Quieting the echo-effect: neuroplasticity for the very highly sensitive

The more I go deeply into The Gupta Program process (as shared in a previous post), the more simplistic “my problems” seem to be becoming. What once seemed to be such fistfuls of muddled and quite overwhelming, highly disparate and confusing, problems are now starting to transform into what seem like more minor, or at least logical and thus more coherent, blips under the bonnet of life and, as such easier to look at and tackle in a functional, logic-based way. All it takes is a more circumspect look at what wires have got crossed under that bonnet, doing what you can to uncross the wires and, at the same time, not obsessing, worrying or ruminating on the symptoms, just taking any practical steps as things occur. Things become more objectified because I am no longer drowning in the subjective.

Photo by Josip I. on Unsplash

For instance, as a highly sensitive person plus someone with the classic sensory-sensitivity of autism, it occurs to me that my propensity to feel triggered or even tortured by very strong sensations is because my nervous system feels somewhat like an echo chamber or, for a more visual description, a house of mirrors. You know, where there’s not just one refection looking back at you but ever multiplying replications of that reflection stretching on into infinity. Instead of just one thing coming at you, you have dozens or even hundreds of times the effect and they just keep on rolling.

As in, and this is a real example from my week, if I eat some extremely strong-flavoured cheese (this was vegan cheese so I suspect the use of an MSG type flavouring, under the enigmatic heading “natural flavourings”, to replicate the cheesy-effect), and even though I very-much enjoyed eating it, the flavour of it can replay over and over and over again inside of me….for days!

I can wake up first thing in the morning, several days later and, even before my brain has properly started to function, there it is…vegan cheese as though suddenly exploded on my tongue or caught in my throat!

The effect isn’t new; Ive had it for years and years (probably all my life if its an autistic thing) and have tended to assume that the food in question is one that “is bad for me”, as in, that my body is warning me not to eat it again but perhaps that is a faulty, too cut-and-dried autistic assumption (at least in some cases)? It may lead me to investigate said food or ingredient and, perhaps inevitably, discover reasons I should be avoiding it.

For an example of just how long my sensory memory retains emotion-and-sensation memories paired together, I just heard a song I hadn’t heard for a very, VERY long time and, in a split second, could literally taste buttered white commercial bread (of the kind we never had as a kid; mum baked her own wholemeal) and I was suddenly at the house of the girl who, oh-so-subtly but nastily, bullied and manipulated me, sat on a high stool at a fold-out bench against the wall with a window to my left, eating my first-ever buttered commercial bread dipped in oxtail soup (we never had that at home either). The year was 1975. The effect just now, on hearing the rarely heard since that era song, was as though I landed there and I can still taste that oddly soft buttered bread dipped in rich beefy soup.

Just because a sensation elicits a strong response, is it neccessarily “bad”? For instance, I have assumed for a long time that anything with MSG or similar glutamate-based chemical composition is to be avoided because I found out years ago they are a potential trigger for the kind of excitotoxic reactions that result in acute nerve pain or worse in some people and, given, soy sauce can trigger an instant bolt of sharp head pain followed by migraine when snuck into my meal, this seemed to make sense. But is it always the case that the ingredient is “bad” when my body alerts me to it via this action replay effect? What if it’s just a strong flavour, therefore (logically) more likely to elicit a strong sensory memory in my kleptomaniac, highly alarmist, nervous system that likes to both collect and replay sensations, and that’s all there is to it? Is my brain making it way more complicated? You can easily guess how this could turn into allergies and even MCAS over the course of a lifetime.

Since starting on the program, I find I am able to be more circumspect, as in, perhaps its not so much that a certain food is “toxic” per se but that my autistic biology is keenly wired to notice its very-strong effect, at the time of eating it, but then repeats and repeats and repeats the sensory message to the point of over-whelming my entire system. So, the problem is not the chemical itself so much as the alarm going off inside of me for way too long. Perhaps if I wasn’t wired like that I could allow myself the occasional indulgence and let it go, like most people; but this constant policing of sensory effects makes more of it than I want my body to make. It becomes a sort of obsession, albeit at such a subsconscious level that all you are aware of are the allergic-seeming effects.

If this was a mental process, of course, I could now nip it in the bud and let it go but its much harder than that when all the action is taking place under the hood of your vehicle and you don’t know how to lift the lid to take a look (you’re probably not a mechanic either). I’ve tried for years to tweak those under-the-bonnet wires beneath chronic illness, with variable levels of success but what I find so handy about The Gupta Program is I don’t have to get into all that…at all. I just follow the process and, well already, I start to get some relief.

With a calmer approach coming over me and that all-important belief that everything is now in hand (I just need to keep following the program) I can now start to contemplate that its not always an alarm going off so much as an action replay alerting me that I have had this sensation before. Yes, in my case, strong sensations tend to repeat over and over again (and this is the part I might be able to learn to interupt more effectively, if I engage my innate neuroplasticity and cease the habit of dwelling upon it). I know this because I can get the same effect from a “sticky” piece of music, from a bright flashing light, or a conversation that triggers me and then plays and plays in my head for days, in fact from any strong sensation that happens to come my way, and I can hardly call music or a light, even words, “toxic” (though they can feel that way in the heat of the moment). Its the propensity to replay and replay and replay the effect, internally, that hammers you down. In other words, the foible is that repeat factor…not necessarily the threat-level of the stimulant itself!

This happens to work out perfectly with The Gupta Program because it’s designed to halt such “loopy” thoughts and reactions in the brain, as in, it is designed to tackle the kind of loop in the brain that perpetuates a certain faulty reaction in the body. This isn’t to say the initiating…or perpetuating…symptoms aren’t real physical symptoms, but that it is the way one thing (happening, perhaps, a long time ago) has initiated a loop of responses, where overreaction leads to more anxiety thus further overreaction, round and round, on and on, in a loop…unless it can be halted or at least turned down a few notches.

Since the very start of following the program, though I am really excited and optimistic about it, I have found the “worry part” of my psyche (and that, too, gets addressed by the program…I now conduct daily conversations with mine!) has worried that perhaps the program “won’t work” for me because I am autistic. What if the program is simply not geared for my kind of wiring? I’m so used to feeling like the anomaly, the one with the a-typical response to everything that I’ve tried as a remedy (a topic I wrote about a while back) that this too becomes a loop of self-defeating presupposition. You can get so caught up in “but I’m always different to everyone else” when you have lived with neurodiversity, feeling all alone in the experience, for decades that you forget there are also compelling ways in which you share extremely compelling similarities with the rest of humanity!

It’s true, I’ve managed to find precious little information on the internet as to the neuroplasticity potential of people with autism, although I have seen it speculated that perhaps this part of us is also “faulty”. That said, I am seeing a whole lot of conjecture that we are “faulty” in so many respects, whereas the evidence I am finding from other autistic people and my own experiences is that we are not faulty so much as miss-fitting in a world devised, thus diagnosed and labelled, by neurotypical people!

So, being left to my own conjecture on this, I now find that, after four or so weeks on the program, I am becoming happily convinced that I am as neuroplastic as the next person…perhaps more so in that I have a vast array of visual and other sensory methodologies that, conveniently, blend and cross-over, perhaps even more readily than for some more typical people (for instance synesthesia, which is another flavour of neurodiversity I happen to possess), also the way we often perceive in pictures or other preferred sense; and as an artist, I am all too aware that the picture can always be tweaked when you are fed up with it looking the way it does. Using my rich sensory memory, I am able to use sensory cues to reprogram “what I feel now”, using some alternate visualisation that feels better, but actually bringing in much more than just visual cues, as in drawing on smells, sounds and subtle sensations, until I actually feel “as if I am there”. In effect, I am simply using what happens to me anyway; but now I am driving it along myself, towards the outcome I want. This helps enormously with using the visualisation and linguistic techniques in the program as I am able to take myself into a new or alternate experience just as soon as I interrupt the old one. Suddenly, the power of having strong feelings that is so core to who I am becomes a super power.

The trip-factor in the case of autism could be a lack of that very ability to interrupt since we tend to be habitual thus easily stuck in grooves of behaviour. If that trait is impossible to over-ride, how can we reprogram the behaviours we don’t want?

When you are in the midst of any particularly strong sensation or experience, especially if the echo factor or hall of mirrors effect is in its full throes (imagine, for instance, you just saw something unpleasant or shocking in front of you or even in your mind’s eye since memory recall can be just as traumatic and “real” to the brain, and now it is replaying over and over) how do you get it to stop? How does this not inevitably lead to meltdown or physical burnout?

By the way, is the sensory sensitivity of autism any different to the recognised High Sensitivity trait (not to do with autism) that affects about 15-20% of the population and that I also test posititve for? I can’t really say, as someone with both, but what I suspect is that its the degree of being stuck in the sensations that is more unique to autism. I can’t help feeling its related, at least in my case, to other aspects of mirroring related to my autism trait: my mirror touch synesthesia (feeling other people’s physical pain as a physiological experience in my own body) and the way, as is true for many autistic people especially females, that I tend to so-easily mirror people’s behaviour, even accents, when I am with them, a tool I have unconsciously used for “fitting in” better than I might have done otherwise. If these traits are so deeply ingrained, you could say hard-wired, how can I reprogram their more devastating effects? How do I break out of the house of mirrors stretching to eternity?

This is where I am finding having step-by-step tools to use so powerful. The repeated sensations and thoughts are, themselves, a form of obsessiveness and yet I am able to turn this somewhat OCD trait to good or “new” effect by learning these Gupta Program tools and turning them into my new religious practice, to “blast” the very loop in the brain that would otherwise perpetuate repeated thoughts, sensations and so on…as they happen. The more often you interrupt the behaviour loop, the more you cultivate new neurological branches heading off in other directions, until the gap between where you were stuck and where you are now becomes sufficient to gain different physical responses.

There is a particular approach that you learn that involves softening the stuck response and then allowing it to flow with the rest of your body. I have been using this daily for the last few weeks and have found it can shift many an old response or even a small mountain range of unpleasant feelings, as happened when I woke up in pain first thing this morning. If I can interrupt that process, and can then just get to my yoga mat and into my morning routine, which now incorporates the Gupta routine, I am able to shift into a different quality of experience. Its somewhat the same as when I introduced dancing, or at the very least some gentle movement to music on my struggle days, into my morning routine last year (which has already proved to me how neuroplastic I am since I have made dramatic, both physiological and emotional, shifts on the back of this) only, now, I am using a suite of tools that are targeted at reprogramming the symptom loop in the brain.

Worth mentioning as a useful adjunct is that, by chance, I happened upon an extremely interesting theory that the most obsessively habitual responses of autism can be softened by supporting levels of GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid ) in the brain since, in the case of autism, this is thought to be comparatively low (although a recent study has found there is no difference in the density of receptors it binds to; it remains to be seen if those receptors are located differently). Certainly many studies have flagged up a difference in levels of GABA, which is the most common type of neurotransmitter in the brain and acts as an inhibitor, thus supports a relaxation response and I can attest to this from my own experiences of supplementing with it a few years ago when excitotoxic responses were making my life a misery with migraines and extreme, often bizarre, episodes of nerve pain and sensory sensitivity. In the end, I decided I got on better using l-theanine as a supplement since this is a precursor to GABA but with a far subtler response (I would feel too wiped out by GABA to do anything afterwards) so I have been taking l-theanine, on an as-needed basis, for years, with very good effects. Since starting on the program, I have played with increasing the dose and/or making it more regular (I now take it a minimum of nightly for improved sleep) but I also found something very interesting about GABA oolong tea and autism, which piqued my interest again. I really recommend this video to set the scene to what I am about to share:

All teas, even your average “builders” variety, and unsurprisingly green tea, contain some amount of GABA but in varying amounts, usually under 30mg per 100g. To be called GABA oolong, it must 150mg per 100g and some (for instance the Amber GABA Oolong I now drink) contains a whopping 200mg per serving due to the way it is cultivated.

As it happens, I realised I loved oolong for the deeply soothing effect I noticed it gave me, it really is a decadently sensual brew (one of the pluses of my high sensitivity is the degree to how much I can bliss out and experience the high notes of the good sensations!) long before I read anything to do with its usefulness in this context, but had given it up ages ago due to it containing caffeine. However, a recent study (full copy freely available by emailing the link under the video), as explained in the above interview with Dr Anna Joyce, one of the researchers from Coventry University, has convinced me to give it another try and I now enjoy a western mug or several gaiwans (depending on whether I have time for a full tea ceremony…) most mornings and it does make me feel much softer in my responses to sensory stimuli and also sticky thoughts and mindsets (and, by the way, I highly recommend the Amber GABA Oolong I mentioned, its a lovely mellow cup that lives up to its name). This new study, in which the tea was taken daily by carefully screened autistic boys and had measurably positive effects, is important because its results suggest that the GABA in the tea does indeed cross the blood brain barrier, which had been presumed to be unlikely beforehand.

On days like today, where I woke feeling very triggered in the body, the effect of the tea is marked and can almost allow me to start my day over. I also notice, very strongly, how that more circumspect, objectified perpsective steps in and allows my highly organised, logical autistic traits…the gifts…to step in, rather than feeling as though I am in a whirlpool of sensations being pulled down by the ankle. Suddenly, I am on top of my day and in such a coherent state of mind; the state that leads to highly productive, creative days full of many more sensations of enjoyment and pleasure than pain and panic.

As a support adjunct to The Gupta Program, I feel it may be useful, at least in my autistic case because, in effect, what the researchers are describing in the study is an increased potential for neuroplasticity in these autistic kids, whose parents are now clamouring for more tea. Anything I can do to increase my ability to break out of old stuck patterns and replace them with new positive ones, during this process, has got to be a boon!

The long and short of it is that I feel I am, steadily, freeing myself from the boom of the echo-chamber version of life or the torture of the endless repeats of sensations I would rather not have had in the first place. Yes, my autistic nervous system may be wired to run this repeat effect all of my life (The Gupta Program cannot reverse autism, nor would I want it to), but at least I can work on scrubbing the canvas clean and then choosing the kind of sensations I would prefer to be having. This is where actively designing my life and daily exposures to suit my autism and sensitivities comes into its own; which will go some way towards repairing the damage done by not realising I was autistic for all those years I was “out there” trying to live like a neurotypical person, which lies at the very root of many of my deepest traumas.

I won’t be making those mistakes again and this opportunity to reboot is just what I need, two years after diagnosis. I may not be able to scrub the precipitating effects that led to chronic illness but I can work on scrubbing the endless repeat of them inside my highly-sensitive wiring; and also on mitigating the kind of assumptions that have led me to over-think sensations I am exposed to, because now I can smile as I remind myself they are “just a loop in the brain”. If a sensation is too strong for my high sensitivity I can choose to avoid it right now, or I can reconsider whether its good for me to be exposed to it anymore, in as circumspect a way as I can muster, and if it can’t be changed or avoided, I can remind myself that the fact I am noticing it doesn’t have to mean anything in particular…and I don’t always have to be so alarmed. Imagine!

Resources:

The Gupta Program – Brain retraining for chronic conditions

“There’s a difference in the function of the system, the GABA system, but it’s not associated with the difference in GABAA receptor number,” says Murphy. “So there’s some other explanation for what might be driving that difference in GABA. And that’s the question: What could be driving those differences if it’s not GABAA?” – article comparing the various studies that have been conducted, so far, relating to GABA levels in autism, GABA receptors are normal in people with autism, The Scientist

A double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomised-designed GABA tea study in children diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions: a feasibility study clinical trial registration – 2019

2 thoughts on “Quieting the echo-effect: neuroplasticity for the very highly sensitive

  1. I’m pretty sure that autistic people have neuroplasticity (I feel I consciously work with mine). It’s just going to be different than neurotypicals’. I also find there are areas in my brain that I just can’t develop further (like in social communication processing), no matter how much I try, so I have to accept those limitations ( sometimes, it helps me to recognize them as a disability, to give myself permission to skip certain activities or expectations or to ask for accommodation). I’ve also wondered if, while not all HSPs are autistic, if all autistic people are HSPs.

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    1. I agree, I’ve reached the place where I have given up on constantly trying to rewire my social aspect (or, I feel like I already worked as hard as I could at that for years and was pretty convincing as an NT, akin to many autistic women…but it never felt authentic, in fact it was often torturous, and led directly to burn out) so I’ve done with the pretence now. Of course, it helps that my husband is wired pretty much the same way. It now helps me enormously, as you say, to give permission to that part of myself and allow her to choose to duck out of what doesnt feel comfortable or fitting (in ways that I wasnt allowed to when I was younger or where I felt I had to adapt to survive…therefore highly fear-based). It feels like re-parenting or re-mentoring that early part of myself to say its OK to choose different but also allowing myself to fully expand into who I really am for the senior part of my life (a bit like people allow themselves to become more eccentric as they get older) and also declaring myself “done” with fear-based motivations…after all, why should I fit in socially if I am doing nobody any harm leading my quiet life, who wrote that requirement into law? Its a strange premise that we suposedly have to join in socially when some of us prefer not to engage very much or put ourselves through the endless challenges and hoops; nothing should have to be that hard.

      It therefore comes from a deeply loving motivation when I say to myself “let that all go” and feels neccessary for my healing to drop the idea of having to resculpt that part of me to fit in more, even though I do know I need to resculpt the parts that get overwhelmed into pain…for my own comfort, so I guess the defining aspect is, does it feel comfortable and self-supporting to change (and, if not drop the idea of it).

      I’ve also wondered, as you have, whether all autistic people are HSPs though, as you say, not all HSPs are autistic and I suspect it might be true through not in a very streamlined or obvious way (as in, each being sensitive to highly individual things whereas HSPs in forums tend to have very similar sensitivities in common, some of which sound fairly mild to me with all my quirks).

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