Understanding how your Central Nervous System map is key to recovery from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, blog post on Find My Energy.

The Central Nervous System Map in Relation to CFS

Understanding the Central Nervous System map proved to be a critical turning point in my CFS recovery. Could it be something that changes life for you too?

For many years, I kept hearing that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is a “stress-related” illness. I completely rejected that assessment of my illness (I will explain why in a moment). But ironically, that rejection stood in the way of my recovery for many years. So, what changed? Well, for me, it was understanding the Central Nervous System map.

In this blog post, I will share why I still feel resistant to the “stress-related” label. Then I’m going to share the brilliant model that allowed me to see the Central Nervous System map and use that to guide a key portion of my recovery. So, let’s get started…

Is CFS a Stress-Related Illness?

I hated this label for two very good reasons. Firstly, it seemed to imply that my (very physical) illness was just something made up in my head. That somehow, I couldn’t cope with life, so I had allowed its stresses and strains to give me an excuse for avoiding living.

Secondly, even if that ridiculous argument were true, it couldn’t apply to me because I had demonstrated over and over again just how good I was at coping with stress. I had thrived in the high-pressure environment of Cambridge University. I was working a high-stress job and remained unflappable. Friends and family saw me as someone who could be given a long list of tasks, and I would quietly, efficiently, work my way through them.

So, there was NO WAY that my debilitating symptoms could be neatly packaged under the label of “stress”. And, I still stand by that idea. To try and reduce this complex illness to such a simplistic label is misleading and unhelpful. But that convenient catch-all term, stress, does open a door to exploring a path that actually leads to recovery.

What is that path? Your Central Nervous System…

The Central Nervous System Map

When we start talking about stress and its effects on the body, we are being invited to look at the Central Nervous System.

This system is a master-controller and its sole purpose is to keep you alive: survival.

So, it is constantly checking your internal and external environment to see if there is anything present that might be a threat to life. Your senses can monitor your external environment. Nerves can communicate throughout your body to monitor when cells begin to signal that they are in danger (internal environment).

All these messages are relayed to the brain which decides how to respond to whatever is happening. The nerves then send signals, via hormones, to instruct the cells on how to respond to the situation.

One of the key nerves in this system is your Vagus nerve. This runs from the brain, down to the stomach, linking to many other body parts along the way. And it provides two-way communication, assessing how the body is feeling, and relaying messages between brain and cells.

The Two-State Central Nervous System Map

When I first learned something about my Central Nervous System (from a therapist), I was taught that it can be “on” or “off”, but never both at once.

So, the “on” setting would reflect a state of danger, or arousal. The technical name is the Sympathetic state. You may also hear it referred to as fight/flight or freeze.

In this state, the nervous system believes you might be under threat. So, it is signalling your cells to ready themselves to take defensive action to save your life. Since the focus is on taking action, all maintenance that is not essential to your immediate survival is put on hold.

For example, if you are about to be eaten by a tiger, it really doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve digested your last meal. But it does matter that you can run fast to escape the tiger. So, your energy gets channelled away from maintaining your digestive system, and towards maximising blood flow to your leg muscles.

The “off” setting reflects a state of calm and safety. The technical name is Parasympathetic, and you may hear it referred to as Social Engagement.

In this state, your nervous system perceives you and your environment to be safe. So, it instructs your cells to go about their essential tasks, whatever those might be. Your stomach cells will be digesting food. Your immune system will be maintaining your body. This is the state in which we should be spending the majority of our time if we want to stay healthy.

Why does this matter for CFS?

The therapist explaining all of this to me was trying to explain that CFS reflects a state in which the body is spending too much time in the “on” mode and not enough time in maintenance mode. Over time, without proper ongoing maintenance, your organs and systems will cease to function optimally. The result will be a diverse range of symptoms.

So far, so good. I could see how that made sense. But what didn’t make sense to me was how that could fit into my life.

I wasn’t being threatened by tigers…or anything else (other than CFS symptoms). I was spending my days physically resting, and the only activities I was pursuing were things that brought me joy. So, where was all this stress that was keeping my Central Nervous System stuck in the “on” mode?

Moreover, I didn’t feel stressed. I wasn’t constantly feeling like I needed to run away or fight.

Polyvagal Theory

It was many years later that I first learned about Dr Stephen Porges work. Remember how I talked about the Vagus nerve? Well, Dr Porges had been studying this in detail, and noticed something rather interesting.

It seemed that this nerve actually had three states of being, not two. Yes, it still had the “off” – parasympathetic/Social Engagement/Ventral Vagal State. And it still had the “on” – sympathetic/fight/flight. But the confusion lay around the freeze state.

In the two-state model, that had always been lumped in with fight/flight. So, it was viewed as a part of the Sympathetic state – the state in which the body is not focused on ongoing maintenance and healing. Yet, it seemed that freeze state might actually look like another version of the “off” state. In terms of behaviour, a person in freeze state might appear calm. But this type of calm was really more “shut-down” and “unhealthy”. Rather than feeling safe, the body’s cells were operating with minimal energy or support. Dr Porges names this the “Dorsal Vagal” state.

Getting stuck in this state for a long time would certainly lead to loss of health and vitality. In fact, this is what Robert Naviaux’s Cell Danger Response was indicating. (You can follow this link to read more about the Cell Danger Response in another blog). Certain cells in the body were continuing to receive the message that they were in danger, and should be operating on high alert, not resting and quietly getting on with their jobs.

The Central Nervous System Map, Stress and Trauma

To bring this back to where we started, let’s look at how this Central Nervous System map can be used to model stress. Manageable stress is how the body develops and expands its capacities.

Stress response

So, yes, stress will elevate the nervous system from its parasympathetic, safe, state into the fight/flight state. But this should be an opportunity for growth. For example, a burst of running to safety would strengthen your muscles. The challenge of working out a solution to a problem will build confidence and enhance mental agility. And, after being stretched in order to resume safety, the nervous system settles back down into parasympathetic state. That process is illustrated by the black dotted line in the diagram of the Central Nervous System map below.

Diagram illustrating the Central Nervous System map and how it relates to stress and trauma in chronic fatigue. Find My Energy blog post.
Trauma Response

But when stress becomes unmanageable, and the body (or mind) cannot find a solution, there is no way back down from the fight/flight state. Yet, the amount of energy required to maintain that fight/flight state is unsustainable. It’s not safe to return to Social Engagement. So, instead, the body conserves energy by freezing, or dissociating or shutting down – entering the Dorsal Vagal state, as illustrated by the white dotted line in the diagram above.

The trouble is, this only buys some time. In order to regain safety, the nervous system still has to face the threat, and overcome it. When it has sufficient energy to attempt this, it may return to fight/flight. But if it cannot complete whatever actions are required to regain safety, it will end up back in the freeze state. So, this is likely what is happening in the Cell Danger Response: the cells have become stuck in the yo-yo pattern between fight/flight and freeze. This is no longer “stress”. Now we are looking at “trauma” – a state of overwhelm that requires particular treatment to reverse.

What does this mean for recovery from CFS?

What we have covered here is just the tip of the iceberg. The first breadcrumb on the trail that led to recovery for me. And I’m sure this raises more questions than it answers.

You might be wondering if this means that CFS really is “all in the head”. The answer is, NO. The Central Nervous System bridges the gap between mind and body, in a sense. So, whilst stress can be mental in nature, it can also be physical. And even if it is mental in nature, it still has very real biological impacts, that may require physical remedies.

You might also be feeling some sort of self-blame or shame here. Does this mean that you were somehow incapable or weak? Again, NO. If you are willing to explore further, I would like to invite you to consider that your Central Nervous System is automated. So, this is not you consciously deciding to “react badly” to an event. In fact, a whole chain of circumstances, many of which weren’t even in your control, have set your biology and are determining how your Central Nervous System reacts.

The good news is, once you understand these mechanisms, it is possible to recover. So, if you are willing to follow the next breadcrumb, click on this link.


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