Getting stuck in states of fight, flight, freeze or faint can lead to physiological changes that drive disease. Regaining the ability to come out of survival states is one way that helps us resolve chronic illness.
We can experience stuck states of F/F/F/F as high or low blood pressure, high or low blood sugar or insulin levels, exhaustion or hypervigilance and difficulty slowing down, a thyroid caught in survival states of over or underactivity, as well as through anxiety or depression and similar increases or decreases and combinations of these states in our immune systems, guts and other organs and tissues.
These effects are not psychological.
In this post I’ll give you the permission you might not even know you need to act out in ways that work for you, share the TV show I binge-watched for 60 episodes in 2 weeks, give examples of how acting act has been helping me, tell you how one bride healed her trauma by acting out – and trashing her wedding dress, and more.
While it is a sign of health and maturity to be able to resist impulses for anger or escape that are detrimental to ourselves or others, there are times when we inhibit our urges with too much of an iron fist.
Learning which impulses to follow, and when and how to do so, can help us get unstuck.
As a result, it can also soften and decrease symptoms and chronic illness.
In my most recent post, I described how following our subtle desires for pleasure helps our nervous systems shift gears to states of greater ease, connection and better function.
Here I introduce ways to begin to resolve states of fight, flight and freeze by following your impulses to “Act Out.”
This is not a frivolous game or an “exercise.” It’s not about using substances, or work, or food to disconnect from the pain caused by trauma.
It’s about following something that feels a little rebellious, so that you can stay connected to yourself. Staying in connection and in the present moment is how our bodies heal. It’s how we resolve chronic illness.
Acting out is a form of play, with edge.
Acting out is about listening to the intelligence of the body and the clues it gives us to help us find our way.
#1 Acting Out is a “Titrated” Way to Heal Stuck States of Fight, Flight, & Freeze
Acting out – venting, rolling your eyes, saying “no,” speaking your mind, throwing a little caution to the wind, wearing something that feels outrageous or nonconformist such as my neon running shoes that I don’t run in – is a way of honoring the energy we have to DO SOMETHING.
It’s about being able to mobilize even when we don’t necessarily have clear options or choice – such as when we have symptoms and flares. or are in a stressful situation and don’t have a clear way through.
Acting out is a home-made act of defiance, self protection, or escape that is done with the resources we have at our disposal today.
The free online dictionary refers to acting out as
“the display of previously inhibited emotions, often in actions rather than words … considered to be healthy and therapeutic.
Acting out is a gentle, often small version of fight or flight. It’s a degree of mobilization that our nervous systems can tolerate when doing more is too much, or triggers flares and other symptoms.
It isn’t about causing harm or running into familiar old walls we’ve met before and that are labelled “Impossible.”
It’s a tiny action that can have a big, positive impact.
Acting out involves a conscious choice rather than a helpless reaction.
Acting out is a way of engaging fight, flight and vigilance in small, digestible, tolerable ways by acting on intelligent energy. As a result, it can help shift us when we’re stuck in fight or flight.
It’s also a way of jiggling a little wiggle room into states of freeze.
Acting out therefore provides one set of tools that help resolve chronic illness.
#2 How Acting Out Can Help Resolve Chronic Illness
I’m updating this 2015 blog post at a time when I’m working through a set of old attachment trauma patterns that I’ve recently come to feel, see and understand more fully.
I won’t write about these patterns here (learn more in my story), but can say that, as part of working to heal and resolve chronic illness in my own life by addressing these patterns, I have
- set some new boundaries
- am doing another increased level of self care
- am focusing on attachment trauma in therapy (there are many effective therapies)
- have scheduled another Family Constellations workshop to help heal impacts of multigenerational trauma (my motivation to heal continues to be very strong and I’m flying to Germany for a work shop this time, leaving September 16th).
As a result of setting boundaries, my body is having some reactions. As a result of seeing and feeling the old traumas that aren’t yet mended in my nervous system, I’m also experiencing my body’s physiological survival responses.
A lot of these symptoms, for me, involve states of relative freeze.
I feel more tired (although nowhere near the old days of severe symptoms), want to hibernate, and have once again feel overwhelmed by difficult emotions such as grief and fear.
I’ve been feeling some of the consequences of my actions to liberate myself from old trauma that are difficult to be with (including anxiety and grief with saying no to others).
An additional part of this process of making changes to support and resolve chronic illness is that I feel resistant to doing anything – even to trying to get out of this painful place.
These are typical characteristics of the freeze response – a response that our nervous systems can default to (or have had to in the past) because fight, flight, connection and communication were not available options or solutions. Or because taking action actually increased our risk of being shamed, judged or otherwise harmed in some way.
For me these symptoms represent another layer in my work to heal from my predominantly freeze-based illness known as chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). They feel like the result of getting more clarity about certain patterns since a Family Constellation I did in Spain a few months ago.
More clarity means more symptoms at the moment.
But it also means my physiology and I have the freedom to make new choices. And to keep healing.
This all means that stuck patterns of fight, flight and freeze in my system are more conscious and that I am starting to reconnect with and feel them more.
I am also well on my way to resolving them so they no longer drive my physical or emotional symptoms.
As I regularly state here on my blog, this perspective is a way of understanding that chronic illness represents a nervous system caught in survival states rather than from a psychological or “emotional” problem or a genetic defect.
Acting out paves the way for emerging from the freeze or “dorsal vagal” states of numbness, disconnection and exhaustion.
Since I know these experiences are part of a “survival state” that is responding to old beliefs and experiences, rather than to any actual threat in the present, I’m acting out.
For me, that starts with writing this post :-)
Acting out – and writing about it – has the potential to lighten my state in a gentle way that my organism is willing to try. It’s an approach that helps me bypass the state of Resistance to Doing and Mobilizing.
Acting out in the ways I’ll be highlighting will give you stealthy, sneaky and actually fun ways of recovering from the effects of stress and trauma in your daily life too.
And it’s a way to not only heal old trauma, but to also resolve chronic illness.
Here are some tips and ways of acting out. Here’s the permission that will help you find your way.
#3 It’s Not About Being Productive
Acting out doesn’t have to have to be productive.
Acting out may be an action that allows you to feel like you are doing something when you are in a situation over which you have no control or that you can’t stand. Such as symptoms.
When I was really sick with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and could barely sit up or stand (for about 9 months at my worst), or when I was a bit better but would have flare-ups of exhaustion that left me unable to do much for days or weeks at a time, I would sometimes get deeply frustrated or depressed.
This is a very understandable response.
Yet it can also intensify the already challenging burden of symptoms when we add fear, anxiety, despair, depression and other reactions to symptoms on top of the symptoms themselves.
So choosing some form of action within our power and control can be a form of Rebellion. A kind of Resistance. An Act of Defiance.
One way I acted out was with TV.
There were periods during severe fatigue when reading felt too effortful and when I did self care by occupying my time with hours of watching television every day.
This was sometimes for total escape or distraction.
It was often, however, a form of acting out.
While watching TV isn’t something everyone would think of as acting out, for me it was about allowing myself to break an invisible rule in which I felt bad about wasting my time doing something completely unproductive, especially during the day.
It was a rule I’d had when I was healthy, worked full-time and had little time to rest and relax.
It was a rule I needed to break when I got sick.
So I acted out by giving myself permission to enjoy doing unproductive things. Like watching cooking and remodeling shows.
One of my favorite programs, however, was TLC’s What Not to Wear, where fashionistas Stacy and Clinton worked with individuals who often hadn’t even known they were struggling in their lives. They took them on a journey of transformation through their wardrobes. The participants actually had huge shifts in how they perceived themselves. In the process, they learned to love or at least accept their bodies – and consequently to love and accept more of themselves – and discovered ways to feel more confident, secure in themselves, and empowered.
Without consciously choosing them, these shows fed my soul and my mirror neurons by showing me that transformation was possible.
While watching others succeed when I’m struggling can sometimes trigger my sense of failure, this particular show had the opposite effect for me. Witnessing transformation in someone else actually felt as though I was defying the Gods of Chronic Illness by believing in the possibility of transformation and healing for myself.
Giving myself permission to “do nothing” in the form of TV was a way of acting out for me.
#4 Acting Out Can Be “Simple”
Acting Out can be a simple impulse with no clear plan or goal. It may be something that just lets off a little steam, that gives you a little bit of breathing room, or that makes you laugh or feel like you are getting away with something.
It might involve getting dirty and defying the rules we grew up with – stomping or walking in mud, splashing in a puddle, or not brushing your teeth on special nights when you need some break – any break.
Maybe you leave a mess on the kitchen counter for a day (or 4). Or skip your shower – not because you’re tired (although that may be part of your reason), but as a home grown act of defiance to a Society that tells us we or our homes have to be spotless and smell like a fresh ocean breeze.
It can also involve something simple like taking yourself on an outing or a short drive to change the scenery. Or maybe taking a day off from work (needing a day off can be a sign of true need even though we may think our reason is trivial), staying in our PJs for the day because we CAN rather than because we’re sick, or starting the day with cake for breakfast.
Or it may involve writing a blog post about acting out. And allowing myself to let it be as long as it wants to be instead of trying to make it short by doing more containing and restraining that my body is already doing to hold me in a state of freeze.
These kinds of tiny, sometimes seemingly minimal actions represent a healthy form of “fight and flight” energy.
They are about following an intelligent impulse from your body that is seeking to move in this way and in a dose that works for you.
#5 Stretch a Smidge If You Need To
The practice of accepting the limitations of chronic illness or other physical symptoms has an important place in our lives.
There are also times when we could blow a gasket from how much we have to stomp on our impulses and hold back from every day life in order to accept things as they are.
These are the special times when it helps to go just a little outside of our capacities, even if it risks making symptoms a little worse.
For many years, I couldn’t eat anything outside of my dietary restrictions without consequences that didn’t feel worth it (such as dry mouth and eyes, intense thirst, interstitial cystitis, excrutiating thrombosed hemorrhoids, restless legs that kept me awake at night, and other symptoms). But in early 2018, I started losing my will power after 4 years on a strict way of eating with no cheating.
Something was shifting inside of me. In retrospect, it was my fight energy starting to peek through the freeze state that had so long dominated my life.
When friends visited us that spring, I joined them and had a tiny bowl of chicken marsala instead of my clean keto boiled chicken, even though there was some dairy and a little flour and wine (sugar) in the sauce. I then joined them for a fruit custard I’d made for dessert.
The enjoyment of these completely scrumptious treats filled me with a surreptitious feeling that I was telling my food intolerance rule-makers to go screw themselves.
It had felt utterly liberating to do something that I wanted to do despite their stronghold on me.
Although I had experienced one of my typical side effects of feeling like I’d been run over by a 16-wheeler the next morning, I had had the capacity to tolerate the consequences in exchange for some joy and defiance. And the symptoms had resolved over a few days without worse consequences.
6 months later my fight response got very clear, a set a strong new boundary with a relative, and 9 months after that I can now eat everything with minimal reactions. This is the first time in 10 years I’ve been able to eat what I want. It’s absolutely fantastic.
Acting out is about the times when cheating a little can help you stay sane and face another day.
#6 Consequences are Sometimes Less When Done With Acting Out Energy
One of the fascinating things about acting out is that at the particular times when we’re feeling desperately irritable or in need of taking SOME kind of action to avoid getting depressed or imploding, we don’t always suffer as many consequences as we do when we push or ignore our body’s desire to do less.
Acting out has a different kind of energy to it.
#7 Use a Little Will Power If Needed
To keep things manageable during Acting Out Junkets, use your will power to limit the task.
Stretching the envelope a smidge is not about going whole hog for hours or weeks as you would have done back in the day when you had more margin and health.
Keeping it to size – rather than not doing it at all – is how we mobilize the healthy energy of fight and flight more fully into our lives.
This is known as titration in the field of somatic trauma therapies.
Titration is one of Acting Out’s best friend.
#8 Whine & Complain A Tad
Talking about how hard it is, how you wish things were different, or how angry you feel are ways of allowing SOMETHING to move in your life when you are surrounded by interruptions, obstacles, inhibitions or people telling you what to do (or not to do).
Venting can be a form of healthy fight and flight energy.
Like other types of acting out, it can also help thaw a little of the freeze energy you might be caught in because it is allowing some form of energy to move.
There is a happy medium here between the place of keeping it all inside to the point of despair or explosion – and overwhelming others by downloading all of our woes and distress any time we see them.
Acting out by expressing some of these feelings is about being heard and feeling seen. It’s also about being present and in the moment – with yourself, with your feelings, and with the other person.
Ask a particular friend, your spouse or a family member at the time or maybe even ahead of time, if you can complain a little and express some of your difficult feelings. You may be surprised by their willingness and desire to help and support you, or even their relief that there is something they can really do for and with you.
You can also choose moments to just let yourself groan or make a face.
This can be a challenge because many of us with chronic illness did not have the support to express our full emotions in the past. As such, any expression of something beyond a gentle acceptance can feel risky or triggering. It can stimulate old fears of being judged, shamed, or derided. If you know this about yourself, then work with it by giving yourself permission first, then acting out with that badass facial expression, knowing you are doing this for yourself.
Paying someone to skillfully and compassionately listen and attune to you, such as a psychotherapist or trauma therapist, is another way to get support for expressing difficult feelings that others often don’t want to hear or don’t know how to be with.
I used to regularly pick dandelion leaves in our back yard.
Back then, I was not pulling weeds to clean things up. I was picking them for my juice that was part of my autoimmune paleo / gut and psychology (GAPS) diet for my healing.
I’d gather and then wash them and incorporate them into my morning ritual, and it somehow felt like I was acting out to drink the weeds from my lawn.
Instead of being judgmental or thinking of that particular morning activity as somehow silly, David would laugh and affectionately say, “Breakfast!” as he watched his wife doing her thing.
It made me grin, as though he and I and my chronic illness were all in on this particular acting-out activity together.
Befriending and connecting to acting out behaviors, to ourselves, and with our loved ones in these ways helps us access the social nervous system and “ventral vagal” states that offer ease and support. It’s a way of sidling up to a challenging experience and finding ways to turn it on its head.
Acting out – and accepting ourselves and these kinds of behaviors – is a different form of acceptance.
Of yourself, of the needs of your illness, of how great it is that there are things you can do that are helpful or that at the very least, make you laugh or feel more empowered.
#10 Bypass Your Inner Critic
The impulse to act out is often fraught with peril. There are a million and one ways to suppress, ignore, avoid, deny or otherwise squelch impulses that might rock the boat.
These downer messages generally come from our inner critics and the voices we’ve internalized from past experiences.
This internal nag is actually something that we have all learned – from family, society, our religious upbringings, our doctors, the media, the news, movies and television shows, and more.
So look for these inhibiting messages and be prepared to ignore them sometimes rather than ignoring your impulses.
Tone down these naysayers that tell you that an impulse is stupid, a waste of time, a waste of energy, isn’t allowed, is breaking some rule of conduct, will make you look bad or will make you feel worse.
Notice the self-doubt and tell it to take a rest, at least for now. Acknowledge the worry and tell it “not for the next minute (or hour, or day).”
Then go play in the mud or chomp on some cashews or turn on your playlist. Or lay on the beach. Or rewatch that movie. Or buy those neon pink running shoes and wear the cosmic green sports top because they appeal to you. Because they make you feel alive. Or vibrant. Or like you are defying the fashion of how you should look if you have a chronic illness.
And because having an invisible illness gives you OPTIONS in how you portray yourself, and whether you make your illness visible or not. And in how you honor your whims.
Or because acting like a healthy person is a way of going counter culture in the world of chronic illness.
When I used to be much more tired I’d sometimes curl my exhausted body in David’s lap and lay my heavy head on his chest.
I’d be too exhausted to move a finger but would take in the comfort of his presence and the luxury of having his arms around me.
He started calling me his Lovable Little Lump.
It made us both laugh at the crazy, ridiculous severity of my debilitating disease and appreciate what we did have, including each other.
Laughing and connecting in the face of adversity, like laughing at awkward situations we sometimes get ourselves into, is yet another way to act out.
Have you ever noticed how an occasional “F U!” or “damnit!” can release your tension, reduce your pain, or simply make you feel better emotionally?
Or how muttering something ferocious under your breath can help you get on with a task?
From a trauma perspective such words can help shift your state. They can be supportive because they express anger and FIGHT energy (see more on wiki).
They are a way to mobilize, defend or protect yourself, and put up a boundary.
As with other forms of acting out, this is about a conscious choice and not about attacking or saying harmful things to others or to yourself.
All of these can be positive and healthy aspects of the sympathetic nervous system by using words and expressions to mobilize in simple ways.
Hearing swear words, such as in music lyrics, can be just as gratifying as saying them. It’s sometimes a whole lot more acceptable too.
I was driving home from a medical appointment a few years ago, feeling angry because my scary side effects had felt minimized, when my playlist came to Maroon 5’s “PayPhone.”
I couldn’t believe how good it felt to hear “one more f—king love song and I’ll be sick, ” and “take that little piece of sh-t with you”…, among other phrases.
Even the shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh sound felt intensely invigorating and enlivening and calming all at the same time.
I hit replay way more than once. And I listened to it with glee the first time I wrote this post – and again when updating it this week.
I even started bopping around in my chair instead of feeling the heavy resistance I’ve been in recently :-).
Podcasts, audio books and other sounds or kinds of music may feel like acting out for you.
Maybe it’s listening to a particular album – such as Taylor Swift’s Reputation Tour, because it speaks about how she overcame being judged (I rewatched it repeatedly and walked on my treadmill to it regularly for months); or classical music because it’s somehow something you were forbidden to listen to as a child, rather than because it holds the typical concept of being soothing.
Simply remember that what feels right is different for every one of us.
Reading someone else’s use of expletives (or saying them inside your head) can also be satiating and satisfying.
It’s one of the things I like about a blog called The Middle Finger Project, along with other aspects of her witty, sharp, empowered and empowering writing style.
But reading as acting out can take all kinds of forms. Maybe what feels subversive for you is reading about trauma as a risk factor for chronic illness because hardly anyone else you know holds this perspective. Or reading stories about how others healed or overcame adversity.
Or something irreverent like “Ignore Everybody” (the title alone makes my mouth go crooked in a goofy grin). Or a book on how someone allows themselves to be who they are even if it’s not “convenient” for others or commonly accepted, such as Australian elephant protector and her book “Elephant Dawn,” or a lighter book of fiction I enjoyed last week at the beach called Again, But Better where the main character gets the chance to try something over after she’s learned and grown and recognized what she really wanted.
Like reading and listening, watching others act out can be deeply resourcing too.
I had the impulse to rewatch How to Train Your Dragon one evening in 2015 when first writing this post.
I almost blew it off because I had just recently seen it. I worried that I was jumping at an opportunity to escape my fear during a flare of bladder symptoms of cystitis.
As I realized that it was probably an inner critic that was cramping my impulse, I decided to try the movie anyway.
So I bought it.
And then I watched it at least 30 times in 6 months, if not more.
I’ve watched it probably another 15 more times in the past few years. Crazy, I know. But oh so satisfying. And perhaps it’s helping to strengthen an important new pathway in my nervous system – one that trusts the world more, trusts myself more, mobilizes with less fear and feels more empowered.
Watching Hiccup, a clumsy-always-underfoot-accident-prone-underdog befriend a dragon – in a world where dragons have been the sworn enemy for generations – resonated with my own chronic-illness-underdog self. His uninhibited expressions of disgust in the first part of one of the scenes – which are little versions of acting out – also hit the spot of feeling particularly satisfying.
I felt a kinship with both of them.
I think about what it would be like if we listened to our symptoms the way Hiccup pays attention to the signals Toothless, the dragon, is giving him.
It would be subversive.
It would change the world.
#16 Strengthen Pathways that Resolve Chronic Illness
In 2018, I watched another TV series in an Acting-Out-Kind-Of-Way. This was around the time I had set a new boundary with someone and had a huge amount of fight energy in my system. The energy felt good. I felt empowered.
But I also had more fight energy than I quite knew what to do with – perhaps because it had been pent up and was needing to establish a healthy pathway after so many decades being held back by the containment energy of freeze and hibernation.
I found myself craving intensity. And so, on David’s recommendation for a particularly connecting Marvel comics series called S.H.I.E.L.D., I tried it out (it’s on ABC and also on Netflix).
I ended up watching 4 to 5 episodes a night, often staying up well past my 10:30 bed time until midnight or 1 am. It felt invigorating.
I watched 60 episodes in less than 3 weeks.
And I’m a person who hardly watches TV, who can get thrown off by scenes of violence or with intense grief or distress, or when a show doesn’t end with that happy ending I so love.
One might not think of this is as Acting Out – but it was happening for my system on many fronts.
It was in the energy I was allowing to course through my body without going into freeze (if fighting or fleeing were unavailable or potentially a threat to your health in a past experience or during childhood, feeling this kind of energy or these emotions can stimulate a fear response and freeze).
It was in watching that much TV and not connecting with David much on all those evenings and letting that be okay.
David was not only okay with it, he’s someone who is good at acting out and who totally supports it in me because he understands just how healing it can be.
It was in staying up so often and so long past my bedtime when sleep and rest and a schedule can be such helpful for self care when you have a chronic illness. And going against all those careful limitations.
It was also from experimenting with exposing my system to that much energy.
In prior years, I could get exhausted from simply watching a dance competition, for example. This is because watching action, fighting, events that are stressful for you or that are simply exciting, or exposing yourself to intensity can stimulate your own body’s states of fight and flight. Or watching fight and flight can stimulate your body into a freeze response if that’s a default your nervous system has.
The act of watching TV or a movie can therefore be too intense for many people with chronic illness because of a nervous system that isn’t able to shift gears in and out of action and back to rest with any ease.
The fact that I thrived on S.H.I.E.L.D. was therefore another sign that I was not only Acting Out, but that my nervous system was shifting gears and growing in its capacity to mobilize and to recover.
We strengthen healthy pathways in our nervous systems in all kinds of manners. It’s a natural way our bodies heal. And just as the effects of adversity add up – so too do the effects of resources and action of all kinds.
#17 Act Out With Health Care
Acting out with your doctor or with the medical system can be another helpful action to take on occasion.
This is not for self harm or out of helpless rage but a conscious choice to support something you believe in, or need, or want (or don’t want).
For example, acting out might mean saying no to a medication recommendation because you have a concern about side effects or know that it might cause you harm even if your doctor thinks it’s the cat’s meow.
Or that you might say no to a procedure that does not carry an obvious potential benefit for you or that just feels wrong in your gut.
It could mean saying no to a hospitalization if you have the support and resources to manage things safely in the comfort of your own home and in your own bed.
Acting out medically could mean scheduling your annual exam a month later than the due date or your follow up a week or two late if your symptoms are stable enough and you feel overwhelmed by too many appointments.
You absolutely don’t have to act out with the health care system and may be happy with your health care professionals. But there are times when it can make a difference to our safety, our health, or our sense of well-being to express and exert some control over our health through our health care.
#18 How Acting Out Helped Heal Trauma for One Bride (And What David and I Did)
In 2014 I was inspired to write about Acting Out on learning what bride Shelby Swink did after her fiancee changed his mind 5 days before their wedding.
After the whirlwind of cancelling things, notifying guests, figuring out living arrangements and more, Shelby got inspired by a friend’s suggestion. The idea was that she trash her dress as a way to still acknowledge the occasion and reclaim her happiness in a way that also helped her regain her sense of self.
In her article at Offbeat Bride, Shelby describes the healing, liberating energy of doing something that seemed at first blush to be totally crazy, terribly wasteful, or inappropriate – but that ended up healing her trauma. Her story perfectly captures the powerful meaning of Acting Out:
The moment the paint hit my dress… I was free. All the disappointment, all the hurt… I just felt it leave me. I can’t even describe how liberating and cathartic the experience was for me. I let go of all the hurt and became myself again.
David and I did some acting out of our own when we decided to bag a wedding with family and friends and to go a simpler, quieter, and more supportive route in Rocky Mountain National Park with just the two of us.
On the night before our wedding – in part because my extreme levels of fatigue prevented me from doing much, but also because being in nature is such a huge resource for us – we sat out on the deck of our rental house, bundled up in sleeping bags because it was cold in June in the mountains, and watched the osprey and the sunset over “our” lake.
We’ll always remember that special last night and have loved celebrating our anniversaries in the Park.
What Are Your Ways of Acting Out?
What constitutes acting out is different for every one of us.
Maybe cat jokes and Garfield are your jam. Maybe you hate watching TV. Or maybe you love documentaries. Maybe you don’t wear pajamas. Or you love to sneak out for watermelon at 3 am as a way of acting out.
No worries. The point to take home is that we each have our ways of acting out that fit our nervous systems, our needs, our histories. We each have ways that work for us.
And that’s the only thing that matters.
What’s your favorite way of acting out?
Shhhh… Listen! Do You Hear Your Social Nervous System Calling? (Healing Chronic Illness Tools #1)
15 Steps for Healing Through Impulse And Play (More Social Nervous System and Chronic Illness Tips)
Transforming Chronic Illness: 20 Metaphors and Tips From Gardening With My Soul
10 Under-Utilized Tools for Treating Chronic Illness: Building on lessons from brain plasticity, epigenetics, and trauma
Therapies for Chronic Illness: Healing Nervous System Responses to Stress, Trauma, and Perceptions of Threat
It is refreshing to see “acting out” positioned as a positive, and benign, way to attend to some of the small “no-nos” we have in our lives. I like seeing “acting out” not being associated with neurotic impulses or “acting up.” It is a way of being true to our inner expressions without harming ourselves and others. Positive small rebellions seem to be a healthy way to move energy and also be amused with ourselves. So thanks for the re-framing of an often mis-used term.
Veronique Mead says
Your comment reminds me of the times when we’d take time off midweek when we were working weekends and 24/7 at things we love. Even though it was important to take SOME time off somewhere, we still felt as though we were doing something “wrong.” How much fun we had referring to it as “playing hooky.” Such a great way to keep looking at healthy impulses for self-care :-)
Cherylann Miranda says
Great Post. So validating and different from the usual healing prescriptions of yoga, mindfulness or those medically approved stuff. Just living in a stress-free, loving and fun environment is the most effective recipe for healing our minds and bodies. Thanks, Veronique
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
It’s so nice to know that these kinds of resources are important and helpful, isn’t it Cherylann? And I love what you mentioned on FB about these things you’ve been doing. Thx for sharing!
Maria Roegiers says
I love your running shoes that you don’t use for running!!
Swatting flies and midgets is one of my ways to act out anger and agression.(fight energy).
Very good article, makes me realize that my inner critic definitely is still at work sometimes to prevent me from acting out.
Oh, and congratulations with your WEGO score!
All the best
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Thanks Maria – so funny that you enjoyed my shoe comment. It made me laugh when I wrote it :-). There are times when I recognize just how much fight energy I have when my swatting attempts get really snappy and strong :-). My own inner critic continues to surprise the hell out of me on a regular basis!
Congrats on your nomination! Pulling for you!
This post is very timely. Coincidentally, I have “acted up” recently… including eating a slice of pizza after 1.5 year eating strictly “clean”. I also decided to forgo a lot of my appointments because they were wearing me down and the exhaustion was causing more damage than I can handle.
Since this mess started, I’ve tried to pay attention to my body and observe. I do my best to obey what my body and heart need. So far so good, but I know I have a long way to go. I am dealing with a huge amount of childhood sexual abuse trauma as well as a mountain of recent trauma. No doubt trauma is hampering my recovery.
I’d like to ask about this statement: “chronic illness represents a nervous system caught in survival states rather than from a psychological or “emotional” problem or a genetic defect.” Why isolate a particular causal factor rather than considering that it can be any or all of these factors? Researchers tend to take this outlook too — it puzzles me. In my case I believe it is all of them.
Thanks for your wonderful blog posts – they are helpful!
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Thanks for sharing Eljay – Here’s to your pizza moment!
You ask a great question about why I emphasize a particular causal factor. My reasons are multifactorial.
One is that there is such a strong emphasis in our culture and medical training that genes are the primary cause of health problems (whether emotional or physical). I see this as a view that disempowers so many into thinking there is nothing they can do about their family history, their diagnosis or their health except for what our medical system can offer. As I result, I have been making a concerted effort to identify that it’s so much more than that.
For example, even identical, cloned bacteria are influenced by their internal cellular and external environments to behave differently from one another.
Another example is that diseases don’t just happen to those who are genetically susceptible. A study that followed 10,000 babies from the general population in Sweden for 15 years found that those who developed type 1 diabetes had experienced 3x more serious life events than those who had not. In other words, even kids who were not genetically disposed were at risk.
I’ll add that those who are genetically susceptible don’t always get sick either – all because environmental factors influence which genes turn on and off and influence our cell danger responses and nervous systems too. Even genetically based diseases such as Huntington’s appear to be affected by life events and other environmental factors such that symptoms may begin earlier or later, progress more or less slowly, and be more or less severe for one person compared with another.
So – even though all of these kinds of factors interact with one another to influence our health, I find it important to emphasize that it’s much much less solid that we realize. And consequently, that there is a great deal more we can do to influence our symptoms and – as a society – to decrease risk in the first place.
That was a longer response than I anticipated! And it is an ongoing process to keep seeing what feels important to say.
So glad my posts are helpful – I wish you well on your amazing journey xoxo
Brilliant post – so helpful. It’s lifted the final traces of guilt from:
Eating things I ‘shouldn’t’ after years of strict diet.
Enjoying forbidden fruits – puddings, ice cream, fresh fruit, fruit with savoury all mixed up, herbs
Eating fish and chips for the first time in 10 years last night (I’m a Brit so Fish and Chips are the national ‘dish that defines the nation’).
Ditto – refusing to take pills or medical advice on occasions. Some have been gut feel critical decisions and have proven good for me over time; some have not benefited in the short term but the need to Act Out at that moment has proven to be more important in the greater scheme of things – eating a ready meal when I’d messed up my food prep on a day out which turned out to have chilli in it – I was uncomfortable, but nothing really awful happened, and I didn’t die. That was good to learn.
Decorating my body with second-hand clothes.
Taking myself away for a private cry under the duvet at odd times.
Reading a new book from cover to cover well past bedtime.
Booking myself on a course which has nothing to do with either my work or my self-improvement – clowning!
Handing over ALL the running of our household to my husband for just one day – the bliss of refusing to make a single decision or planning anything and then taking it all back the next day with a lighter heart.
Learning to play – while my husband has always made me laugh, the day I made him laugh was a great day.
Allowing myself to become creative again, and to make mistakes and learn in the process – although I have to acknowledge there have been several iterations of this. Arts and crafts started out as a way to spend time when ennervated, then became a therapeutic outlet for emotions, yet now I seem to want to do them for more for pleasure. All have been acts of rebellion against something.
Deciding to listen, really listen to good classical music without multi-tasking, and discovering what it’s like to listen with your whole body. The BBC Proms season (UK) held every year nightly in August and September is a great was of discovering all sorts of genres – some very ‘out there’ and they’ve introduced me to my ears, and the sense of sound
Saying yes to things I come across, knowing I can say no later if I have to.. Trance dance and Gong baths have been a great find, although I have not always been able to tolerate them. The joy when I go back and discover I can now listen and dance to vast sounds is great. And I don’t care what other people think of me for doing them.
Thanks to ‘M’ for pointing out the difference between Acting Out and Acting Up – helpful.
Congratulations on becoming a finalist in the #WEGO Patient Leader Awards. Justly deserved.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Thanks so much for sharing your examples Cathy. I love them all! And have to comment on a few that stand out for me – such as Clowning. A new term I’m adding to my own vocabulary of acting out energy :0-). And how good it feels to make someone else laugh :-). And a huge congrats that you enjoyed your first fish and chips – here’s to Rebellion in all it’s beautiful forms!!!
My favorite way of acting out is eating something which I totally love the taste but can’t eat it because my diet doesn’t allow it and my body will very likely suffer badly. So I chew it, taste it, enjoy it and… spit it out! Ahhh! relief. Ahhh! The pleasure of a tasty treat! It’s kind of an F U to all I was told about eating and sticking to a strict serious protocol throughout my youth.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Yes to all you said Garth!! What a great example!
I did just that once too, when I couldn’t tolerate things – I picked an apple from the apple tree in our front yard (with THE best tasting Cortland apples I know of) – and had planned to just bite in, savor, and spit out. I succeeded once and felt so glad to be able to do it that way. And, as you describe, it was so tasty!!
And then I did it again a few weeks later and that time, I “flunked” and devoured the whole thing :-). Thx for sharing!
Great! I’m glad I’m not the only one :-) I can go through a great deal of shame around experiencing pleasure this way (or any way for that matter). The connection to shame around “wasting food” and not eating what I’m supposed to is deep and very old. One thing good about a diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease is the connection to food is very obvious. I’ve had some massively painful reactions to food. Recently I’ve been stuck on the early Introductory phase of the GAPS diet for about a year now as I slowly approach healing early childhood trauma. The effect of reenactments and triggers related to these early childhood traumas on my gut can be intense and very scary. The diet can get pretty monotonous month after month. So it’s nice to take a break every now and then, be totally wastefully selfish, have some tasty pleasure and not have to pay for it so intensely. Thanks for responding to my comment. Cheers, Garth
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Yes! I did GAPS for 2.5 years. It helped calm my symptoms down and made it easier to continue to add more tools and also recognize triggers. Talk about dedication and motivation for healing that we have, right? Enjoy those tasty pleasures!!
Thanks Veronique :-)
Hi Veronique! Your light shines ever so brightly! You are such a beautiful blessing to me! Thank you!
I liked your acting out on healthcare – I have assembled a healthcare team extraordinaire because they truly partner with me for my best interests. One way I am presently acting out though – with the help of my physicians – is fighting for a service my insurance does not want to cover yet I am CERTAIN I need it – and all my docs are backing me up. I am at a second level appeal and so very proud of myself for fighting for what I absolutely need.
Enjoy your weekend, Pam
PS Everyone – I usually send Veronique an email – which she so kindly replies … just realized I should post here on the blog – know I love reading about your skillful acting out – thanks so much everyone for sharing!
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Thanks so much for sharing this here Pam – every comment and example and story helps the rest of us to keep knowing that we are not alone and that what we are doing on this challenging and oh-so-rich journey of healing is huge and powerful and meaningful.
TOO TIRED TO READ THIS TOO LNG ARTICLE WHCH I REGRET.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
So sorry to hear you’re so tired. I’ve emailed you the PDF in case it’s helpful to read it in that format or to print it and read at your own pace. I’ll be adding the format to the blog post as soon as I can!
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
It can be a surprising and unexpected thing to find ourselves saying that our chronic illness has been our greatest teachers. I feel the same way and can say it’s therefore also been my greatest gift – even as it’s been THE single most challenging and difficult thing I’ve had to to deal with in my life. Thanks for sharing The Chrysalis Effect – it sounds familiar and I appreciate what I saw on looking at her site just now. Very nonjudgemental, non blaming and spacious as well. Thx for writing!!
oh, that is so nice, thank you! x
First up, congratulations to you on achieving a position as finalist for the #WEGO Patient Leader Awards!
I’ve been following your inspiring work and life journey for about a year now and am grateful for your willingness and ability to share your story and all that you have learned along the way. You bring much light and hope to all of us whose lives are shaped and forged by ME/CFS and fibromyalgia. I have lived with this condition for a good long while and have come to consider ‘it’ to be my life’s greatest teacher. While this is certainly not an easy pathway back to wholeness, and I wouldn’t wish this experience on another human being, it does present huge opportunities once we are ready to surrender to the wisdom of our bodies and to truly begin to listen inwardly.
Your 18 Stealthy Ways to Act Out and Resolve Chronic Illness reflects and affirms much of what I have learned along the way and I love the way you share your insights with us in such fun and playful ways.
Have you heard of The Chrysalis Effect organization based in the United Kingdom? The founder, Elaine Wilkins, is a tenacious pioneer and trailblazer like you, minus the medical degree. After an intense recovery process of her own, over 6 years, Elaine considers herself fully healed from ME/CFS. She now dedicates herself to helping others and to bringing the medical paradigm up to speed by re-educating doctors and opening medical minds to begin to consider that healing ME/CFS and fibromyalgia is possible. If anyone is interested, here’s a link, https://thechrysaliseffect.co.uk/
Thank you for all that you do Veronique!
Katie McClain, SEP says
I so appreciate your articles, sharing your experiences, and the information you gather and share. I really enjoyed this article. I’m in the midst of working on allowing my fight energy out in positive ways. It is SO difficult for me right now.
I guess some examples of how I have allowed fight energy lately:
~Cranking up Lizzo and singing out loud and dancing to her amazing lyrics and beats. (I’m in my late 50’s but love her so much!)
~Speaking up right away when patriarchal BS shows up. I recently was working with an auto repair guy and another customer (male) walked in and just started talking to the repair guy I was working with. They both ignored me. Instead of accepting it, I interrupted and reminded the repair guy that he was talking with me and could we finish. It felt so good to speak up for myself and not suppress. Repair guy and male customer both immediately apologized which showed me how invisible I must have been to them!
I’m sure there are other positive, non-rage-y examples but I can’t think of them. My SEP is really trying to support me with this at the moment and I realized she still doesn’t feel safe enough yet. This journey is so difficult sometimes. Thank you again, Veronique, for all of your work in sharing your journey and what you’ve learned.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Thanks for writing and sharing your great “moves.” That includes how you made yourself visible (and in a way they could both acknowledged- well done! even if it sucks that it happened in the first place). And to Lizzo, who I just looked up. Seconds into “Truth Hurts” I felt a hit of YES! when she says “that’s the sound of me not calling you back.” Such a good one!
Hang in there, and give yourself permission to need some time to find your way. You’re doing it! That’s already huge :-)
Thank you for sharing. I always look forward to your emails. I had a doctor tell me yesterday, “You’ve chased it as far as you can go.” It was his way of saying, “I feel like we’re beating a dead horse and I don’t want to deal with something outside of my expertise. However, I do want to see you once a month so I can have some extra money in my pocket. So, can you just make my job easier and let me be the doctor and you be the patient? I’m the knower of the things and I need you to stay small.” I guess how I acted out was I continued to press him for the labs I wanted until he said, “you really want to do these?” And I said, “Yes.” He hurt my feelings but I still stood my ground. I am also working on EMDR with a very compassionate and patient LCSW. I still need to work on the “Ahhhh! Have to stay busy! Have to be productive in order to improve!!!” I’ll have to make some time this month to get unbusy doing something I wouldn’t normally allow myself to do.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Well done. It takes a lot to speak up for ourselves, and it gets harder as the hierarchy climbs or we have difficult feelings like shame or having our feelings hurt (which I often find immobilizes me). Congrats on having a compassionate therapist to work with and wishing you a wonderful discovery with whatever your “unbusy thing” turns out to be. Even if lasts 2 minutes – it’ll be a triumph!
Thank you, Veronique, for all your wise and inspiring thoughts. Your blog is extraordinarily helpful to me. I completely crashed with CFS/ME and fibromyalgia around 7 years ago, and over the following years lost pretty much everything in my life that made it seem like my life. I’m working on rebuilding a new life…baby steps.
I love your description of acting out. I get stuck in freeze, or flight–constantly driven to be productive–push crash. I’m slowly learning to rally some of my “fight” energy which feels so dangerous, but isn’t because for me, “fight” is having the energy to be myself and do things I want to do even if they might seem ridiculous or ill-advised to others. Truthfully, the ones who squawk the most are those voices I’ve internalized! Now, when I can, I “act out” by letting my bound-up child parts have freedom. I splash in puddles, swing on “children’s” swings at parks, sit in little waterfalls, skip rocks into rivers, build sandcastles, go to superhero movies, read books that would make my graduate-degree-in-literature self cringe. And lots more.
Yesterday, because I’d allowed myself to rest for a week (and watch a LOT of BBC and read a delicious fantasy novel in bed in my PJs), I took myself to an old-fashioned amusement park at a beach in my little city. I spent a terrific $10, guilt-free. I fed my tokens into motorcycle racing games (where you sit on a realistic bike) and car-racing games (with an accelerator). Burned off a lot of antsy energy with simulated speed! I played old-time skeeball with wooden balls and got a lollipop with the tickets I won. I ate hot peanuts while sitting next to a very persistent but patient seagull on the rocks as we watched the tide come in. It was, according to some parts of me, a total waste of time and money, and quite unseemly for a middle-aged person. But I am still smiling about it.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Hi Jazz, WOW, that sounds like amazing self care and permission. I’ve smiled reading your whole comment! I love watching the BBC British Bake Off, reading certain authors with great fiction and teen fiction too, that make some hoity toity (sp?) part of me cringe but that feed me and make me smile too. Thx so much for sharing these wonderful steps!! Wishing you all the best – and fun along the way – as you rebuild your new life xoxo
Dear Veronique, thank you so much for your site. I think it is very intelligent and positive. I am very thankful for coming across it. I am recovering from chronic fatigue myself and a lot of your ideas resonate with me. My tendency is to be very strict to my self with all the schemes and schedules for activity and resting, meditating, walking/ exercising but my head and body don’t agree with that!!
I need a break from all the must do’s and can’t do’s. As this makes life boring. As I am doing better now, I don’t need to follow the strict regime so much and I notice I do even better when I just do what I like or need.
I love the way you put in this article (on acting out). My inner critic is really harsh and always tells me that my energy should be used for something useful and preferably family related matters (as I have two kids aged 11 and 8 and a husband who works really hard).
My inner rebel was always really strong when I used to be a student so I guess I need to contact this part of me more. I am currently taking pictures of dogshit only walks and it is really funny. I send them to my friend and we have a laugh about it. I love reading teenager books as they are not too scary ( my system can’t handle that) and full of great fantasy. I love Roald Dahl and now I am reading “Battle of the beetles” which is part of a three part series of M.G. Leonard.
I also wear pink running shoes (not for running!)…
Hope your session in Germany was good for you. I am quite close to you now as I live in the Netherlands.
Great to connect with you as I think it is quite a lonely trip.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Your acting out examples – especially that you are taking photos of dog poop!! – and that you also wear this color shoe that you don’t use for running made me laugh :-). And it makes sense to me too that teen fiction could be a great resource because it’s not too scary. What a way to support your system. I’m still in Germany for another week and there are a few people from The Netherlands here (and from all over the world). Thanks for sharing and connecting and I wish you all the very best on this “adventure” with your health!
Jason Helm says
Thank you for the information .
I have had lowerback pain after my car accident 2 years ago and I have been to almost every
doctor of physical therapy nanuet ny.
My current doctor who I started
to see 4 months ago. He has given me medications and treatments
but also some physical exercises, which have help me alot in these 4 months.
I just hope the pain could completely go away.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Yes, pain is so very difficult to live with and like all things that limit us and cause us suffering, it is natural to want it to go completely away.
Pain can also be like a type of chronic illness that requires so much more than we ever would think to recover from. Sometimes pain, like chronic illness, is also influenced by past adversities and the event that triggers it is more of a last straw than the full 100% cause. That can be part of why it can take so much determination, courage and effort in the process of recovery. May what you’ve found be helpful and wishing you all the tools you need to get well on this journey!!
I’ve come up with a new idea for acting out that I might try. I’m still evaluating whether it’s too much for my body to handle, but the idea is there. It’s basically about advocating quite strongly for the unmet infant needs that I still crave and have a very hard time accessing in community.
I’m think of creating a T-shirt with the words: “Free* Hugs, Cuddles, & Sleeping Partner” The * will have in small print below the text “Some Conditions Apply. Please consult wearer”. I’m thinking the conditions will turn around negotiation of consent (like the CuddleParty rules (see: http://www.cuddleparty.com/rules/) and keeping it non-sexual. I’m thinking of starting with the Men’s Trauma Recovery Group I attend (men only), perhaps expanding into a Adult Children Anonymous group I’m hoping to attend (mixed setting) and then perhaps more publicly if that feels right.
What do you think? Cheers, Garth
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Garth – I think that could be a very interesting conversation starter! And in the meantime, a lot of fun or acting out energy just thinking about it and planning / plotting :-)
Yes, the planning/plotting phase has been fun. It kind of ran out of gas last night as I realized that chances of any of my needs (other than an occasional hug) getting met are extremely thin around here. There is a part of me that I suspect is very young that thinks “If only I could communicate my needs clearly, they (family and “village”) would see the light and would help me with my needs. I tried this with my mother recently by presenting her with your information about the connection between trauma and illness (she struggles with a Non-Communicable Disease that has very strong connections to emotional health). I was looking for her to do something about her emotional health (a significant issue in my very early life). No luck! She’s quite committed to very unhealthy approaches to dealing with emotionally challenging situations (Basically she represses her feelings and soldiers on!). I seem to be repeating the same pattern with my men’s group (Village). Given that the therapists haven’t mentioned the importance of the body in the healing of trauma yet, I suspect that my offers will fall on deaf ears. Again! Sigh! Doesn’t stop me from wearing the shirt simply to be a pain in the butt and potentially embarrassing them into seeing the light! I already have a “Free Hugs” T Shirt. I’m thinking of wearing it to the next meeting and seeing how that goes.
Thanks for your support.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Garth – Those are good insights about where those impulses come from. I – and many others I’ve talked to and worked with – know that place very well of “if I could just be clear enough, they’d get it and things would change!!” And part of the hope is that sometimes people really DO get it in a new way and make a decision to make a change. Our work is to keep accepting those who aren’t able to change – for whatever reasons of their own and the trauma that often contributes.
I’m glad you’re having fun with it – you’re working with the process (which is the path of greatest healing) and not just that often-ephemeral-and-not-reliable + not-in-the-present end point!! Happy plotting and wearing!
Well after all that plotting this idea kind of backfired on me. Guys are incredibly fearful of touch with other men. My health collapsed to the point where I was confined to my house (and bathroom) for about a week! I was able to communicate to the men’s group that I needed approaches to healing that include the body and if they weren’t going to do anything of that nature I would have to leave them to it and carry on alone… elsewhere. I was able to get clear in my head that the occasional hug and the check in with guys who are dealing with the effects of trauma is good for me (My men’s group is trauma focussed) I’m just learning to protect myself from the other stuff.
Later, I managed to access my sense of humour and showed up with a cardboard sign saying “Need Hugs, Please Help, Thanks” and dressed like a beggar on the street. It got some laughs and I got a few hugs. It helped me defuse the anger, recognize my pain and take the whole thing less seriously. At a later group I proclaimed “fist hugs!” as they fist bumped each other (and me) to wrap up a meeting. I’m not totally sure if they found it funny, but I did! Thanks for your support.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
That sounds so congruent with this post Garth :-)… The recognitions of what your own system wants, of options to support it, of societal influences, AND a way of making room for it with humor and fist bumps :-) It feels like you made an opportunity for connection that might allow for a kind of contact that works in our culture and that may begin to even introduce or meet this need that all of us humans have in your particular setting. Sounds like a great process of exploration – wishing you continued curiosity with the process!
One thing I’m finding quite helpful in alleviating my frustration is imagining that I have what I’m seeking and touching my body in ways that would be comforting to an infant. I also imagine a healthy mothering and fathering energy within myself. This helps reduce the intensity of my expectations on a community that is poorly equipped to support my health related needs and soften the blow of disappointment.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Garth – ¥es! You are describing a tool for what we are designed to do naturally, which is to embody the regulation and support we get from healthy early parenting so as to become independently capable of doing this for ourselves. Recognizing attachment wounding from our histories, understanding the effects of trauma, and recognizing these effects in ourselves helps us inplement this practice of self-regulation consciously where we did not get enough of it in our past. Doing it for ourselves supports healing and “growing it in.” This is part of the gift of understanding trauma. It becomes easier over time and requires less conscious effort as we heal.
Thanks for your encouragement. I’m finding the fear of aloneness and the sadness around the lack of an infant friendly culture around me both in my infancy and in my life now daunting. I’m making efforts to be curious about these states rather than fighting them. I’m also continuing my efforts to locate accessible supportive community. It’s challenging. You and my therapist are my best supports! Thanks for being you! :-)