First two posts in this mini series on stress responses and pain
- Getting to know your Fight, Flight and Freeze response
- Fibromyalgia and the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response
So from my first post, we are aware our Fight/Flight/Freeze response is triggered from a perceived threat. And it is good to be aware of what these stress responses are and when they can become a problem in our lives. Because when we can begin to have them triggered at the wrong times or more and more frequently. They can be triggered in non-threatening situations. We can begin to feel constantly on edge, constant worry. The stress can interfere with our everyday lives.
From the second post, we are aware that chronic stress can trigger the same sort of responses in our bodies. Pain is also the sort of signal to our body to trigger the flight/fight/freeze response. When the body feels threatened and the nervous system is always cranked ‘on’. We may notice in higher pain our heart rate jacks up and pounds or our breathing is faster and more shallow. And some things we may not notice as much- like brain fog, concentration problems, negative thinking, nausea, or irritation.
We can have different responses to chronic stress. How can we dampen these responses when it comes to fibromyalgia or chronic pain in general?
When it comes to pain management:
- We can can aware of our anxiety if we have it and be aware of its pattern and triggers. Anxiety conditons are fairly common with chronic pain and fibromyalgia. One example for me was these spontanous panic attacks I was getting as I began to wake up in the morning. My pain psychologist believed it was my brain’s way of responding to the realization of how much pain I was in knowing I would have to then go tro work for 8 hours in that pain. So that pattern was pretty obvious. Figuring out how to treat it was a bit tricky.
- We can calm the stress response our body is having to the pain itself because our nervous system is always so ‘on’ we need to work on a routine level to lower the dial down.
- As a direct action to high levels of pain when we notice more noticable signs of hieghtened excieted nervous system due to pain- heart rate, our breathing is shallow and fast, we can’t relax, and we are stuggling emotionally. We can try to then do something to try and relax our mind/body to dampen the response to pain. I try to slow my breathing down and slow my heart rate down. To relax my body. It is just a way to help me get through the pain.
Ways to calm your Fight or Flight response when in pain
Try to notice your specific patterns
Other than high pain, which for me is definitely when I will notice my system responding whether I like it or not- when are other times you notice your fight-or-fight kicking in? Is it when you have a specific type of pain? Doing a specific type of activity? Have too much caffeine? Too little sleep? A specific stress response? Anxiety with pain?
When you notice how and when your body responds in a specific way it can help you figure out how you need to adapt or when you need to do things to help your body relax. This can be in many ways.
Like what sort of things do you need to do to your environment that would help you manage your symptoms? (for example, work accommodation)- for me, I alter my environment to be more migraine trigger friendly and less stimulating to fibromyalgia. (less stimulating- quiet, softer light, wear migraine glasses, no offensive scents). I am aware certain environments are very stimulating to my body (I would actually say I am a Highly Sensitive Person actually) and so I am also aware of how to modify my environment to suit my needs and which types of places to avoid or how to prepare to be in specific places. Not to mention when I need downtime in completely relaxing environments and away from stimulus.
Deep relaxation breathing
Basically, when your breathing gets shallow or fast deep relaxation breathing is meant to do the exact opposite of that with deep, slow abdominal breaths that will counter that process.
Basic deep breathing:
- Get comfortable. You can be sitting up or laying down.
- Breathe in through your nose. Let your abdomen fill with air.
- Breathe out through your nose.
- If it helps, place one hand on your stomach to feel it rise and fall.
- As you breathe in, feel your stomach rise. As you breathe out, feel your stomach lower. It can take a bit to get used to breathing with your abdomen rather than your chest.
- Take three more full, deep breaths. Breathe fully into your abdomen as it rises and falls with your breath.
Check out some other deep breathing exercises.
Various types of meditation can be a daily exercise to help with overall de-stressing to help moderate our body’s chronic stress response. There are a lot of different types of meditation so different types suit different people. Mindful meditation is mentioned a lot but not everyone likes that type. (Check out my post where I mention some free apps for meditation and relaxation breathing)
In some cases, especially in higher levels of pain, I find I can’t do much about how my body is physically responding to the situation. I can in some mild way, maybe. Like breathing deeply instead of shallowly.
But, my heart rate really doesn’t agree with the high pain situation. And with a certain level of pain, I am non-function which means I can’t really do anything to distract myself from it- and that means the emotional reaction I am having to it is going to be pretty front and center in my brain. I can try to listen to music that is relaxing or other methods but the best method I have found is to accept I am in a lot of pain and it is normal to have an emotional response to that. To let myself feel those emotions. To accept those emotions. And just let them be.
But to not attach any extra meaning on them or negative thinking or ruminate on them- which is a process in the past I was very, very skilled at. So I let those emotions flow through me, acknowledge them and know they are a temporary state of being. And I have a lot of self-compassion for myself.
Pay attemtion to your body’s signals and the thoughts/beleifs triggered
When we have chronic pain and we have this chronic stress response making our nervous system hyped up our system can be prepped to respond. So try to pay attention to the signals your body is giving you. You may find things that would make you mildly uncomfortable or nervous are giving you a much larger physical response.
You may think this means you have a lot of anxiety. But it could just be the amplified physical response. If you don’t react to it and just take some relaxing deep breaths, reframe it in your mind by acknowledging you are not anxious but that your body is having an amplified response to stimulus (pain, heightened sensitivity to the environment) you can usually calm your breathing/heart down.
Because sometimes if we don’t pay attention to our thoughts/emotions and beliefs they get tangled up in that amplified physical reaction and it soon our body gets really used to reacting that way and our mind to triggering those thoughts. Brains like to make connections and create meaning. So we have a physical pain response and, yeah, it causes symptoms that cause thoughts and emotions.
Our brain will want to go OH if A happens B happens so then C must be triggered. Which happened to me a lot when my pain was unmanaged and high (So not the perfect time to do this practice) but high pain would trigger a lot of physical symptoms and emotion/suffering and I would then have a lot of negative thoughts/beliefs… and spiral into a deep depressive state. We have to consciously say, no, C (thoughts, emotions, beliefs) are not necessarily a response to A (pain) and B (the symptoms of that pain). But, of course, the brain does make these connections and we do often have to spend a whole lot of effort breaking these patterns it has made (Sometimes with cognitive behavioural therapy).
For me, when everything was so damn severe I did need CBT therapy, pain management and depression treatment in order to untangle all of this. But there are times now, that I have more of those cognitive behavioral skills I can catch myself before going down my mental/emotional spiral of doom. But I do acknowledge my thoughts and feelings when in pain. I just do not let myself establish beliefs/meaning to that pain and those emotions that are not there. But I have to be very careful because the brain is a really tricky thing- it will try to establish meaning even when I don’t notice it is.
This one is probably the hardest for me. It took me a very long time to peel all these apart. Sometimes I really overthink things and I am very prone to ruminating. I can really make high pain a seriously dangerous experience when I overthink and my emotions get intense.
Move to a less Stimulation enviroment
With some of us, our Fight-Or-Flight response is being triggered because we are very sensitive to our environment. One way to get our system to relax is to remove ourselves from the environment that is causing the overstimulation. Even if just temporarily. Like going for a short walk outside. Getting out of a space that is crowded, loud, bright and so forth and into a space where it is quiet and no one is around. Or with a migraine, completely getting out of a stimulating environment and into a nice, dark, quiet room to just reduce all stimulation.
To repeat from my first post, it is important to know when we need the assistance of a professional
When to seek help:
- When these responses become overly intense, at inapproriate times, and/or very frequent
- Strong fear in non-threatening situations
- Continously feeling “on edge”
- Worry, nervousness, or fear that will not go away
- Stress that interferes with our daily life
- fear of nonthreatening situations
- Inability to relax
When it comes to fibromyalgia and pain none of these are easy. Because chronic pain is chronic and the stress is likewise chronic… and the triggered responses are also being triggered all the time. Taming our body’s response is pretty impossible. Best we can do is simmer it down a bit. Most of the things I do are that- just dampen it as best I can. Meditation and relaxation breathing are my way of just getting the Fight/Flight/Freeze less responsive, or slowing it down when it gets nutbars. Other things I do are to ensure I don’t attach meaning to these body responses because I can’t really stop it all. And still, other things are just making my environment the best it can be for me, given my body is so easily over-stimulated. We just do the best we can knowing how our body is.