Safe2Heal FibromyalgiaMeditating: Resting & Repairing to Regain Balance
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Fibromyalgia: Hyperactive Fight-or-Flight
Fibromyalgia is caused by the chronic activation of a person’s fight-or-flight nervous system response. According to Dr. Ginevra, in The Fibro Manual, “In fact, all symptoms of fibromyalgia, including excessive pain, are the result of a complex chain reaction set off by a hyperactive stress response”.
When threats are detected, our brains automatically activate the sympathetic side of our nervous system in order to fight with or flee from something. All body systems are tuned for a stress response. Heart rate and blood pressure increases. Muscles tense. Pupils dilate. Attention goes into a hypervigilant mode. Digestion and secretion are put on hold. The heart-brain connection weakens because it’s all about immediate action. Survival. And it all happens instantly. Automatically.
In a balanced system, when the threat turns out to be a rope and not a snake, the parasympathetic side of the nervous system kicks in to return the body to a balanced state. Heart rate decreases and blood pressure lowers. Muscles and blood vessels relax. Pupils constrict. Vigilance decreases. Digestion and secretion are turned back on. Heart-brain coherence and cognitive ability increase. All body systems are tuned for a relaxation response.
Chronic Fight-or-Flight Activation Wears Us Down
The chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system, our stress response to fight or flee, produces chronic pain, constant fatigue and trouble sleeping. Responding to actual threats is more difficult. To quote Dr. Ginevra:
“The stress response is designed to provide a temporary burst of activity to give us enough energy and time to either fight an attacker or run away. But when it is chronically activated, it sets off a chain reaction resulting in fatigue and muscle pain and, most damaging, constant activity of the fight-or-flight nerves. Brief fight-or-flight activation results in hypervigilance, making us more aware of our surroundings, and readies our muscles for action. Long-term activation causes poor sleep as the brain remains perpetually alert, and results in muscle tension and pain. It slows down digestion so over time the gastrointestinal system begins to function poorly. Finally, it can temporarily block pain signals, but chronic activation leads to increased pain intensity.” (1)
Meditating: Resting & Repairing to Regain Balance
Meditating activates the parasympathetic nervous system response that allows our bodies to rest, digest and repair. Just sit quietly and focus your attention on your breath. Notice the sensations in your nostrils as a new breath comes in and as air leaves ending that breath. When your attention wanders bring it back to your breath. That simple practice trains your brain to put your body into a relaxation response. Over time you should see less reactivity to stress (2), and the grip of fibromyalgia loosen as your nervous system moves to a more balanced state.
Science Does Not Fully Understand How Brains Work
Fibromyalgia is a very serious condition experienced by more than 10 million people in the United States. However modern medicine is not able to identify a cause and does not actually classify fibromyalgia as a disease. The brain, which controls the nervous system, has more than 128 billion neurons, always active, each neuron sending as many as 50 messages per second. Each neuron directly passes information to just a few thousand others yielding over five hundred trillion neuron-to-neuron connections (3). This is so complicated modern science is not yet able to map or understand how this works.
Learning To Feel Safe Is Hard To Do
Learning to feel safe sitting quietly paying attention to the sensations of your breath can be very challenging. Feeling safe means being in a place free from outside threat or disturbance. Feeling safe also means safe inside with your own experience. People’s internal experience with fibromyalgia typically includes chronic pain, fatigue and trouble sleeping. Which is often compounded emotionally by the challenges of seeking treatment explaining the pain to various medical professionals.
When meditating you’re training your brain to make the connections that cause your nervous system to rest, digest and repair. However, if your brain is oriented to a hyperactive stress response it takes some dedicated effort over time for your rest and repair capacity to emerge enough to balance the chronic stress response.
Most Brain Processing Happens Subconsciously
Meditating is an opportunity to experience yourself differently. Exploring the space between and underneath thoughts, emotions and painful sensations. Your experience of yourself is constructed by these 128 billion neurons firing trillions of times a second. Almost all of this activity happens automatically underneath the surface of your conscious experience. Subconscious processing is thousands of times faster than conscious thinking, that’s how you jump away from a snake before you realize it’s a rope. It’s not just external sense information that feeds our subconscious processing. Internal sensations, thoughts and emotions also provide input. 95 percent of our decisions, actions, emotions and behaviors are derived from the unobserved processing of the subconscious mind (4). Meditation opens a window to see how your fight-or-flight response gets triggered by your subconscious processing.
Safely Resting Inside
Meditating you focus conscious attention on the sensations of breathing (5). You let everything else arise, abide and dissolve on its own. When you notice your mind wandering, you return your attention to your breath. That’s the magic moment! First, training your brain to pay attention to what your conscious processing wants to pay attention to. Second, learning how to relax in the rest and repair mode. When a disturbing thought, emotion or sensation arises, you may notice how quickly your heart starts beating more rapidly, how easily fight-or-flight kicks in. Just return attention back to your breath. Third, being the space in which thoughts, emotions and sensations arise, abide and dissolve. A safe place. Peaceful. Whole. Home.
- p22 The Fibro Manual A Complete Fibromyalgia Treatment Guide for You and Your Doctor (2016) Ginevra Liptan, M.D.
- p273 Altered Traits Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body (2017) Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson
- p33 Spontaneous Evolution Our Positive Future (And A Way To Get There From Here) (2009) Bruce H. Lipton PhD and Steve Bhaerman
- p31 Seven And A Half Lessons About The Brain (2020) Lisa Feldman Barrett
- p46 The Mind Illuminated A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom And Brain Science For Greater Mindfulness (2015) Culadasa (John Yates, PhD)