A dystonic body is under significant stress during normal circumstances, making our response to additional stress potentially catastrophic. Stress can affect us to such an extent that our nervous system is always aroused, keeping us trapped in fight or flight mode because our body is conditioned, particularly if we are in pain, to always be on guard.
If stress is prolonged, adrenaline and cortisol maintain tension in the body. Over time, muscle tension can become habitual which pulls the body further away from relaxation. You may reach a point where you are no longer aware how constricted your muscles have become, and relaxing them can be very difficult. In fact, if you try to relax, your muscles may tighten even more because they have forgotten what letting go and relaxing feels like. This is why mind/body relaxation exercises are vital.
When I was researching the topic of stress for my book, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey, I came across something very intriguing. Stress experts have now added the word “freeze” to the fight or flight response with respect to the fact that instead of fighting or fleeing, we might sometimes freeze (like a deer in headlights) in painful or traumatic situations. This is very intriguing to me as it relates to dystonia.
The fight or flight stress response becomes activated when we believe there is a chance we can outfight or outrun our attackers (or any perceived danger and stressful situation). The freeze response differs in that it gets activated due to a perceived or real inability to take action (like a mouse trapped in a corner by a cat). In essence, one feels helpless to fight or flee the threatening, painful, or stressful experience so it freezes. Doesn’t this helpless feeling sound similar to living with dystonia?
During the freeze response, the body becomes both tense and paralyzed at the same time. The thoughts, sensations, and emotions of the stressful experience become suppressed or internalized, not only in the mind but in the tissues of the body. This is called somatic memory (body memory) and can have damaging effects if the event or trauma experienced is not processed in a healthy way.
Think about the common symptoms of dystonia which include contractions, stiffness, and rigidity. Out of fear of worsening our symptoms, many of us live in “protection mode” where we consciously restrict our movements (to the best of our ability) to try and decrease pain and/or involuntary movements.
Purposely restricting our movements, avoiding activities that may increase our symptoms, and holding ourselves in postures to prevent further pain and involuntary movements is similar to the freeze response. This adds more stress than already exists. We rarely to never let our bodies “be” in pain or move as it wishes, so we keep ourselves stuck in crisis.
Keeping muscles tense drains much more energy than keeping muscles relaxed, which is one reason so many of us with dystonia experience intense pain and fatigue. This is why practicing relaxation exercises are so important because it is only when the body finds relaxation that it can reverse the damaging effects of stress.
What would happen if we just allowed our symptoms to be what they were without mentally or physically trying to fight them? Easier said than done of course, but think about the possibility of just letting go and embracing the pain and involuntary movements.
Since relaxation and healing are prevented when the freeze response remains active, if we get our intellectual brains out of way, perhaps we might be able to reduce our symptoms. It certainly merits consideration because the body is better able to remain balanced, vital, and adaptable to new experiences when we don’t fight what is wrong with us so much. In other words, when we are not in a mentally and physically tense state, our bodies are more susceptible to health.
Stress management tips:
- Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Stop what you are doing. Breathe gently, but deeply, from your abdomen. On the out breath say to yourself, “Be calm. Be peaceful.”
- Allow time to pass. When we stress, everything can feel like an emergency. This is all about anxious arousal, which is temporary. Every feeling of panic comes to an end; every concern wears itself out; and every so-called emergency evaporates
- When you are rushed say, “There is plenty of time. Stay calm.”
- Talk to family, friends, therapist, or support group about the situations you find stressful
- Listen to music
- Keep a journal
- Spend time in prayer and meditation
- Eat a balanced diet of healthy carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Avoid caffeine, sugar, and white flour products
- Exercise if you can; modify activities to accommodate your symptoms
- Laugh! Watch a funny movie or go to a comedy club. Tell jokes. If you don’t know any, learn some. Spend time around babies and animals. Watch something funny on television or YouTube
- Avoid isolation. When we lose connection with others it can intensify stress, as well as depression, loneliness, fear, and anger
- Accept help when it is offered and ask for help when you need it
- Get outdoors and spend time in nature; it can be very grounding
- Do not argue about things that are unproductive
- Avoid people who cause you stress
- Don’t waste time worrying about what could have been. The past is over. Focus on the present moment
- Simplify your goals
- Pace yourself
- Engage in fun, pleasurable activities as much as possible
Edited excerpt from Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey, by Tom Seaman