People from all cultures and ages have known the benefits of inviting our system to release and relax. It’s built into us to seek various ways of releasing stress and tension, and find a deeper relaxation. What I am writing about in this post is not new in its essence, although the language obvious reflects my own time and culture. (I am sure what I write here will seem hopelessly outdated in a few decades, or perhaps even sooner.)
We have known for a while about the sympathetic and parasympathetic parts of the nervous system. The sympathetic is the flight, fight, and freeze response. And the parasympathetic is responsible for digesting, restoring, and allow for healing.
Both are essential for our survival. The flight/fight/freeze response is vital for us in situations that threatens our survival or well being. And the “resting and digesting” allows for healing and restoring.
At the same time, if the flight/fight/freeze (FFF) response becomes chronic, it’s not good. If it’s chronically on alert, as if a threat can be around any corner, it adversely impacts our well being and health. It reduces our ability to fight off disease, restore, and heal.
And the FFF response is chronic for many of us today. It becomes chronic through chronic stress, and through trauma – whether from one or a few major traumatic events or built up from many smaller traumatic events.
So what can we do?
There are the usual ways to relax.
Go for a walk. Move. Be in nature. Garden. Walk barefoot in nature.
Eat nourishing food. Drink plenty of water.
Do yoga, tai chi, chi gong, Breema etc.
Nurture nourishing relationships. (With yourself, your body, your heart, your belly, your mind, friends, family, partner, children, nature, society, past and future generations, the universe, life.)
Create a stable and nurturing life situation. (To the extent possible.)
There is Natural Rest, and various forms of mindfulness and meditation. These typically have relaxation – of body and mind – as a side-effect, and this can become a new habit. There is also the possibility of recognizing what we are, which opens for an even deeper relaxation.
There is also inquiry, which can help us see through (dismantle) stressful beliefs and identifications. Again, this can lead to a deeper mind-body relaxation.
In addition, some of these approaches specifically reprogram the stimuli-response patterns that create stress.
There is a stimuli – in the form of images, words, smells, sounds, movement, and sensations – and a response. When the nervous system is “on edge”, and the sympathetic branch is chronically activated, some or many of the stimuli we experience daily can trigger a FFF response, even they are not really a threat. They are perceived as a threat, at some level in us, so our nervous system respond as if they are an actual threat, even if a more relaxed and calm response would be more appropriate (in a conventional sense) and helpful.
These stimuli are, as mentioned above, images, words, smells, sounds, movement, and sensations. It can be a reaction to sound, which can lead to misophonia. It can be a reaction to smell, for instance chemical sensitivity. It can be a reaction to sight or mental images. It can be a reaction to heard or imagined words. It can be a reaction to sensations, especially when these appear combined with certain images and words.
It can be a reaction to images, words, and sensations making up (apparently) traumatic or stressful stories and identities.
It can even be a reaction to heat or cold (over sensitivity to heat or cold), the sensations of physical exertion (often a part of CFS), or the sensations of fatigue or brain fog (another part of CFS).
Here are a couple of ways to intentionally reprogram how our nervous system responds to various stimuli.
When you notice a stimuli that typically trigger a FFF response (unease, stress, tension, discomfort), intentionally notice and allow the stimuli and response. Feel the sensations, allow them as they are. Find love for them. Rest with them. (This is an intentional and specific use of Natural Rest.)
Explore the situation – the stimuli and response – through inquiry. Look at images and words. Feel sensations. Can you find a threat? A deficient (or inflated) self? A command to X? Through doing this, we get to see how our mind creates a sense of threat, or someone threatened, or a self that needs to be fought or protected, or a command to stay safe etc. This allows the charge to soften or go out of it. We more easily recognize words as words, images as images, and sensations as sensations. The stimuli trigger another response than the old FFF response. It can be met with a deeper relaxation and calmness, and even welcome and kindness. What we thought were there are revealed to not be there, at least not as we initially thought it was there.
A third approach is to invite tension to release out from the body, even chronic tension stores in muscles and fascia, for instance through therapeutic tremors (TRE). This releases the overall tension/stress level in the nervous system, so it’s less on high alert, less jumpy, less likely to “over react” to stimuli.
So we can find ways to relax, which can be very helpful. We can release chronic tension out of our bodies so it’s less on high alert, and less likely to respond with FFF. (TRE, therapeutic tremors.) We can intentionally reprogram our nervous system to respond differently and in a more relaxed way to stimuli. (Intentional use of Natural Rest, inquiries such as the Living Inquiries.)
I like the stimulus-response way of looking at this. It’s simple. Relatively easy to understand. It ties into science.
And it works for a wide range of different situations – from looking at sights (eyes) or mental images (memories, future, present), hearing or imagining words, hearing or imagining sounds, feeling or imagining sensations.
For instance, one way to understand trauma is to see that it’s created by words, images, and sensations “stuck together” so the images and words seem charged, real and solid. The sensations lend charge, and a sense of reality and solidity to the associated images and words. One example is mages of being bullied at school connected mentally with sensations in throat, belly, and face, and words such as “I am a victim”, “I am unlovable”, “they don’t like me”. The nervous system responds to these images, words, and sensations as if they are a threat, and go into high alert. By looking at the images, recognizing them as images, and seeing that they are not a threat, the nervous system responds with relaxation to the same images. The same goes for the words. And by feeling the sensations, recognizing them as sensations, and seeing that the sensations are not a threat, the nervous system shifts its response to these sensations from FFF to relaxation.
The same happens for fear of the future, any perceived threat, any sense of a deficient self, and even compulsions.
And the same pattern is there for sensitivity to just about anything: Sound, chemicals, food, heat and more.
In the case of chronic fatigue, which I am familiar with, there may be sensitivity and over-reaction to physical exertion, heat, fatigue, and brain fog. Or rather, the sensations, images, and words created by my mind which makes up my experience of physical exertion, heat, fatigue, and brain fog. My nervous system goes into FFF as a response to these stimuli, and this response can be retrained to be a response of relaxation. I am not saying that’s the whole answer to taking care of CFS. At the same time, it may be a significant portion of the answer, along with taking care of any medical issues (in my case, B12 deficiency, epstein-barr virus, two pneumonia viruses, an auto-immune disease, and lyme…!), strengthening the systems through adaptogens (herbs), a good diet, movement, fresh air, nature and more.
- retraining the nervous system
- often with chronic problems, very active sympathetic nervous system, and less active parasympathetic
- sympathetic = flight, fight, freeze (numb, disassociate)
- parasympathetic = digestion, healing, restoring, immune system functioning etc.
- retraining the system to respond with relaxation can have a wide range of effects, including better able to heal, restore etc.