So, yeseterday, I discussed how autistic folks can get so acclimated to outrage and fight-flight responses, that our systems become inclined to treat a lot of stuff like a threat, when it’s not. And we can react with intense self-defensiveness towards others who don’t actually mean us any harm… which doesn’t really help anything or anyone, including us.
I should know. I didn’t go into it much before, but once upon a time, I was pretty tightly wound, and I took just about everything unexpected as a threat that I needed to fight and overcome, even dominate. That worked well for me in the workplace, where that sort of behavior is rewarded. Everybody loves an independent contributor who’s “all over it” and attacks problems and challenges like they’re a mortal enemy which must be subdued.
But lemme tell you, it did a number on my nerves. And it made me miserable to live with outside that workplace arena. I was wound extremely tightly — and I literally did not know how to relax. I was on constant edge, and that didn’t help my sensory issues at all. If anything, it made them worse. It was entirely counter-intuitive. The stress that relieved me by shutting down my hypersensitive system (shunting my energy and attention to pure survival-related activities), also heightened my sensitivities. So, I ended up on a roller-coaster of rage. For years. It wasn’t the happiest of times for me (or my partner), but somehow I/we got through.
I promised yesterday that I’d talk about how I’ve learned how to “de-condition” myself from that knee-jerk reaction of RAGE, and now I shall.
As I said before,
I’ve found something that works wonders for me. It doesn’t cost any money. It can be done at any time. It’s always available. It’s taken the extreme edge off many of my most pronounced autistic difficulties, making me far less impacted than I was, only five years ago. It’s literally changed my life for the better over the past years.
That something is essentially resetting my system back to balance. My system gets locked into fight-flight intensity, so I have to both trick it and entice it, and do specific things that will kick-start the parasympathetic rest-digest mechanisms. My body — my biochemistry, my neurology — is acting up, and I need to take specific steps to get my physical system operating in balance again.
I’ve dealt with a number of therapists, over the years, who promised to help me come to terms with my past trauma experiences, and their approach was on talk, emotion, “feeling the feelings”. That was incredibly unhelpful for me — it actually hurt me. They actually made things worse, because the problems they thought were in my head were actually in my central nervous system. And they never had any interest in addressing that aspect of my whole self.
I approach this from a physiological angle, mainly. After all, my autonomic system is taking over, and by definition and specialty, it doesn’t really care much about what I consciously think about the situations I’m in. It can’t care, or it won’t be able to do its job. So, I need to back off the sympathetic fight-flight-freeze-f*ck bias, and literally jump-start the rest-digest parasympathetic mechanisms in my system.
- I balance my system with breathing.
- I practice deliberately relaxing,
- I practice not reacting to anything… at all.
First, I start with my breathing. It’s the one thing I can control, at any point in time. And your autonomic nervous system actually responds to your breath. If you speed up your breathing, it’s like putting your foot on the gas — it speeds things up. Your heart starts to beat faster. And your system gets more oxygen and gases to work with. If you slow down your breathing, you can slow down your pulse, and as you exhale, your it signals your heart to slow down a bit. It signals the whole of your system, actually, alternately prompting the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to do their respective jobs.
In a tight situation, when you want to slow down the fight-flight escalation, it might seem like a good idea to focus on slowing the breath to take the edge off. And that’s one way to do it. Are things getting frantic? You can manage your body’s functions by breathing in a certain way. The thing is, that direct intervention approach requires me to constantly monitor my situation and manage my state — which is not always possible, because of all the sensory overload that’s tweaking me within an inch of my life. If I think of it, I can slow myself down. But when I’m in a bind, I’ll be damned if I can be present-minded enough to take those steps.
What I seek more, is overall balance — strengthening my underlying system and training it to naturally return to balance (which it does). A healthy heart has “heart rate variability” — the heartbeat speeds up and slows down naturally, as part of the ongoing rhythms of SNS/PNS activation. It’s completely normal for things to get fast, and then slow. And in fact, it’s a hallmark of health. Rather than getting rid of the highs in favor of the lows, I focus on helping my system handle both sides of the proverbial pendulum — deal with the fight-flight situations when they arise, and then return back to rest-digest state after the perceived threat / drama / challenge has passed. Because that’s what it’s designed to do.
So, how exactly do I do this?
It’s fairly simple. I just balance my breathing in steady, equal cycles of about 5-6 full breaths per minute, as described by Stephen Elliott at Coherence.com. I breathe slowly and steadily, counting 5 seconds for each in-breath and each out-breath. I also leave a second or so between each in/out breath. If you’re breathing more frequently than that, Elliott says, you’re hyperventilating. And you’re putting yourself into a sympathetic bias (fight-flight) state of mind and body.
I’ve had to retrain myself from that over time. I tend to take shallow and/or irregular breaths, and a lot of people (especially yoga folks) have criticized me over the years for doing that. Whatever. Finding fault with how I breathe has never been particularly helpful or productive for me. If anything, it makes things worse. Rather than criticizing myself, I just practice slow and steady breathing on a regular basis. I used to do it every morning when I woke up, sitting zazen for a little bit. I still do that, now and then, but mostly now I do it whenever I feel the need — and it can be anytime.
Like right now.
I also focus on breathing in my belly region. I fill up my belly before I fill up the tops of my lungs. I work my way up, and then breathe out in the opposite order — first fill belly, the fill top of lungs, then empty top of lungs, then empty belly. This stimulates the vagus nerve, which it closely associated with the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-digest).
Second, I consciously relax. I don’t know how to do it naturally, so I have to practice this a lot. It’s a learned skill with me. For most of my life, I could NOT relax. Now and then, I could manage something like relaxation for a few minutes, but I was so constantly assailed by everything in my life (sensory input, confusing social situations, disrupted routines and patterns, etc) it made more sense to be on constant alert, so I could react and adapt as needed. Within the past 10 years, I’ve actually learned how to relax again, and I do a couple of different things:
- Progressive relaxation – feeling my toes relax, then my feet, then my ankles, then my shins, then my knees, then my thighs, then my hips, then my… you get the idea. I do this usually when I am wired but need to sleep. I’m usually asleep before I get to my shoulders, although sometimes I get the whole way up my body and am still wide awake.
- Progressive tensing and relaxing – tightening my toes as much as I ca, then my feet, then my ankles, then my shins… and so on, till my whole body is tense as a violin string, and then I relax my body back down, just letting the tension go. The tension actually triggers a relaxation response, as the muscles react to the tightening. Our bodies can be contrary that way.
- Stretching – especially full-body stretching. It literally gets me to unwind, and my mind follows my body’s lead.
Lastly, Zazen. It sounds exotic and all Eastern, but it’s something anyone can do, and it’s probably one of the most impactful practices I have. For the record, I’m not a Buddhist, but I can relate to some of what it espouses. I tend to pick and choose what helps me, and I leave the rest. People can do what they please, but I’m not much for orthodox enforcement.
My own version of zazen involves just sitting. Not thinking about a mantra or a koan or a word or image to focus my attention, but just sitting. Motionless. Counting my breaths and keeping them steady and balanced. I don’t react to anything I notice — an itch, a tickle, a passing discomfort, the sparkle of a reflection. I don’t “follow” thoughts that come up. I don’t indulge them. I just sit there and watch what’s happening.
I “do” zazen when I’m at work, dealing with difficult people.
I practice zazen when I’m at home, dealing with challenging situations in my marriage.
The net result is that I’m far less reactive to what goes on around me. I’ve trained myself to not get caught up in things that seem to be happening, and I find I can let go of things more easily. I should really get back to doing zazen regularly. It helps me so much… so I shall.
So, there it is. How I’ve “de-conditioned” myself from a constant state of fight-flight. I may have made it sound simple and easy, yesterday. And now I’ve broken it down into a number of elements, none of which are necessarily quick fixes — oh, except the breathing part(s). That can help in the moment, when drama rears its hydra-like head.
The thing I have to keep in mind at all times, is that my extreme reactions are probably A) conditioned, B) instinctive, C) neuro/physio/biochemical in nature, and D) due to other circumstances getting me all “spun up” about things — which have nothing to do with my present situation. If I’m tired, if I’m frustrated, if I’m taxed in general, I’m more likely to get cranked up and over-react. So, I have to slow down the system that’s telling me it knows best.
The system doesn’t “know” best — it doesn’t know anything other than what it needs to do in that instant to address what it perceives as a threat. That’s one kind of knowing. But not the kind I need.
So, I’ve worked for years at training my system to chill the f*ck out — automatically. I’ve strengthened my parasympathetic aspects, so they can deal with the sympathetic fight-flight stuff that comes across my path. ‘Cause it always does. Without fail. I can’t control that all the time. But I can certainly get my autonomic nervous system in shape to deal with it effectively.
And it does that a whole lot better now, than 10 years ago.
That’s for sure.
Here’s some more related reading you may find useful:
Techniques for Autonomic Balance
- Coherence.com (especially The New Science of Breath)
- The Relation Between the Autonomic Nervous System and Buddhism (PDF)
Related posts regarding talk therapy and Aspergers/Autism:
- #Autisticwomen and Psychotherapy – when your Asperger’s is treated as something else
- What therapists of autistic / Aspie women should focus on
- What therapists of autistic / Aspie women should focus on