Herbert Benson MD
Associate Professor of Medicine
Harvard Medical School
Understanding how the fight of flight response, and it’s opposite; the relaxation response are involved in ME/CFS has been key to understanding and controlling my illness.
One of the common components of ME/CFS is our nervous system being stuck in the fight of flight response, also referred to as the maladaptive stress response. The fight or flight response is useful if you’re facing a tiger, or another short term stress. However, our bodies are not designed to be in this mode permanently. When we are in fight or flight mode our body diverts resources away from non essential activities/organs, so that it can focus all its energy on fighting or fleeing.
Stress can be physical, emotional, psychological, environmental, infectious, or a combination of these. It is important to know that your adrenals respond to every kind of stress the same, whatever the source. The adrenal glands release powerful hormones, including cortisol, which spread their influence all over the body, affecting many functions including; regulating energy production and storage, immune function, heart rate, cell repair, muscle tone and gastrointestinal function. Once the stress has passed the adrenals change the hormones released and the body goes back to normal functioning, the adrenals recharge ready to face the next stress that the body faces. However, if these smaller stresses occur simultaneously, accumulate or become chronic, and the adrenals have no opportunity to fully recover, their response becomes inadequate and adrenal fatigue is usually the result.
Since effort is diverted away from cell repair/healing when the body is in fight or flight it is impossible for the body to heal itself whilst it remains in fight and flight. By invoking the relaxation response we allow the body to get into a state where it can start to heal itself. Since there is no magic pill to cure ME the only way to recover is to allow the body to heal itself.
You may read this and think “but I’m not stressed”. That’s certainly what I thought when I started reading about this nearly two years ago. I didn’t recognise that I was chronically stressed, because it had become normal for me. Also, most of my friends lived a similarly stressful life and managed (and still manage) successfully. Why could I not manage this too? I now recognise that I had a number of stresses in my life, and although they may be stresses that others successfully manage, they took a toll on me. The virus that triggered my ME/CFS was the straw that broke the camel’s back and tipped me from coping into ME/CFS and adrenal fatigue.
Our body cannot be in fight or flight mode if it is relaxed. These two states are opposites and cannot exist at the same time. So by focussing on relaxing we can switch out of fight or flight mode. Simply lounging around, drinking a cup of tea, or other “ordinary” ways that people behave when they think they are relaxing is not enough to switch from stressed to relaxed if you are chronically stressed. Meditation (my information on meditation is coming soon) is the best way I have found of getting my body to relax – it doesn’t matter whether it’s guided meditation or silent meditation, it’s the relaxation that occurs that’s important. Other methods of inducing relaxation are hypnosis and yoga.
I’m sure you can remember a time when you were relaxed. Perhaps a holiday where you were lying in the sunshine, or a spa day where you’ve had a massage, or (I hope there’s no children reading) that post coital feeling. You should aim to be in this state for as much of the time as possible.
At first it’s really difficult to flick the switch from fight or flight to relaxed. It takes a lot of effort to relax for a few minutes and as soon as you stop focussing on relaxing your body gets back into that high alert state. However, gradually it gets easier to relax and you can do it more quickly and then you start to stay relaxed for longer. Eventually you can return your body to normal state where you are relaxed most of the time and only in flight and fight mode when there is a genuine stressful situation.
I found taking supplements to address my adrenal fatigue as well as consciously relaxing (using guided meditation tracks) for 30-60 minutes four times a day were essential to train my body out of the stressed state and back into a relaxed state.
The maladaptive stress response was the main cause of my disturbed sleep. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night for no particular reason with my heart thumping, feeling on high alert. Other times I would find it impossible to get to sleep because I couldn’t relax. I found that the more I practised relaxation/meditation in the day, the more likely I was to sleep well at night.
I’ll be posting my information about meditation soon, and hopefully that will give you some ideas and resources to help you induce the relaxation response.