction to a past event that you may not even remember”, Peter A. Levine

Two words that are now often coined in conjunction with fibromyalgia are   cognitive sensitization and somatic sensitization. I have been exploring the research in this direction for the past couple of years and have recently had another ‘aha’ moment. I am not sure which comes first but with regard to ‘cognitive sensitization’,  because of the excessive degree of empathy for others and fear/anxiety for ourselves there is vivid brain activity in the amygdala.  People with fibromyalgia worry excessively  and our attention to health related information is extremely high.  The meaning that pain has for ourselves, the sufferer, or for others whom we perceive to suffer, poses increased threats which affects ‘somatic sensitization’, that is, increased reactivity of the nervous system. In turn this lowers the pain threshold and affects pain tolerance; the consequence is that  the fibromyalgia syndrome  develops.  The two are interrelated but what does that mean in simple language? One hears, in fact seeks out, health related information, subsequently anxiety and fear develop (the amygdala is over reacting to perceived threat) increasing the overstimulation. Then a low tolerance for pain develops. Accompanying this pain is a myriad of other symptoms. But is this too simply stated? What can this cognitive sensitization actually produce within ourselves? This is a process within the brain as it receives cues that bring about arousal from a past traumatic event, that becomes an actual sensitization of the neuro system.  In what ways then does this anxiety/fear invade our brains?

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