“Watch out he’s winding the watch of his wit, by and by it will strike.”
An overactive nervous system
Most of us are familiar with the fight/flight/freeze response to danger. When faced with a threat to our lives, we will try to fight it off, flee for our lives, or freeze (either to give us time to plan our response to the threat or
in the hopes the ‘predator’ won’t notice us). In order to accommodate these instinctive reactions, our body activates some systems in our bodies, while shutting down others. For example, we may get a surge of adrenaline, but our
digestion slows down so that energy is readily available for immediate survival. It turns out, for many of us and for a variety of reasons, the fight/flight/freeze state may get triggered by non-life-threatening situations, it may
get triggered often, and at some point, our fight/flight/freeze states may not turn off. Our nervous systems see threats everywhere, both externally and internally, and they can react so quickly to those threats that we don’t even
recognize what’s happening at a conscious level. For me, and I’m assuming for most people in this situation, our nervous systems became overactive gradually, over years and decades. Like the frog in the boiling water, we never noticed
that we were in trouble.
I want to quickly distinguish my overactive nervous system from stress. I don’t like the term stress, because it’s always talked about as if it’s something that we can easily address, and if we’re feeling stressed out, then all we need are a couple massages, some deep breathing, and a yoga class. Or we’re told to “think positively” so that stressors don’t get to us, and if we’re still stressed out, it’s because we don’t have the right mindset. Maybe if someone’s nervous system is functioning normally, this is true. But my nervous system wasn’t functioning properly. All of the techniques that were supposed to calm me down actually contributed to making me worse because I wasn’t addressing the core issues, and they added fuel to fire by making me believe that there was something wrong with me.
For me, there were a few core issues:
• I wasn’t allowing myself to acknowledge, let alone feel my emotions and negative thoughts.
• I was fearful of emotions and negative thoughts.
• I was fearful of my physical symptoms.
• My body and nervous system had developed automatic, subconscious responses to my repressed thoughts and emotions. (In fact, one of the automatic responses was to repress the thoughts and emotions before I was aware of them.)
I’m specifying my own issues here, but from what I’ve read and as I’ll explain below, these are all quite common in people who have chronic conditions. Basically, something triggers a fear response, our nervous system is over-activated and can’t shut down, and our bodies take steps to keep us safe so that the nervous system can finally relax.
How might an overactive nervous system manifest in a human body?
For me, the cycle went something like this:
For a multitude of reasons, over the course of my childhood, I had learned that expressing emotions in public was wrong. When I was younger, I would consciously fight to keep myself from expressing those emotions publicly. But my nervous system is effective, and I got to the point that it would automatically repress the emotions for me. Unfortunately, my nervous system lacked discernment.
As I got older, if something triggered an unacceptable emotional response, my nervous system would repress it so quickly that I didn’t even realize I had those feelings. I didn’t realize when someone was pissing me off. I didn’t realize I was sad or grieving the loss of a friend when I moved. Not only was I unable to acknowledge those feeling publicly, I was also no longer able to access them when I was alone and it was “safe” to feel the emotions.
But here’s the thing about repressed emotions: They don’t go anywhere. They stay in the body until they’re finally released. But my body could only handle so many emotions trapped within me. When it started to get problematic (and it started to get problematic in my early teens), my body would try to come up with ways to let me know something was wrong.
The cry for help and attention started as severe shoulder pain on a school trip, and then graduated to headaches, eczema, and endometriosis. It later became severe anxiety, more intense pain from endometriosis, and migraines. Then it became food intolerances, GI issues, chronic sinus conditions, and more severe migraines. It finally became long covid and a headache so bad it landed me in the ER. There were dozens of other minor symptoms over the years that would crop up and disappear if they didn’t serve my body’s goal of removing me from what was triggering the emotional stress.
But why physical symptoms?
At the moment, I’m aware of four causes for the physical symptoms, which are listed below. The first two were the explanations I came across first, but I now believe that the third and fourth are likely the biggest causes of physical symptoms.
Our bodies are trying to get us away from the external conditions that are triggering the emotions we can’t feel. For example, someone screws us over at work, and since we can’t get angry with that person, our body creates a migraine or a terrible back spasm to get us away from the person and situation. As we get used to migraine or back pain and are able to work through the pain or subdue it with medication, the pain will get worse and/or we’ll develop some new symptom that will force us back to bed and away from the “threatening” person or situation. We may have even developed a literal fear of emotions, and so in addition to having and repressing the emotion, we’ve also added more fear into the mix.
To fix this, we need to acknowledge and process previous emotions that have been festering inside us for months, years, or even decades; we need to learn to properly feel our emotions in real time; and we need to retrain our brains not to feel threatened by these situations.
Our bodies are crying out for attention to address the repressed thoughts and emotions. We have repressed thoughts and emotions, and they can’t leave the body until we’ve processed them. They just keep piling up, and the nervous system is terrified of them. The bigger the repressing pile gets, the more the nervous system needs us to address it.
Our nervous systems will start pulling out all the stops to get us to do something about the massive pile of repressed thoughts and emotions, but our bodies only have so many ways of communicating with us. If less stressful physical responses don’t work, then our bodies have to start being more aggressive to get our attention.
And so we end up in pain and with numerous other symptoms that the body is using to try to get our attention. As with #1, we need to acknowledge and feel the repressed thoughts and emotions. JournalSpeak is the best method I’ve found for processing repressed emotions. We also need to learn that emotions are not something to fear and that it’s safe to feel them. Addressing this will help us better deal with the external situations without resorting to numerous symptoms.
Our bodies are so physically overwhelmed from being in a chronic fight/flight/freeze, that they literally cannot keep functioning properly (rest-and-digest problems anyone?). Any physical system that’s overstressed will first start to crack and crumble and then it will completely break. Our bodies are no different. When we’re constantly fearing our emotions, the external sources that trigger our emotions, and the physical symptoms we get as a response to our repressed emotions, will keep our bodies in the chronic, over-stressed state of fight/flight/freeze.
It’s reasonable to expect that any system within our bodies that is naturally shut down during the fight-or-flight response is going to struggle to function if one’s system is in that state chronically. And bodily systems that are overused because of the chronic fight-or-flight state will also be fatigued and likely cause other symptoms in the body. The solution here is to calm the nervous system. This can include processing emotions, brain retraining, meditation, and anything else that allows the body and nervous system to relax.
Our bodies developed learned responses. This one may or may not be triggered by emotional issues.
The idea here is basically that, because our body had some symptom in the past, we end up in a symptom-fear cycle that continues to re-trigger the symptom. For example, the body may have learned that a physical symptom will either get us away from an external “threat.” Alternatively, a person may have been physically injured by something like a car accident or blowing out a knee in sports. As soon as we start to feel twinges that are reminiscent of the original injury or symptom, we start to be fearful that we’ve done something wrong and have re-injured ourselves or we’re worried that the physical symptom is returning.
Once we start to feel fear, the body responds by exacerbating the pain or symptom because that’s what it learned to do in the past. As the pain or symptom get worse, so does our fear. We end up spiraling with stronger and stronger fears and more severe symptoms. The more we find ourselves in the fear-symptom cycle, the more easily it’s triggered and the worse it can become—all because our nervous system has developed a learned response to always have this reaction.
Some people may only need to retrain their systems to break the cycle and stop feeling the pain or having the symptom. I’ve seen a few programs that focus only on brain retraining and many people seem to respond well to this. The primary aspect of such work is to stop feeling the fear, relax the nervous system, and recognize that those early twinges have no meaning and aren’t something to fear.
This was a key component in my own recovery, but I don’t believe that I could have recovered without also doing the emotional work. My guess is that people who were able to recover only from brain retraining are probably people who are better able to feel and process their emotions and whose primary fears are the pain and symptoms. The rest of us need to retrain our nervous systems and deal with our repressed emotions.
One other reason we may have developed a painful learned response is that pain and illness can often trigger love and compassion both from others and from ourselves. Most of us, as children, got extra attention from parents or caregivers when we were sick or injured, and as a result, we also learned to take better care of ourselves if something was physically wrong with us. Our nervous systems also learned that lesson. Now, as adults, if we’re not giving ourselves enough love and compassion, or if we don’t feel like we’re getting enough love and compassion from loved ones, our bodies my resort to the pain and illnesses of the past.
I want to be clear: these are neurologically learned responses and not something that we have conscious control over. I’m mentioning this because it’s another factor that reinforces the learned response and it means we have to work extra hard to be kind and compassionate to ourselves in order to retrain our systems not to experience pain and illness.