limbic system

Sex Sells (And How I Survived The Ebola Scare Of Dallas)

doctorWhile purchasing my Kung Pao Chicken with steamed rice yesterday, the young lady at the counter put on gloves to handle money (she normally doesn’t).  Though I always appreciate an extra measure of hygiene, she stated she was nervous about Ebola.  This week, the nation discovered that the first U.S. case of naturally occurring Ebola showed up in a patient at a hospital in Dallas.  Panic for some has ensued concerning Ebola- much more than other riskier conditions.  But why?

Let’s look at the numbers.  Tens of thousands of people die every flu-season from influenza in the U.S.  This number has peaked at 49,000 people per year, according to the CDC.  0 have died in the US from Ebola so far (as of October 3rd, 2014).  Zero.  Just over 3,300 people have died from Ebola- over the span of 50 years!  Don’t get me wrong, Ebola poses a significant threat and is not the same as the flu, but does it deserve some of the extreme responses it’s getting?  Is it reasonable for parts of Dallas to become a zoo?  Unfortunately, some media outlets are using fear to make a buck.  And people all over social media are blowing up posts of doom and gloom.  We all know the saying, “Sex Sells.”  But what does that have to do with Ebola?  A lot, I assure you.

I work regularly with disorders such as Panic, PTSD, OCD, Addiction, and Phobias.  The reasons a person experiences these problems is multi-faceted.  However, one of the commonalities of each is that they are “disorders of the limbic system.”

Neuroscience has offered some great insights into brain functioning in recent years.  Our Limbic System is a section of the lower rear brain where much of our protective instincts, sexual drive, and hunger drive is thought to originate.  This is different from the Prefrontal Cortex, which is where our “executive” functioning comes in- using self-control, deciding how to approach situations- rational thought.  Of course both are important (these are simplistic definitions).  If something triggers our fight/flight/freeze response, it is mostly originating in the limbic system.  These responses can help us gear-up for survival and protection (think: Bear Grylls).  Many problems that occur in life are ones born out of managing our limbic system: fear, anger, difficulty controlling desires, and an inability to regulate emotions.

A case in point, with panic disorder, a client will feel overwhelming physical and/or mental duress, and their anxiety will shoot through the roof for a short period of time- all in the absence of a threat to their immediate well-being.  In counseling, my job is to help clients find hope and experience freedom in the midst of this.  And this goes contrary to being controlled by the limbic system.

Back to Ebola.  How do we handle a threat such as this?  We face it for what it is.  One of the most important things in mental health is to tell ourselves the truth.  If we face reality for what it is- good, bad, and ugly- we will respond soberly.  And this gives us a better ability to confront threats for what they are: to make smart decisions about health and contamination, research options available and new possibilities, accept what can’t be changed, and find peace in the midst of suffering.  Then we can evaluate what is or is not a threat- realistically.  This is a powerful counter for limbic system disorders.

But wait, that doesn’t sell.  It doesn’t grab people’s attention.  To stay rational and at peace, we usually have to go counter-cultural to messages around us.  Many people get rich every day playing off of people’s limbic system reactions (remember, sex sells).  If we can market to the brain’s “pleasure center,” people will crave more.  If we can rouse fear, attention will be won.  If we can play off of a sense of not being good enough without the newest gadget, any product can be sold.

Messages swirl around us at all times, including mixed messages about Ebola.  How will you handle it?  How will you respond?  Sex sells.  Fear sells.  But you get to choose what you buy.

Yours Truly,




“Why can’t I stop thinking about this?”  “I know it’s stupid, but I can’t get it out of my head.”  “Why must I put up with this?” 

William went to Afghanistan after a Platoon was deployed from Ft. Hood.  Most of what he heard about soldiers’ experiences in the Middle East were rumors and media stories- he had no way to be prepared for what would happen to him.  After nearly 6 months of swallowing sand stirred up by 110 degree winds, William had 5 days left until he would return home.  Momentarily losing his hearing, all his senses were shaken when an IED tore shrapnel through his three closest friends.  They were dead.  Just like that.  After being rushed by helicopter for triage medical care, William soon discovered he narrowly missed death himself- the same shards of nails and rocks that killed his friends were found inches away from where he stood. 

Returning home is where cleaning up the fragments took the longest.  After being debriefed and allowed medical and family leave, Bill struggled getting back to civilian life.  Some of the most difficult times he faced were trying to overcome his own unexpected reactions to situations, usually late at night where he would awake from a noise, pulling his wife down from the bed onto the floor to take cover.  When he became calm, he was covered in sweat, visually stunned by recalling what had happened weeks before- and so embarrassed to be dragging his wife- literally and metaphorically- into the center of his problems. 

This is trauma.  This is the story of William’s PTSD (post-traumaticstress disorder).  Hopefully his story can help bring understanding to struggles faced by those dealing with trauma and respect for our service men and women. 

It’s not very difficult to have some sense of empathy for William’s situation.  It’s often much harder to understand another very real and very overwhelming problem.  It is called obsessive compulsive disorder(OCD).  You may be curious why this article spends so much time talking about PTSD, only to discuss OCD.  Two reasons.  OCD has similar features and neurobiology to PTSD, and secondly, if we are to listen to the struggles of others, often we must start with something wedo understand.

You see, whether a person is triggered into feeling distress from trauma or obsessive anxiety, their limbic system (the area of the brain dealing most with survival and protective reactions) becomes active to ward off a threat.  This is a wonderful system when it is working properly, but when it is overly sensitive, it is like a faulty check engine light on a car that becomes counter-productive.  It is a normal reaction- out of context.  Think of the panic you would feel if you saw someone almost being run over by a car- your limbic system would activate and prepare the body and mind to fight, flee, or freeze.  Now imagine it occurring at random times and being uncontrollable.  

Despite popular references of, “She’s just OCD!” and “He really likes his house OCD,” the diagnosable mental health condition is a serious foe- and far beyond a person’s immediate ability to just “stop” their ruminating thoughts.  Because the anxiety and distress a person with OCD feels is so bothersome and intrusive, they naturally seek to alleviate it- sometimes with elaborate mental rituals to “do away” with the anxiety, sometimes with physical compulsions to feel better (for example: “I feel anxious when some unknown object touches my clean clothes, so I either have to wash the affected area or change clothes”).  To some people, this sounds crazy.  But for the person with diagnosable OCD, their mind and body both SCREAM with discomfort until they do something to alleviate it.  And the compulsion works!  Momentarily.  But what it does is reinforce the neuropathways linked to disorder as opposed to reinforcing healthy, non-compulsive behavior. 

What it takes to find longer-lasting relief is to accept the problem and productively counter it, pursuing a number of treatment options that help free the person from thinking obsessive thoughts or acting upon mental or physical compulsions.  There is hope and treatment that WORKS.  We don’t have to understand, ultimately, to love.  As many as 1 in 100 people wrestle with this.  Look around- that’s someone in your neighborhood or at the restaurant where you last went.  Will you lend a helping hand to those who suffer?

Yours truly,
Justin K. Hughes