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

We live in a culture that identifies happiness as the ultimate goal but where taking the time to experience simple pleasures can be judged as unproductive, labelled as lazy and seen as a waste of time. When you live with a chronic illness, experiences of pleasure can make all the difference yet they can be subtle and experiences of ease can be few or far between. It’s common to be caught in states of vigilance, anxiety, and dread; or to feel deadened to the joys of life and overwhelmed by the challenges. Learning to recognize and follow your impulses for pleasure is the nervous system’s way of helping you shift gears between states of self-protection and states of safety and support. It’s how we are designed to naturally recover from stress and trauma. It is also a different way of thinking about chronic disease and treatment.

In this post I will give you an example of how this issue came up for me in the past few weeks and how I dealt with it once I realized what was going on. I will introduce you to the science that explains why learning to identify and follow your impulses for pleasure is a physiological pathway to the process of healing. It’s all about the vagus nerve. I will then present some of the many benefits of this process. In the future I’ll outline some ways of helping you more easily identify and follow your own impulses for pleasure.

The pictures in today’s post reflect some of the simple pleasures I found myself enjoying in these past 2 weeks, from movies to music to beach time and more.

the simple pleasures of bringing my own meals and eating in Nature

I. One of the challenges of living with chronic illness is getting stuck in one gear

A few months ago I started devoting more time for my burning desire to write, write, write. I had a blast until a couple weeks ago when I found myself starting to get grumpy. I’d had my nose to the grindstone but suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore. I started wanting to avoid the very thing I’d been craving. I got to a point where I had to force myself to work on a page that I’d been unexpectedly struggling with for weeks. I kept feeling the tease of being “almost there” and having the sense that if I just worked a tad bit longer or put in a little more effort or pushed just a smidge harder that I’d be able to crank it out and get ‘er done. And “then” I’d feel satisfied and be able to take a well-earned break.

But it wasn’t happening.

The fact that I was getting cranky was information in and of itself – it’s one of our bodies’ ways of saying “no” (this is a version of the fight response).  I was no longer feeling the positive energy of my writing projects being a great investment and I was beginning to feel overwhelmed and anxious (these have qualities of the flight response). The other set of clues that my body wanted to shift gears came from increasingly frequent impulses to take a break. This wasn’t about avoidance (the freeze response), it was an impulse for pleasure. Increasingly, all I had wanted to do was to find a good book, curl up in my comfy bed, and escape in the luxury of a day off. I was also so tired by then that I had no emotional juice or physical energy to write my regular blog post.

Being unable to write my blog post is what it took for me to finally acknowledge my stubborn insistence on writing beyond the time where it was fun. I was, yet again, overriding my body’s signals that it was time to change gears.

Does any of this sound familiar to anyone?

When your nervous system can’t shift gears

the social nervous system is designed to appreciate beauty and to feel joy

One of the challenges of living with a chronic illness is the difficulty we have in shifting from physiological states of vigilance, sensitivity or distress to states of ease and calm, rest and recovery, and comfort in connection. Despite years of practice with this particular pattern, I still get caught in overdoing and overriding. I resist the impulses to slow down and want to keep going until a task is complete – or until I’m too tired to keep going. I repeatedly forget that pausing and taking breaks can actually be enjoyable. It can also give me fresh energy and ideas for my project. This is only partly about me and my desires. It’s mostly the result of a nervous system state that is stuck in modes of protection and defense. It’s about a nervous system that gets stuck in action mode and wants to keep going; or unconsciously fears getting caught in immobility and freeze if I slow down. Both of these are real fears because they happen all the time with a nervous system that is out of balance.

The antidote is to recognize the impulses that help us shift to different gears and to respect them.

Following impulses can help shift gears

disease and treatment come in many forms, including the pleasure of flowers-at-Brainard Lake

When I wasn’t able to write the last blog post I gently took myself by the shoulders, sat myself down, and made the conscious decision to take a break (with a little help from David who had been noticing my irritability as well).

I acknowledged to myself – and to my body – that I’d been blowing off my impulses instead of listening. I had gotten focused on the end goal rather than the process.

I was able to switch gears by first allowing myself to slow down.

Changing gears is not always automatic

When we are in full health, the process of changing gears happens automatically. We wake and get ready for work, eat then rest, play and sleep. Our blood pressure, blood sugars and heart rates increase and decrease as needed.

When we have a chronic illness or are experiencing the side-effects of trauma, this process gets derailed.

One way of recovering our inherently normal cycles of back and forthing between activity and rest, excitement and calm, ruminating over what you said to a stranger when they gave you unsolicited advice vs getting curious about your spouse’s day at work is by paying attention to subtle impulses. When our autonomic nervous systems are caught in states of protection and defense our nervous systems get out of balance. This is when we need to use awareness, listen to impulses, and often also use some will power.

II. The process of following impulses for pleasure

Indulging in simple pleasures, including downtime at the beach, is a way of working with disease and treatment

The following are some of the little pleasures that I let myself indulge in last week when I made the conscious decision to change gears by following some of the impulses I’d been having. Many of these are remarkably simple and you’ll probably recognize the signs of similar impulses in your own life.

  • Making a conscious decision. I started the process of shifting gears by putting a hold on all non-blog-post writing and allowing myself to come into the gentler pace of summer and downtime that I’d been craving. The craving was the impulse I needed to listen to.
  • Tolerating a little squawking. I often feel relief when I listen to my body’s need for change or to slow down, especially if I’ve been ignoring the hints for a while. Sometimes, however, it’s not as comfortable and some parts of me complain or resist. This time, for example, the process of shifting gears left me feeling a little sad the first day, as though I was giving up on my dreams around the big vision I have for the blog (such as waiting a little on completing the ebook, for example). I knew that this wasn’t actually true, however, and I recognized that there is sometimes another energy that keeps me busy when what I really want to do is to stop. So I stuck with my plan to take a break.
  • Making a small change can yield quick and obvious results. By the next morning I was feeling wonderfully light, less heavy with fatigue – and excited about writing the next blog post. This kind of shift is common when we follow an impulse. It can be obvious or the shifts can be quite subtle. For me, the shift also usually takes more time, so I was amazed at how letting go of self-imposed deadlines lightened the load and freed me of unnecessary burdens. Learning to follow your impulses is a process and you gain experience over time to recognize when you’re on the right track and when you’re going down a dead end road.
  • Slowing down can help you recognize underlying needs. When I took my daily naps for the first few days after slowing down I found myself needing more time and sleeping longer than usual. I hadn’t realized I’d gotten so overtired and my body was grateful.
  • When you listen to your body it can surprise you. After a few days of increased rest, I had the energy to go to the Boulder Reservoir and lay on the beach for a couple of hours. When I’d first thought about it a week earlier I had been too tired to do anything about it. I posted this on my Facebook page last week because it felt quietly momentous. I’ve lived in Boulder for 15 years and this was the first time I’d ever been to the reservoir or the beach. I’m not sure I’ve quite had the physical capacity to lay in the sun on a beach full of people and kids in the past, so finding an interest in doing this was a surprise. And it felt like heaven. Surprise and joy are a great sign that you are on the right track. So was the fun of having a friend send me this picture in response to my Facebook post. She, too, has a chronic illness and had taken this picture a few months ago. She lives in Australia.

disease and treatment approaches: following the not-so-frivolous impulses for simple pleasures

  • Following one impulse can give you the willingness to follow others. The night I decided to stop working so hard on my writing I enjoyed taking the time to find a new book to read. I’d been putting the task off for months. I perused my local library online for digital books, looked for the latest in hot new fiction on amazon, and tried out 5 or 6 samples on my kindle. I then read a whole book (Ender’s Shadow), which I couldn’t put down, in a day. It was bliss.
  • When we experience one pleasure it can multiply into more. After shifting gears I suddenly had the desire to make an overdue phone call to a relative, pull a couple weeds that had been mocking me for weeks, and to transplant three Mexican evening primroses to a place with more sunshine where they could thrive instead of barely surviving. I completed each activity on separate days when I had a little “margin” even though I was tired, rather than from a place of urgency to get a task done. It was more than I could have done a year ago and the thrill of being able to do these things myself was a tonic.

III. Why following the impulse for pleasure is a treatment tool and not just a frivolous indulgence

Spending time in Nature is one of life's simple pleasures

The impulses we have for pleasure are actually our nervous system’s way of integrating, recovering, and shifting into balance. Our bodies seek equilibrium and are designed to cycle back and forth between states of greater activity and less. The impulses for pleasure are the tools our brains and nervous systems use to metabolize the chemicals and hormones linked to periods of action and stress so that we can return to the quieter baseline where we experience states without worry (or with less worry), where we can more easily appreciate what we have, and where we feel more connected or less alone.

When you have a chronic illness, you often get caught in survival states of fight, flight or freeze. When your body is trying to protect you or is stuck in the perception that you are still in danger from traumas past, the impulses towards pleasure can be subtle or nonexistent. The desire to play or rest is not usually present when your life feels at risk or there is a perception of threat.

These long-term effects of trauma, which are common in chronic illness, are the reason why allowing time and space for pleasure can be so difficult. It’s also why learning to listen for these impulses can be so valuable. It’s a different way of thinking about chronic disease and treatment.

The two branches of the vagus nerve

The new science shows that there are two branches in the parasympathetic nervous system rather than one

Chances are that you’ve heard of the two components of the autonomic nervous system (ANS): the sympathetic nervous system, which makes it possible to manage such physiological processes as blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels so you can be active as well as defend yourself via fight and flight; and the parasympathetic nervous system, which enables you to eat and digest, rest and recover. The messages of the parasympathetic nervous system are conveyed through the vagus nerve. The work of neuroscientist Stephen Porges, Ph.D. has provided new insights and shown us that there are actually two branches of the parasympathetic nervous system rather than one as has been assumed.

The research provides a strikingly comprehensive way of understanding our physiology, our physical as well as other types of symptoms, and the long-term effects of trauma.

One branch of the parasympathetic system – the “dorsal vagal complex” – is named for where it originates in the brain. It helps with rest and digestion and also facilitates survival states of freeze and immobility.

The more recently identified second branch of the parasympathetic nervous system is referred to as the Social Nervous System or the Social Engagement System. This is because it facilitates states of connectivity, relationship and ease in the present moment. This branch of the vagus nerve originates just a short distance from the first and is referred to as the “ventral vagal complex.”

Think of babies whose bodies are not yet capable of actively fighting or running away, and how they use communication to draw adults towards them. This “action” takes very little energy and yet is very effective in promoting survival. It is also a winner for its ability to create bonds with adults. In health and in optimal situations, adults form bonds with their children and fall in love with them. We are designed to love and love is a powerful feeling. It also makes adults want to care for and protect their vulnerable and helpless little ones even when they get little sleep or have to exert ongoing effort to do so. The Social Nervous System differs from the other two parts of the ANS by creating a sense of safety, nurturing and protection through connection and relationship.

Below is an example of the Social Nervous System in action. It is one of my favorite scenes from the movie The Parent Trap, which I’ve already watched multiple times in the past few weeks while following one of my impulses for pleasure :-). It’s about the experience of real connection, which includes being and feeling seen and loved for who you are.

When we are in states of equilibrium and relative ease, we are in our Social Nervous Systems. This is the state where making eye contact can feel heart warming and reassuring; where hearing your favorite song or the voice of a loved one is soothing and enjoyable; where sensations of physical contact and touch are comforting and relaxing.

Our Social Nervous Systems are at the top of the hierarchy for survival mechanisms. They are able to keep the sympathetic nervous system responses of flight and fight under wraps, and to avoid the parasympathetic functions of freeze.

Following the impulse for pleasure is one of the ways we access our Social Nervous Systems.

IV. The benefits of listening to your impulse for pleasure

Learning to listen to our bodies and impulses is how we can start helping our nervous systems regain the capacity to shift gears. Listening to our impulses is also a way of :

  • working with trauma
  • resolving survival-based nervous system patterns of fight, flight and freeze
  • repairing the capacity to experience balance and equilibrium in our bodies and lives
  • decreasing and preventing symptom exacerbations
  • creating more margin for coping with life’s stressors
  • more easily accepting things as they are even as we work on ways to heal or to feel better
  • regaining the capacity of our nervous systems to shift gears more spontaneously
  • recouping the underlying health in our physiology, including more balanced blood pressure, immune function, heart rate, the ability to think clearly,  and more
  • experiencing more ease and joy
  • beginning to heal even the underlying symptoms of chronic illness

I’ll write more about the Social Nervous System in the future. In the meantime, here is one researcher’s very accessible book that I am slowly meandering my way through. Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. describes her findings looking at ways of improving vagal tone, including its effects on reducing inflammation. She talks about how it is possible to access and improve the functioning of your Social Nervous System to gain more of its benefits. The book is called Love 2.0.

V. What shifting gears can look like

When I consciously worked on shifting gears last week, I didn’t just get a little bit of rest and an experience of more pleasure. I also started getting a whole new flavor of feelings and ideas about the writing I wasn’t able to complete. I’ve been experiencing new insights and feeling more softness as I think of and relate to the topics I was “failing” at capturing before.

I’ve also found myself experiencing hints of joy, ease and connection. Connection to David, to the world around me, and to a delicate and intermittent yet profound sense of pleasure. I’ve had feelings of compassion for my hard-working, dedicated, persevering-despite-the-challenges, learning-as-I-go Self. I had the energy to get groceries to make chicken broth one night and this simple act, which I haven’t been able to do much in over 10 years, made me smile from ear to ear. I had the energy to listen to my favorite tunes on the way.

I felt a swelling in my heart as I appreciated the puffy clouds and the cool of a gentle evening. It was okay that they had run out of their least expensive cuts of chicken that I most like to use. I felt freedom and lightness instead of the burden of a task.

These are qualities imbued by the Social Nervous System.

What I came across in the past week has an element of how I used to feel long ago, before I got sick.

Once upon a time I used to feel a greater sense of connection to myself and others. I had a deeper sense of support in my life.

This level of shift I’ve dipped into a number of times in the past week speaks to the innate healing process that our nervous systems are capable of, when we can listen. Sure, it often takes more awareness and some degree of will power to access it rather than just “allowing,” but this is a part of the process that we can experiment with on our own, for free, any time of day or night.

The feelings of joy and love and appreciation for my life just as it is leave me wanting more. More connection. More ease. More pleasure. And that alone gives me the motivation to keep working on awareness and to keep allowing room for the subtle impulses. It’s a work in progress.

The shift to places of greater connection and ease is a simple practice although it can take time to master in our busy world and in our lives with chronic illness :-).

VI. What are your simple pleasures?

Another friend shared this picture on Facebook following a spontaneous moment she took a few months ago when in North Carolina for work. She completed some of her last business calls of her day from her “summer office.”

a friend's happy feet when she followed her impulse for play while finishing up her work week and phone calls - at the beach

Yesterday she sent me a second picture and wrote, “Sometimes heaven can be in your own backyard :).” I couldn’t agree more.

happy feet represent the simple pleasures and a way of looking differently at disease and treatment

What represents a little bit of heaven for you? What is one of your simple pleasures?

You can upload images (with feet or without!) or describe an impulse you have followed or are thinking of trying. Share it with the rest of us as we keep learning how to practice being kind to ourselves, to our bodies – and to our nervous systems. *** There are problems with uploading photos and I am looking into whether this is fixable. In the meantime, contact me if you’d like to post a photo or email me directly at veronique (at) tumblingthestone (dot) com and I’ll either let you know if we get it to work (the test worked so easily!) or post it myself if it gets fixed.

Related Posts:

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

Making Time for Things that Resource Us

Chronic Illness Christmas Lite – How the Little Moments can Create a Sense of Joy

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