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Combat the Fight or Flight: Symbols of Hope, Butterflies Are for Hugs Too

Updated: Jan 31


- Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC

April 15, 2021



Butterfly symbolism is a powerful representation of life. Many cultures and religions look to this flying insect with deep reverence and use it as a symbol for life concepts…the butterfly symbolism works as a representation of resurrection, change, renewal, hope, endurance, and courage to embrace the transformation to make life better (Clifford, 2020).


Trauma, complicated grief, anxiety, and toxic stress can cause many physiological, changes. Learning the science behind the metamorphosis that occurs, is the first step to restoring balance, which is vital to prevent chronic illness.


“Although restoration of homeostasis is the goal of the stress response, chronic stress leads to dysfunctional responses causing heart disease, stomach ulcers, sleep dysregulation, and psychiatric disorders” (Chu, Marwaha, Sanvictores, & Ayers, 2020). These disorders can occur over time, especially if stress remains unattended.


Particularly vulnerable to chronic illness are those who have not been able to reduce the burden of chronic stress in their lives. The brain interprets experiences as threatening or nonthreatening, determining physiological responses to each situation. “Besides the hypothalamus and brain stem, which are essential for autonomic and neuroendocrine responses to stressors, higher cognitive areas of the brain play a key role in memory, anxiety, and decision making" (McEwen, 2007). "These brain areas are targets of stress and stress hormones, and the acute and chronic effects of stressful experiences influence how they respond." The mix of genetics with toxic experiences impacts adult stress responses, and influences the aging process.


A "Cascade" of Physiological Changes


A stressful event or trigger “can activate a cascade of stress hormones that produce physiological changes” (Fisher, 1999). Once the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the acute stress response called the "‘fight or flight" response sequence is launched. which enables a person to either fight the threat or flee the situation. "The rush of adrenaline and noradrenaline secreted from the adrenal medulla causes almost all portions of the sympathetic system to discharge simultaneously as a wide-spread mass discharge effect throughout the entire body." This can utterly feel like physiological chaos.


Traumatic stress and the activation of the fight or flight response in turn causes harmful physiological changes. Some of which include:

  • Increased arterial pressure

  • More blood flow to active muscles, and less to organs not needed for rapid motor activity

  • Increase rate of blood coagulation

  • Increase rates of cellular metabolism throughout the body

  • Increased muscle strength by increasing blood glucose concentration

  • Increased mental activity


Repeated Activation of the Stress Response Leads to Illness


Some of the effects of these physiological changes results in nausea and other digestive issues, increase in heart rate, rapid breathing, chest tightness; and over time, feelings of fatigue, continued gastrointestinal distress, lower immunity, weight loss or gain, aches and pains, insomnia, and more. Because stress causes the cardiovascular system to respond with an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, a chronic activation of this leads to cardiovascular diseases. “Coronary artery disease, stroke, and hypertension occur at a greater incidence in those with stress-related psychological disorders” (Chu, Marwaha, Sanvictores, & Ayers, 2020). Diabetes and autoimmune disorders are also showing up in higher rates for those impacted by traumatic or toxic stress.


With increased knowledge and awareness, we can help each other. “Advances in neuroscience have given us a better understanding of how trauma changes brain development, self-regulation, and the capacity to stay focused and in tune with others.” (Van der Kolk, 2014). “Understanding many of the fundamental processes that underlie traumatic stress opens the door to an array of interventions that can bring the brain areas related to self-regulation, self-perception, and attention back online.”


Mindfulness is Key


Stress involves bidirectional communication between the brain and the body, returning to a baseline of less toxic stress, and homeostasis of the body as an important goal. Trauma researchers have found benefit in stabilizing or grounding techniques to help slow down or halt the stress response.


Mindfulness has become a helpful stabilizing agent to the stress response. “Mindfulness is generally described as intentionally focusing one’s attention on the experience occurring at the present moment in a non-judgmental or accepting way” (Baer & Krietemeyer, 2006). Rather than states of mind focused elsewhere, in a situation of trauma state, or rumination. “Mindful attention includes a stance of compassion, interest, friendliness, and open-heartedness toward the experience observed in the present moment, regardless of how pleasant or aversive it might be.”


One simple but helpful activity that can help with grounding or stabilization, is a mindful technique similar to the tapping or eye movement methods from Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapists.


The “Butterfly Hug” is considered self-administered bilateral stimulation which uses both hemispheres of the brain. This technique originated by Lucina Artigas during her work in Acapulco Mexico in 1998 after Hurricane Pauline Artigas and Jarero (2014) describe how to use the technique below.


The Butterfly Hug Method


Cross your arms over your chest, so that the tip of the middle finger from each hand is placed below the clavicle or the collarbone and the other fingers and hands cover the area that is located under the connection between the collarbone and the shoulder and the collarbone and sternum or breastbone. Hands and fingers must be as vertical as possible so that the fingers point toward the neck and not toward the arms.


If you wish, you can interlock your thumbs to form the butterfly’s body and the extension of your other fingers outward will form the Butterfly’s wings.


Your eyes can be closed, or partially closed, looking toward the tip of your nose. Next, you alternate the movement of your hands, like the flapping wings of a butterfly. Let your hands move freely. You can breathe slowly and deeply (abdominal breathing), while you observe what is going through your mind and body such as thoughts, images, sounds, odors, feelings, and physical sensation without changing, pushing your thoughts away, or judging. You can pretend as though what you are observing is like clouds passing by.



It's Time to Break Free


Like a butterfly freeing itself from its cocoon, we need to release ourselves from the physical constraints of trauma and toxic stress in our lives.


It will take self-compassion, patience, attention, and intention, but if you find you are frozen in the cycle of traumatic stress, please consider Mindfulness. The Butterfly Hug is just one mindful example of a very effective way to help you combat the fight or flight response and glide toward a journey of hope.


When hope takes flight, dreams are strengthened and so many possibilities are inspired.


 


Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing teresa@steppingtowardserenity.org, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting https://www.steppingtowardserenity.org



 


References


Artigas, L. and Jarero, I. (2014) The butterfly hug method for bilateral stimulation. Retrieved from


Baer, R.A. and Krietemeyer, J. (2006). Overview of mindfulness-and acceptance-based treatment

approaches. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician's guide to

evidence base and applications (p. 3–27). Elsevier Academic Press. Retrieved from


Chu, B., Marwaha, K., Sanvictores, T., and Ayers, D. (2020). Physiology, stress reaction. Retrieved from


Clifford, G.D. (2020). Butterfly symbolism & meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens). Retrieved from


Fisher, J. (1999). The work of stabilization in trauma treatment. Retrieved from


McEwen, B. S. (2007). Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: Central role of the brain.


Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. Penguin Books, New York, New York.

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