Better understanding of ANS dysfunction and trauma

Discussion in 'Stress Reduction, Pacing and Exercise' started by TJ_in_UT, Dec 31, 2017.

  1. TJ_in_UT

    TJ_in_UT Well-Known Member

    I've heard for years about the "fight or flight" response as a reference to sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation, and as the counterpart for the "rest and digest" response as a reference to parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activation. But I recently heard of a third piece of the SNS response, "freeze". So it's now being called "fight, flight, or freeze". Maybe this isn't news to many of you, but it was news to me, so I thought I'd share.

    Here are a couple of interesting articles that I thought were informative:

    ‘Why Do I Do That?’ The Silent Sway of the Threat Response

    Trauma and the Freeze Response: Good, Bad, or Both?

    In essence, whenever we encounter a threat, we make a snap decision about the best way to deal with it. Do we fight and try to overpower it; do we run away from it; or, do we decide that it's not possible to successfully overcome the threat or to run away and thus freeze up, hoping that the threat will lose interest in us? The emotions that go with these responses are, respectively, anger, fear/anxiety, and helpless/overwhelmed.

    I know that childhood trauma has been mostly debunked as a cause for CFS/ME, but I still wonder if it is indeed a contributing factor for some of us. Here's my train of thought:
    1. People can become predisposed to jump most easily into any of the three responses based on past experiences of which response was most effective
    2. Childhood experiences make the deepest subconscious impressions
    3. Children are most prone to freeze in the face of stress from a parent or other adult, because they aren't physically or emotionally capable of fighting off or running away from such threats
    4. "People in freeze response look like they’re in a low-energy state, but it’s really a well-camouflaged high-energy state. It’s very costly to the body, especially when it sticks around longer than it needs to. And the nervous system can be slow to come out of this state." In other words, if you were traumatized as a child in such a way as to predispose you to freeze up, you may be using up huge amounts of energy without even realizing it.
    Think about the child who suffers abuse from a parent. The child can't fight back because he's too weak, and he doesn't usually have the means of escaping. And if he feels that he has to please his abuser to survive, he doesn't want to do either of these things anyway. So when the abuse comes, he freezes up and detaches to minimize the pain, and learns that he is helpless to do anything about it. He carries this subconscious learning into adulthood, and continues to be haunted by feelings of powerlessness against the adversities of life.

    As I read through the articles, I found the description of the freeze response to be painfully close to home. This is how I often respond to stress and life's demands, and much of my negative self-talk is about this or that challenge or expectation being "too much" for me to handle, and when I start going to that place mentally, I start to shut down and detach from what's going on around me.

    Having CFS as I do, that is a correct assessment in some cases. But if I realize that something is too much for me to handle, I just need to calmly speak up for what I need or take appropriate action to care for myself, instead of freezing up and shutting down as my first response. I wonder how often I jump to that reaction because it's my "default setting", rather than because the challenge at hand is actually too much for me to realistically handle.

    This certainly isn't the whole explanation of why I have CFS, but I still have to wonder how much of my energy is being siphoned off by my imbalanced response to stress.

    What have you found to be helpful in retraining or rebalancing unhealthy tendencies in your responses to stress?
  2. Paw

    Paw Well-Known Member

    An interesting investigation, TJ. Resistance to theories of stress-related triggers, I think, comes in part from sufferers who feel such theories suggest the road to wellness is merely learning to handle stress differently. My suspicion, however, is that some of us are susceptible to systemic breakdowns that don't just simply heal if/when psychological conditions change. So, while figuring out better responses to stress can only be a positive thing, it's not likely to lead to recovery until we understand the physiological big picture -- that is, how the interplay of all factors, including stress, led to breakdown (disease).

    The paralyzing quality of the freeze response does sound unique. It seems to describe a psychological condition whereby one feels chronically, utterly trapped -- as a soldier might feel in certain battlefield conditions. But the psychologist (from your second link) may be underestimating the full nature of one's physical breakdown if he believes talk therapy is the main road to recovery.

    I'm currently on a breathing/heart-rate-variability investigation, which I won't detail here -- except to say that I've discovered how miserably shallow my breathing has been (since, maybe, forever -- but probably at least since my decade of PTSD), and how that relates to impaired heart performance, and miserable parasympathetic-system balance. And, from what I can tell so far, this all seems connected to my well-documented neurological damage (i.e., I seem to be learning to mitigate my neurological symptoms through breath training), which, of course, can greatly impact the adrenal system.

    If one is trying to "play dead," to resist action while the sympathetic nervous system is firing on all cylinders, minimizing breath would seem a natural strategy.

    I've always believed there are many paths to our illness spectrum, so this is probably a fruitless inquiry for many. But if you want a good scientific read on the sweeping ramifications of heart-rate variability check this out. (I'm not yet on board the more woo-woo "coherence" movement a la HeartMath.)
    Lissa likes this.
  3. TJ_in_UT

    TJ_in_UT Well-Known Member

    Yes, I agree that this is only one part of the picture, and it may not even be a part of the picture for many of us here.

    I've actually been gathering HRV data for a while myself. I started collecting data in March and continued for about 2.5 months, then started again in mid-November. According to EliteHRV, my variability is about 10 points below my demographic's average -- which isn't bad for someone with CFS -- but that is for the resting morning readiness reading, while I'm still (relatively) fresh and relaxed. This path may just be a way for improving emotional and mental well-being for me, but who knows? Everything is linked together. It's too bad I can't capture readings in those moments of "freezing" to see what my HRV is then.

    What are you doing to measure breathing?
  4. Cmt12

    Cmt12 Active Member

    The freeze response is automatic (subconscious) and instantaneous. Our survival has been dependent on its speed throughout evolutionary history. It’s as old as the nervous system itself, so it predates the prefrontal cortex, meaning it predates language and reason. So, feel free to dispense with the idea that it is waiting on you to reason out whether it should be activated. It activates without your conscious involvement.

    The freeze response allows for quicker adaptation to the environment. Any new threat to the environment triggers the freeze, which then gets repressed, and passed down epigenetically to the next generation. It takes energy resources to repress all the freeze responses that we have inherited/added.

    What is CFS? CFS is an overflow of freeze responses. It’s when we have an energy deficit (initiated by a stressor), and we are juggling more than we can handle, which is why not only does the body not have the energy to repress the FR but also the stressor (chronic infection, etc). Sometimes all it takes is for someone to de-stress, free up some energy, and they’re good.. until they have another stressful event. This is why so many go through the symptom -> remission -> symptom cycle so often.

    For those of us who have crossed that energy threshold indefinitely, in which de stressing is not a solution, we have to undergo the long, arduous task of “processing” or you can call it “integrating” these freeze responses so they release.
  5. TJ_in_UT

    TJ_in_UT Well-Known Member

    Fair point. I should have explained a bit better. We often aren't reacting to actual events per se, but rather, to what we believe about those events. For example, if I'm speaking in front of a large group of people, I may freeze up, not because I'm in a situation that's an actual threat to my safety or well-being, but because I subconsciously believe something like, "If I make a mistake, everyone here will think I'm stupid and reject me," and being social creatures as we are, the need for acceptance is biological. It's a valid need that's been usurped by an incorrect learned belief. So what I'm doing is working on becoming aware of those underlying false beliefs and changing them.

    And that's how I'm working at it. Emotional integration is brutally hard, but beautiful. :) Journaling (or "write and burn" in many cases) has been more effective for me than years of talk therapy. I think it's important that we do what we can do to simplify and reduce stress in the present (to turn down the ongoing stress reactions that are dominating our lives), as well as doing the integration work so that we're more resilient in the future.
    Cmt12 likes this.
  6. Paw

    Paw Well-Known Member

    Breathing has been on my radar for a few years -- since I had to start using an A-PAP. Ninety percent of my recorded apneas and hypopneas each night are central, not physical. For some reason my nervous system is not prioritizing breathing. And I've also become very aware of this throughout the day, whether active or still: I generally take in very little air. Often, when I'm concentrating on something (like writing this post) I catch myself totally not breathing. (Could this be connected to PEM? I don't know, but it creates a bodily pressure that I associate with bursts of adrenaline that I harness to accomplish a task.)

    So I've been analyzing EliteHRV's graphing, zoomed in to ten-second intervals, with the breathing aid set to ten-second cycles (which is optimal for resting-state breathing). And I've been fascinated by how foreign and challenging it is to breath properly; i.e., to imagine my breath creating smooth and full sine waves. Of course the waves on the graph represent fluctuating heart rate, but when I'm breathing properly (without hitches, yips, transitional jerks, etc) I definitely see a corresponding smoothing of my sine waves. The waves don't necessarily get deeper, but I read that such profound changes can take months of practice, so I'm sticking with it.

    I've also been using my Fitbit's breathing prompts many times a day to practice. I'm not yet able to confidently breathe without prompts. My brain gets confused with rhythm (I lose track of time, and have no idea how long each cycle takes, or how closely the inhalations match the exhalations). The fitbit adjusts its exercises according to heart rate, but it tends to stick to cycles between nine and 11 seconds.

    It's clear that my sine waves match my ten-second breathing cycles when using EliteHRV, but EliteHRV's graphing doesn't give enough info to adequately discern whether there's any offset between the two -- so I'm on the lookout for a better app (unless EliteHRV upgrades, as they've been promising).

    When my exercises are going well, it's an amazing feeling. And, as I said, I've noticed better peripheral neuropathy (and RLS) symptoms since I've been working on it (but these symptoms are a bit cyclical anyway, so it's hard to say anything definite yet). My energy patterns haven't changed much yet, but I'm more aware of syncing my breath and heart throughout the day, so I haven't ruled out that I may be able to deepen those sine waves over the months, and perhaps improve my overall condition. Meanwhile, it's painfully obvious to me that I've been chronically mis-breathing for quite awhile, so it's a good thing to work on regardless. It's giving me confidence that I can soon get back to practicing t'ai chi, which I practiced for 25 years, but gave up a few years ago due to fatigue and weakness.
  7. TJ_in_UT

    TJ_in_UT Well-Known Member

    If you think of the importance of physiological needs in the order of, "what will kill me the fastest if I don't get it?", breathing is definitely at the top of the list, so I wouldn't be surprised about getting a adrenaline rush from that!

    I have noticed the sinus rhythm in my HRV as well when I'm breathing properly.
  8. Paw

    Paw Well-Known Member

    That's my thinking. Especially since my baseline breathing is so miserable. Can't hurt to work on it. (Although over-breathing has it's own dangers, apparently.) The science behind all this is still relatively new, so our own observations probably constitute part of the overall research. One question that I can't find consensus on is whether one should aspire to in-sync breathing (usually six breaths per minute) when not consciously practicing. If "coherence" is so great, why is casual breathing acceptable at twice that rate?

    My sleep data tells me I average 16 breaths per minute during the night. (I need to order an oximeter that attaches to my apap to find out how well I'm absorbing oxygen.)

    But what really grabbed my attention after getting the Fitbit a couple weeks ago was seeing its sleep-tracking data, which tells me I only average five to ten minutes of deep sleep per night. If that's true, that might just contribute to fatigue! On good nights I'm told I get about an hour of REM; the rest of the night is comprised of light sleep or wakefulness. I have seen that Fitbit often characterized times when I know I'm awake, practicing my breathing, as REM sleep (so I know it's a rough gauge). But it's the deep sleep that keeps me up at night (as they say).
    Lissa and TJ_in_UT like this.
  9. TJ_in_UT

    TJ_in_UT Well-Known Member

    Ah, I don't use a CPAP or APAP (and thankfully don't need one), but that explains how you got your breathing data! My wife uses a Fitbit, and I use a Polar. I like the way Fitbit does sleep tracking better than Polar.
  10. Jo-Jo

    Jo-Jo Member

    The infant brain development research is very enlightening. 90% of our neural networks form in the first three years of life. Those connections become organized in response to an infants experience, including in utero. You’ll probably have lead in your bones if your mom smoked while pregnant. Chronic stress stimulates an excess of neural networks to form in the alarm systems of the brain which forms the fight flight freeze response. Two important pieces....what causes stress for an infant.? Much more than one would think. And if that chronic stress doesn’t cease by around 3 years of age ones resilience is comprised. Cortisol levels remain higher longer after a stressful event. I didn’t realize how much tension I carry in my body, all the time, until I had no distractions after I got sick. I try to do a check in with my self, a quick scan which always means dropping my shoulders and some neck rolls. Unconsciously holding tension Is a huge problem for me. A good source for this is dr. Bruce Perry. He has some very readable articles.
  11. TJ_in_UT

    TJ_in_UT Well-Known Member

    Interesting. I've benefited from practicing emotional integration, mostly through mindfulness and writing, and it's helped me get rid of much of my chronic tension.