Treating Chronic Illness #5.2: 9 Sneaky Ways to “Act Out”

While it is generally a sign of health and maturity to be able to resist impulses that would be detrimental to ourselves and to others, there are times when we inhibit our urges with too much of an iron fist. This is especially true for those of us living with a chronic illness or the effects of trauma (or both). I’ve recently described how following our subtle desires for pleasure helps our nervous systems shift gears to states of greater ease and connection. Here I introduce the value of following your impulses to “Act Out.” (1)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 – venting, rolling your eyes, saying “no,” speaking your mind, throwing a little caution to the wind – is another effective way of decreasing overactive states of fight, flight and vigilance. It also paves the way for emerging from the freeze or “dorsal vagal” states of numbness, disconnection and exhaustion. Acting out in the ways I’ll be highlighting gives you gentle ways of recovering from the effects of stress and trauma in your daily life. And of coping with chronic illness. You’ll find that the 7 tips for following your impulses for pleasure are just as applicable for treating chronic illness from today’s perspective. In the future I’ll tell you about the science behind acting out from a nervous system point of view.

#1. Let it be simple

Acting out in simple ways is a form of coping with chronic illness by treating an overactive nervous system

Get dirty. Leave a mess on the kitchen counter for a day. 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 something you can’t stand or need to make a statement about. But acting out doesn’t have to have a purpose. It may just be a simple impulse with no clear plan or goal. These kinds of tiny, seemingly minimal actions are the healthy side of “fight and flight” energy.

#2. Stretch a smidge

Coping with chronic illness includes acting out in healthy ways

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 and minimize and manage our health limitations. These are the special times when it helps to go just a little outside of our capacities, even if it risks making our symptoms a little worse. These are the times when cheating a little on your very strict diet can keep you sane. If that’s not worth the side effects, going on an outing or a short drive to change the scenery can do the trick.

For me there are times when I’ve needed to just get out and pull a few weeds already, despite feeling exhausted, when the height of spring fever after rain has softened the earth and calls to me. The fascinating thing is that at those particular times when I’m desperately irritable and in need of taking SOME kind of action to avoid getting depressed, I don’t usually suffer much in the way of consequences. These are also times when I’m more willing to trade action over impulse control in exchange for a few side effects, but I’ve often needed a little prodding from David to just “go for it.” This post is your invitation to color outside of the lines once in a while and to know that it actually serves a purpose for your nervous system.

To keep things manageable during these junkets use your will power to limit the task. Stretching the envelope a smidge is not about going whole hog for hours 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 you mobilize the healthy energy of fight and flight more fully into your life.

#3. Whine & complain

Whining and complaining can be ways of acting out and Coping with chronic illness in a healthy way

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 and immobilizing limitations. Venting can be a form of healthy fight and flight energy.

There is a happy medium between the place of keeping it all inside to the point of despair or explosion potential – and overwhelming others by downloading all your woes and distress every time you see them. Acting out by expressing some of these feelings is about being heard and feeling seen. It’s also about being present – with yourself, with your feelings, with the other person.

You can ask a particular friend or spouse or family member ahead of time if you could complain a little and express some of your difficult feelings. You might just let yourself groan or make a face once in a while or even exaggerate it a little as you let yourself express unpleasant or painful feelings. You can even do it in a playful way. Paying someone to skillfully and compassionately listen and attune to you, such as a psychotherapist or trauma therapist, can also be wonderful.

#4. Bypass your inner critic

Using the invisibility of your chronic illness to act and dress and present yourself as you choose is a way of acting out and Whining and complaining can be ways of acting out and Coping with chronic illness in a healthy way

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 your inner critic. 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 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 stomp in a puddle or walk in the rain. 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. They make you feel alive. And vibrant. And because having an invisible illness gives you OPTIONS in how you portray yourself and honor your whims. Or because acting like a healthy person is a way of going counter culture in the world of chronic illness.

#5. Befriend

Coping with chronic illness by befriending ourselves and our symptoms

I regularly pick dandelion leaves in our yard now. I am not pulling weeds to clean things up but to drink in my morning juice. David laughs and affectionately says, “Breakfast!” as he watches his wife do her thing. It makes me grin, as though he and I and my chronic illness are all in this together. It’s a different form of acceptance – of me, of the needs of my illness, of how great it is that there are things I can do that are helpful.

When I used to be much more tired I’d sometimes curl my exhausted body in his lap and lay my heavy head on his chest. I’d be too tired to move 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 health and appreciate what we did have, including each other.

Humor and connection are ways of accessing the social nervous system and “ventral vagal” states that offer ease and support. It’s a way of siding up to a challenging experience and finding ways to turn it on its head.

#6. Curse

Have you ever noticed how a good “F U!” or “damnit!” can release your tension, reduce your pain, or simply make you feel better emotionally? Or how saying something ferocious under your breath can help you get on with a task? From a trauma perspective such words shift your state. They are helpful because they express anger and FIGHT energy (see more on wiki). They are a way you mobilize, defend or protect yourself, and put up a boundary. All of these are positive and healthy aspects of the sympathetic nervous system.

#7. Listen

Acting out in healthy ways is a way of treating chronic illness and an overactive nervous system - listening to music - and cursing - is one of these 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 away from a medical appointment a few years ago, feeling angry because my concerns had been minimized, when my ipod playlist came to the song PayPhone (2)Here’s the visually explicit music video that includes scenes of violence, which I have found meet my need for fight and flight energy rather than being stressful. I copied the image above from the youtube video because the sight of the blaze is much more satisfying to the sympathetic nervous system than the image you see in the embedded version. There’s also a visually softer music video of Payphone done with animation that includes the lyrics. I couldn’t believe how good it felt to hear “one more f—— love song and I’ll be sick, ” and “take that little piece of s— with you”…, among other phrases. Even the shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh sound felt intensely invigorating and enlivening and calming all at the same time. I hit replay more than once. And I’ve listened to it with glee a number of times while writing this post :-).

#8. Read

Reading someone else’s use of expletives (or saying them inside your head) can also be satiating. It’s one of the things I like about reading a business and writing blog called The Middle Finger Project, along with other aspects of her witty, sharp, empowered writing style.

#9. Watch

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 last February and almost blew it off because I’d just seen it. I worried that I was jumping at an opportunity to escape my fear during a flare of bladder symptoms of cystitis. I realized that this was probably an inner critic and decided to try the movie anyway. I bought it and have watched it at least 30 times in the past 6 months, if not more (Seriously. This extreme is a complete first for me.). Watching Hiccup, a clumsy-always-underfoot-accident-prone underdog befriend a dragon in a world where dragons have been the sworn enemy for generations resonates with my own chronic-illness-underdog self. His uninhibited expressions of disgust in the first part of the scene – which are little versions of acting out – also hit the spot. I feel a kinship with both of them. And 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.

What’s your favorite way of acting out?

9 Sneaky ways to Act Out with Chronic Illness

Related Posts

Treating Chronic Illness #5.1: 7 Tips on Pleasure

Treating Chronic Illness #5: The Not-So-Frivolous Impulse for Pleasure

10 Under-Utilized Tools for Treating Chronic Illness: Building on lessons from brain plasticity, epigenetics, and trauma


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