Fight or Flight (The Brains Only Trying to help!)

Trevor Gardner

Fight or Flight guest Blog by Trevor Gardner

Henry Marsh, the neurosurgeon and writer, chose ‘Better Not Look Down’ by B.B. King as one of his record choices on the BBC’s Desert Island Disks. He explained that brain surgery isn’t much more difficult than other surgery with practice, yet the results when things go wrong are more catastrophic, for the patient, and their family, so the procedures seem to carry more weight.

All of us can walk along a line on the ground – its easy, but when it’s a 4 inch beam a metre off the ground, or a large metal girder or lintel in the air, everything changes. Our brains take over, and the same straight line-walking task we can do on the ground, seems a completely different undertaking.

Why is this? Its because our brains get involved, and the over-riding purpose of our thinking brains is to protect us. It does this by pattern matching. That is finding memories and experiences from the past to inform the present and future. Therefore, it has no problem walking straight on the ground, as there are plenty of memories, experiences and pattern matches from our past that confirm that walking straight on the ground is easy, and normally pretty much uneventful. As soon as we take this exercise off the floor however, it becomes altogether more difficult, maybe from our own experience of heights, or gymnastics, or some other experience of watching others on television or in person. Suddenly Fear kicks in, to protect us from doing something that’s dangerous, and may harm us. Our Brains are just trying to protect us.

Brain Pattern Matching

In simple terms the human brain is like having tens of thousands of filing cabinets in our heads. Full of memories or pattern matches from the past. It is primarily used to match these past events with the current situation we find ourselves in, to guide us and protect us. For example, when you want to cross the road, as you get to the kerb, without consciously thinking about it, your brain searches through thousands of files, for a close pattern match of a similar event to protect you now, based on your past experience. It quickly finds a match that says if you look right, left and right again, checking for traffic, listening and watching as you cross, all will be well. And so, this is what you do, with a successful and safe outcome of getting to the other side of the road, without any sense of fear. However, if the task is something the pattern-matching machine (Thinking Brain) cannot find a match from your past experiences, things can be different and less successful. If you have to attend a job interview and haven’t done this before or for say over 20 years, the brain will struggle to find a match to guide and protect you, so will generate warning bells, which we may call anxiety or fear. These then link to a release of adrenaline as part of the Fight and Flight response.

Fight or Flight

This is an innate response that was vital when in previous generations we lived in caves, were surrounded by wild animals and were constantly needing to adopt a survival mechanism. So, when a Sabre-Toothed Tiger turned up, the fight or flight response proved useful. It immediately kicked in, generating the emotion of Fear, that instantly produced Adrenaline within our brains, that flowed through the body as an emergency alert. This told the Body to concentrate its efforts in the upper and lower limbs, eyes, and ears, ready to either Fight for our life or run like hell (Flight). Then, when the emergency was over the adrenaline stopped and the body returned to normal. Yet, although we live in the safest times the world has ever known, we still find ways to activate the Fight or Flight response, sometimes appropriately when crossing the road, if a car comes out of nowhere and we have to run, but more often in less appropriate situations when we generate Fear from what someone said on Facebook, or overthinking one of the 80% of thoughts that go through our heads each day, that will never happen, but we choose to dwell on or catastrophise!

Our Bodies are OK with Adrenaline flowing through us when it’s a genuine Emergency call, but they really don’t like this happening all the time. Particularly when we are sat in a chair, on social media perhaps, .screaming through our emotions (Fear) that generates Adrenaline – ITS AN EMERGENCY – FIGHT OR RUN!!! – while still sat in the chair! This is a real cry wolf situation that our Bodies aren’t happy about. It’s like our Body is saying ‘Is this an emergency or not, as it seems you are just sat doing nothing?’ This is likely to result in the body producing symptoms.

CFS Generated Memories & Creating new ones

With CFS and other health conditions, some of the memories or brain pattern matches that have been generated, and have been created to protect us in our thinking brains, can have a detrimental effect on our thinking and actions. For instance, it seems that when we take exercise there is a direct correlation between this event and worsening symptoms, so a memory or pattern match is created that tells us that when we exercise or exert ourselves it will end in tears, and we will experience increased symptoms. Our brains are trying to protect us, by sending a warning. Yet increased exercise will not generate symptoms, it is rather the Fear of exercise that will. If you suffer from CFS/ME, as soon as a friend says ‘Let’s go for a walk’, our thinking brain accesses a memory/pattern match that immediately says this could be a problem, so Fear is generated, swiftly followed by Adrenaline – resulting in more symptoms – the sufferer understandably puts this down to the tangible exercise, rather than the less obvious fear of exercise.

In this type of situation, it is important to generate new brain pattern matches. So, a good exercise to undertake is to look at something like walking and consider how far you can walk without symptoms. Maybe this is half a mile? If this is the case, try walking a quarter of a mile, regularly, ideally on the flat, and on different walks and always ending with a treat. Maybe finishing at a café or pub for your favourite coffee, smoothie or cider? Over a short period of time a new brain pattern will be created, with the old memory going to the archive (for future reference if needed). Then when a friend says in the future ‘Lets go for a walk’, you simply say yes, that would be great, with no symptoms – as the thinking brain will find the new pattern match that says walking is fun, instead of the old one, that was full of warnings and fear.

Turning the taps

If we can create new pattern matches as a practical way to reduce our fear, this in turn will reduce the adrenaline and therefore the Bodies need to create symptoms. This is easier with some activities than others, but just understanding this principle, can in itself reduce the power of the symptoms being produced. With this knowledge and understanding, that our symptoms are only our Bodies communicating with us as a way of gaining our attention and encouraging practical change, it can help reduce the power they have over us.

In the same way we can turn off the Adrenaline tap by reducing Fear, the far more useful tap of Endorphins and Dopamine can be turned on by increasing a sense of fulfilment, satisfaction, joy, fun and security in our lives. By visualising ways to turn down one tap and turn up the other, we can be well on the way to recovery, as our Bodies dislike the Adrenaline and love the endorphins.

Saul Levitt, Health Recovery Therapy

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