I sincerely doubt I am the first to make the connections which just fired in my brain this morning, but I’m also sure I won’t be the last, so I wanted to share my small but significant aha moment. I’ve also got some ideas for both helping calm the stress response, and reducing cognitive symptoms.
You’ll know if you’ve been here before that I believe that stressors are what cause ME/CFS, and that the illness itself is an out of balance, dysfunctional Autonomic Nervous System. We swing between over arousal (tired but wired, pushing through, keeping going with no rest) and underarousal (total fatigue, brain fog, no energy, flu like symptoms)*
And you probably already have at least some understanding of what happens when the body is stressed and we go into fight, flight, or freeze: blood is diverted from the pre-frontal cortex, the digestive and reproductive systems, we stop thinking and start reacting, our muscles are pumped with blood and our heart rate goes up. Our senses are enhanced, and everything is on full alert.
And this is why we get cognitive symptoms: we actually have less blood flow¹ to the prefrontal cortex overall, and I believe this is a result of our dysfunctional ANS.Because it is dysfunctional, blood flow does not return to the prefrontal cortex as it should, following arousal.
But what to do? Well I found that my cognitive symptoms, which were severe in 2015, improved within two weeks of practising Yoga Nidra – so starting a Nidra practise will likely help! But why? Because it calms us. And that’s what we need, to calm our fraught vulnerable systems which have been chronically overstimulated. To give our ANS a chance to rebalance itself and relearn to direct blood back to our prefrontal cortex: the thinking, conscious part of our brain.
Unfortunately one of the reasons a lot of us struggle with meditation when we have CFS is because our minds race so much and we have high levels of anxiety, due to the illness. I had this, plus intrusive imagery. Well meaning, experienced, meditators say that everyone has monkey mind and I know that’s true, but for us, it is monkey mind x 100, and that can make some meditation styles undoable.
That’s why I tried Yoga Nidra myself – because I could not cope with what happened when I tried meditation styles I’d used prior to my illness. I think Yoga Nidra has another advantage though – it also takes us into a deeply relaxed state very easily and this is exactly what those of us with CFS/ME need.
However we also need short-term strategies for daily stress management: symptom tracking can help with this, as we begin to identify what triggered our symptoms and what we were doing or thinking prior to worsening. But we also need tools to deal with stress in the moment, because in my experience so far people who develop CFS do not know how to self soothe and have few resources for dealing with stress or other less pleasant feelings, coupled with a tendency to push through limitations.
So the first step is to pay attention to limitations and accept them. Right now, right where we are, we need to practise acceptance. The second thing we need is to learn how to soothe ourselves, to find things which comfort and calm us, and then do them. When my Hyperosmia (heightened sense of smell) was at an all time high the nicest thing I did for myself was introduce things into my environment which smelled good to me. I now use calming essential oils regularly, and burn Tibetan Healing Incense. I found some excellent information about which essential oils to use here. Interestingly my Hyperosmia lessened quite quickly once I began to fill my life with positive olfactory associations.
Sesondly we need to try to bring into awareness our early warning systems – this is a journey I still struggle with: I recently attended an event which was held in our village hall. The acoustics were strange, and the noise level of thirty people talking was deafening. Additionally I needed to eat and had thought there would be something suitable there, but only sugary things were available. I knew I was getting stressed but I didn’t remove myself. Consequently, even though I was only there for an hour, I was so wound up afterwards I picked a row with D on the way home. Not constructive for either of us!
But there are things I, and you can do: one is to simply place your hand on your heart and focus on your heart beat – even better, go somewhere quiet and place one hand on your heart, the other on your forehead and again, focus on your heart beat. Placing a hand on our hearts probably doesn’t need explanation, but why on your forehead? Because, energetically, your hand is an electro-magnet and will draw blood back to the pre-frontal cortex, giving you your power of thought back. If you think energy medicine has no validity, that doesn’t matter – remember we often instinctually put our hands to our foreheads when stressed, so it obviously has a calming effect.
We can also just breathe. Long slow breaths: even better go outside, stand barefoot and breath. Use essential oils, take Rescue Remedy, if it works for you, and finally if you have any suggestions which aren’t mentioned here, please share them. Sharing stories and resources is a powerful healing we can all benefit from.
And what to do when your system was triggered, and you found yourself flooded with adrenaline, and nowhere to release it? Move your body! Do what animals do and quite literally shake it out, pace up and down, dance even. Do whatever you can to use the adrenaline constructively and discharge the response. This should bring on a feeling or relaxation, which is normal and healthy. This may sound weird, but try it, because it really does work. And it’s far better than picking an argument.
There is of course one more thing we can all do: let ourselves off the hook when we don’t do the things which help. The worst stressors are not external, they are internal and beginning to recognise them can transform our experience. But that’s a topic for another post.
*paradoxically, even when we swing into underarousal some of our stress related functions don’t shut down so we can end up with hyperosmia, photosensitivity and hyperacusis, for example.
¹Biswal B, Kunwar P, Natelson BH. Cerebral blood flow is reduced in chronic fatigue syndrome as assessed by arterial spin labeling. J Neurol Sci. 2011 Feb 15;301(1-2):9-11. PMID: 21167506