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Crashing after big events, not during
By Chris Newton
I was posed the question from a sufferer about how it is they can get through a challenging life event (a bereavement) without a ‘flare up’ and then crash once it is over and they have time to reflect. It’s a fascinating question with seemingly no logic but Functional Neurology may have some explanations.
I’ve mentioned before that the Brain is firstly wired to protect you from harm, and secondly built to allow you to explore your environment. We are so well wired to deal with threat that we are capable of seeing many things as harmful situations. So when we perceive a threat we trigger the stress response – flight, fight or freeze. Here’s a short list of what your Brain may interpret as stress:
- Temperature. Hot or cold.
- Poorly tolerated food and other ingested substances
- Chemicals. Anything from bleach to perfume
- Unexpected sounds. Anything from a loud bang to ding from your iPhone
- Work and work colleagues
- Darkness and light (especially artificial light)
- Travel and unfamiliar places
- Television. Especially soap-operas!
The list can go on forever, because the way your Brain interprets threat is based on all your past experiences since the womb to the present day. We can also see these things as non threatening stimulus too. For example, some find travel stressful and others seek it out as a form of relaxation.
So when we have a life event our brain can act in two ways.
- Deem it a reason to trigger the stress response
- See it simply as a challenge and refrain from triggering the stress response
Let’s assume a bereavement triggers a stress response, and the stress usually triggers a pain flare up in the Fibromyalgia sufferer.
Flight, fight or freeze.
Once the stress response is triggered we have a decision to make. Which of the three options must I take – flight, fight or freeze?
- Flight – withdraw from the situation
- Fight – deal with the situation
- Freeze – crash into Fibro Fog and avoid any further action until the threat passes
Each option is valid and everybody should be shown compassion for whichever choice they made. I say this because the choice is not conscious. It will come from a primal subconscious place for which you will struggle to take control.
Let’s say though, that you deal with the situation – the stress response to fight.
From stress response to Flare Up.
Once your subconscious has decided to fight, it will continue to do so until there is one of two outcomes.
- The situation is dealt with
- The situation overwhelms you and you turn to flight or freeze
When dealing with the situation your Brain is on high alert. This high alert state is created to protect you by diverting all your resources to the resolution of the situation. This may be why people seemingly breeze through these situations.
But there is a price to pay because this alert state of mind requires a vast amount of energy to sustain. But sustain it you will.
Everyone. I’ll repeat, EVERYONE, will crash to some extent after a sustained period of high stress. We call this Burn Out and is seen regularly in the modern work environment (remember one of the stressors on my list was work or work colleagues).
So, for example, when my character and intentions were recently brought into question in a comment on a Facebook post, I felt emotionally drained at the end of the day because of the stress it placed upon me. It is no different to any other stress situation:
A stress response to fight caused a clarity of mind brought forth to defend myself, followed by a need to rest and recover my energy when I felt the situation was resolved.
And I do not suffer from Fibromyalgia. The FMS sufferer just has a more dramatic and acute response than I do because their nervous system is already overloaded.
We all crash because of the energy it takes to remain so alert. It is for this same reason that we crash after caffeine. A false high increases energy usage and MUST result in a period of recovery. Another coffee is only exhausting more of your reserves, so if you feel tired then sleep is our advice.
To answer the question.
With this knowledge of basic functional neurology, we can put it all together to extrapolate a hypothesis as to why you crash after a big life event, rather than during.
It goes like this:
You receive a call informing you of a loss in the family. You get an instant rise in stress hormones and your brain takes in all the information to make a response decision – flight, fight or freeze.
You decide to fight, so deal with the situation at hand. Your brain diverts all possible resources to master this challenge. Whether for one day or for weeks on end, you perceive this as such an important event that you must see it through to resolution.
All the time you are on high alert you feel good and capable of the challenge. Until one day it’s over. You’ve spent a great deal of your mental and possibly physical energy resources and now, in times of reflection, you must repay your debt. For the average person this means you’ll feel physically and emotionally exhausted but nothing a good night’s sleep and a weekend off won’t resolve. For the Fibro sufferer, who is already on low energy reserve, the flare up begins as the system continues to struggle under the load.