By Lindsey Murphy, OTR/L
Have you ever become so afraid of an unexpected sound that it causes your muscles to tighten and your heart rate to increase? Have you experienced intense levels of pain or sickness while simultaneously encountering teeth chattering or hiccups? Do strobe lights cause you to sneeze or your face to flush? If so, your brain is trying to subconsciously convey a critical message to you regarding the abnormal distress with which your body is coming into contact.
When an event occurs that causes the brain to experience a stressful emotion, this signal is delivered to the amygdala in order to allow it to be processed. If we compare the brain to a railroad system, the amygdala is similar to a concerned individual that is observing and interpreting what is occurring and then passing on its findings to the appropriate location. The amygdala then provides information to the hypothalamus, which can be likened to a dispatcher that is responsible for processing the provided information and then issuing instructions on how to constructively handle the situation. The hypothalamus relays its commands to a portion of the body called the autonomic nervous system, or the ANS. In a similar vein as to how a train conductor and engineer would interact with a dispatcher, the ANS is responsible for receiving and acting on any instructions provided by the hypothalamus. In fact, the ANS’s main role is to maintain basic bodily functions while also protecting the body from any threats. As these two areas can become contradictory, these functions are delegated into two centers: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The SNS is commonly known as our “fight or flight” response and causes the body to prepare to protect itself, whereas the PNS maintains the body’s natural rhythm and is known as the “rest and digest” portion of the body.
While this system is designed as a survival mechanism in all humans, it can also become flawed and cause a person unnecessary distress. For instance, in children or adults with neurological impairments and/or sensory processing disorder, input incorrectly labeled by the brain as “threatening” may cause an inappropriate fight or flight response. A variety of negative behavioral patterns often unconsciously occur as a result, including but not limited to: picky eating, hypersensitivity to touch or sound, clothing sensitivity, heightened emotional responses, constipation, stomach ulcers, chronic anxiety, poor social interactions, difficulty focusing, etc.
Interestingly, all humans display autonomic body signs when their brain or body is experiencing distress. Examples of these signs could include sneezing, yawning, hiccupping, temperature variations, increased heart rate/blood pressure, dilated pupils, breathing or blinking rapidly, goose bumps, laughing excessively, decreased appetite, constipation, and/ or a red face or deeply flushed cheeks. Negative reactions to these subconscious signs may sometimes occur due to the fact that neurological impairments and/or sensory processing challenges are often correlated with decreased impulse control or social awareness. In an attempt to rectify and persevere one’s sense of well-being, there is often a primal desire to respond by hitting, kicking, falling asleep, shivering, grabbing a coat/ jacket or taking one off, requesting water, yelling, running away, hiding, becoming irritable, and/or refusing to participate in activities.
Oftentimes, the best strategies to implement as soon as those autonomic signs are noted are brain rest (napping, dimming lights, taking a 5-10 minute cognitive break, going into a quiet area for a little while), deep breathing, drinking water, stretching, heavy work activities, walking, listening to preferred music or using earplugs depending on the situation, using putty, chewing gum, etc.
Occupational therapists or other trained professionals are excellent resources for determining effective strategies and developing specialized treatment plans for children or adults experiencing decreased task involvement due to an overactive fight or flight response. By training the brain to reduce and accurately interpret the stress signals while simultaneously strategizing to find an appropriate response, an individual can greatly increase their quality of life and more fully participate in their daily activities.