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What is Hyperarousal?

I often remark to my students that most of the people I've encountered in Benzo withdrawal, especially those really struggling, share at least two characteristics. Most are type-A personalities, and most have a hypervigilant stress center in their brains.

By "hypervigiliant stress center," I am talking about the limbic system, that fight or flight center of our central nervous system. It's that old, primordial survival-focused part of our brain. It's the reason we are here today. When we talk about hyperarousal, we are emphasizing a kind of low-grade activation of this survival center.

The limbic system's alarm operates on a sliding scale, ranging from mild to acute. Think of it as varying degrees of fight or flight response. For example, if we see a bear in the woods, and the bear is 100 yards away, and it hasn't seen us yet, we may experience a low-grade arousal of the fight or flight system. We might feel some fear in our stomachs. Our heart might skip a beat or begin to beat a bit faster. Upon seeing the bear, our senses become a little more acute. Simply put, we are on alert. The bear could be a problem, but at this moment, there's no need to panic.

Now, if that bear turns and sees us, that fight or flight response turns up a bit more.

If that bear begins walking towards us, that fight or flight response increases even more.

If that bear begins running aggressively toward us, the fight or flight response really begins to kick into gear. Now, we are truly in danger. A host of physiological and mental changes occur within seconds. This prepares us to run or fight back. And it really is an incredible response in the body; I mean, everything changes! Our lungs take in more air; our hearts beat faster to transport oxygen to muscles and our brain. Fast-twitch muscles are engaged, senses are heightened, and our body floods with adrenaline.

If the bear runs up to us and then stands up tall, roaring above us, displaying its incredible, ferocious power and aggression, well, we may just become so paralyzed in a panic that we use the bathroom in our pants!

We might fall limp to the ground, nature's way of playing dead.

Likely, we've all experienced a panic attack before. Think of hyperarousal as a very low-grade or precursor to a panic attack.

If a panic attack is like sitting in a car and smashing the gas pedal to the floor, then hyperarousal is like resting a heavy foot on the gas pedal. It keeps the RPMs revved up, warming the motor and making it ready to take off at any moment.

Benzo withdrawal, the fear it creates, and the symptoms it creates activate our hyperarousal. And we can pretty much find ourselves living in a constant, or near-constant, state of hyperarousal.

It's as though someone turned up the gain knob on our limbic system!

Hyperarousal produces SO many wild, wonky, and bizarre symptoms for us during benzo withdrawal.

The thing about benzo withdrawal is that we tend to treat the symptoms as if they were only unique and isolated features of the drug, and we don't take a close enough look at what the drug is, what it does, what parts of the brain it impacts, and what those parts do, and why they do what they do.

This is why I talk adnoseum about the limbic system when I'm talking about benzo withdrawal because you cannot really separate them. It would be like talking about alcoholism and not mentioning the liver. Or, talking about obesity but not ghrelin (the hunger hormone). These things have a symbiotic relationship.

Part of withdrawal symptoms is the very arousal of the fight or flight system. This is why our symptomology usually dissipates when we learn to speak the language of the limbic system and help calm it. There's a direct relationship here. Yes, benzo withdrawal, receptor damage, etc., still have their own unique qualities, but even then, those things still share a relationship with the limbic system. As does ALL anxiety and stress, for that matter.

Here are some of the wild symptoms hyperarousal produces:

There are actually more symptoms that I didn't include in that list above, but these are the most common. If you've ever suffered from insomnia and have laid your head on your pillow to sleep only to find yourself suddenly becoming wide awake, that is hyperarousal. The twitching, energy surges, buzzing, jerks, flickering light behind your eyelids, the intrusive thoughts and random bizarre imagery, and even the having to pee every hour all night are all typical hyperarousal symptoms.

Try your best to normalize these and make peace with them. It's true that it will be really difficult, sometimes impossible, to differentiate these symptoms from benzo withdrawal. But that's okay. Don't worry about that because the treatment is still the same regardless. During Benzo withdrawal, it's always Operation Lull Down the Limbic System! I've got an entire program to help with that. The important thing to always remember is that things will get better! I promise you that much! Acceptance, peace, love, compassion, understanding, self-discipline, and intelligent work all help us cross this river.

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Anna Nordin
Anna Nordin
6 days ago

Tribute to the warriors who endured heavy trauma early in life that set their arousal system to the sensitive setting. where they have the same intensify of reaction to a bear who doesn't see them yet, as a lesser-traumatized person does who is being chased. Sensitive people, often 'on guard', but wise beyond their years, often the ones who are affected more intensely from benzo use and benzo withdrawal. Most precious and beloved people, silently experiencing hypervigilant symptoms on an almost daily basis. My heart goes out to these brave individuals.

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