When I watched the news reports about the lone terrorist on Westminster Bridge just months ago, I felt so connected to what had happened. I spent several months of my life looking at that bridge from a hospital window when I was an inpatient at St Thomas’ hospital.
When the attack happened in Manchester two weeks ago, I could not believe what had happened. When I first heard the news I said, “I imagine he is just a lone guy experiencing a psychotic break and this is an isolated incident.” How wrong I was.
And then last night my device news alerts started going off at around 10:15pm with reports of London Bridge and Borough Market attacks (and at that stage, Vauxhall too). I used to walk to work every morning across London Bridge with hoards of Londoners who worked in the City walking alongside me. I have enjoyed and spent time in Borough Market. And yet again, the injured were rushed to St Thomas’ Hospital.
Everything about how I got from St Thomas’ Hospital to where I am today is to do with how I handle my health and my life. I am so much healthier than I was whilst I was an inpatient there, and that has a lot to do with mindset, attitude and altering my perception of the world.
Health When The World Is A Threat
My work revolves around calming down the sympathetic nervous system activity of my patients in order to effect change inside their bodies, their mentalities and their overall health. Whether I am working with clients on simple gut treatment protocols, yeast/bacterial/fungal overgrowths, hormonal issues – and most importantly, really complex autoimmunity and gastrointestinal issues, I am always keeping an eye on the nervous system balance and whether my client has a dominance of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system – pushing people into permanent fight or flight mode. Or indeed whether this sympathetic activity has become so permanently activated that it is causing excessive drain and damage to the system.
From a position of stress, fight/flight and sympathetic dominance, healing is almost impossible. So many of the clients I work with have, for some reason, moved into a place where the sympathetic, fight or flight response is now permanently switched ‘on’ and life is an altogether threatening place to be.
My role as a clinician is to unwind this tension and distress – moving people from the place where life is a threat to a place where they feel able to turn off their defence mechanisms.
This is important because defence mechanisms are not designed to be ‘on’ permanently. Whether you base your ideology in believing that humans should live according to an ancestral model (in which the stresses we can naturally handle should be temporary and rare) or whether you build your concept of health on the most cutting edge science in this field, it is clear that stress is never supposed to be a permanent state. When it becomes such a permanent situation it has direct effects on your biology, everything from impairing digestive function, hormonal balance, intestinal and blood-brain integrity, weight distribution, metabolic systems and neurotransmitters – and much, much more.
“Stress” is such a loose term, and it is entirely subjective. What stresses one person, what is caught up in their particular web of what is ‘threatening’, is entirely unique – much like a fingerprint. It is founded in history, experiences, genetics (as in genetic SNPs which may create physiological stresses demanding more energy from the body) and it is mostly emergent out of the challenges they have faced and the way they have learned to live in the world.
More often than not, I find that my clients’ default into ‘stressed’, sympathetic dominance began as a defence mechanism against something that was once a real threat in their life. The response has become hardwired, as opposed to situationally appropriate, and learning to stay on alert is sometimes easier than learning to trust: trust in your body, in your self and in life itself.
I know this because there is a building body of science studying sensory overload conditions and central sensitisation syndromes, all of which are built on this heightened stress response mechanism to what some would perceive as non-threatening (but which to some are massively stimulating and threatening). There is also a growing body of science demonstrating how autoimmunity and immune dysregulation emerge out of situations where an initial immune attack may have been appropriate and necessary, but somewhere along the way the ability to turn ‘off’ the immune defence mechanism becomes broken – resulting in permanent inflammation, self-attacks and the physical/mental degeneration that follows.
But it’s actually more important to me that I know all about this sympathetically dominant stress-space from experience. I know this because this was my body. And I know that the single biggest piece of my healing process (though it was multifaceted and undoubtedly complex) was actually the point where I began learning to trust – particularly learning to trust that life was safe, instead of constantly choosing to stay on high alert believing that life was a threat, overwhelming and utterly scary.
Terrorism and Believing That Life Is Safe
There is a lot of work I do for my clients that has nothing to do with this sympathetic/safety switch. But I know for certain that if someone consults me who has slipped into a permanent ‘life is threatening’ state, this piece has to heal and shift prior to true health descending into their body – no matter how restrictive their diet, their supplement regimen or how hard they try to be ‘healthy’.
Events like the terror attacks we have witnessed in the last few weeks do not help us build a trust in life, in those around us – nor in our world and our safety. As more people seem to be at more risk from more terrorists, it is easy to see the danger everywhere. Literally nowhere is safe any more.
So how do I deal with the fact that my health is built on a foundation of trust that life is safe, when every evidence around me indicates something to the contrary?
To my mind this is not about being patronising and stating that you should avoid the news. Nor is it about hearing the emergency service leaders state that they neutralised the threat in 8 minutes. 8 minutes, 7 people dead and up to 50 people injured – some critically. 8 minutes is long enough to feel thoroughly threatening.
I extend enormous credit to the people who are there on the ground, attempting to defeat these terror threats. I know they are braver than I would be, and I know they performed an almost-miracle last night, and that the death toll and injury counts could easily have been a lot worse. Just a couple of minutes longer and there would have, undoubtedly, been yet more fatalities.
And yet, how do we emerge out of this? How can we find a way to progress through the fact that this is the world that we now live in – where people hold such feelings inside them that they seek to harm and hurt others?
Yes – in part I look to those emergency services and watch how many people flock to help where isolated individuals and small factions seek to maim.
Yes – in part I watch the outpouring of defiance and insistence that we will not be changed and affected by such dreadful attempts to derail our normality and marvel at the resilience of humanity and the beauty of spirit in those for whom this is not going to stop them living their lives.
But actually I find myself in a place where the real thing that is making a difference in me today is that I’ve already switched off my sympathetic dominance – it’s been a large part of what I have put the effort into doing for my healing. I am therefore appropriately stressed by the prospect that I have to travel into London and through London Bridge on Thursday this week. I am adequately anxious about it all – as I can expect to be. But I am not overtly and overwhelmingly panicked.
Our reality is that there really are those who seek to exact harm and instil fear into otherwise rational, civilised communities. And they are, to a degree, winning. The appropriate response isn’t to trust in life itself, using blind faith in ‘life’ to take you through. The appropriate, balanced response to terrorism INCLUDES fear, anxiety and nervousness. We are designed to experience some degree of threat stimulation when these things happened and we’d be very weird if we didn’t.
The issue here for health, therefore, isn’t actually the terror attacks – it’s the existing sympathetic dominance into which the terror attacks are being internalised and understood. Terrorism, when in a state of stress and high alert, will be used by your mind as ‘evidence’ for activating, stimulating and maintaining the ‘on-ness’ of your stress response mechanisms. Terror attacks, when you’re sympathetically dominant, will be used as ‘proof’ that life is threatening and you need to be on alert.
Is Terror Proof That Life Is Threatening?
We can do nothing about terrorism. Our governments and security services might be able to, but I, personally, can do nothing to affect the people in this world whose way of life is built on an ideology and a hate which I cannot begin to understand. But as with everything, interpretation is the key. Terror is not proof that life is threatening – it is proof that some people carry hate inside them and violence is their way of dealing with it.
I do not want combat this with ignorance, defiance or fearlessness. I do not want to confront this fear-mongering with blind trust in life and everything in it.
Instead, my role is to double down on trusting the parts of life that I can do something about – my relationships, my own body, my nutritional intake, my awareness of how to conduct my life so I feel healthy. I can remember how to unwind my sympathetic dominance and I work on having an ‘appropriate’ fear of these terror attacks by working on how wired and fearful I am in general.
Minimising the threat I perceive from things that truly aren’t that dangerous has been the work of my lifetime. This allows me to have appropriate fears of the things that really do warrant caution – such as terrorism.
How I switched off my sympathetic overdrive was to change my mindset. Everything I did for myself, and now do for my clients, revolves around building “Antifragile” responses to life. Rather than seeing everything as danger and destabilising, I have changed my mindset to one in which when anything adverse happens (I get exposed to a toxin, I become intolerant to something I previously enjoyed, I am put in a poisonous environment or relationship that I can’t get away from) it presents me with an opportunity for two things:
- Learning something about myself, my body and my responses
- Remembering where my strengths, securities and touch-points of ‘safety’ really are
This foundational mindset allows me to live my life NOT in a state of sympathetic dominance, because it diminishes any level of ‘threat’ I could perceive from things that are really non-threatening. If everything is educational and opportunity for growth, you don’t approach life from an inherently ‘threatened’ space.
And yes, this takes some work. For me, it did involve re-contextualising all of the horrors that really did happen to me in an attempt to understand how I grew from and flourished within the situation. It took time, and help. But it’s now firmly rooted in me and I no longer live from sympathetic stress.
Therefore, my way of not letting terrorists win is by not letting them switch me back into a place where I am frightened of the whole world again. This doesn’t matter to anyone else. It certainly doesn’t matter to those perpetrating terror. But it matters to me. I fought far too hard to minimise the overwhelm I felt at life and to gain my trust in myself and my strengths. And I fought far too hard to gain the mentality that every trial, tribulation, challenge, reaction and ‘mistake’ was an opportunity to grow and find more strengths, more coping mechanisms – without resorting to my previous ones of manic defensiveness and sympathetic dominance.
It is only by working on me – every facet of the way I perceive everyday situations that are not really all that dangerous, and down-regulating my internal heightened perception of threat in everything – that I can stand a chance of not letting my body, immune system and overall health break down with the rising rates of terror and hate crimes.
My work isn’t on psychologically accepting terror – it’s on emotionally and psychologically realising that terror acts are the truly terrible, scary, really frightening things. Life itself? Well it’s actually NOT that threatening all the time.
So, for those who are using last night’s events as evidence that the world really is a scary place and that sympathetic dominance and overt stress is the only way to survive – please stop. Last night was horrific, but it is, in fact, evidence that sympathetic dominance ALL the time is totally unwarranted. Save the threat alerts for the times when you are truly in danger – like those people on London Bridge and in Borough Market last night. That is where the sympathetic fears are totally necessary and the correct response. Everything else in life – you can handle. The everyday decisions, your body and the food you eat – that’s actually the easy bit.
No, we cannot let terrorism win. Not to take our cities, our events or our transport systems. Not to take our fun and our enjoyment and not to take our freedoms. But we also cannot let it drive us into a place of distrusting everything about being alive. We do this by reserving fear for the appropriate places, and finding a way to learn and witness how life, for the most part, is not worth activating our sympathetic stress mechanisms for.