Building Resilience in a Fight-Or-Flight World
What if fatigue, irritability, allergies, sensory overwhelm, learning difficulty, and frequent illness aren’t the brain doing something wrong, but actually part of an intelligent and adaptive response?
Nearly half of all children in the United States are reported to currently have at least one chronic health condition, including developmental delay, environmental and food allergies, learning disability, ADD/ADHD, chronic ear infections, anxiety, and depression. More and more young children (including toddlers!) are being prescribed antidepressants and psychostimulants like Ritalin, and over-prescription of antibiotics has been an increasing concern for decades.
In all these health challenges, the body’s own built-in mechanism for coming down from the fight-or-flight response has been largely overlooked. A chronically elevated fight-or-flight response is probably the most common challenge I see in my patients and loved ones, and it’s also a fairly simple one to solve.
Imagine for a moment you are standing in a field when suddenly an angry tiger comes out of nowhere. Your brain responds with an entire symphony of physiological changes to help you survive. This response is commonly referred to as “fight or flight.” It is the body’s innate resource for adapting to stress using the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.
However, our bodies were never designed to stay in fight-or-flight mode for more than a few hours or days. What is the cause for chronically elevated sympathetic nervous system activity, keeping people in a state of fight-or-flight? Well for one, the brain doesn’t know the difference between a tiger attack, fighting with your sister, eating too much sugar, sitting in a chair all day, too much screen time, or anxiety over a social event. We are constantly bombarded with stress triggers on physical, chemical, and emotional fronts.
It’s not difficult to see how the intelligent fight-or-flight response can turn into depression, anxiety, hypersensitivity, ADD/ADHD, learning difficulties, aggression, developmental delays, emotional instability and reactivity, digestive distress like bellyaches and indigestion, picky eating, food sensitivities, chronic ear infections, frequent colds and other illness, environmental allergies, a chronic runny nose, signs of chronic inflammation like asthma and breathing difficulties, and more, when the body is in a chronic state of fight-or-flight overload.
While avoiding negative stressors is definitely a part of the solution, a huge missing piece of the puzzle lies in how we can improve the internal resilience of our body so stress doesn’t knock us off-kilter so easily. As the name suggests, the fight-or-flight stress response is built on the idea of fighting or fleeing something we perceive as dangerous. In either case, we must move our body to solve the problem. This is what nature intended, and this simple fact is key to understanding how we can come down off the fight-or-flight response and return rhythmic, healthy function to our nervous system.
We know movement is absolutely essential to healthy brain function. Movement is also essential to healthy nervous system function. When we move, special receptors called proprioceptors send signals that activate the brain and downshift the nervous system from elevated sympathetic fight-or-flight response back toward the resting parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) baseline. This is why exercise has been shown to fight depression, why kids who have physical education at school score higher on standardized testing than at schools where the program has been cut, and why if you go for a run you feel more energized than if you sit on the couch all day.
With upward of 100 joints, the spine is responsible for the lion’s share of proprioceptive feedback to the brain. The feet, which have more than 50 joints between them, come in second. While all movement is helpful to turn down the stress response, it’s essential to make sure the spine and feet are doing their jobs properly.
The body is a single interconnected, functional unit, and in order for the brain to get proper nourishment from proprioceptors, we need to be able to move like a well-oiled machine, with our joints gliding smoothly and fluidly. When some parts get sticky or rigid, those joints no longer send their fair share of proprioceptive signals to the brain—the same signals that help us recover to a resting state after being triggered into the fight-or-flight response.
Joints that lack adequate motion not only starve the brain of normal proprioceptive input, but they amplify the stress response by sending alarm signals to the brain saying, “Help, something is wrong!” So even if you lived in a magical stressfree bubble, these stuck spots would still elevate the fight-orflight response in your brain.
Without fluid motion, the brain is vulnerable to a continuous stress loop. The best way to interrupt this loop is to maintain frequent, fluid motion in the body—especially in the spine and feet.
A healthy, functioning body includes flexibility, strength and fluid motion. Try noticing your body’s capacity for fluid motion. Can you touch your toes, rolling down and back up, articulating through each level of your spine?
Is the movement smooth and easy, or are there places that feel sticky, tight, or rigid? Do all the joints move easily on their own, or are there a few that stay straight and move together? Try asking a partner to see if they can notice whether adjacent joints are able to move individually or if there are places where several are stuck together.
At home, you can turn down your stress response and increase proprioception with exercise that moves as many joints as possible. Focus on exercises like dance, which promotes gentle fluid movements that roll through the spine and encourage articulation through all segmental levels. Think about how seaweed moves underwater, and how a river wears down on a rock with fluid repetition rather than trying to chisel through the rock. By articulating gently and fluidly through sticky-feeling places, keeping the motion small enough to feel easy and smooth and concentrically growing the range of motion from there, you may find you’re able to melt through tension and grow resilience at the same time. You can also try walking barefoot in the grass or sand to get extra joint signals from your feet.
The Gift of Chiropractic
If any places are sticky and/or painful to move, ask your chiropractor to take a look at them. A chiropractor can identify where your spine and body is stuck and then deliver a series of specific adjustments to enhance motion. Chiropractors are excellent at identifying subluxations and other sources of rigidity and tension, and can be of tremendous aid in helping to rebalance the nervous system’s proprioceptive function. This way, your joints stop transmitting their alarm signals and become available for proprioceptive activity with the brain. When joints have been stuck in a distorted movement pattern for a long time, it may take some repetition to retrain those old patterns, so you’ll want to check with your chiropractor for specific recommendations tailored to your body and lifestyle. Regular chiropractic care is an essential part of establishing and maintaining healthy proprioception. Each adjustment not only works to restore normal movement patterns, but it also bombards the brain with lots of healthy proprioceptive input. It feels great in the moment, and over time can help rebuild resilience to all kinds of stressors, whether they be physical, chemical, or emotional.
Chiropractors are keen to remind us that what we eat and drink can also dramatically influence our internal movement patterns. When your system is dehydrated or inflamed, for example, your joints and connective tissue are more likely to get stuck and hold a bracing tension. And as already stated, these stuck patterns also result in sending further alarm signals to the brain, which drives up the fight-or-flight response, making it more difficult for the body to handle stressors in the moment and heal over time.
The most common food culprits are those with a high glycemic index: all grains, sweet fruits, sugar, juice, potatoes, refined carbohydrates, etc. When these foods are digested, they break down into glucose. Glucose and other sugars in the bloodstream form cross-links with proteins; this process is called glycation. Glycation increases the stickiness of soft tissue and interferes with normal gliding motion.
Other foods, including soy, corn, caffeine, and dairy, can also have a pro-inflammatory effect, which also increases the rate of glycation, resulting in “sticky” chemistry. So, the less of these foods we consume, the easier it becomes to maintain fluid motion.
It’s not all about avoidance, though. Omega-3 fats (found in small oily fish, flax, and avocado) are an essential building block for your body to produce its own anti-inflammatory chemicals. Whether it’s from food or supplement sources, getting your daily omega-3 is one of the most powerful ways to help fluid motion and to recover from stress efficiently.
Hydration is another essential key to improving fluid motion in our bodies. We need pure water to flush out inflammatory chemicals and to hydrate tissues so they can glide easily. A simple guideline to customize water intake is to drink half your body weight in ounces (so if you weigh 100 pounds, drink 50 ounces per day). Another factor in hydration is alcohol and caffeine consumption, because both of these are dehydrating. For every ounce of caffeine or alcohol, you’ll want to consume an extra 2 ounces of water. Of course, there are many factors that may modify these guidelines, so check with your doctor if you’re not quite sure.
What we’re really hoping to accomplish with the above recommendations, together with chiropractic care, is what’s called neuro-fascial integration.
The fascia is a like a spiderweb of soft tissue that connects all internal body parts into one whole framework. The goal is to achieve fluid motion through the fascia so the entire body is better able to withstand mechanical stressors like taking a tumble or stopping short in traffic. Neuro-fascial integration translates into both structural and neurological resilience to stressors of all kinds: physical, chemical, and emotional.
Imagine what our world could be like if we all carved out just a little time to unwind and soften old tension patterns, received more outside help from chiropractors and massage therapists, and moved our bodies more to turn down the stress response and feed our brains with healthy signals.
How could our lives be different if we weren’t constantly living in chronically elevated fight-or-flight mode? How might we communicate? How could this affect our ability to concentrate, to learn, to experience compassion?
I often think of people as bright lights that sometimes get a bit (or a lot) of dirt piled on top of them. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with us or our children, there is simply stuff in the way. My deepest wish is for you to reclaim your innate capacity for resilience, happiness, mental clarity, and inspiration, so that you can express your unique magic in the world. We each have tremendous potential for a truly thriving body and mind. Happy resilience building!
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #58.
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