Why am I feeling like this?-Stress, Trauma, Primitive Reflexes and Brain Function

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Why am I feeling like this?-Stress, Trauma, Primitive Reflexes and Brain Function 

There is no denying that what we are living through in the world today – #Covid19, #Social distancing, loss of job security, stability, routine, climbing daily death tolls and the threat of an unseen enemy – the human psyche is under attack. Many relationships are struggling, people are struggling with an unexpected emotional roller coaster and they don’t understand why. We do not know what is going to happen next, or when it will end. What are your reactions to this and do you understand why they are happening?

To understand more about what is going on, you need to understand more about brain development and brain function.

Brain development begins in utero and continues to elaborate throughout our lives. The key areas of the brain are; the Hind Brain (Brain Stem and Cerebellum) and the Fore Brain (Limbic System and the Cortex). There are many parts to each area of the brain and they all need to communicate well with one another. The Hind Brain supports us in early life, whilst we learn how to control our movements more efficiently and learn how to express our needs. Around the ages of two to three years of age, we typically go through the terrible twos, as our brains elaborate further into the Limbic System – and we start to learn to understand our emotions. With time, neural growth reaches the Cortex and we learn to control our feelings and emotions and not be controlled by them.

Good connections to the Cortex ensure we have access to executive function and the ability to feel safe in this world. Good executive function ensures we can reason, problem solve, be self-motivated and well regulated. The Cortex of our brain, should become the master of control over every aspect – social engagement, physical control, emotional control as well as intellectual function. The Hind Brain should become the servant of the Fore Brain. When the Hind Brain is in control too much, our emotions control us, we can’t control our emotions and in many cases, cannot recognise them, or engage appropriately, socially.

So, what happens in times of stress/trauma? The Hind Brain tries to take over. This is the most primitive part of our brain and also the one that helps us to survive. Reflex responses for survival are triggered. Primitive Reflexes emerge in the Brain Stem and there are key reflex responses that are associated with fear and survival, as well as the ones that originally teach us how to move. The Fear Reflexes are:

The Fear Paralysis Reflex – which is complete freeze. Minimal breathing, curl up, whole body withdrawal and shut down, to minimise requirements for survival. Shallow breathing, upper chest breathing and difficulty making and maintaining eye-contact, will be key indicators of this reflex governing a system.

The Moro Reflex – This has different aspects to it – 1) Fight – aggressive or controlling, 2) Flight – Run away and hide. 3) Submit/Flop – Just give up, do as you are told, don’t rock the boat.

You can either be in a state of hyper arousal – hyper alert, hyper sensitive – overloaded on a sensory level, and pulling away, physically. OR hypo – taking in very little, focused on what is right in front of you. You want to cling and hold on, trying to find comfort and safety. Another aspect of this response is you can shut down – emotionally too. Becoming detached can be a self-preservation thing and is not necessarily something you have any control over. Remember these are reflex responses.

The freeze, fight, flight, flop responses are legitimate forms of survival. Your nervous system can bounce between all aspects of these survival responses, depending on what we are experiencing and what we have experienced in our lifetimes. However, these primitive reflex responses should not be in control all the time. For many people they are in control all the time, because their Nervous Systems have been triggered too many times and therefore the survival reflex patterns have not yet developed to Adult Startle Reflex or Strauss Response. This in turn leads to an immaturity in the nervous system. Times like these will aggravate the immaturity and magnify their survival behaviours. They will find it very difficult to feel safe in this world and have low tolerance to stress.

In these unprecedented times, it is not surprising that survival mode may have triggered in our systems. I know that in the first few weeks of lock down, my nervous system went into Flight Mode.

  • Became quite detached.
  • Didn’t want to do much.
  • Couldn’t do much.
  • I was barely able to concentrate on anything for more than five minutes, so my mind was darting around all over the place.
  • My emotions shut down and numbness set in.
  • Craving carbohydrates

These are all signs that my Moro Reflex has kicked off. Thankfully, my husband and family are very patient with me and I have continued working on myself with RMTi and I am coming out the other side. Trauma can cause a detachment between what you know in your head and feeling it in your heart. This is something I’ve wrestled with, most of my life. So the patterns are not unfamiliar to me.

When Fight or Flight triggers in our systems, it triggers a response in many nuclei in our brains and in particular the release of adrenaline to increase alertness and vigilance – which we need in times of threat. Cortisol is supposed to balance this out – but we need periods of movement and stillness to support this process properly. If we don’t exercise this response can build up to toxic stress and chronic illness. Read more about it here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181836/

Survival Reflexes and Relationships – The Fear Reflexes form the foundations on which a new born baby first learns to find safety and connection in the world. We are designed to be in relationship and to seek and give physical contact as part of this process. After birth, the baby startles, throws their arms out and head back, cries. Then, curls back up ready to cling and be comforted by their parent. We naturally seek hugs and physical contact for comfort and reassurance. It is essential for mental health and well-being. So, social distancing and isolation is affecting this very primal need in all of us – even more so, for those who are completely on their own. If you are becoming really detached or distanced, it’s possible you are in flight mode, or in extreme cases the Fear Paralysis Reflex is affecting you deeply.

When we sense danger, our neuroception alerts us. (Dr Stephen Porges)However, if it is not regulating correctly, it also affects our capacity to cope with social engagement. This can play out with the way we interact – or don’t interact with our loved ones, when feeling threatened. So, if you are being affected in this way, try to find ways to connect, and maintain connection. Do things together, go for walks, hold hands. Reaffirm love, even if it is hard to FEEL right now. I also recommend the Safe and Sound Protocol to help redress the balance. https://integratedlistening.com/ssp-safe-sound-protocol/

With the Hind Brain in control, connections to the fore brain become impaired – so your ability to think clearly and function as efficiently as you normally do can be severely compromised. You don’t want to do your work – whether you are an adult or a child – it is just too hard! The way you are responding to the threat around you, does not give you access to the resources required by your nervous system, to be able to continue, as ‘normal’. It also becomes a lot more effortful to be ‘normal’ and to try to function as ‘normal’. The bottom line, is your brain is simply not able to function as efficiently, as it did before. So, recognise this, and give yourself/your loved ones, the space to ride through this phase. This would explain why children may be reluctant to continue with their school work, too.

Top tips to support yourself, your loved ones, your child/children through this survival reaction and the various impacts it is having:

  • Create personal routines – routines offer some control over what is happening day to day – and this helps create a sense of predictability and safety.
  • Exercise – to release endorphins as well as help adrenal and cortisone hormones to balance out. Avoid the build up of toxic stress. We need to move in order for the balance to be redressed.
  • Laugh! Laughter is the best medicine – so they say. Get those feel good endorphins flowing.
  • MOVE rhythmically, in some way, shape or form, DAILY. Rocking gently and rhythmically is a key piece of how we work in RMTi, but it is also natural to babies, and we instinctively seek rhythmical movement to help us calm.
  • Dance, sing, listen to music.
  • Ground yourself. Go for walks in the garden or the park, woodland – barefoot when ever you can.
  • Massage – specially on the hands, feet or the back are wonderful for stimulating the release of endorphins in your body.
  • Connect with a neuro-developmental therapist who can teach you a few tools to balance brain function.
  • Face Tapping from Handle Institute is great.
  • Switching from Kinesiology, is also really helpful. Start your day with this, and repeat it whenever you are flagging, or need a boost with concentration. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyTdjHYWT5E
  • Drink more water. We use more water when stressed.
  • Meditate/Pray – lots of apps out there.
  • Cut yourself some slack – allow your nervous system the space to adjust. Reduce the expectations and demands you have on yourself, your loved ones – partner, children. But, keep on loving and reaffirming that. You will come out the other side.
  • Let your children play.

To find out more, please feel free to contact me – Ralls RMT or email: gaynor@rallsrmt.co.uk

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