by Jennifer Crystal
Does stress impact your Lyme symptoms? How do you react?
For a few days last week, I had trouble napping. This is usually a result of being physically and neurologically overtaxed, making me too tired to sleep. Frustrated and cranky, I got up after a couple hours and moved to the couch. I opened the windows, let the fight offspring air tickle my feet, and looked out at the budding trees. I put on some quiet music and lit a scented candle.
Sounds like a relaxing scene, right?
Instead of relaxation, I felt a familiar and unpleasant sensation creeping through my body. My breathing shortened. My legs felt jumpy. My thoughts raced. My heart rate quickened and my mouth grew dry. My whole body felt suddenly restless, even though I was so tired. As my Integrative Manual Therapist later confirmed, my limbic system had gone into “fight or flight” mode, defined by dictionary.com as “the response of the sympathetic nervous system to a stressful event, preparing the body to fight or flee, associated with the adrenal secretion of epinephrine and characterized by increased heart rate, increased blood flow to the brain and muscles, raised sugar levels, sweaty palms and soles, dilated pupils, and erect hairs.”
If I was lying on my couch relaxing, what was the “stressful event” to which I was reacting? For me, it was two-fold. First, my neurological system was stressed because it hadn’t gotten the sleep it needed. Inadequate sleep is extremely stressful to the body. Whether I was lying on the couch or in a hammock by the beach, my overtired brain was bound to cause a fight or flight reaction.
Second, lying on the couch when I was so tired reminded me of all the times I’d been sacked out during the worst periods of my health journey, especially during my 2007 relapse. During those times I was terrified I would never get better, and the fear often manifested in a fight-or-flight response. While I wasn’t consciously thinking of that relapse after my recent napless afternoons, my subconscious must have. Remembering previous trauma, it immediately put my body into the same reaction it did at the time, in the same way that post-traumatic stress disorder gives victims flashbacks. The physiological basis for my fight or flight reaction was neurological Lyme disease, but it was exacerbated by lack of sleep and a traumatic memory.
A fight or flight reaction sounds complex, but is actually quite primitive. As Peter A. Levine explains in Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, “If the situation calls for aggression, a threatened creature will fight. If the threatened animal is likely to lose the fight, it will run if it can. These choices aren’t thought out; they are instinctually orchestrated by the reptilian and limbic brains.”
The Lyme patient, feeling threatened by the illness and all the neurological and physiological responses to it, has this same instinctual response. And while this makes perfect sense, it can be extremely frustrating to deal with, especially when all we really need is rest. With no energy to fight or stamina to run, we are stuck in park on our couches while our nervous systems race in overdrive.
So what’s a Lymie to do? Here are some tips that have helped me cope:
- Remind yourself that this is normal. Remember that such a response is instinctual and out of your control. You can, however, control your reaction to it. Simply remembering that this is your body’s natural way of protecting you may help to alleviate panic, which will help the response to pass quicker.
- Keep still. When the choices are fight or flight, your instinct is often to get up and run away. That’s only going to make things worse. It certainly can help to move to another spot (a different couch or chair, or a comfortable recliner), but don’t force your body to go for a walk or move in ways it isn’t capable of in an effort to “escape” the situation.
- Concentrate on your breathing. There are lots of great techniques to help you steady your breathing. One that works well for me is to breathe in through my mouth and imagine that breath filling up my belly; hold that breath in my belly for a count of three; then slowly release it back out through my nose for a count of five. Do this five to ten times.
- Hydrate and eat. Drinking water and eating a healthy snack can help stabilize your blood sugar, and your overall system. I also like to have some calming tea, such as Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime or Yogi Calming.
- Use neurofascial processing. Developed by Sharon Giammatteo, Ph.D., neurofascial processing uses light touch to help the body heal. In her book Body Wisdom: Light Touch For Optimal Help, Giammatteo states, “When you are frightened, severely stressed, or weakened due to illness or injury, your limbic system [within the cerebral cortex of the brain] will respond.” One simple way to calm your limbic system is to hold one hand across your forehead, above the bridge of the nose, and one hand over your kidneys, behind your back. You can do this while you’re lying down. Hold the position for at least 15 minutes. It may sound kooky, but I promise you, it helps! Worst case, your arm will fall asleep—and maybe even you will, too!
- Do some light reading. When I’m overtired, I don’t have the neurological capacity to read or watch TV, but sometimes skimming something light—even though I’d rather be sleeping—helps my brain and body relax.
- Call a friend. Part of the problem of fight-or-flight for Lymies is that we’re often alone when it happens, and that can be scary. Call or text a friend to help talk you through it, or to tell you a funny story.
I tried to follow my own advice last week when I went into fight-or-flight, and I am happy to report that within a few days, I was napping normally again!
Next week I will be answering questions from readers. Do you have a question about Lyme? Email me at email@example.com.
Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.
Jennifer Crystal is a writer and educator in Boston. She is working on a memoir about her journey with chronic tick-borne illness. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org