The Pathophysiology of Election 2012: U.S. Presidential Election Is Negatively Impacting Everybody’s Health
If the DOW Jones averages were as high as the tensions between Americans about the upcoming election, Wall Street would be Disneyland—the happiest place on earth. America, and the world, has never been as passionately divided about a U.S. presidential election as we are about this one.
The problem is simple, yet complex. The simple part: we have a bi-partisan system. The goal of each party is simple: control the White House and the congress. The complex part: There are various types of psychological pathologies that have not only gone unrecognized but have been embraced by our society as something to strive for—case in point extreme wealth.
“Anything in the extreme goes against nature”—Hippocrates
From day one we are taught in this country that success is commensurate with how much money you have, how big your house is, how expensive and fancy your car and clothes are. Money is a good thing. Poverty is the worst kind of abuse. However, what is money? Money is currency. And what is currency—a tool for achieving things. Therefore money in essence is a type of energy. To this point: if you have money you can employ people, and their time and effort can be directed towards your goals, thereby directing a greater energy force towards your agenda. There is nothing wrong that, in essence.
Having excess energy is certainly not a crime, and not inherently a bad thing. Just like having superior athletic ability is not a crime or inherently a bad thing. It’s generally a good thing when an athlete uses his or her superior physical abilities to play professional sports. However, if that same athlete were to instead use those abilities to physically over power others to chase people down and pummel and rob them, then it becomes a bad thing. So then, it’s not the ability that is the issue, but the use of it. The same is true of extreme wealth, it’s not the issue, it’s partly how it is used, partly how it is pursued and other matters that become problematic.
The problem is not just the people who have extreme wealth. It’s just as much, if not more, the people who have never had extreme wealth, who want it and participate in the delusion that they can have it. So pointing a judgmental finger at the rich is not the solution. The solution is evaluating our priorities as a species. Humans are a social species. Being social, or concatenating our needs with the needs of fellow humans is what we do. It is one of the ways we participate in humanness. Our strength lies in our ability to band together. Without each other, we are nothing. Our ancestors would not have survived in the wild if they did not have each other. A fish that jumps out of the water, defying a fish’s nature, perishes. When we lose sight of being a social species we become the fish that jumped out of the water.
When having extreme wealth becomes more important than your fellow citizens, more important than scruples, more important morals, more important than obeying the laws, more important than the air we breathe, or the condition of the planet we live on—there’s a problem. When the abuse of women, children, the elderly, and the infirmed becomes a secondary concern to acquiring more wealth, there’s a problem. There is something seriously wrong. Where have seen this type of reckless abandon before? Sadly, this is very familiar human behavior: we see it in alcoholics, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers, compulsive overeaters, sex addicts etc. Compulsive greed is no different. When you have more money than you need, and yet you devote the energy and power potential of that money to acquiring more money at enforced misery and danger to countless others—you have a problem.
Like any garden variety addiction—the addiction to money is no different—it’s a dopamine problem in the reward center in your brain, where wanting more of something becomes more neurochemically desirable than actually getting it because you get more dopamine (the brain’s feel good drug) from the anticipation of getting something than the actual acquisition because dopamine encodes (is released) in the nucleus accumbens (the reward center of the brain) on the anticipation of reward, not the actual reward. It’s called incentive salience (the knowledge that something will get something)—Pavlov’s dogs. That in tandem with the fact that the dopamine affect attenuates (you build up a tolerance and need more) makes for a deadly social cocktail.
To further the problem, the politicians are addicted to politics. It is no longer for the people, by the people, about the people. It has become the wealthy narcissist’s ego sport. The last two years the United States Congress spent all of its energy and countless tax dollars trying to destroy the president. Excuse me, but isn’t the job of the congress to serve the people? Aren’t the president and the congress first Americans, then secondly Democrats and Republicans, or did I misunderstand something in civics class?
So now here we are, a week and some change away from the presidential election. It has been beyond ugly. The Republicans have gathered the religious extremist, the racists, the women haters, the homophobes and the wealthy greed addicts, to rally around a man that clearly lacks the honesty and integrity that one would expect in a presidential candidate. Sadder yet, the election is close—exposing our electoral process, and the people concerned for what they are—less than fair. Most concerning is the millions of Americans who will vote against their own best interests because they hate women’s right to choose, gays rights to marry, and Obama’s biracial heritage more than they love their interests, their environment and their children’s future. When you hate someone else more than you love yourself, how can that be anything but irrational?
When humans behave like this, any neuroscientist will tell you, “their cortex is offline” meaning the old mammal brain perceives a threat that is so severe it has shut down the thinking part of their brain and the old “survive now, ask questions later” mammal brain has taken over. It’s an evolutionary survival trait—a zebra hears a rustle in the bush, he runs, he doesn’t stop to think about whether or not it is a lion because if he does and it is a lion he’s eaten. Whereas if he runs, whether it is a lion or not he survives. It is the mandate of the fight-or-flight response in humans. The people who are in the Republican camp feel threatened. They feel that what keeps them safe is in danger. It does not matter if being threatened by a woman’s right to choose, two peoples right to marry and love, everybody’s right to clean water air, or the pigment in a leader’s skin is irrational. Threat is threat in the brain.
Now on the other side we have the gays, the blacks, the elderly, the infirmed, the Latinos, the women, the environmentalists, and the socially and environmentally conscious. They feel very threatened and that threat is very real in their brain. Adding to that threat is the recent knowledge for many, that those around them who they trusted and loved are seemingly placing political agendas above their basic human rights. It’s tearing families, friendships and communities apart. It is turning Facebook and Twitter into a cyber war zone. More than that, it is physically making us ill, why, the pathophysiology of stress.
Stress (the villain)
Stress is any change in equilibrium or balance requiring a response by the organism to return to equilibrium. The term stress comes from the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English terms for strain, Stresse and De Stresse, respectively. Over the years, we have used the terms stress and distress interchangeably. In terms of the brain, and science “distress” and “stress” are not the same. While all distress is stress. Not all stress is distressing. Generally speaking, stress is the pressure that life exerts and how it makes us feel: Stressors can be pleasant, or unpleasant. It can be as minor as blinking an eyelid in response to a bright light, or as traumatic as waking up in bed with Jeffrey Dahlmer wearing a sesame seed bun and lettuce.
Allostasis (the ally)
Allostasis is the process by which an organism responds to stress and returns to equilibrium. In humans, the brain is the key organ in the allostatic response mechanisms employed to mediate stress. The brain determines what is threatening and potentially stressful. This determination involves emotion and memory. The human brain is particularly good at storing memories with strong emotional content. Both political parties rely heavily on appealing to memories with strong emotional content: the Republicans, “national security, the family, fiscal responsibility, less taxes” the Democrats, “human rights, equality, a strong middle class.” Both of them, “lets get America working”. The reality is those are just buzz words for both parties. Their devotion to any of those things is dictated by the status quo of the political climate.
Anyway, back on the farm, emotional memories can form on a dime and give 9 cents change. The hippocampus, a structure in the limbic system of the brain acts as monitor of reality, hippocampus compares the outside world with the brain’s representations of it. Sudden change will send the hippocampus into action. The hippocampus will engage the amygdala (an almond shaped cluster of nuclei in the limbic system that deal with fear and sexuality) If there is fear or strong positive emotion involved, the amygdala the hippocampus jointly form conscious memories of emotional events. Humans do not have to reinforce these memories by studying them as we do with less emotionally significant memories, such as remembering the capital of Chad, or Brad Pitt’s birthday. A powerful emotion, such as waking up in Chad (or worse yet, waking up with some Chad in you) can sear a memory into the brain’s very structure. Such memories take place in the Amygdala.
A frightening experience, (such as discovering you are Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh’s love child), will activate the amygdala immediately, without having to reconcile with the neocortex or intellectual, reasoning part of the brain. This is what neuroscientists mean by “cortex offline”. Stress hormones can affect the amygdala by permanently altering, Perceptions, Memories, Emotions and Sensations. Before memories are formed, the amygdala activates the stress hormones pathway through a massive infrastructure of nerves. This process “galvanizes” the nervous system to reactions such as combat or escape. This Amygdala reaction is a built in survival mechanism that prompts us to survive now, ask questions later.
The brain determines the physiological and behavioral responses to threat and stress. The organizational function of the stress response is to make energy that is relegated for long-term usage accessible for immediate needs. Allostasis begins in the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus alerts the adrenal glands which are on top of the kidneys. The adrenals respond by pouring out the first stress hormones. Epinephrine (commonly called adrenaline in the U.S.) enacts the classic fight or flight response. Increased heart rate sends extra blood to the muscles and organs. Bronchial tubes in the lungs dilate facilitating more oxygen to the brain, triggering fibrinogen, which accelerates blood clotting a further defense against blood loss e.g., from the infliction of wounds. These things mobilizes the body to release glucose from energy stores such as glycogen too release fatty acids from stored fats to provide a ready source of energy. When used judicially by our physiology these are all good things. When not, it’s problematic.
Allostatic Load: (When the ally becomes the enemy)
Allostatic Load is the scientific term for the biological consequences of stressed out. It occurs when the allostatic response mechanisms of the body, which keep you healthy, start making you sick. This occurs for various reasons, but it is seldom malfunction of the mechanism itself. Most often it is the result of over use of the mechanism. Just as there would be collateral damages from riding the brakes on your car, there are consequences from riding your stress regulatory systems. That is what is happening with this election. It is stressing everybody out.
There are four types of Allostatic load:
Type-I Allostatic Load evolves from chronic stress. Chronic stress takes its toll most immediately on the heart. When the flight-or-fight response engages, moving rapidly becomes the first priority. The first of the stress hormones to respond is norepinephrine (adrenaline). It courses through the sympathetic nervous system accelerating the heart rate, increasing blood pressure to drive more oxygen to the larger muscles of the arms and legs, because it takes oxygen to prepare for the eventuality of fight or flight.
If these sudden surges in blood pressure occur too often, they damage the blood vessels in the coronary arteries. The damage occurs where the arteries become clogged with a sticky build up that sets the stage for arteriosclerosis. In humans, too many sudden escalations in the blood pressure can trigger myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) in clogged blood vessels. Studies with primates show that stress can aggravate this clogging process. The Whitehall Studies in England showed that blood pressure was the lowest among the upper-echelon employees and highest among the rank and file. Quelle surprise for any one who has ever been the “support staff.” Chronic Stress also suppresses the immune system, because when homeostasis is under siege resources must be directed towards the campaigns that are most vital.
Type-II Allostatic Load is the inability to habituate to stress because cortisol levels do not decrease after the stressor has been removed. Universities around the country have done stress tests by measuring cortisol levels in the saliva at various intervals after research participants have completed a task. What they have learned is that most people will laugh nervously, an inaugural allostatic response to stressful situations that are anxiety driven, such as getting a new job, or making a speech. Most people will experience decreases in cortisol, after having been on the job, or given the speech more than once. Some people however, will not. That is because in the latter population allostasis has reached load status.
Type-III Allostatic Load is the inability to discontinue the stress response. Everyone knows a person that “just will not let go of things.” A more accurate assessment of that situation would be “just cannot let go of things.” Apparently, with age (or mileage) the ability of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Axis (HPA) and sympathetic nervous system to interpret and respond to the adrenaline and cortisol levels returning to baseline becomes compromised.
Type-IV Allostatic Load is the underproduction of stress hormones. Asthma, allergies, and fibromyalgia are associated with the under production of stress hormones.
There are many physical disorders associated with allostatic load, for example, metabolic disorders resulting in obesity. While being very overweight puts a strain on the heart, and excess body fat, particularly in the abdominal area (the pear, as opposed to the apple, shape) is more than a health-risk, posing condition. It is also an accepted sign of allostatic load. In primates, psychological stress can speed up the rate at which fat is deposited in the body. In humans, obesity, as measured by an increased waist-to-hip ratio tends to show up in the people most vulnerable to stress. Accelerated incidence of this type of obesity presents in males in lower end of the social economic scale. This was also found to be true in both men and women at the lower rungs of the civil service hierarchy in the English Whitehall studies. I would be curious to see how this election has affected America’s eating habits.
Chronically elevated cortisol has been linked to the development of insulin resistance. This is a known risk factor for Type-II Diabetes (non-insulin-dependent diabetes).
The global symptoms of allostatic load are Fatigue, Lethargy, Irritability, Demoralization, Hostility, Apathy, Hopelessness and Helplessness. Have you seen any of those things recently? We all have: on the television, on the Internet, in the supermarket, in our mirrors. We have a serious problem. The conversation has gone away from the real issues and degenerated into one that pits one groups highly charged emotional fears against another’s for the sake of advancing the political agendas of the politicians. The people are only an issue, in that the people bankroll this theatre of the absurd, with our money, our efforts, our environment and our health.