Are you finding that you're yo-yo-ing in your recovery? Are you bouncing between windows and waves?
I've come to call this the Yo-Yo Phase. It's one of 15 phases I break down in a new book I just finished and will release soon called 15 Phases of Benzo Withdrawal & Recovery. While it can be a very confusing and alarming stage in our recovery, in my experience, it's usually a good place to be! Here's why.
Any moment you have where you feel almost normal, or perhaps even 100% your old self, is a damn good sign that your limbic system is figuring it all out again and that, indeed, it is possible to feel good again!
Think about it. A damaged heart, kidneys, or diabetes doesn't respond this way. One doesn't toggle between having severe diabetes one week and then being completely diabetic-free the next. It simply doesn't work that way because real damage or disease is a different kind of battle. That's not to say one cannot heal from damage or disease, but it doesn't flip-flop, yo-yo, and happen overnight. It's usually a slow process.
However, with benzo recovery, as I've long been expressing, isn't all chemical or physiological damage!
The fact that our nervous system can have days or weeks of relief is a great sign demonstrating our healing and that there's more complexity and nuances to our healing.
Here's one reason this happens: our amygdala is relearning how to let down its guard.
I've long said that trauma coming off benzos can drive our limbic system into a crisis, a nearly continuous or perpetual state of fight or flight. This is because the fear signal confuses our amygdala, and this part of our brain associated with stress and survival comes to believe we are in serious danger. So, it reacts accordingly.
If you were stuck in a small cave in the wilderness with large man-eating grizzly bears roaming around outside the cave, threatening to eat you, your limbic system would put you on the highest alert. After all, it doesn't get much more serious than this! In this scenario, we are so vulnerable, and our chances of experiencing a violent death are so high that it sends the highest distress signal to the limbic system. This goes beyond the potential for danger. Oh, no. This is a message communicating, "We are in serious danger, we are trapped, and it is likely a matter of time before we perish!"
The limbic system is going to escalate in its crisis response. It's going to begin with serious hyperarousal, and we may stop sleeping and experience extreme hypervigilance. Symptoms will increase in severity. We may enter into a state of panic and feel like a trapped animal. All kinds of hypervigilance arise as our nervous system desperately tries to detect danger or possible safety in our environment, as our limbic system desperately searches for a way out of danger.
One thing the limbic does when we cannot run away or evade danger is it paralyzes us when we seem to be remotely safe. Therefore, if we find that little cave with the bears roaming outside, the limbic sends a powerful instinctual message to sit quietly and remain inside the cave. The longer we sit in the cave, the more conditioned the limbic system becomes.
In this state of emergency, the limbic craves predictability. It's determined that we are at least somewhat safe inside this cave; therefore, making noises, movements, leaving the cave, etc., can be disastrous for us. So, each time we do anything outside of what we've been doing (which kept us safe), it is a potential danger, and the limbic system will respond again. How does it respond? By hitting us full of fight-or-flight chemicals and a huge dose of fear!
In this scenario, imagine the limbic system as having MASSIVE TRUST ISSUES!
It craves predictability in everything, and this can get quite extreme. It wants us to do the same things, eating and drinking the same things, in the exact quantities, at the same time, etc. Nothing new is welcomed. If I put a different color dye in your Benzo pill but change nothing else, your limbic system would respond. The deeper the escalation of fear and potential danger, the more pronounced this buckling down feature of the limbic system until the point of sheer paralysis. Like a deer in headlight, we become frozen, even when it's in our best interest to move, flee, or change something!
Just because the limbic system wants to paralyze us to protect us doesn't mean it's always correct to do so. Sure, it is best to play dead when confronted with a 1500-pound grizzly bear with no chance of escape. However, walking across a road and seeing a semi-truck barreling towards you isn't the time or place to freeze or play dead! It's time to get the hell out of the way immediately!
So, sometimes, despite the best protective interest of our limbic system, it can work against us. Evolution isn't exactly flawless. There are plenty of clunky designs found in nature. Conditioned fear and phobia responses can be such an illustration of these flaws.
The yo-yo phase is special because it's like our limbic system finally beginning to realize that perhaps the bear outside our cave is growing bored and beginning to wander off.
Our limbic system begins to yo-yo between releasing its fight or flight grip, but then, as a kind of startle response, it doubles back down. As if to say, "Oh, no! I may have made a grave mistake! I thought for a moment we were safe, but what if I'm wrong?!"
Think about it. What if it was wrong? What if we felt safe enough to peek our head out of the cave only to see the bear sitting there quietly, still waiting to eat us?
Still, while this is concerning and unpleasant, it's a good place to be because our limbic system is finally getting it all together and willing to test the waters! This has to happen for it to release us from the protective fight or flight crisis. The limbic system has to run these little tests.
This is a place where we need to come in and help communicate safety.
If the limbic sees or senses no danger, no bears, it will continue to release its fearful grip.
Now, this is perhaps the most important part. The limbic system will test the environment by first easing its grip, but then, it will hit us with fear (aka a wave). Understand, this is the ONLY way it can gauge things. It hits us full of fight-or-flight fear and then watches how we react. If we don't react out of danger because there is no danger, the limbic system begins to say, "Ah, okay. I hit them with fight-or-flight chemicals, but they didn't run. Perhaps the danger is over?" The best we can do in this process is to understand the nature of how this works and try our best not to engage the fear, not to run away or feed the bear! This is a tough task, and it will certainly take some time, so be patient. But the better you get at rolling with the windows and waves, the quicker the limbic system will relearn we are safe and let down its fight or flight response.
Remember. We are driving this ship, not the limbic system. In a profound way, the limbic is taking cues from us. The problem is, and the challenge is, benzos create a chemical fear withdrawal that confuses the limbic and tells it we are in danger when, in fact, we are not.
This gets further complicated by the forums, groups, etc, that we all read and come to fear more potential grizzly bears. We lose hope. Think about what message that sends to the limbic system. Hopelessness is our way of communicating... well, hopelessness! It says to the limbic system, "There's no saving us now. It's just a matter of time. Might as well lay down and welcome our demise." Well, we are designed by nature to survive. To fight back. Our limbic system isn't going to go easy into the night. It will fight until the bitter end, like any animal fighting to free itself from the clutches of a deadly predator.
If you want to help facilitate your progression through the yo-yo phase, then learn to embrace the waves. Learn to retrain your limbic system that the threat is over, or at the very least, diminishing as if that old bear was finally getting tired and wandering off into the woods to search for another food source.
Love, pleasure, hope, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, and any semblance of normalcy is our compass out of the yo-yo phase. Remember, hope has a path forward. You don't have hope if you don't have a path forward. You have wishful thinking. And that's not something the limbic system deems safe.
Having a path forward means doing the work we are doing in the school. It means reestablishing real hope by finding our North Star, having great positive support, building neuroplasticity, rewiring our brain, developing healthier coping mechanisms, skill-sets, resilience, healing from our injuries, eating the right foods, living the right way, etc. We approach our recovery from every angle.
The yo-yo phase is a good thing. Don't fear it. Don't run away from it. Don't resist it or become overly emotional about it. I know this isn't easy. In fact, it's one of the most difficult things any of us could do... but it is necessary. And if you're experiencing the yo-yo phase, let me tell you the good news: you are likely much closer to recovery than you might realize!