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Bill WhiteBill White
A blog about mental and emotional health

Fascinating Explanations: Kindling

Bill White Updated: Oct 27th 2010

Okay, the cat's out of the bag. This isn't a discussion of how to build a fire. But I believe you'll enjoy this review of a fascinating physiological phenomenon that's a contributor to the mood and anxiety disorders.

campfire on a beachIn the strictest sense, kindling is the term used for the generation of brain seizures by electrical stimulation. It's a process of message formulation induced by repeated natural electrical stimulation of small and selected groups of brain cells.

Scientists can also trigger these epileptic seizures in lab-animals through repeated mild electrical stimulation of deep-brain structures. Curiously, the effects are barely noticeable. However, sensitivity to the stimulation intensifies with repeated administration, ultimately leading to the animals seizing spontaneously.

Yet, in spite of all this zapping and seizure activity, physical damage to the brain is undetectable.

Well, as it applies to our brain physiology, chronic life-stress can generate kindling-like stimulation with accompanying mental, emotional, and physical manifestations.

For example, drug abuse and withdrawal, particularly involving alcohol and cocaine, are major players. And so is the often mania-inducing ingestion of antidepressants by those enduring bipolar disorder.

The expression of kindling is of great significance, as it appears to stimulate and exacerbate mood cycling both in the immediate and down the road. Indeed, a specific life-stressor may initiate the kindling process with no symptoms in the present, only to have unprompted expressions of mood cycling pop-up later in life.

And the same dynamics are likely a factor in the generation of anxiety.

We discussed how lab-animals experience increased sensitivity to electrical stimulation over time, ultimately seizing without stimulation. Well, in humans, chronic over-stimulation of the amygdala (our emotion and alarm headquarters), or any number of forged neural highways, may lead to a hypersensitivity to fear-generating stimuli - and a propensity toward hyperarousal.

Here, how 'bout an example. Let's say a set of circumstances - real or perceived - flipped the switch on our fight/flight response. Suddenly we're rough and ready to deal with the threat at hand.

Studies have suggested early life trauma may be playing a role here, and it's thought to go like this. Someone who's been exposed to excessive amounts of trauma develops a hypersensitive alarm system due its overuse so soon in life.

It seems our bodies just weren't engineered to deal with excessive amounts of the chemicals involved. Among these are cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.

So, as a result of being chronically overworked, these systems become super-sensitive and super-reactive to stress. And as the years go by, any exposure to stress, even in what would seem to be tolerable measures, only serves to agitate this already hypersensitive and exhausted stress response.

Ultimately, one ends up attempting to live as an adult with out-of-control biochemistry. And this goofiness well exceeds design tolerances; resulting in any number of physical, mental, and emotional outcomes - including mood and anxiety issues.

So, yes, early life trauma, and its snowballing biochemical fallout, actually alters neurophysiology in the immediate. And it can generate psychopathology in the future.

I believe it's vitally important for us to truly understand the hows and whys of what we endure. And kindling is definitely a major player.

Fascinating, if you ask me!


Bill White

After enduring decades of anxiety, depression, and alcoholism; Bill made it out of the woods. He found his life’s passion along the way, earned his counseling credentials, and is ready to lend a hand. Visit his blog at, and you can contact Bill at

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Go Figure... - Bill White - Oct 28th 2010

Thanks for the kind words.

Agreed! - Terry McLeod - Oct 27th 2010

Imagine that.  Not only fascinating, but helpful!

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