PTSD and Fight-or-flight Response: How Occupational Therapy Saved My Life and 16 Things I've Learned
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
This week’s blog is dedicated to my occupational therapist — words cannot express my gratitude for guiding me through my pain and for helping me learn to regulate my nervous system; our work has changed my life — and to a special young man I had the pleasure of meeting this week — may you begin to see your true self, work to forgive yourself and learn to love yourself; I hope you feel better very soon.
A Little History
I've been going to occupational therapy for close to one year now. I was referred to an occupational therapist (OT) by a psychiatrist because, after over 20 years of seeking help and trying everything to get better, while there were slight improvements in my well-being, something was still extremely wrong.
Every day was a struggle. I was easily overstimulated. Overwhelmed. I had frequent meltdowns. Bursts of anger. Rage. It would reach a point where the things I did felt like they weren’t by choice; rather, they were things my body had to do in order to survive. When you’re living in a constant fight-or-flight response, you fight or flee at almost every turn.
I was continually putting others and myself in harm's way, and I didn’t know how to stop it. I would throw things and punch my hands and feet into walls — fighting. Smash my head into doors — fighting. Hurt my husband or myself — fighting. I would take my seat belt off while my husband was driving and threaten to get out of the car — fleeing. Walk out into traffic — fleeing. Say I wanted to kill myself and make faint attempts at suicide — fleeing. After, I could never explain what made me do the things I was doing. It was like I had been possessed. And I would feel so remorseful that I wouldn’t want to live.
At this point, I knew about my sensory processing disorder (SPD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) diagnoses, but I didn't know I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I didn’t understand how imperative regulating my nervous system was to ending the fight-or-flight response I was living in.
And then came occupational therapy. Seeing my OT this past year not only taught me how to regulate my nervous system, it saved my life. And my marriage. I’m finally seeing who I truly am, and I am learning to reconnect my mind, body and soul.
16 Things I’ve Learned While Working with My OT
To understand my body’s needs. I remember my OT asking me what I do for my body during one of our first visits, and, outside of exercising, I didn’t know what to say. I was all in my head. It took a while for me to grasp the concept of my body needing things. The things my sensory diet would provide. I didn’t know that what I would learn would change everything. Ending my constant fight-or-flight response. Ending my constant suicidal thoughts and attempts. Ending my constant violent acts against others and myself. The information I needed was always within me, but I didn’t know how to tap into it until I began working with my OT.
To be in my body and to pay attention to where my emotions sit in my body. Through craniosacral therapy, my OT has guided me to do body scans in order to feel each part of my body. To sense where my emotions sit in my body. Once I’m able to locate them, I can identify what they’re telling me and work to alleviate the physical pain they’re causing.
To be aware of my breath and to get it to reach all parts of my body. To pull my breath from my toes all the way to the top of my head as I inhale and back down from the top of my head to my toes as I exhale.
To cross my legs, arms and invert and cross my hands to get both sides of my brain to communicate. My OT told me that when I have sensory overload, the left side of my brain shuts down. The side of cognition and speech and coordination and motor skills. Crossing my legs, arms and hands (or doing eagle pose) gets both sides communicating again, and I feel clearer.
To understand how all the parts of my nervous system affect me. I’d read Sharon Heller’s, Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight, a few years before going to an OT, so I knew about my olfactory, visual, auditory, gustatory, tactile, vestibular, proprioceptive and interoceptive senses, but seeing an OT helped me understand how they operate and work together.
To have a sensory diet. Again, I’d read about it, but I didn’t truly understand what it meant until I started seeing an OT. For my sensory diet, I have to do things every hour to regulate my nervous system. It’s become a lifestyle, and, since starting it, I feel the best I’ve ever felt.
To stimulate and engage my senses. When you have sensory processing issues, it is instinctual to block out your senses: close the blinds, avoid sounds, limit interactions with others. While working with my OT, I learned I need to engage my senses multiple times a day: smell essential oils or foods, listen to music, connect to others, etc. in order to regulate my nervous system.
To eat protein and carbs every two to three hours. I learned at a sensory conference that this helps keep my glucose levels balanced. And if I schedule eating every two to three hours, then I can’t forget to eat, which could cause a meltdown. I try to eat unprocessed foods without anything artificial added. For example, I eat eggs and potatoes or rice and beans. Good snacks are apples and peanut butter or carrots and hummus.
To have a routine. I need routine so my body knows what to do. My body needs the routine even if I’m not cognitively aware of it. Sometimes, I even set timers to remind myself to continue onto the next part of my routine. But since I’ve developed a routine I can stick to, my body remembers it.
To move. I used to work all day at the computer and then workout around 3 p.m., but then my OT helped me see I wasn’t doing enough for my body throughout the day. Now, I do cardio before noon, and I do yoga in the afternoon and at night.
To practice compression and tension release techniques. I use my weighted blanket first thing in the morning, when I take breaks and right before bed. The compression on my body provides tension release and helps regulate my nervous system. Also, before I started seeing an OT and was highly unregulated, I’d feel surges of energy when I became overstimulated. Unfortunately, I’d throw things or hurt myself because I didn’t know any better. But now, I know I need to move and provide tension release for my body. I’ll press up against the wall, do push-ups, jump on my mini trampoline, ask for a hug, etc.
To take breaks and to schedule downtime. Before seeing my OT, I would push through all of the things I needed to accomplish in the day, thinking I’d take a break when I was done. My OT helped me to see that my nervous system wasn’t staying regulated when I did this, and that I needed breaks throughout the day to reset and refresh. Now, I look forward to my breaks throughout the day. I also try to schedule downtime a few times a week. Downtime goes beyond simply taking a break, it’s having time to let my mind wander.
To do the things that make me happy. Unfortunately, for those of us who live in fight-or-flight response, our love for ourselves usually suffers too. I didn’t realize how much I was punishing myself. How rigid and strict I was with myself. How little I was letting myself enjoy life. When I began to forgive myself, my playful and creative nature were waiting for me to enjoy. I also find that, if I do little things throughout the day that make me happy, like letting myself watch TV for 15 minutes while I eat lunch, that I feel much better overall.
To take Epsom salt (magnesium) baths. In my opinion, magnesium is essential for anyone with a neurological difference. I’ve read that it’s because we have a magnesium deficiency, but it could also be because, if our bodies are in a constant fight-or-flight response, every muscle is tense. Since my OT suggested I take an Epsom salt bath, I can only go a few days without one. It releases tension like nothing else.
To forgive myself. For having episodes and getting out of control. For having meltdowns. For hurting others. For hurting myself. For only being able to do so much in a day. For sometimes having to limit my interactions. For needing to put my needs first.
To practice acts of self-care each day. To respect and nurture my sensitive nervous system. To love myself.
If you or someone you know has suffered trauma, has been diagnosed with a disorder, or are living in fight-or-flight response, I strongly encourage you to see an OT. Someone who will listen to you. Understand your needs. Help you regulate your nervous system. Guide you toward a better life. A calm, regulated life. A life inside your body where your mind and soul feel safe to dwell.
This story originally ran on Psych Central on May 10, 2019 and was last updated on June 13, 2020. Since Psych Central has been sold, the link to the original is no longer available:
Cover image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay