The Autonomic Healing Podcast - Conversations with Tom Pals

The Tsunami of Stress: The Human Condition

December 29, 2021 Thomas Pals Season 1 Episode 1
The Autonomic Healing Podcast - Conversations with Tom Pals
The Tsunami of Stress: The Human Condition
Show Notes Transcript

Listen as Tom explains the stages of the Tsunami of Stress, where we inevitably get caught up in predictable patterns of fight, flight, freeze as we respond to a perceived threat.  

Tom Pals:

Welcome to the autonomic healing Podcast. I'm Tom Pals.

Ruth Lorensson:

And I'm Ruth Lorensson. We'll be unpacking what it looks like to activate your brain to holistically manage stress and trauma that bring healing to the mind, body and spirit.

Tom Pals:

Being free to live authentically as humans.

Ruth Lorensson:

Thank you for joining us. Let's get this conversation started. Tom, our first ever episode of the autonomic healing podcast, super excited to be doing this together.

Tom Pals:

I'm delighted.

Ruth Lorensson:

And I think, you know, in reflection, as we were talking about all of the things that we could talk about, one of the things that we wanted to start with today is this topic of the tsunami of stress. It's the human condition that we find ourselves in. And it's a term that you've coined, the tsunami of stress. So I'd love to open us up with that, like, how did you how did you even come up with that phrase, you know, the tsunami of stress?

Tom Pals:

Because of what a tsunami is, and observing the dynamics of how we experience, when the flight or fight response is triggered. And it's an escalating pattern. See, with a tsunami, what happens with a tsunami is that there's some disturbance very deeply in the earth. And that disturbance can be explosive. And that pressure, and all those things that are happening deep in the earth, explode. And then there is this cataclysmic pressure wave, that just starts moving massive amounts of water, hundreds of miles an hour. But it's deep in the ocean. And nobody would see it on the surface. But it's moving at a massively strong level, deep in the ocean. But as that wave is moving across the bottom of the ocean, and the bottom of the ocean, and the floor rises, there's no place for that wave to go, but up, into where it is entirely visible. And then as the shore approaches that huge wave crests and then collapses, because there's nothing to support it. But that wave has always been there. And then it collapses and causes terrible devastation and destruction. And then when all that energy is spent, and it washes back out, and all the debris and everything that was a part of life, is washed out into the deeps again, waiting for another eruption. And that, and that image of a tsunami just struck me as what I had seen for so many decades, experienced in my own life, trauma and stress, as something triggers it and all that pressure that has been there. And then something triggers it. And there is this massive energy that gets triggered, we experienced that activation as a sense of stress and need. And that's the first place that the tsunami begins. And it's an escalating pattern of attempts to flee the sensed or perceived threat to well being. That can be someone's words, a look, a situation, their decisions, it could be environmental, but we sense or perceive a threat to our well being. And we're reactive to it. And naturally, we have a flight or fight response. And it begins with attempting to flee that threat to avoid it, to escape. And the freeze, flight fight. Freeze is just another version of avoiding the sense threat. If I hold really still, like I'm a rabbit, and there's a dog running by or a fox and if I hold really still I can avoid and a sense of escape that threat. But it's still fleeing. It's avoiding it's trying. It's just a frozen, fleeing, and then that stress and need gets activated and we try to flee that sensed or perceived threat to well being and if there's anything everybody is experiencing, especially with Covid, it is that where there was marginal mental health issues, they are full blown now and where there were mental health issues that people were not coping. It's just a disaster now.

Ruth Lorensson:

That's so true, you know, even in just our society today that with the speed of everything that's going on and then add COVID to it. Stress is such an issue for us. But for me when I first heard you talk about the tsunami of stress, it was just fascinating to have that picture. Because I think for me, I'm sure for some of our listeners, they might think, yeah, that's what I lived, totally, so I think I love that phrase, just because it gives us that strong picture. And then it's not just a picture of, of what we're under, but it's showing this kind of cycle, like you mentioned, fight and flight. Talk a bit more about that the cycle of fight and flight?

Tom Pals:

Yep. We as to survive, if we are confronted with an actual threat to wellbeing, and we don't flee it, then we will be harmed. So we attempt to flee that sense or perceived threat to well being. The tricky thing is that we often because the way the brain and the body stores stress and trauma, then our reaction to what's happening now is out of proportion to what's actually occurring now. Because it's all of that stuff that was built in, building up and the pressure of all that deep in our being that's being activated, because it was never normalized to start with, and then want to experience something today that has enough in common with that, then the paradigm as I like to describe it, as that was then and then is now. Yeah, and that's why our reactivity to something occurring now can be so vastly out of proportion, to what's actually experiencing now, because we aren't just experiencing what's happening now. We're experiencing what happened then as well. And we may not and often are not even conscious that we're doing that. But it gets us in it grips us. And that's the beginning of the tsunami, that triggering that release of all that pent up pressure, and stress and trauma that just inhabits us in our body and mind and spirit. And so we attempt to flee that threat. And that's when we are experiencing an awareness at some level of stress and need. Yeah, and we've left a place of contentment and well being.

Ruth Lorensson:

And so you would say that there can be all sorts of triggers in our everyday life that triggers something within us. And like you say, it could be trauma from our stories, or I guess all sorts of stuff that could just send us into that place of fleeing the threat. So that's kind of partly normal, would you say?

Tom Pals:

T ypical, typical, I reserve the word normal for something healthy. We typically experience that. And in a sense to flee, the threat is normal. To escalate in the tsunami is simply typical, not normal. And so that initial sense of stress and need, which is a manifestation of a flee the threat, escalates, when we can't flee. It's not possible to flee for whatever circumstances or relational issues or whatever it is, we can't flee the threat, then the stress and need escalates into a sense of distress and discontent. So the stress in the escalation becomes distress. And the need becomes a sense of discontent. Now, we're not happy campers, and we are not content with what's happening in our life. And so with that discontent and distress, we attempt to fight the threat.

Ruth Lorensson:

And so is that a state a different stage?

Tom Pals:

Yeah, that's the second stage.

Ruth Lorensson:

So the first thing we do is flea it and then, so then when that doesn't work, we start to fight it?

Tom Pals:

Yes. And the fleeing is manifested in the sense of stress and need. The fighting is where we express the distress and discontent. Now we're grumpy or touchy or irritable or argumentative or something, but we're not content. We don't have a sense of wellbeing. Then if that fight response and the expression of distress and discontent doesn't have the desired result, which is to not have that threat be present and continuing to affect us, then it escalates again. And now we're into a third stage. And the third stage is going back to flee the threat. Why? Because it's a binary option, it's flee the threat, fight the threat, flee the threat, fight the threat. And we just, but it's not actually solving or resolving the underlying issue. It's just reactive to it. And so in the third stage, we attempt to, with the flee the threat, we avoid and isolate. So avoidance of a subject, of a conversation, of a person, of a situation or isolating ourselves, so that we are not present. And that can be physically present, it can be emotionally present, it can be a relationally present. So we are not present where that threat is affecting us. So we avoid and isolate in an attempt to flee the threat. But as I like to say what we don't deal with doesn't improve, it gets worse. And so trying to avoid an isolate from whatever that issue is, it just makes it worse. And then, as the situation, relationship situation, whatever it is, worsens, then it escalates into a fourth stage, in this tsunami and picture, the wave building, the shore is coming into view, the floor of the city, the sea bottom is shallower. And now this wave is beginning to erupt. And it's now beginning to move toward a crest, the wave is getting bigger in this tsunami. And then having been unable to avoid and isolate or the avoidance and isolation has not been effective in dealing with that original sensed threat to well being, or perceived threat to well being, then it escalates into a fourth stage, which is where we're back to fight the threat. And it starts with resistance. And this is a fight the threat, resistance is I don't want to deal with this, and I'm resistant to talking about it, having that conversation, going there, dealing with it, and I'm

Ruth Lorensson:

Yeah. I can imagine, it feels exhausting resistant to it. And then still in that fourth stage, that resistance turns into defiance. If you bring it up, I'm not going there with you. Don't go there. And we are defiant. And that could be a passive defiance, it can be an aggressive defiance, but it's a defiance, I'm not willing to. And I don't want to go there. Because I don't have a way to deal with it to start with. So why would I go there, and I don't believe this is going to have a positive outcome. So I'm not going to do that. And then the resistance and defiance escalates into anger. And anger can show up in all sorts of different ways. It can be an outright explosive. I'm angry, and I'm not gonna take it anymore. Or it can be I'm just not talking. Shutting down. But I pissed. And I'm angry. But I'm not gonna admit that and I'm gonna put on this really nice face. But I am real passive aggressive right now. And we're not communicating because I'm mad. Or it may be an entirely internalize, and we get angry at ourselves. And it's not even the other person that we're angry with. They're going, 'what? I don't get it, but you seem really angry, but you don't seem to be angry me?' No, I'm really angry at myself. But if the anger and the resistance and defiance and anger then escalates in this fourth stage to not being assertive, and we are not valuing relationship, and that may be all about you don't think the way I think or you don't value what I value or you don't believe what I believe and it turns into all sorts of other stuff. But we lose that sense of valuing relationship with because we're not. And that's that fourth stage of resistance, defiance, anger and aggression, which expresses a fight response. And usually things will go downhill from there. just to do the four stages, but there's more.

Tom Pals:

Yes, because at that stage, we just want to feel good. We feel like crap and we don't like the way we feel. We don't like the way the relationship is and we just want to feel good and then this fifth stage comes along where we're back to fleeing. And we just want to feel good, and what will make us feel good? And that's where maladaptive coping comes in. And we try to just feel good, which doesn't resolve the issue. It might be food, it might be drugs, it might be sex, it might be status, it might be position, it might be whatever floats your boat, but it makes you feel good. And in acting out on that feel good. We harm ourselves and others.

Ruth Lorensson:

Yeah, I can imagine, during COVID, that was a stage that many people hit. I know that there's a number of statistics around, you know, how much people drank during COVID, or you know, all of these coping mechanisms. But it's interesting hearing you describe the stages. And when you say about that stage, I feel like, wow, you know, it's easy to see where, where not only other people are but also myself, and I'm sure you.

Tom Pals:

Oh, I'm not an exception to it. We just have ways to deal with it that are effective or not.

Ruth Lorensson:

Yeah. And so so there's, there's so that stage five, where we are just so actually exists probably exhausted right from where we've come from, this triggering event, we flee, we fight, we flee,

Tom Pals:

We fight, we fight, we flee, and we flee into those

Ruth Lorensson:

Which is? maladaptive ways that just make us feel good, but they cause harm to self and others, that self gratification that results in harm to self and other and even to the planet. It's all a connected whole. Yeah, we no one lives in isolation. And even if they think they are turnout isolated from themselves, and that has an impact on everyone, ultimately, to one degree or another. And when we have done that, then the next stage kicks in,

Tom Pals:

Shame and guilt and fear and condemnation.

Ruth Lorensson:

That sounds familiar.

Tom Pals:

I have harmed myself and others, I did unhealthy things. And I know that, what do I do with that? Well, because of those underlying pressures and dynamics, taking responsibility might be a bridge too far. To empathize and appreciate and take responsibility for the impact. That might be too much. But having caused harm to ourselves and others, we naturally feel a sense of shame. What are people gonna think? What do I think? And guilt, that sense of the wrongness of the harm? Shame, guilt, and fear. We become afraid of the repercussions of the implications of the consequences of the impact on the relationship, and we fear that and then there is that sense of criticism and condemnation, we might externalize that blame to somebody else. And if they hadn't done that, then I wouldn't have done this. Or it might be condemning ourselves, and we beat ourselves up for the harm that we have caused. But what's distinctly lacking is a sense of empathy, feeling into an awareness that it matters, how I have harmed myself and others. But when we're in the tsunami, empathy is the biggest casualty. Then, because shame, guilt, fear and self condemnation, and feeling bad, doesn't actually address any of the issues that have now developed. We're back into the next stage. We've fled, we've fought and we want to flee again, and we escaped self awareness. We don't want to be in touch with ourselves. We don't want to go to those places have a deep truth and an awareness. And so we camouflage, we isolate, we avoid we pretend we pose and we act like oh, did that happen? Really? Was it really as bad? And we escaped self awareness that personal reflection doesn't occur, or somebody wanting to talk with us about it, those conversations don't occur.

Ruth Lorensson:

I think that that's just a really interesting stage to be in. And, you know, our society can prop that up pretty big.

Tom Pals:

It's a cottage industry, our society is built on escape ism, escaping self awareness. So much of the things that are about self awareness aren't even participated in that increases self awareness. It props up the posture, the image.

Ruth Lorensson:

And why is that? So we're in you know, we're pretty far in.

Tom Pals:

Oh, we're deep. And the wave has crashed. Oh, the wave is Oh, the wave is crashed. And this is the detritus and debris, and we're swimming in it. And we're up to our necks in it.

Ruth Lorensson:

This is stage?

Tom Pals:

I forget the number. That's not the point. The point is seeing the dynamic.

Ruth Lorensson:

The dynamic. Yeah,

Tom Pals:

And recognizing the dynamic

Ruth Lorensson:

I loved what you said about the camouflaging in, I can see how, or pretending. Avoidance of the real truth of what's going on. And so what happens from that point?

Tom Pals:

Because not dealing with something doesn't tend to make it better. And that escaping self awareness, then that opportunity to grow and to mature and to gain self respect from taking responsibility and empathizing with the harm that we've caused ourselves and others. Because that doesn't occur, it still happened. We did harm ourselves and others, we did engage in the maladaptive way to cope. And that has to be responded to, at some point, we can only pose and posture so much. And as the phrase used to be, and the chickens come home to roost. And there are a lot of cracked eggs. And we get into the next stage, where we are attempting again, flee and fight. And it's about that. And we apologize, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it. It's gonna be different next time, I am a changed person. I've learned from that, or I don't have anything to say, I don't know what to say. And it's just an uncomfortable moment. And the idea in it is to apologize, to feel bad to say I'm sorry. But all it is, is trying to feel bad enough for long enough. And we just can't feel bad enough for long enough and not take responsibility for the harm. But as is so often rewarded and reinforced, 'oh, I understand, I'm going to be the bigger person, you screwed my life over, I forgive you.' Or 'I can see that you felt bad enough for long enough.' It happens to kids all the time with parenting. 'You young man, go to your room. And when you can feel bad enough for long enough about what you have done to your sibling, then you can come out.' And what does the child do? They go into their room, and one of two things happens. 'Their never gonna believe me if I come right back out. I gotta look like I care.' And they stem and they fewm, and they stew about it until they come out. And they say 'I'm sorry I didn't mean to hit my 'Okay, I can see how bad you feel about it.' So it's okay sibbling." now? No, it's not. They felt bad enough for long enough or worse. They do go into the room and they feel terrible about what they've done. But that doesn't mean it matters to them in a healthy way. And they learn to feel bad enough for long enough and apologize and say I'm sorry. Or maybe even worse, say I didn't mean it. And then the next stage comes in. All's forgiven. It's all right. And that pseudo change transitions into a pseudo normal, but all of that has happened and nothing is normal, or healthy or resolved. And then the next time that tsunami, and now the wave has just washed all the debris out and it's a calm surface. But there's even more stuff in the bottom of the ocean and more pressure, just waiting for another trigger.

Ruth Lorensson:

And so we go through through these triggers that take us right the way through that cycle, I find that facinating. One thing that you said that I thought was really interesting was that actually is an opportunity in the tsunami, to, to get to the truth of the matter, that often we don't do that, we just go through this, the different stages. In some ways, if we can seize that opportunity, that's where we can gain healing, and wholeness,

Tom Pals:

We are wired to heal. There's something called homeostasis. And that is life. Homeostasis is what happens in organisms and humans are very advanced organisms. But it's still the same thing. That when there is change, when there is a disruption, we are wired neurologically, biologically, I think spiritually, to adapt to change to adjust. If it gets really cold, your body adjusts in very complex ways to optimize and normalize function, that core temperature wants to stay at 98.6, or whatever is normal for that person. That's homeostasis. When we, and I'm talking about the autonomic nervous system, the most fundamental aspects of our neurobiology, and the sympathetic nervous system is all about flight and fight. And it's reactive to that. What's supposed to happen normally, doesn't typically happen. And that flight or fight doesn't get into the parasympathetic, relax and recover. It just stays to one degree in the on position of flight or fight, and each successive escalation occurs. And then without that parasympathetic, relax and recover, which is homeostatic. That's supposed to be what happens, but it doesn't. And the body maintains that legacy of stress and trauma, and we're reactive to anything that occurs enough in common with it, we may not even be aware of why or what it is that deep in that pressure in the core of our being that's being activated and explosive, which just makes the stress even worse, and accentuates our sense of the threat in it. But what's supposed to be able to happen and can happen, and this is the autonomic healing in the autonomic nervous system, that sympathetic flight or fight can give way to the parasympathetic, relax and recover. And what I found and what autonomic healing activation is, occurs because of the third part of the autonomic nervous system, which is the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system is the part of your brain that isn't in your skull, brain cells or neurons. And we got 100, and billions and billions of them, as Carl Sagan would say, are in our skull, even though we really don't know how many any more than we know how many billions and billions of stars there are. There are billions and billions of neurons in our brains. And we don't know how many, but it's an estimate. And there are 100 million brain cells that are in your spine. And then there are 400 to 600 million brain cells that are down in your gut. That's the enteric nervous system. And that part of your brain is about the same size as a brain in your dog. And it's sitting down there in your gut, and it's very much connected to anxiety and depression and stress reactivity. Anybody who's gotten butterflies in their stomach or felt like they were under stress knows exactly what their brain down there is doing. What I discovered is that you can and that's very much the enteric nervous system is about healing and homeostasis, adjusting to promote a restore normal, not typical, normal. And I like to describe the enteric nervous system is the survive and thrive. But we mostly are just surviving, but we can thrive and then that tsunami can be intervened. And we can heal and restore normal response rather than reactivity to the sensed or perceived threat.

Ruth Lorensson:

I feel the urgency to post a brain exploding emoji right now! You've just like blown my mind. But I appreciate hearing all that. And, you know, the understanding that actually were created for homeostasis, but then the condition, the human condition that we live in, this tsunami of stress that is triggered, builds, you know, go through the different stages, there is an answer here, there is a way in which you can actually bring healing bring us back to homeostasis. So I know, for me, I was thinking about it, even in my early 30s feeling, I used to have stress that would really affect my, my body, I, you know, be like tested for, you know, arthritis, or, I mean, my muscles would throb and all sorts of stuff. And, and nothing came back as, as an illness at all. And I know you'll, you'll speak to this. But I remember almost feeling, even though I have no background in this, this space at all, but I had a sense of, I'm stuck in, my words at the time where, I'm stuck in a perpetual flight and fight cycle. And I don't know how to get out. And I could sense its impact on my body. And so since, you know, obviously doing autonomic healing with you, I've been able to really have that healed. And so that I think that, that that is the the spectacular notion of homeostasis, the normal place that we're meant to be. And actually, we don't have to live in the tsunami of stress, will we? Will we, of course, we will, we'll encounter it because we live in the world -with COVID. But we have tools to help us. I know one of the things that you said to me in the past is knowing about the tsunami of stress, and then obviously, autonomic healing activation, one of the questions you've mentioned before to me is, 'where are you in the tsunami?' And I found that so helpful, because just to know where I'm at, allows me to kind of activate that healing. Do you want to talk about more about that question? Because I know you've unpacked that with me a bit before.

Tom Pals:

Yes. If I can recognize what is occurring and what I'm experiencing, it changes my simply experiencing it, and it continuing to escalate. I can then directly intervene and alter the trajectory of that. I can literally say stop. I know where this is gonna go. I don't want to go there, I don't have to go there. And with autonomic healing, activation, being able to activate that normalizing function allows the stress and need to transition into relaxed relax and recover because of the agency of the survive and thrive part of the brain. And then so for example, when I teach people and the initial session of autonomic healing activation, before and it's a somatic treatment, that is not a conscious processing, thinking and talking our way through, it's just letting the brain and body normalize stress and trauma. I have people rate their sense of stress, anxiety, depression, and anger, the four horsemen of these stress apocalypse, as I like to refer to it, on a scale of one to 10, zero to 10, zero is none 10 is most severe, and they rate their sense of stress, anxiety, depression, and anger on that. And for 98, or 99, out of 100, because there's always one or two that won't cooperate with what their own brain wants to do. But for those 98, or 99, when they finish the session, the average for 85, or 90% of the people is four to six hours. And in that time, their brain has been able to normalize that. And that's reflected when I asked them to rate their stress, anxiety, depression, anger, then it's zero. Wow. Which seems too good to be true. And I've heard that so many times. But it's simply the way the brain and body work. We didn't know it had a switch.

Ruth Lorensson:

I mean, that is the great news. Because the tsunami of stress is there. It's just a reality. It's a reality we live in and it you know, goodness knows what will happen in the next five years, but there's always triggers. So that can't change. But what can change is knowing how to stop it at any point in time. I think that's absolutely like an amazing news. I know we're gonna speak more about it, Autonomic Healing as we go forward, but we just wanted to kind of really center on the reason the need for it really the reason, which is this tsunami of stress, what would you? What would you say to anyone kind of experiencing the tsunami of stress? Like, what would you say the first step is?

Tom Pals:

I would say that there is hope, because that is the biggest casualty, when we have an experience, and have experienced life, from a perspective of stress, chronic stress and trauma. And hope is the casualty. There just doesn't seem to be a way, I can't tell you the number of hundreds of people who I have, and I'm up to about 900 people now with autonomic healing activation, with the same results consistently. It's hope that there is a way for the brain and body to restore normal function, we just didn't know there was a switch on it, and we could turn it on, and to then begin to intervene in ways that really do make a difference. So many of I would say the vast majority of things that human beings have, with great ingenuity and wonderful intent, have created have been efforts in the medical and mental health communities to try to replicate or support homeostasis. That's what it is. 80 plus percent of medical health issues are related to stress and trauma. And I would say 100% of mental health issues are about stress and trauma, and this escalating tsunami of stress that keeps getting repeated over and over and over again. And then the stress of trying to find things that help that don't, or they help some, but they don't fundamentally change things. And to be able to normalize that.

Ruth Lorensson:

Yeah, I remember for myself, just putting a lot of work in in the therapy space and doing some great stuff. Like you said, some really great stuff, story work. But I remember it just got me to a certain point. And I felt like well, I've you know, I was aware of my triggers and miles ahead of where I'd been five years ago. But still felt like I wasn't healed. And so my experience with autonomic healing activation is that I've entered into a space of actual healing. And so that, for me has been something remarkable. So I just wanted to if you want to speak into that, you know, I know you've spoken to me before about, you know, there's only so much you can do with the mind. But when you can deal with brain actually, our brains can actually heal us. Yeah, so let's talk about that.

Tom Pals:

Yes, I had a lot of trauma from childhood. And I was sexually abused by an adult female. When I was just a toddler. And my father had PTSD from World War Two he was in the South Pacific. And when do you have to take someone's life with your bare hands? It is incredibly traumatizing for the first couple of years after he had returned from World War Two and was married to my mother, he would wake up with night terrors, strangling her, living that out. And that really impacted his relationship with me. I didn't have a p aternal relationship. Yeah, he couldn't do that for me. And then there were all sorts of other things. Being bullied, I was a very thin child and small, and was pretty targeted with bullying and all sorts of other stuff occurred. Just to give an idea. So no matter how much healing I could find, spiritually, no matter how much work I could do, and understanding the dynamics of the tsunami of more rational interventions, and are what I call seemingly rational perceptions, that seem very rational to us. We problems solve with them, we make decisions, but because they're not actually rational, all they do is create more stress and problems. And no matter how much I could do, there was still that place that I was not whole. And so I wanted to find a way for myself and others, that there could be that wholeness, that healing and that restoration And it's a very long story about how I figured out how to turn on homeostasis. But it's been life saving for so many people.

Ruth Lorensson:

Yeah, we'll get, we will get to that in a different episode. It's just really amazing to have that revelation and to have find out how we can do that. I'm really looking forward to the next couple of episodes that we're going to be doing with there's so much to unpack in this space. But I think you know, most of our listeners will really understand and appreciate just kind of the understanding of the tsunami of stress and like you said, that there can be, there is, not can be, there is hope with autonomic healing. So I think we will get back together for our next episode, and I look forward to continuing the conversation with you Tom.

Tom Pals:

Can't wait!