Deep in the clutches of benzo withdrawal, my mind tried its best to convince me that everything was dangerous. From petting my cat to walking past the cabinet where I stored peanuts to feed the squirrels (what if I had become allergic to the nuts, even at ten feet away?), danger seemed to lurk in every nook and cranny of my life. Fear, anxiety, terror, panic, paranoia, and doom and gloom are part of benzo withdrawal. Even people who have never experienced these thoughts and feelings before going on a benzo can be severely tortured by them in benzo withdrawal. These thoughts and feelings are not usually pre-existing issues, but rather they are due to the downregulation of GABA receptors which cause the threat detection circuitry of the brain to fire over innocent, innocuous things.
This misfiring of the threat detection circuitry causes great emotional and physical discomfort; we are not designed to live in an ongoing state of hypervigilance and fear. And we can’t magically turn off our threat detection circuitry — we don’t have enough working GABA receptors to calm down our misfiring circuitry. But, we can do our best to understand our nervous system so that we aren’t as bothered as much by its hyper-excitability.
The nervous system has two main opposite responses: connect and protect. Of course, there are blends of responses, as well as a spectrum, but for all intents and purposes, we will look at these two states. Connect happens when we feel safe and at ease. Our executive functioning region of the brain, the prefrontal cortex (logic, consequences, kindness, generosity, etc.) takes center stage in this state— we can connect with others in loving, kind, compassionate ways. We don’t have to defend ourselves. A lot of healing can take place when the nervous system is in the connect state. (The connect state is a ventral vagal parasympathetic response.)
The protect state sounds exactly as it is: to protect. The threat detection circuitry (the limbic system) in the brain fires up, sending a signal to the adrenal glands that there is danger and they must pump adrenaline in order to fight or to flee the danger. (Fight or flight is a sympathetic nervous system response.) There is another way in which our nervous system helps us to protect ourselves: freeze (a dorsal vagal parasympathetic response).
All-day long, the nervous system fluctuates between connect and protect. What is interesting to note is that when the nervous system goes into the protect state there is rarely any real threat, but rather the threat is a perceived threat, oftentimes emotional in nature, not physical. (This is true of everyone, not only people in benzo withdrawal.) Let that sink in… most threats that the nervous system reacts to are not real, they are only perceived threats.
When there are no real threats, but we react as if there are, we have allowed our adrenals to “make us their bitch.” They are running the show. Consider that the state of your nervous system drives your internal narrative about yourself and the world around you, and you can see how this simple body function of self-protection negatively influences your thoughts and feelings.
What can someone do to move out of the protect state (or avoid going into it) when it isn’t necessary? Lots of things! But, for those in benzo withdrawal, sadly, those things don’t work as well. Without enough working GABA receptors, our nervous system tips towards protect at the drop of a hat. HOWEVER, there is something (almost magical!) that helps settle our hair-trigger nervous system so that it learns to stay calmer as our brains heal. That wonderful thing, my friend, is safety.
Safety is the prescription for everything.
How can we feel safe when benzo withdrawal creates scary symptoms, and fear and doom and gloom? We become a neutral observer of our symptoms and our thoughts and feelings, instead of buying into them and believing their negativity. We come to understand that “state drives story” and that our symptoms as well as our thoughts and feelings are the results of a body function— a hyper-excited nervous system. We don’t get upset over other body functions: burps, blinks, hiccups, sneezes, and farts, so why allow ourselves to get upset over a faulty nervous system response? Reminding ourselves that we are indeed safe, helps to avoid escalating the fight, flight, or freeze response we have to our symptoms, our thoughts, and feelings, as well as to our life’s situation in benzo withdrawal.
The affirmation, “I am safe. I am healing. I will recover”, goes a long way to helping your nervous system settle down. Any time you find yourself spiraling into fear, panic, doom and gloom, look around you. Get grounded. What do you see? Hear? Feel on your skin? Taste? Remind yourself that in this moment, everything is okay. You are safe. You can also observe your breathing. Are you breathing too fast? Too Slow? Too shallow? These are common reactions to a real or perceived threat You can correct your breathing as a way to send the message to your threat detection circuitry that all is well; you are safe, there is no need to fight, flee, or freeze.
Benzo withdrawal symptoms can be overwhelming, I know. Always get checked out by a doctor if you are concerned about any of them. But if everything checks out, and your symptoms are “just” withdrawal, you can rest easy knowing that they aren’t dangerous, and you are, indeed, safe. Keep reminding yourself of that, for safety is the ultimate prescription for everything. For in safety, we are most able to think, feel, and behave, in ways that promote health and happiness for everyone.
Safety. Safety. Safety. It’s the best medicine on the planet.
Keep reminding yourself that you are safe. You ARE healing. You WILL recover.
(Check my YouTube channel, Dr. Jenn, for a guided meditation for benzo withdrawal. It should be available by October 12,)