Tag Archives: chemistry

Identity and body chemistry

I am both fascinated by the way in which my biology functions, and cautious about what of me could or should be explained in purely chemical terms. However, my chemical identity has been a consideration for some years now. I started down the peri-menopausal track rather early – 39. I get the mood swings, and my menstrual cycle is changing.

My experience of myself, month to month is informed by the blue days before I bleed. I usually bleed for six days and two of those are usually heavy and painful. My mood shifts around ovulation. This has been part of the rhythm of myself for some time. Who will I be without that? I’ve seen some fascinating stuff from Caitlin Moran recently about what fertility hormones do to women and what happens when those go away. How much will I change? Will I wake up one morning feeling angry and finding I need to do a PhD? It happens a lot, apparently, but seems unlikely in my case.

Right now I’m dealing with a lack of adrenaline in my body. Adrenal fatigue is not widely recognised as a condition and definitely isn’t recognised in the UK. I can say from personal experience that there does come a point where a body just can’t keep doing the adrenaline, and doesn’t, and it takes a while to recover. In the meantime, experiences of fear and panic result in something like being slapped in the face with a cold fish. It is weird and disorientating, and my emotional self has changed because my body can’t support what I was feeling.

Amusingly, I’m also having trouble with endorphins. Usually this is a diet/exercise issue, and problems mean more effort is required to support the body. But, I’ve been walking, trampolining, eating plenty of fruit and veg. I don’t even know why this system has crashed. It creates an interesting opportunity to look at who and how I am when this chemical aspect of me isn’t working.

How I think about things hasn’t changed. It doesn’t seem to matter much what’s going on with me chemically, my considered philosophical positions and chosen ways of being hold up passably well. Except where those ways of being depend on being able to show up in a body and feel stuff. At the moment it’s a bit like how I imagine being a brain in a jar would feel – disconnected and a tad unreal. Being in my body is hard at the best of times, right now, it is almost impossible to show up for anything other than pain.

There is however some comfort in knowing that I’m not going to have my sense of self washed away by the hormonal shifts of the menopause. Anything I’ve come to deliberately is likely to hold up, by the looks of things.

(This blog post is not a request for advice on how to medicate any of the above, nor any other kinds of interventions I might try. That’s in hand, this is only part of a story, and it wasn’t what I wanted to talk about today so please don’t come in with that sort of stuff as I find it tiring and it isn’t going to help right now. Thank you.)

The disturbingly biochemical self

Emotions are chemistry. I know this as theory, but it’s only when my body chemistry has broken down – something I’ve experienced more than once – that the extent of it is visible to me. My emotional reactions are, to a large extent dependent on the chemical responses my body is capable of and inclined to do. I know at a brain level, that’s all messages passing electronically and chemically through the system, and habits of thought form pathways which we easily follow.

Burnout has stripped me of my capacity to create endorphins. I’ve had more than a week of being sorely limited in my scope to feel good. In the past I’ve lost my ability to create adrenaline when needed. I’ve lost other things that affect mood, passion, sense of self. My feeling self can be stripped away by chemical imbalance. My mental self could be stripped away by injury or illness, or corrupted by habit or circumstance.

‘Me’ may mean nothing more than a habitual set of chemical interactions.

And yet, even when my chemical self is compromised and I don’t recognise my own reactions, I still hold a sense of self that I cannot reduce to biochemical explanations, and that seems stronger than the mechanisms. In the depths of depression I may not have much of my usual passion, but I can still hold and believe in the idea of it, I can still identify with it. The ‘me’ in all of this can create deliberate changes to the biochemistry, with different foods, rest, exposure to sunlight, activity levels, choice of environment and so forth. I can craft the context that shapes my chemical self, and I can engineer myself round to being able to think and feel in the ways that are more in-line with my intentions.

I have spent years using meditation and CBT techniques to get my fear responses back where I want them. I’ve learned how to manage anxiety by managing my own thought processes. There is, for all of the chemistry of self, a big role for choice in all of this. How I choose to live shapes the chemistry I have which gives me my emotional life.

That in turn raises the question of who or what is doing the choosing. When I choose to become something other than my situation, something different from my current chemistry, when I set out to modify my reactions and change how I am in the world, some aspect of ‘me’ is taking the entirety of ‘me’ towards being someone I previously was not. It’s easier to think of higher self and soul as being in charge – easier because these words and concepts are at my disposal. I remain fascinated by the way in which consciousness is able to imagine itself into new shapes and able to deliberately create the situations that will get those new shapes.

The general wisdom is, that consciousness is a consequence of physical reality. However, there is a school of thought that the reverse is true, that consciousness creates reality. The more I look at my issues of identity and chemistry, the more convinced I am by the second approach.

Chemical adventures in feeling appreciated

For much of my life, I’ve struggled to know how to handle positive feedback. Those of you who have said encouraging things to me in person know how odd and awkward I can be around that. Part of it is simply lack of practice – praise was not a significant feature of my growing up so I was late learning anything about how to handle that socially. I’ve had far more negative feedback than positive, such that I tend to worry more about being wrong, failing and being a nuisance, than I tend to anticipate good responses. The desire to be ‘good enough’ in other people’s eyes has always been a significant motivator for me, but for most of my life, I had no sense of achieving that.

For about five years now, I’ve been in a relationship with a man who praises, enthuses and expresses delight. Initially I found this all a bit alien and ascribed it to him coming from a more innately exuberant culture (he’s American, I’m English). Apparently over the years I’ve got used to this a bit, until recently I’ve been noticing a thing that has some interesting implications. I’ve become able to enjoy the experience of praise. I feel a warm glow in response to it, rather than disorientation.

Arguably everything that happens in our bodies comes down to chemistry. The bonding of parent to child is a chemical process, so is falling in love. Pleasure is chemical – an orgasm has a lot to do with oxytocin. Reward experiences are chemical, and it is into this chemistry that recreational drugs plug themselves.

Up until recently, my body apparently wasn’t releasing any kind of reward chemicals in response to praise, and now it is. I have no real idea why any of this is the case – why I didn’t before, why I do now. Some things in our bodies seem to be innate and automatic, others have to be triggered or learned, some can be learned in unhelpful ways. I’ve not tended to trust praise, waiting for the sting in the tail, (it was good considering how rubbish you are, etc) or the suggestion that as I can do it after all, I will have to do everything else to the same level or be considered a slacker… Historically, praise just didn’t feel safe, more like softening me up so the next slap will sting more. I can’t pin that to any specific experiences, but as teasing and bullying featured heavily in my childhood, it’s not wholly irrational.

I think what’s happened is that I have learned to trust a bit. I’ve learned to feel that people who say positive things may not have hidden intentions. They may not be softening me up in order to get something out of me or do something to me. It may not be going to pave the way to ridicule, or to increased demands, or some kind of knockdown (see, if you’d made some effort before you could have done this all along!).

It is entirely possible, that all these years later, my body has caught up to something that perhaps is there from the start for most people. A sense that praise is a good thing to be enjoyed, and a simple chemical release alongside that, to reinforce the feeling of something good. I’ve spent my whole life aware that I was missing something around this whole issue, but not knowing what it was, or how to name it. That sense of not being quite a whole or normal person may not have been crazy after all. May not have been some kind of self indulgence based on making myself seem special by claiming to be odd in some way (been round that a lot). Maybe I just was missing this small, vital chemical trick that changes everything about how I interact socially with others, and how I get to feel about myself and my achievements.