Can we talk for a minute about digestion? I hope it doesn’t gross you out, but there’s a real shift that happens in the GI system as we heal, especially if you’re coming out of a functional freeze state.
You are likely aware of the fight or flight reactions animals, including humans, have when faced with threats. Any threat, real or perceived, causes a whole cascade of hormone and stress chemical secretions and reflexive nerve firing that readies our body for running away or fighting. There is a third automatic response that can happen when the nervous system is overwhelmed by a threat and deems fighting or running to be too dangerous. This is the freeze response. You have probably seen animals like rabbits who sit frozen as you walk by, blending into the environment in the hopes that they aren't seen. This also occurs in humans - a child, for example, who is being hit by their parent. They know they can't fight the adult off and there is no where to run, so the nervous system goes into freeze mode: there is a detachment from the physical self so that the pain from being hit is diminished and an emotional detachment that occurs from the pain of the child's protector inflicting irreparable damage to the child-parent dyad. This freeze response is there to protect us and in a perfect scenario, the person who went into freeze mode would have a loving, caring person available to them to co-regulate with, release emotional and somatic energy with and help them get back to a more regulated nervous system state. When this does not occur, a child in this case, but people in general, can remain in this overwhelmed freeze state. They may feel disconnected from themselves, fuzzy headed, forget what even happened to them, unable to verbalize what happened, and have feelings and sensations of not being in their body, among other things. Following the traumatic event, they are often able to perform tasks and live life "normally", but inside, their body is being exposed to stress chemicals, hormones and reactions that keep them hypervigilant, afraid, tense and disconnected from Self. From a physiological point of view, many functions are slowed down like digestion, heart rate, thyroid function, and lymph flow. If healing from this freeze response does not occur, people can become functionally frozen - they go through their days able to "do life", but may find they have a lot of somatic complaints, develop chronic illnesses, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines, weight gain and obesity, etc.
For most of my life, I have been, what I thought, pretty regular in the bowel department. Generally once a day, sometimes a day or two in between, no major issues, every once in awhile a faster moving season, if you catch my drift. It wasn’t until I started studying women’s health that I got a better idea of what healthy bowels are. While we are each programmed differently, we should be pooping close to once after each meal, so 2-3 times each day is healthiest if everything is working correctly and we’re picking the healthiest food choices. And poop should look like a 3-4 on the Bristol stool chart.
Turns out, I’d spent most of my life a little on the constipated side. And it makes sense if you are in a functional freeze state - nothing about you is moving too fast.
Coming out of functional freeze doesn’t mean we jump right into regulated - there are a whole lot of emotions that need to be processed before we get there. So for many of us, we pop in and out of a fight or flight state with some periods of regulation and some periods of functional freeze. When we are in a more fight or flight state, our nervous system prepares us for fighting or running by stimulating the bowels to evacuate. Chronic diarrhea anyone? If your body is stewing/swimming in hormones and chemicals that are preparing you to run or fight all the time, your digestion is going to generally run too fast. It is physiologically hard for our biology to tolerate this state, so many of us bounce back into our freeze state where bowels slow down.
This has been the hardest thing for me to get a handle on - constipation sometimes, diarrhea other times - the story of my healing life. I feel like I spend more time in the bathroom than any place else many days. Try as I might to ‘stay regulated’, my go to state is freeze. But healing means I need to feel those emotions that may put me in a panic or anxiety or angry ridden fight or flight state, so off goes my digestion to the fast track. I’ve done a lot of dietary changes and have had testing done, so I know I do have actual food sensitivities, but when I’ve been eating well and am still experiencing GI difficulties, I have finally realized it’s my nervous system that needs more tending, not my diet that needs more changing.
How then do I tend and help my nervous system? For me, a lot of it is somatic work. I have LOTS of walls built up about outwardly expressing emotions, so to get stuff out, at this point, I use my body. I use a weighted blanket over my shoulders which induces myofascial unwinding throughout my body, ridding it of tightly held patterns of protection and the emotion that goes with them. I do a lot of pelvic steaming which helps my pelvic floor muscles relax and replenishes my second chakra/womb space, the center of a woman’s creativity. I use Yoga Tune Up® balls, especially the Coregeous ball, to allow tissue to move and stretch and release whatever it doesn’t need, always with the intention of ‘whatever doesn’t serve can go’.
I also do my own visceral work. Emotions are literally held in our body, especially the organs, as energy. Visceral, myofascial and craniosacral work helps move the energy of those emotions. What I love about visceral work is that I often find that the held energy of emotion will digest and move through the guts, specifically the large intestines, and that as it’s released and told it no longer has a job to do here (remember, your body is holding onto it because it has served a purpose in the past of keeping you safe and alive), it moves through the ascending, transverse, descending and sigmoid colon where it is energetically released as waste and often physically released with an extra large bowel movement that leaves a person feeling like a million bucks. It’s amazing when this happens because, until you are no longer holding this emotional energy, you have no idea how much of this stuck energy you had and how heavy and bloated and weighed down it was making you feel.
Healing our nervous system is a slow process. There is no speed-healing, no matter what anyone says. It takes practice and repetition and time. And along the way, we are going to be stressed and challenged. It is often 3 steps forward, one step back. We're human. We have responsibilities and families and jobs and needs and desires and we can only do the best that we can do at any given time. If you’re on a healing journey and wondering why your digestion may be changeable and/or different, this might be a part of your challenge. Hang in there friends! We're gonna make it through!
**if you are having pain, are losing weight without trying, feeling ill, can’t keep food in, are severely constipated, have black tarry stools or blood or have severe diarrhea, please see a doctor. There may be actual physical things going on that need medical attention.