A hiker walks along a forest path. She listens to the curious calls of birds and frogs, marvels at sunlight streaming through the canopy, searches the leaf litter for dazzling jewel beetles. Suddenly a venomous snake appears in front of her, just where she was about to place her foot! She freezes, chest tightening, breath shallow and rapid, her muscles tense and ready to flee.
Admiring, enjoying and exploring her surroundings are now the furthest thing from the hiker’s mind. In this state she will not notice the pretty patterns carved in a leaf by an insect to her left. She has no drive to forage for berries for her lunch. She won’t take in what her fellow hiker is saying to her about how far they’ve walked. Everything she basked in and loved a moment before is dulled and distant. To the forefront of her experience is the fear of the snake. Her focus is on watching and anticipating its next move. All of her fibres are crying out, “Something’s wrong! Something’s wrong! Something’s wrong!”
This is what anxiety can feel like. It’s an analogy I’ve borrowed from Peter A. Levine’s book, Waking the Tiger, and embellished with some of my own favourite features of a tropical forest. Anxiety, depression and trauma can be closely linked with fibromyalgia, a set of mysterious symptoms I’ve been experiencing for the past two years. Inspired by a friend who recently blogged about his own experience with face blindness, I’m writing this post in the hope that I can help others with fibromyalgia find ways to manage their condition as I am gradually learning to do.
May 12th is International Awareness Day for Fibromyalgia and other Chronic Immunological and Neurological Diseases (CINDs). The birthdate of Florence Nightingale was chosen because, like many other people who believe they can fix the world singlehandedly, she ended up suffering from a CIND.
Fibromyalgia takes the form of some or all of the following symptoms: chronic pain, fatigue, anxiety, concentration and memory problems, depression, headaches, IBS, sleep problems, numbness, tingling, tender points and urinary tract problems. I don’t have all of these, I don’t have them as bad as some people do, and I don’t have them all the time, but they have forced me to make changes to my life. At first I saw them as a frustrating inconvenience, or a cruel hindrance on more painful days. Now, most of the time, I see it as a learning experience. And through the process of coming to terms with it, I’ve learnt most of what helps me from nature. Or rather, from an inspiring and insightful movement therapist called Carol McInerney, who draws from a wealth of theoretical and instinctual knowledge of the natural world and our natural bodies.
Peter A. Levine writes: “When threatened or injured, all animals draw from a “library” of possible responses. We orient, dodge, duck, stiffen, brace, retract, fight, flee, freeze, collapse, etc. All of these coordinated responses are somatically based- they are things that the body does to protect and defend itself. It is when these orienting and defending responses are overwhelmed that we see trauma… When we are unable to complete the appropriate actions, we fail to discharge the tremendous energy generated by our survival preparations. This energy becomes fixed in specific patterns of neuromuscular readiness.”
In other words, when our highly developed human brains over think a stressful situation, override our natural animal instincts, bottle up our emotions and fail to process the experience, we can suffer physically as well as mentally. I’ve been teasing out my symptoms by tuning into my bodily sensations for over a year now, and I’m confident that this is the cause of most of them.
The first most useful piece of information I’ve gained during this time is that animals such as antelopes shake off their fear and tension after freezing in reaction to a predator. They shake, jump and prance! And they don’t (or rarely) suffer from trauma afterwards. This may be a healthy way for the antelope to process the impact that a traumatic experience has had on its body and mind. Humans let their prefrontal cortex get in the way of this instinctive behaviour. They bottle it up instead of shimmying out their stress. Our bodies get tense, blocked and numb as a result. I feel like I understand a little better now why boxers do what they do.
The second most useful piece of information I’ve learnt during this time is to look towards the pain, not away. We tend to resent pain, and try to ignore it or numb it. We don’t like it changing our plans. But pain is our body’s way of telling us that something is wrong and something needs to change. Think about when you put your finger on a hot stove. Pain tells you to take it off quickly and hold it under a cold tap. Pain is just trying to help. Although the cause of my aches and pains has been far less clear, taking the time to try to work out what it’s telling me has been immensely useful.
I am healing my fibromyalgia and its causes through somatic experiencing and movement therapy. This is a long but thorough and effective process, which involves a lot of listening to my body and addressing its needs through instinctive movements and sounds. I know this will sound ludicrous to many, but fifteen to twenty minutes of this practice is usually all it takes to free me from my symptoms and bring about a tangible change. Each time I do it, I learn new information about what I need, gain new resources and rewire my behaviour and body language into healthier patterns. I’m breaking myself down little by little and building myself up stronger than ever before. Like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly inside a chrysalis! (Turns out this post is about entomology after all!)
This stuff, which has had a hugely important impact on my life, is really hard to write about without sounding away with the fairies! So I suggest you try it out for yourself – read the book (albeit with a pinch of salt), attend an open floor dance meditation class, take up yoga (or boxing, I imagine), join a choir, spend more time with nature, listen more closely to your body, or simply make like an antelope when you’re frozen with fear.