The quaint aspect of this illness is that no sooner do you think you’ve experienced it all when along comes another nasty to surprise me. I had an episode this week which has set me thinking about how my body behaves and what I can do to persuade it to become what I’d like it to be: flexible, adaptive, coherent, energised and stable as described by Dr Daniel Siegel.
What happened was I was sitting perfectly calmly waiting for dinner to cook. My vision became fogged, followed by a huge sense of pressure in my head. When I stood up to attend to dinner I became very dizzy. Acting on instinct, I lay down with my feet elevated. During this episode I was aware of huge pressure in my head, pains in my chest and spasms in my gut. What was highly unusual though was that my heart rate dipped dramatically rather than rise. It took probably a couple of hours to right itself after which I felt utterly exhausted.
I’m very fortunate in having a wonderful doctor to turn to who said that it sounded like a parasympathetic nervous system reaction and referred me to the Polyvagal theory about which you can read here. I had a look at this and didn’t really understand it until I read an article comprising an interview with Stephen Porges who is the author of this theory. My layperson understanding of this is that our nervous systems react using increasingly older parts of our brain depending on the level of threat perceived. It appears I may have had a ‘freeze’ response because my body felt itself under serious attack.
So I pondered on the circumstances leading to this event and recalled that I’d had little to eat after breakfast and, just before dinner, I’d drunk a gorgeous freshly squeezed glass of mango, orange juice and soda water. Could this have been responsible? I found a further article about the effect of glucose on the nervous system and the sensitivity of neurons placed around the body. Wow! Organs of my body sent a message to my brain that a sudden influx of glucose meant it was under threat. My brain responded in a dramatic and unpleasant way causing me to lie flat until my body felt that it was safe.
This led me to think further. If my intestines perceive sugar as a threat, then why not loud noises by my ears, alcohol by my liver, exercise by my muscles or indeed any form of sensory input. It also seems likely to me that if the organs of my body are sending repeated messages that I’m not safe then the receptor of these messages in my brain will become sensitised, anticipating threats and reacting in what it perceives is a proportionate way. Of course, it’s not and sets up increasingly destructive feedback loops. And sensory input doesn’t come singly, we perceive lots of stuff at the same time. Can you imagine the maelstrom of activity that would be created if I walked down the street in roasting hot sunshine, listening to punk rock, drinking from a can of Irn Bru (loads of caffeine and sugar), thinking about an upcoming presentation then my phone goes off!
Even lying watching telly involves sight, sound, thought and emotions. All magnified in a brain that is super-sensitive and malfunctioning. How utterly exhausting! And what other damage does it cause, for example, to the mitochondria within my cells trying to create energy to keep the whole draining show on the road.
But it doesn’t stop there because I don’t get any peace when I’m asleep. My guess is that my brain interprets dreams as threats and that the loops of over-reactivity continue. Most days I wake up face scrunched up, jaws clenched, shoulders round my ears with pins and needles in my hands, aching, sore and fit for hee haw. Only to present my body with yet more stimuli to contend with when awake. Sound familiar to anyone?
What conclusions can I draw from these thoughts? Firstly, although I have no proof as to how the malfunction developed, I have to accept that it exists, that it limits my capabilities in the sense that, in order to keep the reactions bearable, I have to limit activity severely. Secondly, that I have no immediate control over the messages that my body, my organs, my senses, indeed each and every cell send to my brain, nor do I have any control over the magnified response. It is a complex set of malfunctioning loops that I could never second-guess.
This all sounds pretty hopeless. But hold on, I developed this malfunction so surely I can fix it? Can I? Is that realistic? If so, how?
My thought is perhaps simplistic in a hugely complex scenario but it is this. I need to give my entire body: brain, mind, nervous system, muscles, organs and cells a break, total rest, and the perception of safety to allow it to return to normality, to homeostasis, to both perceive stimuli and react to it proportionately, in balance and healthily. To break the exhausting feedback loops. I believe the way to do this is to consciously relax my body and mind as far as I can take it each day by focused relaxation practice. Also, to be very wary of stressors: avoid sugar, eat healthily, move gently and don’t watch scary movies (or football matches where the result matters–I’ve been carted out of a game in an ambulance before but that’s another story)!
I’ll be candid. This isn’t easy at all. Life gets in the way. I can’t begin to tell you the reaction I had when a police van pulled up outside my house yesterday when all three children were out. Even without such upsets, when your whole being is exhausted to the point of complete depletion and fragility, it is difficult to find the resources to relax consciously. That is the supreme irony. You might be lying down in a peaceful environment (if you are fortunate enough) but don’t possess the energy to bypass the unconscious, destructive patterns your body is stuck in.
When you do manage to relax, you have to keep going with the practices and, frankly, it can be desperately boring and unrewarding. However, I am committed to these practices. I have used them before and my health has improved. This will happen again. Only this time, I aim to recover fully.
(ps the police didn’t visit me and my children all came home perfectly safe, thanks be.)