Admittedly, I’m cheating a little in the alphabetizing of this series but, I finished this book yesterday and it’s all too relevant. Angels and assassins are not mental health conditions; they’re metaphors explaining a hopeful neurobiological discovery in the most recent book by scientific journalist, Donna Jackson Nakazawa. I’m a huge fan.
What do all mental and physical illnesses have in common, besides trauma? Microglia. (My-Crow-glee-ah) Tiny brain cells that hold the power to heal or destroy our minds and bodies based on the way we think, feel and see ourselves in the world. Mystics, yogis, prophets and gurus have intuitively known this for centuries but now, neuroscientists have proven it. Our body is listening to us all the time, or, as Sojourner Truth said in 1833 “It’s the mind that makes the body.”
In her most recent book, Miss Jackson (oooh, I am for real) presents advanced neuroscientific research in a way that us mere mortals can understand.
What’s in the book?
True to form, Miss Jackson weaves real-life vignettes of people struggling with various mental and physical illnesses alongside dense research, which helps readers understand the significance of the findings.
She shares the story of Katie, a divorced, suburban mother with a Ph.d and thriving career at an Ivy League school who suffers from Major Depressive Disorder and crippling anxiety.
Heather is a school teacher, mother and wife of a veteran. Her husband has PTSD while Heather battles the physical and emotional wars of anxiety, Rheumatoid Arthritis and the stigmatizing shame of a family who’ve been conditioned to avoid emotional transparency in favor of keeping up appearances.
And finally, she shares the story of Lila, a nonprofit fundraiser and mother diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, Attention Deficit and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders.
All three of these well-resourced, educated, accomplished women might appear, at least on the surface, to be living the charmed and desired lives so many of us are taught to aspire to, and yet, their compassionately told stories reveal years of living in a silent, invisible hell. Why?
According to the research, their pain is the direct result of overactive microglia; glial cells in the brain that were once thought to be “the brain’s humble trash men.”
When microglia were first discovered by Spanish neuroscientist Pio del Rio Hortega, neurons were all the rage. Sadly, a civil and ego war forced Hortega to abandon his research. His lab partner had won a Nobel Prize and couldn’t bear to be outdone. Meanwhile Spain was fighting over the usual suspects: politics and religion. Hortega’s research could’ve led to eradicating a century of needless suffering but man, we’re stubborn.
Neurons were understood for the obvious ways they made synaptic connections and performed easily recognized, important jobs; like CEO’s or movie stars. But microglia kept showing up, vastly outnumbering and outperforming other cells in the brain and body, much to the chagrin of researchers. They wanted to make important discoveries and all these biological ‘little people’ kept getting in their way. (Yes, this is my gigantic metaphor for society.) Until finally, enough time, money and interest were properly devoted to studying these seemingly insignificant neural peasants. By the way, the research was led by a woman from Brockton Massachusetts; Beth Stevens. I won’t even pretend to hide my affinity for badass women from the east coast.
As revealed in the book, microglia are the brain’s equivalent to white blood cells; our internal army responsible for fighting off potential, physical infections for everything from paper cuts to pandemics. Microglia originate in the body when we’re developing embryos, then travel up to the brain after birth, where they remain for the rest of our lives. While white blood cells govern our bodies, microglia govern our brain-body expression, meaning, microglia are responsible for determining the course and severity of any illness that starts in the brain. When they function properly, microglia promote optimal, regulatory functioning of all major systems in the entire body. So, janitors are angels but if you mistreat them for too long, things get really messy.
What does that even mean?
Unlike white blood cells that respond automatically to the presence of alien, germ invaders, microglia respond to our subjective thoughts, feelings and perceptions. What?! I know. In the short term, microglia help to prevent harm but, if the danger is no longer present the microglia may be getting the message from us that we’re not safe. If we think we’re in danger, even when the danger has passed, our microglia run around in an absolute panic creating sticky, neural traffic jams that can eventually become Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Lupus, Irritable Bowl Syndrome or a stroke. If we feel there’s no safety in our environment, microglia become wildly inaccurate accusers who start attacking healthy cells and neurons which cause all kinds of dis-ease and illness. Basically, cancel culture of the brain. So, how do we make the reactive screaming stop?
According to the book, there are very expensive treatments that work to shock the microglia out of their panicked state, tell them to chill out and then they go back to functioning normally which allows us to heal and live our best life. Katie, Heather and Lila all get to try these different, expensive treatments and experience great relief. Hurrah! However, it could be decades before the fancy head probes and ketamine IV’s are available to the rest of us. As such, Miss Jackson says that meditation, deep breathing, sleep, exercise, time in nature and intermittent fasting actually work. All the stuff yogis, prophets, gurus and naturopaths have been saying for centuries.
Miss Jackson also mentions the role of Adverse Childhood Experiences in whether our microglia function as angels or assassins, noting that early childhood stressors are what activate the internal assassins. Once microglia have been activated into the survival response, without adequate rest and intervention, it’s nearly impossible to stop them from remaining turned against us. She notes that prescribed medications, like antidepressants, will work for a while but are prone to becoming ineffective against the persistent will of the mighty microglia. Turns out, taking a pill doesn’t stop the script of our unresolved trauma from running on autoplay in the background of our minds. We have to deal with it to heal it. And for many of us, adversity doesn’t end in childhood.
What’s not in the book.
While I’m a huge fan of Miss Jackson’s work, she mentions nothing about the impact of systemic oppression, discrimination, inequality, racism, homophobia, classism, sexism or the toxic, Western Capitalist paradigm on the way we think, feel and perceive ourselves in the world. The case studies of her three friends validate that even for those born into privilege, modern society offers little in the form of compassion or living in a way that reflects an awareness of what really matters. Her friends speak openly about shamed-fueled panic attacks, self-loathing and deeply seeded feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness which feed their uncontrollable fears, physical pain and self-labeled ‘excessive’ need for rest. If a woman with a Ph.d can’t find compassion for herself, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of us. What if this discovery actually proves our individual and collective need for rest is anything but excessive?
I’ve yet to find research on the intersections of spirituality and microglia function but my guess is, prayer, meditation, forgiveness, introspection, self-awareness and the active, daily practice of mindful compassion go a long way in reprogramming these mysterious, neural cells. Research has already proven the positive effects of these practices on other parts of the brain and our biology, so it’s likely only a matter of time before science and divinity bump into each other, exchange friendship bracelets and we finally get on with world peace.
Louise Hay was ahead of her time when she wrote Heal Your Body; The Mental Causes for Physical Illness and the Metaphysical Ways to Overcome Them. It began as a self-printed pamphlet that Louise handed out to friends and led to the birth of an entire publishing family dedicated to holistic teaching in the form of books, retreats, trainings, webinars and films with an international following. I refer to the book as my body bible. Quite simply, Louise suggests that our body is listening to our thoughts, feelings and perceptions and, if we can find our way back to Love, our bodies will follow. She believed in the medicinal power of transformative thought having experienced her own healing from a rare form of cancer doctors told her was likely incurable. Fortunately for all of us, the cure she prescribed is daily doses of love.
How much more proof do we need before we construct a society that’s designed to heal as opposed to hurt us?
If it takes the human body approximately one hour to return to homeostasis after getting cut off in traffic, how long do we need to recover from a childhood of complex trauma?
If childhood trauma leads to deadly dis-ease in adulthood, can sexual abuse be considered attempted murder?
How much peaceful, nourishing stability does it take before we start to believe we deserve a good life?
If intermittent fasting helps restore microglia function, has my eating disorder been a protective factor?
If we have to endure the daily micro-aggressions of a ruthless meritocracy who label the symptoms of unhealed, relational trauma as lazy, selfish, worthless and incompetent, how can we transform our microglia from assassins to angels?
When will those in power finally understand the impact of unhealed, intergenerational trauma on individual and collective functioning and respond thoughtfully with meaningful solutions?
Getting rid of charities is the social equivalent of codependent recovery. Non-profits are giant enablers of corporations. If CEO stopped paying themselves billions of dollars and started paying workers an actual, living wage, we wouldn’t need charities.
Now that we’ve discovered the profound significance of neural janitors, can we extend parallel respect to all the laborers of society?
Since it will likely require a few more centuries of war and excessive, pride-fueled, utterly useless debate regarding the paradigm shifting implications of this miraculous brain cell, let’s empower ourselves now with daily inoculations of Love.
We don’t need Love. We ARE love. Happy Valentine’s Day xo