by Elayna Alexandra
I felt the familiar rush of blood to my limbs and drain of blood to my brain, both happening at the same time.
The warm tingle, the quickening heart rate—I immediately recognized this as the activation of fight or flight in my body. I didn’t look like I was in fight or flight. I was calm and able to communicate clearly, though grimacing in pain as they loaded me into the ambulance. I had broken my collarbone, only months after my amputation surgery, and I was in the space that I know better than any other: the familiar space of emergency.
Though it’s hard to admit, my body is almost happier in an urgent situation than it is in the day-to-day. After more than 20 surgeries and multiple bone breaks starting in early childhood, my nervous system got stuck in fight-or-flight mode. I’ve gotten used to an involuntary biological response that places my systems on red alert. Descending into a calm, socially connected state actually feels very uncomfortable for me. Now, after years of urgency have worn out my system, my body is increasingly prone to experience moments of freeze.
You probably know what fight-or-flight means, and as an amputee you may have experienced it often. But what am I talking about with “freeze” and “socially connected”? Basically, your nervous system is equipped to operate within three dominant modes: socially connected and engaged (which, ideally, is the space we spend most of our time in), mobilization (fight or flight), and immobilization (freeze). In a typical day we move flexibly among all these states of being. We spend some of our time in what are referred to as blended states. For example, if we’re making a presentation in front of a large crowd, we may end up in a state that blends social connection and mobilization.
All three states are regulated by our autonomic nervous system, or ANS. The ANS channels information from our bodies to our brains through three divisions that correspond to our nervous system’s three operating modes: the sympathetic (which activates fight or flight), parasympathetic (which initiates the “freeze” response), and enteric. This complex communication system of neural networks governs our heartbeat, breathing, digestion, and much more. It operates within our bodies, not our minds, so we experience it subconsciously, through sensations, feelings, and behaviors.
However, the ANS does affect our conscious perceptions and our responses to our environment. Think about how you feel when you’re in grave physical danger: Your body surges with adrenaline. Your vision narrows. Blood flows away from your brain, impairing its ability to multitask. That’s your sympathetic nervous system kicking in, switching on a biological response that’s designed to help you run faster and fight harder. This is fantastic if you truly have to run or fight. But if you don’t, then it isn’t so good, because now your brain is functioning on a reduced blood flow that narrows your focus, and you might not see all the options you have available to you.
The more we understand the ANS and pay attention to the reactions it produces, the more we can do to come down from stress overload into calmness, or push ourselves from a frozen space into action. One way to do this is by stimulating the vagus nerve, which is the communication highway of the ANS. There are a variety of techniques you can use to stimulate the vagus nerve. One of my favorites is simply humming or chanting “om.” Another method I use to achieve a sense of calm is to apply a gentle, slow, massage-like downstroke behind my ears.
The best method for regulating the ANS was taught to me by my coach, Alexander Love, a student of Anna Chitty (co-founder of the Colorado School of Energy Studies). This one has changed my life, helping me bring myself out of fight-or-flight mode to a calm, socially connected space. The tool goes by the acronym POOF. P stands for Pause: Take an inventory of how you are feeling and what is happening right now, then breathe. The two Os both stand for Orient: First orient toward something outside yourself and feel the sensation as deeply as possible. Gently and slowly rub your fingers together so you can feel the ridges of your fingerprints. Then orient inwardly toward a sensation in your body and find its lower and upper borders. Avoid going into the sensation. For example; if I’m feeling tightness in my chest, I drop down below the bottom edge of it and rise above the top edge. Finally, F stands for Flex: Tense all your muscles (making fists, curling toes), then release. Cycle through this practice for a few minutes regularly. Over time, you can use it to bring yourself out of fight-or-flight mode into a calm, socially connected state.
Because of the trauma our bodies have experienced, amputees are generally more prone to fight-or-flight triggers than most people. Understanding my ANS has allowed me to recognize those triggers more quickly, neutralize them more effectively, and get comfortable outside the fight-or-flight mode that has dominated so much of my life.