What went right today

Today was a pretty good day.

I woke up early – around 4 a.m., which is never good. But things got better after that. I listened to my relaxation MP3s and I managed to get 2 more hours of sleep, which was great. I was having weird dreams, though — something about walking around someone else’s house, and having my car stolen… and not being able to find my way back to where I was supposed to be.

I had some early meetings, then I had another meeting around noon. Then I had the afternoon to focus on getting some work done, and it was pretty productive.

I even had 20 minutes to step away and do my breathing/relaxation, which was good.

All in all, it was a good day. And I even got my weekly acupuncture in, as well.

One of the things that made today especially good, was that I fasted today. I did about a 22 hour fast — from 9:30 last night till 7:30 tonight. I felt good all day. I didn’t suffer terribly with hunger, the way I have in my previous two fasts (it was pretty rough at times). And even when I felt hungry, it wasn’t that panicked kind of voraciousness that made me feel like I was going to die, if I didn’t get something to eat.

This is good. I just realized I was hungry, and I got my mind off it. Did other things.

One of the nice things about fasting, is that it saves me time in the day. If I have a lot to do, it saves me at least 2-3 hours in the day, that I’d normally spend planning on eating, getting something to eat, and then eating. It also kept me more awake all day.

Plus, when I’m hungry, I know I can get difficult. So, I paid an extra amount of attention to my mood and my behavior, and I kept it together extremely well.

Today was a very good day. After the past week or so, I’m due :)

 

 

Help for a racing heart rate

This post How I learned to slow my heart rate is by far the most popular one on this site, and it has helped a lot of people, from what they tell me. Folks have shared links to it, and hundreds of people see it each week, which makes me very glad.

Some have even said it helped “save their life” — and that makes me even happier :)

It’s actually a really short post, so I have written an extended PDF version of this that you can download and save to your computer, tablet, or smartphone. You can also share it with others. It’s free.

Here it is: How I slow down my heart rate (click here to download)

Please remember: I am not a doctor. I am not qualified to give medical advice. I have just found a technique that works for me and helps me get my heart rate under control in a few minutes. I hope it helps others, but it’s not a substitute for medical care. See your doctor if you have issues and/or concerns.

Thanks. And be well.

Training my brain to choose

I talked before about how sitting za-zen helps me to physically wake up. I can’t sit for very long before I go to sleep, because it wakes me up too much. So, I sit in the mornings – and I’m going to try to sit in the afternoons, when I have a few minutes. I just set up a reminder on my calendar to do it every day at 3 p.m., and we’ll see how that goes.

Now, waking myself up is fine. But in fact, for me, sitting za-zen is about more than that. It’s actually about training myself to choose what kind of experience I want to have — if I want to give in to fatigue and frustration, or if I want to dig down and find the resources to deal better with my situation. I am actually able to change my frame of mind in different circumstances — that’s what I do when I interact with certain types of people. I suffer from terrible dread in so many situations, but I “buck up” and decide I’m going to have a different experience that being full of dread and anxiety, and when I do that, it actually works. I forget about my fears and dive in… and almost always, the result is a good one

Sitting za-zen has given this to me. That’s what it’s about for me — choosing the experiences that I want to have.

It’s very much about learning to choose my reactions to situations… training myself to wake myself up as needed, or to calm myself down if necessary. Sitting with focus demands that I pay close, sustained attention to some very simple things — my breathing and my posture. It trains me to pay attention to how I’m feeling in my body, so my posture is always good. It also trains my attention on my breathing, as I count my breaths and make sure I am breathing at a constant rate. It trains me to note any ideas and thoughts that are flit-flitting through my head, which are taking my focus away from my breathing and my posture.

And it’s hard. It’s quite demanding. It’s so demanding, that it’s rare that I can count 17 full cycles of breath without some interference from thoughts and distractions. I do my best, but it is incredibly difficult at times, to just keep my attention trained on my posture and breathing. My posture is not typically za-zen — I can’t sit cross-legged, because it is too painful and I have back and knee problems, so I generally sit up in a chair. My breathing is steady and balanced — five slow breaths in, a slight pause, then five slow breaths out, followed by another slight pause. Many’s the time when I get to 7 full breath cycles, and then my mind starts to wander.

But after working with this for many years — on and off — I am doing much better about not losing track of the number of breaths, and I’m not as “absent” as I used to get, when I would sit and breathe.

It turns out that this kind of practice is incredibly good for the brain — it decreases the activity which is associated with falling asleep and actually wakes you up. So, contrary to a lot of beliefs that meditation is all about relaxing and chilling out, according to the Awakening Is Not A Metaphor study:

“… the result (of meditation) is not a calming in the direction of relaxation/sleep, but rather a move in the opposite direction: toward an increased alertness and vigilance that counteracts mental laxity and sleepiness.” (p. 6 of 18 in the pdf of the study)

The study talks in depth about it, listing a number of examples where meditation training of one kind or another improved alertness, reduced fatigue, and had positive after-effects for months after a single training session. From personal experience, I can testify that when I sit za-zen regularly, I feel better, I act better, and I’m able to handle what life throws at me, even in very challenging circumstances. I’m training myself to decide — for myself — what my reactions to life are going to be, and I’m reducing my overall reactivity. I’m teaching my brain to not just run in every different direction, following whatever shiny object it might find, and I’m training my mind to not chase after my brain when it starts acting like a monkey running off into the forest with my car keys.

This is such an important part of my TBI recovery — it really supports and strengthens my ability to choose for myself how I will behave, how I will think, how I will react. That choice can mean the difference between saying and doing things to others I will regret and not be able to take back, and keeping my relationships neutral and healthy. It can mean the difference between getting into hot water with the cops and getting let go with a warning, or getting sent to jail. It can mean the difference between becoming angry and letting it go, or letting the rage take hold of me to the point where I break something or hurt someone.

It literally can make all the difference between a temporary upheaval — a speed bump in the road of my life — and a semi-permanent deep-sh*t situation that I have to then manage and smooth over and fix, taking tons of time out of my regular life to fix what I’ve broken.

So, sitting za-zen is more than just a way to pass the time. It’s an important part of my everyday life, that helps me not only feel better, but also helps me act and overall function better. It wakes me up. Because I’m training my brain to wake up. And I’m teaching my mind to react the way IT wants to, not the way others expect or try to force it to.

Less Facebook, more za-zen

Keeping it simple

So, I’ve had a crazy busy week, and I’ve taken a few steps to make my life simpler and less hectic.

The first thing I did, was unfriend a person who has become a tremendous pain in my ass. I work with them, and our relationship has really altered over the past months, with them climbing to the top of the corporate ladder, and me holding back and not diving into all the politics and drama for a number of reasons. First, I’m not at all impressed with the opportunities available to me at work. Second, I’ve already done the ladder-climbing thing, and while it was exciting for a while, back about 15 years ago, I saw the dark side of it and opted out. Third, I’m not big on games. Fourth, in their heady rise to the top, they compete intensely and step on people to get there, and I’m not interested in being someone they compete against. That sh*t just depresses me.

So, while this onetime friend of mine has been maneuvering and operating all over the place (and trying to pull me into their activities), I’ve really cooled to them. And I unfriended them on FB. Which kind of freaked them out and made them feel rejected (which they were, if you think about it). But it simplifies my life, because now I don’t have to worry about getting miffed over something they post — or some comment they make to one of my posts.

FB has gotten way too intrusive for me.

The other thing I did was remove FB from my mobile phone. It was just getting too enticing for me, and I was spending way too much time on pretty much nothing. I mean — like so many others — I would start looking at posts, pictures, movies… and before I knew it, an hour had passed me by.

Which is never good. Especially when I have so little time for the things I truly want to be doing.

So, I made it harder for myself to go on FB, and I removed it from my phone for a few days. And it did simplify my life. (Turns out, I had to reinstall it last night, because my internet connection died, and my smartphone was the only way I could reschedule a meet-up I arranged for today) Just not having access to FB for a few days gave me additional time to focus on projects that are late-late-late, and just calm the heck down.

The calming down is the important part. Because even when the things I see on FB are good, they are still energizing and invigorating, and they get my blood pumping. There are jokes, there are observations, there are rants. And they always get me thinking and reacting. They jump-start my system as few other things can.

Now, that’s fine, if I actually do need a boost to wake me up. But all that uproar, all the time? It’s not necessary. And even if I am dragging a little bit, the neurocognitive / biochemical jolt of Facebook is usually a lot more than I really need, to get going. Going on FB for me, when I am a little “off” is like drinking a couple cans of Red Bull when I’m feeling a little distracted. It’s way too much for me, and no matter how good it feels to get that Facebook “rush”, it’s still putting a strain on my system that ultimately wears me out.

So, now I’m repairing the damage I’ve done, and I’m doing several things:

  1. I’m rationing my Facebook time and staying OFF it, first thing in the morning, as well as last thing at night.
  2. I’m back to doing za-zen, or sitting silently and focusing on my breath and my posture for set periods of time.

This is accomplishing several things:

  1. It is keeping my system from becoming drugged by biochemical / neurocognitive overload.
  2. It is re-training my system to develop its own ability to wake — or rest — at will.

Za-zen — my own version, which is simpler than thinking about koans, but more focused than Shikantaza (which is just sitting) — is for me about simply sitting, being wakeful and mindful about what is going on in my body and mind, but not “taking the hooks” of thoughts that “want” me to follow them, like monkeys running off into the woods with my car keys.

Some say that meditation is for relaxation, to relieve stress, but I have long believed — and I recently came across a study that echoes my belief. That study, “Awakening is not a metaphor: the effects of Buddhist meditation practices on basic wakefulness” talks about how sitting meditation can actually heighten wakefulness in long-term practitioners. It’s not necessarily about relaxation — it’s actually about waking up.

I have noticed, over the past years of sitting za-zen (which I have done for over 20 years, since I first learned about it), that I have actually learned how to wake myself up, even when I am incredibly tired. Sitting — just sitting — focusing on my breath and keeping myself alert to my posture, the sensations in my body, and whatever thoughts might be rattling ’round in my head, doesn’t relax me. In fact, it does the opposite. So much so, that I cannot sit za-zen right before I go to bed, because it wakes me up too much.

I sit in the mornings, instead. And I’m considering starting to sit in the afternoons when I start to get cravings for sweets. When I’m feeling low and groggy, I tend to reach for the trail mix, which is a far better option than a Snickers bar or some other kind of sugar. But I often end up eating too much sugar in the course of a busy afternoon, so I need another option.

The more I think about it, the more za-zen seems like a good option for me. Sitting with silent focus, even for just a few minutes, does wonders for me. And if I can incorporate it into my daily life — not only stepping away to sit in silence, but also having that attitude of za-zen when I am in meetings at work, or I’m trying to better focus on what’s in front of me… well, so much the better.

I used to actually do that, years ago before my last TBI. And it helped me so much. It “leveled out” the upheavals that had long been with me, because of all my previous TBIs. But when I fell in 2004, that completely threw me, and I became just a shadow of myself. I stopped sitting. I stopped meditating. I stopped thinking about anything except the daily business of just getting from Point A to Point B, and not falling victim to the demons that seemed to rage in me.

Now much has evened out with me, and I’m in a place where I can actually put my focus back on za-zen. I’ve done this before, so it’s not new to me. And the Awakening study confirms that people with past meditation experience can have greater increases in “tonic alertness” which is where you can become more alert in unexpected situations.

That’s what I’m striving for, these days — more alertness, more engagement in my daily life, less reactivity, and more skill at handling sudden and unexpected situations. And it turns out that I have the past experience and the present tools to help make that happen.

When I just sit and breathe and count and focus on my posture, even for just a few minutes, everything gets better. And that’s what I want. Better.

I’ve got another full day ahead of me, so it’s time to get going. On it goes.

Onward.

Each year better than the last – I hope

Looking back… looking ahead

Now that Christmas and Hanukkah and Winter Solstice have all passed, it’s time to start looking ahead to the New Year. Kwanzaa is still underway till January 1, and the Seven Principles that mark this time give me good food for thought, even though I don’t actually celebrate it formally. Yuletide is also underway till January 1 (or the 13th, depending what part of the world you live in), allowing everything to just slow down for time to reflect and look ahead to the new year.

I’m celebrating the spirit of Yuletide more than any other holiday this season. It’s been a quiet time, without a lot of travel, and minimal racing around to take care of presents and what-not. If anything, I’ve been pretty neglectful of others, this holiday season. But you know what? They’ve been totally neglectful of me, too, so we’re even. If anything, the past years have been about me and my spouse doing a hell of a lot more for them than they did for us — doing more travel, making more of an effort, going out of our way to keep everyone aligned and on track with coordinating our holiday activities. This year, we haven’t done all that — and guess what… nobody picked up the slack. So there you go — they must not care that much, so… what-ever.

It’s time to us to take care of ourselves for once.

And we’ve done just that. I’ve been in a pretty low-key frame of mind since before Christmas — all the excitement of work notwithstanding — so, it’s been a very “Yule-like” time. Things have slowed down. I’ve allowed them to slow down. I’ve taken time OFF from all the sense of obligation and duty and required activities, to just rest and relax and not race around like a chicken with my head cut off, as I did in prior years. I’ve done energizing things that are good for me, and I’ve been eating lots of new foods that support me and my brain, as well. I’ve cooked up some pretty excellent dishes lately, if I say so myself, and my spouse says I’m becoming quite the chef :)

Looking back on the past year, it’s odd — I can remember bits and pieces of it, but I don’t get an overall sense of how the year was. I know it’s been challenging, and I’ve been actively looking for a new job for much of that time — especially in the past three months. At home, things have stabilized somewhat — with less undercurrents of stress and strain, but some extreme meltdowns that have taken a toll on my marriage. I’ve been through a lot of intense challenges with my spouse, including issues with money and infidelity and physically unhealthy choices. All in all, though, I think we’re on the up-swing, and taking time out from all the travel to see family, as well as me getting my own “house” in order, has benefited us a great deal.

I feel stronger and more stable than I have in a long time. Perhaps ever. And yet, there’s a constant sense of confusion and disorientation that is always in the background. I am more functional than I can remember being in a good long while, and the circumstances of my life are leveling out and becoming more “structurally sound”, but at the same time, I’m in a fair amount of general pain much of the time, I have tremors and shakes, and my brain is definitely not firing on all pistons. I feel like I’m maybe at 65% on a regular basis. 85% if I’m lucky.

And that makes me sad.

But I think perhaps I am acclimating to the instability. I’ve decided I’m going to just get on with my life, even though I can’t seem to get rid of the memory problems, the sleep difficulties, the constant sense of fatigue, confusion, distractability, getting things turned around, and getting lost and not knowing where I am for a few minutes at a time… and more.

My solution is to just keep going and not get sidetracked and depressed by what’s going on inside my head. If I can just keep going, keep working at things, and do my best to learn from my lessons and try again, this all doesn’t need to hold me back permanently. It might slow me down, but it’s not going to stop me.

I’m also coming to terms with the idea of not being Alpha in every situation at work — and beyond. At work, I have been long accustomed to being Alpha and being in a leadership position of some kind. But now that things are shifting and changing at work, I’m not sure if this is going to last. There are so many people at work who are a hell of a lot more possessed by the demons of blind ambition and greed, and I just can’t see competing with them around the clock. There’s all sorts of politicking — and if it takes politicking to get ahead, then I’m going to step back and not engage with that, and allow myself to simply be happy in the position where I am.

Now, I don’t for a minute expect that I’ll stay in that subordinate position for long, if I get the attention of the right people who recognize what I’ve got to offer. I do want to get ahead. I need a raise. I need a promotion. I need to really put what I know and have learned into action. But I need to be smart about it and not just charge forward into the gap, without understanding what’s ahead of me. If a promotion means I’m going to have to travel all over the world and not be home more than two weeks out of every month, then I’ll pass. There is that possibility. But who can say? Who can say…

Anyway, I can’t invest too much time and effort in thinking about what may be… inventing all sorts of dramatic stories about what that will mean for me. Who knows what will happen? I need to conserve my energy, because I continue to have some limiting difficulties — the headaches and the joint pain which suck a lot of energy from me… the confusion and disorientation that keep me guessing and demand even more energy from me to keep up and do my part… the vertigo and tinnitus that are just so damned distracting… and the attentional and distraction issues that interrupt what I’m doing with a regular dose of screw-ups.

I need to keep going, and in order to do that, I need to take good care of myself and also practice things that will keep me sharp and make me sharper, while not using up a lot of time.

  • Ride the exercise bike or move and stretch, first thing in the morning to get my blood pumping and clear out some of the sludge that’s built up. (10 minutes a day)
  • Practicing juggling one thing at a time, tossing it into the air, and then catching it.  I do this with my toothbrush each morning, to improve my eye-hand coordination and also my focus and attention. (1-2 minutes a day)
  • Working on my balance and leg mobility with exercises on a daily basis. (5 minutes a day)
  • Doing my measured breathing that regulates my heart rate and keeps me calm. (5-10 minutes a day)
  • Allowing myself to really, truly relax on a regular basis — just letting myself collapse into bed or on the couch, and letting the fatigue just wash over me. (The first few minutes when I go to bed)
  • Increase my dopamine levels by eating more foods with L-Tyrosine and also taking the supplement… and also taking Oil of Oregano, to keep my body from breaking down the dopamine and seratonin in my system. (In the regular course of my day.)
  • Drinking plenty of water to flush out the sludge.
  • Studying anatomy and physiology, to help me better understand the inner workings of my physical life — and how to improve my health.

All these things are really good for me — and I can work them into my daily routine. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to do them as a regular part of my life, without up-ending my routine. That is totally do-able, because I can find time when my breakfast is cooking, and I’d just be sitting around anyway.  I just need to do it. And I need to not just take things for granted, because I’ve been doing them a while and it feels like I don’t need to do them anymore.

That’s probably the biggest threat to my well-being in the new year — getting complacent and just assuming that “I’m good” and I don’t need to keep up my routines and activities. That state of “good” can rapidly decline, as I’ve learned time and time again.

So, as I look forward to the new year, I’m thinking about the basics. Focusing on that, and not making myself crazy with a whole lot of dramatic schemes and Big Plans, like I have in the past. I’m settling in, in a way, and it feels pretty good. I just can’t get complacent. Gotta keep working at it. Each day.

Well, speaking of working at things, I need to get a move on and get my ass in gear. I have some errands I need to run before everything closes for the day.

Onward.

Beyond ye olde comfort zone

So, yesterday was interesting. I ended up not having to help a friend with the event they were dj’ing, but I did have to dog-sit for one of their buddies. And it turned out okay, actually. I got a few hours of my life back, and I also got to hang out with a pretty cool dog. I went for a couple of walks throughout the evening, and I even got 4-5 hours of good solid work done on this project.

The crazy thing is, I actually was able to start work on my project, once I got past the hangup about not being in my usual comfort zone, where I have hours and hours of uninterrupted time to work. I had this dog to take care of. I had to take it for a couple of walks (then wash off the dust and possible poison ivy each time we got back). I also had to make sure it wasn’t digging in the trash, which this dog loves to do. I was definitely not un-interrupted last night, and I had to keep an eye on things in ways that I usually don’t.

And yet, it didn’t stop me from making real progress. It was an added factor to deal with, but I dealt with it and it turned out fine.

I also slept like a rock last night — must have been all that walking, especially the midnight walk on an amazingly bright night. I think that “super moon” is happening this weekend, and outside at midnight, even with the overcast sky, there was a glow that lit things up like I haven’t seen in a long time.

I also haven’t been out walking at night in a long time. The last time I was actually outside walking around was several years ago, when the neighbor’s dog kept circling their perimeter going crazy crying and whining and barking like there was some wild beast out there. Turns out, there was — we have some large-ish, potentially dangerous predators in the woods of this area, and one of those creatures had been wandering into our neck o’ things, coming after the neighbors’ chickens. After the neighbors got rid of their chickens, they went away, but for a while it was a little dicey going out at night. I found out the easy way — shone my flashlight into a clearing in the woods, and saw two bright eyes looking back at me, more than a foot above the ground.

Definitely not a possum. I backed away slowly and went back inside. We haven’t heard tell of any of these creatures around, lately, but for some reason, I just stopped going out for night-time walks.

Last night was different, though. The dog had to be walked. He’d been drinking water all evening, and nature called. Plus, he was all rested from sleeping for hours, so he needed to be worn out so I could get some sleep. Beautiful walk on a beautiful night, and not terribly much traffic. Anyway, you can see people coming, so you just step off to the side, signal you’re there with your flashlight, and then move along when they’ve passed. In some ways, it’s actually safer than the daytime, when you can’t always see them coming.

Oddly, the mosquitoes didn’t make me crazy. Normally, they do, but I was so relaxed yesterday evening, it was crazy. Just so relaxed and feeling great — even though I was short on time, and my hours of working on the project ultimately turned out to be a bust because I had gone down a wrong path of thinking, and I’d persisted in this wrong path for hours. The only thing I really achieved last night, was figuring out what NOT to do. But in the end, that’s fine, because I needed to figure that out, anyway. Better to make the mistakes now, than later. I don’t have a lot of time later.

One of the things I was figuring out last night is a program I need to use to complete this project. I have been terribly resistant to figuring it out and learning the system, for some reason. I’m blocked, and I don’t know why. That little voice in my head that tells me, “You can’t” has been working overtime — in every single aspect of this learning task. It tells me:

  • I can’t find the time to work on this.
  • I can’t figure out how to work all the features.
  • I can’t find all the different pieces I need to put together.
  • I can’t learn the advanced functionality.
  • I won’t be able to change the things I need to change.
  • I can’t come up with a decent end-product.
  • I can’t hold my own, and I will be treated like a fool and an idiot when people see the product of my hard work.

Yes, this voice has been very busy — like so many mosquitoes buzzing around my head, distracting me and annoying me and stinging me.

Last night, though, I finally buckled down and dove into the starting parts of learning this process, and once I got going, I wasn’t bothered by that voice and all its little BS messages that are designed to just get me to stop what I’m doing and take a break and give myself a hiatus from… living my life.

The mechanics of this are fascinating. This voice-thing seems to get “triggered” by a biochemical state — a combination of excitement and anxiety and uncertainty, which my mind apparently interprets as DANGER – RUN AWAY!!! When that particular mix of emotions ramps up, my mind seems to shut off and immediately starts looking for the nearest escape route. It’s like my mind thinks I’m in a fighter jet that’s headed right for the side of a mountain, and it hits the eject button, getting me out of “harm’s” way.

The only thing is, I’m not actually in any danger. There is no threat — either immediate or distant. It’s just a feeling I have that comes from the circumstances around me, that my mind decides means something that is simply not true.

My neuropsych loves to tell me that it’s a psychological thing, being connected to how I think about things and what I decide things mean. Personally, I think there’s something to that — and yet the whole process happens way before any psychology has a chance to engage. It’s a physiological thing to me, mainly, which hijacks my abilities to reason and see clearly. My mind doesn’t even have time to interpret what’s going on, but my body jumps into action immediatamente. No time to think – just react. Get the hell out! Go! – Go! – Go!

So, what’s making a different to me in this? What’s helping me get past it?

Well, first, really practicing being cool is helping. Just staying impassive in situations that test me, watching what is happening, and really working at keeping my cool — no matter what.  I decide how I want to be in situations that test me, and I treat them like tests… like training… to help me learn to be cool. It doesn’t always work — like with that meltdown a couple of days ago — but when I am in my right mind, it can work.

Stopping the escalation is an important part for me — it’s critical, really. Taking a break and allowing all the biochemical drama to subside, is such an important step with me. It gives me back control over my life and my experiences in life, and it lets me just be myself, instead of a collection of mindless reactions to what’s happening around me. When I escalate just because I’m all fired up, I stop being myself. I start being a reaction. I don’t want to be a biochemical concoction. I want to be a human being. I want to be me.

Of course, until I realized that I could actually chill out the process and stop the madness, that was well nigh impossible. But realizing that I can do this — that I can stop the escalation and let the biochemistry settle down before it bursts into flames, has made all the difference in the world. It’s been revolutionary, really. It’s like I’ve turned this page, and nothing can get to me — provided I am rested and am paying attention to what’s happening around me.

And when it comes to paying attention, one of the things that has helped me a whole lot, is something that wouldn’t seem that big of a deal — paying attention to my breath and relaxing. Relaxing cuts down on my stress levels, which takes the edge off my sensitivities, which can be extremely distracting. In fact, I would have to say that my sensitivities to light and sound — which get much worse when I am stressed / tired / pressured — are a huge source of distraction to me. And they set up a feedback loop that’s a little like putting a microphone in front of a speaker — not good.

Stress makes me more sensitive. Sensitivities distract me and make it harder to attend to what’s going on . When I cannot attend as well, I cannot monitor my internal state as well, which often results in me not realizing that I’m getting more and more stressed, and I’m about to blow…

But when I can take the pressure off and just relax and settle into what’s happening in front of me, with the people who are with me, things get a lot better. And I get a lot better. Because I can pay attention to what’s going on with me, instead of the flurry of activity all around me that is distracting and pressuring and bothersome and so often ends up in a meltdown — whether it’s internal or external.

And when I can manage that, I can get beyond my former comfort zone – and have every zone be a comfort zone. This was unheard-of, just a few years ago. And I suffered for years and years as a result. But now things are turning around. And it’s good.

So, anyway, that’s the deal for today. I slept till 8:30 this morning. Unheard-of in recent history. Must be all that walking yesterday. Note to self: go for more walks today.

How 90-second clearing helps

Here’s a picture of before and after I realized just how much 90-second clearing helps me:

This is what would happen before I could stop the crazy rush of panic chemicals:

gray-no-zone

Before – when my panic would get hold of me

Gray Zone

  • Stress response to the thought of change – adrenaline, etc.
  • Reduction in cognitive resources, narrowing, sense of danger, alert
  • Escalation of stress response, based on sense of narrowing options, bad past experiences
  • Fear / anxiety / dread mixture runs the show
  • Chase back to how things are – get content, stay stuck

Before, I would escalate really quickly, thinking that I couldn’t manage, or that I was trapped. The stress response would trigger a physical reaction with me that would make me feel like I was blocked in and didn’t have a way out, and I would begin to panic. It didn’t matter if the change was something as basic as fixing a curtain rod that had come loose from the wall, or starting a new job. I would still feel it coming on and have the same catastrophic reaction. And because my own personal catastrophic reaction often involves involuntary crying, and I cannot stand to cry in front of people for no apparent reason, I avoided a lot of situations that I feared would get hold of me.

But now, I have a different way of handling things, and so far it’s working pretty well — when I remember to do it, of course ;)

This is what is possible now, when I stop the escalation of stress chemicals and use my breathing for a minute and a half to calm everything down:

yellow-yes-zone

After – When I spend a minute or so clearing out the stress response and stop things from escalating

Yellow Zone

  • Stress Inoculation Training, Stress Hardiness Optimization
  • Ability to shift the physical experience by breathing and other coping mechanisms
  • Clearing of stress response broadens options, opens thinking
  • From fear / anxiety / dread into anticipation / engagement / hope

Basically, the difference is like night and day. The old storms that would come up don’t have to anymore. I have a way to calm them down and think more clearly about what is in front of me. And most importantly, I don’t feel like I’m hemmed in, simply because of a physical response.

My nervous system is wired to be, well, wired. It’s automatic with me. I’ve been trained that way by life. Now I need to train myself to be another way.

And so I am.

Figuring out how to relax… and get on with things

The flood doesn’t have to last forever

I’m running a little late this morning. I was supposed to have an early phone call with a colleague on the other side of the world, this morning, but that was cancelled — partly because they told me they would be traveling at the end of this week, but I didn’t put it together that I should reschedule our meeting till when they got back.

No worries, though. They reminded me of it, and I’m rescheduling, so that’s fine.

In the past, I would have really given myself a hard time for not putting that together. I would have been unsparing and relentless in my self-criticism, and by the end of my internal tirade against myself, I would have reached the conclusion that I am good for nothing and I can’t do much of anything at all. It’s happened before, lots of times – especially at times when I’ve forgotten to reschedule meetings.

Today that didn’t happen.

If anything, I was relieved that I didn’t have to get on the call right after I woke up. I have had a couple of late-evening calls with colleagues, for the past couple of days, and I haven’t been able to get in bed before 11:00, or sleep past 7, which means I’m getting 6-7 hours of sleep, when I should be getting 8+. Oh, well. At least I’m not getting 4-5 hours, like I was last week.

I felt a bit foolish for a little bit, having spaced out on the schedule thing, then I just got on with my morning. I’ve had some time to check my personal email and make a list of things I need to get done today — and wonder of wonders, I don’t have anything scheduled for this evening, so I can take care of some things for one of the projects I’m working on.

There’s been an interesting change with me, lately. It happened around the time when I went to see my family and got out of my daily routine rut. There was a LOT of driving involved, I did NOT sleep very well, and the whole time was pretty uncomfortable for me in a lot of ways. But I handled myself extremely well, and as a result, no relationships were trashed or threatened, and there was no left-over biochemical sludge that I needed to clear out of my system.

Also, all during the trip, I was practicing the “90-second clearing” that helped me to regain my balance after upsetting or unsettling or anxiety-producing discussions or situations.

Basically this “90-second clearing” works this way:

  1. I pay attention to my stress level, my physical situation — am I stressed? Am I relaxed? Am I getting tense and uptight? When I think about a picture of how I’m feeling, do I see a crazy line chart that looks like a craggy mountain range, with the line going wildly up and down to extremes?
  2. If I am getting tense and uptight, I stop what I am doing and thinking, and I take a break for a minute and a half.  I stop the reaction to what’s happening. I stop the racing thoughts. I stop the escalation. I stop the fast breathing.
  3. Then I breathe slowly for about a minute and a half — sometimes I need less time — until I feel “level” again.  I think about what my state of mind and body looks like, and if I see a line that looks like a nice little wave, or gently rolling hills, I know I’m good.
  4. Then I can get back to doing what I was thinking and saying and doing before.
  5. Then I can relax.

By stopping the crazy escalation and bringing myself back to a point of biochemical equilibrium (many times during my vacation), I was able to keep my head from going nuts over passing things. It wasn’t about tamping down my experience and suppressing my feelings and reactions — it was about just letting it all come… and then letting it all go… and moving on.

I’ve continued to do it, too — with good results. In fact, I just did it this morning, when my spouse and I were having a heated discussion about something that wasn’t going right, and we were both getting pretty uptight and tweaked over the situation. It wasn’t something that either of us had done “wrong”, just something that was wrong that I needed to fix — and we were starting to get pretty bent out of shape about it.

I managed to stop and just breathe for a minute or so, and the calming effect on me also had a calming effect on my spouse. I could relax. So could both of us. Good stuff. And now I can get on with my day.

This is a big change with me. I mean, just the fact that I even know what it feels like to relax, is a change. Up until about 5-6 years ago, that never happened. I had no idea what relaxation really felt like, and I wasn’t interested in finding out. I just needed to be ON. I just needed to be UP. I just needed to be GO-GO-GO, all the live-long day. And frankly it was tearing the sh*t out of me and my life and my relationships. Especially after my TBI in 2004, when suddenly I was unable to keep it together and manage the GO-GO-GO in a sensible way.

Then I started doing “stress hardiness optimization” which is guided meditation for first responders and other people in high-stress conditions. I figured that applied to me pretty well — especially since I felt like I was always responding to emergencies in my life on a personal level. That trained me to physically relax, with progressive relaxation.

Mentally relaxing and being able to just let things go, however, still eluded me.

But over time, the more I’ve relaxed physically and the more capable I’ve become at understanding and managing my own “internal state”, the better I’ve become at being able to relax my mind as well as my body.

Ironically, one of the things that’s helped me to relax my mind, is coming to realize that no matter what the circumstances, I’ll be able to figure something out. It may not be perfect, it may not be what I want, but I’ll be able to deal. I’ll be able to manage myself and my situation. I’ll be able to handle things. The 90-second clearing is a huge piece of the puzzle that helps me incredibly.

First, it defines my internal state of anxiety and upset as a biochemical thing. It’s not that something is wrong with me, and I cannot handle things. It’s my body reacting to what’s going on, trying to help me rise to the occasion with a flood of biochemical stress hormones that are specifically designed to kick me into action. It’s a purely physical reaction.

Second, it’s all about recognizing that my body can be a little “behind the times” — and my mind / awareness can jump in to help it calm down. My fight-flight system (like everyone’s) is quick to react, but slow to back off — once engaged, my fight-flight system doesn’t want to let go. It wants to keep me safe. It keeps escalating, until the “danger” has passed, but it doesn’t always realize that a “danger” is not actually dangerous. So I have to help it do that. It’s not doing it by itself. It needs my awareness to help. Which I can do.

Third, it’s about exercising my mind in very basic ways — just paying attention to how I’m feeling, and doing very simple things to adjust. It’s not about some elaborate plan that will require tons of practice and has to be done just right. It’s about just noticing what’s going on with me, and doing something with it. Taking action. Working with my situation to turn it in a different direction — adding important ingredients — elements of balance and just plain feeling good, which is a new experience for me. Just plain feeling good… what a concept.

Last of all, it just works. Slow breathing for a minute and a half puts a halt to my downward slide and stops the escalation in its tracks. I’ve used it a number of times in a number of different situations, with excellent results. I can’t even begin to explain how great it feels to have the waves of anxiety and dread and fight-flight sludge back off — to feel them subside, leaving calm in their place. It’s like the flood waters of the Nile are receding, leaving fertile fields awaiting a new season of crops. And it leaves me feeling awake and confident and better than I did before.

Feeling tight and cramped and anxious and nervous and antagonistic feels like crap, I have to say.

Feeling loosened up and relaxed and strong and flexible and friendly feels pretty awesome.

90 seconds is all it takes, too (well, sometimes it takes longer, but not more than a few minutes). It “resets” me, “reboots” my brain. And it lets me get on with my life. Relaxed, confident, and with a lot more better ideas than I had just a few minutes before.

 

 

Keeping calm, keeping focused

I work with a handful of people who are constantly going-going-going. Their jobs are very involved and very demanding, and they also have a very close-knit team. They deal with a lot of different types of people on a daily basis, and they have a lot of agitation from the people they work with. One of the people who causes them agitation is me. I work with them on certain projects that are always time-sensitive and mission-critical, and which they are very much invested in.

I do like them, and I think they’ve got a great team. The one thing I don’t care for, is their need to be constantly ON, constantly up in arms about something, constantly stressed. Come to think of it, a lot of people I work with are like that — mainly because they have come up with some fixed idea in their minds about what should be done, and how it should be done, and they are practically welded to that fixed idea… and damn all evidence that it might not be as mission-critical as they believe it is.

Okay, so in fairness to everyone, their compensation is directly tied to what they deliver, when they deliver it, and how many victories they can declare in a set amount of time. Everybody wants to make a decent living, and everybody needs to pay their bills.

I’m just saying that the level of intensity and drama gets to be a little much, after a while, and despite their apparent belief that staying stressed and anxious and pumped, 60 hours a week, is the way to go, I know differently. At least, if you’re interested in having a long and healthy life. Stress and lack of sleep does terrible things to the body and the mind. The research is finally showing it, and people are finally paying attention. The thing of it is, our culture, our society (American, that is) has such an investment in high stress situations — work hard, play hard, with nothing in between — that to suggest something different might be in order is seen as, well, un-American. And we can’t have that.

You know, it’s kind of bizarre, actually… this fascination with stress. Then again, it isn’t. I know full well what it’s like to really feed on that sensation, to be constantly pushed forward — on-on-on, go-go-go — and never take your eye off the prize, no matter what’s going on around you. I know what it’s like to use stress as a potent pain-killer, to rely on it for my energy and my sense of purpose, to really soak it up and feel the power of a sustained, intense adrenaline rush. And I know why it’s so important to people who are continually rewarded — by themselves and their sense of self — for that kind of living.

Yeah, I know what that’s like, and I know what it’s like to crave that, to live for it, and to think that anyone who isn’t all about that is just plain lazy. Or stupid. Or unmotivated. Or whatever else you can think of that implies they’re not quite all there. And I know how hard it can be to disengage from that way of life, to either wean yourself off it, or go cold-turkey. I know how painful it can be, how frustrating, how alienating it can be.

But I also know what that kind of living does to you, internally and externally. I know what it can lead to, and I know what it can cost you. I know why people end up in mid-life crises, when they’ve been running at top speed for a couple of decades, then suddenly look around and realize — hey, this isn’t exactly what I was hoping for, when I started out down this road…

Most of all, I know that I would probably still be on that hamster wheel, grinding away day after day, if I hadn’t fallen, 8 years ago, and had everything start to disintegrate around me. I know that I would probably be looking around and wondering WTF?!  when all my best-laid plans failed to come through, despite my herculean efforts, and I know that I’d probably be queueing up with my peers to buy some shiny, sexy object to boost my self-image, if I hadn’t fallen and been rendered incapable of keeping up that pace.

Right now, my attention is focused on staying calm in the midst of the storm. Because things are crazy, right now, and everyone around me is melting down in the adjustments to the New Way Things Are. Some are handling things better than others. Most people are alternately bitching and complaining and venting, and putting their heads down and driving through. They’re finding relief in drinking or some pharmaceutical solution, or they’re prepping their resumes to move on. In any case, there aren’t that many people who are truly chilling through it all.

But that’s my goal — to chill, through it all. To treat it like a movie I’m watching and not get too invested in the day-to-day drama and whatnot. There’s no resisting these changes, no matter how hard they are for us… and in the meantime, life goes on, we go about our business, live our lives, and if we’re lucky, we get a few things done. And then try to explain why the other things didn’t get done.

Anyway, speaking of getting things done, it’s time for me to get ready for work and head into the fray again. I know how important it is to stay chilled, to stay steady, to not get too tweaked over everything, and I’m stepping up my breathing and relaxation activities to offset the drama. Truly, it is helping me… and keeping track of how I’m doing physically — if I’m tense, if I’m not really breathing much, if I’m getting agitated and worked up — is helping me to manage my physical state, which also helps me manage the changes around me.

Keeping my heart rate steady… keeping my stress response chilled… keeping my head about me, and working at being resilient… these are my intentions and my focus, these days.

And it’s helping. It sure beats the alternative.

 

When things don’t go as planned

Sometimes there’s high seas ahead – oil painting by Joyce Ortner – click to see her gallery

I had my doctor’s appointment the other morning, and it went pretty well. I got some antibiotics for the infection that has been bothering my ears and making it hard for me to keep my balance, and I gave my doctor the holiday card my spouse told me I needed to give to them. It was a good call – and I picked out a good card, because it really touched my doctor a lot. They didn’t want to let on, but I could see it meant something. I mean, if you think about it, doctors spend their lives trying to help others. They have their limitations, like all of us, but in the end, their whole reason for doing what they do is to help people.

I have been taking my meds for the past few days, but I’m still having balance issues. I’m going to keep on doing it, and hope for the best. I really don’t want to go back, though. It’s just more opportunity to get put on more meds — which my doctor tried to do, when I told them about the balance issues. They tried to put me on meclozine / antivert, thinking that would fix what was wrong with me, but I told them no, because that stuff just makes me feel rotten and weird and dense, and it doesn’t do a thing for my vertigo. It’s supposed to fix the nausea thing and supposedly make me feel less dizzy, but it’s an antihistamine and the side effects whack me out.

Drowsiness and tiredness and that weird spacey feeling that antihistamines give me, is just not worth it. So, I told them not to prescribe it. Even if they had, I wouldn’t take that stuff. Like I need more crap in my system…Anyway, I can always take Dramamine if it comes to that. I’ve taken it for seasickness and it seemed to help me. At the same time, it still make me feel weird and “off” and the fishing trip I was on was a lot less fun because of it.

Anyway, I had been planning on “having the talk” with my doctor about not being a risk-taker, just having a hard time sorting through the myriad little “issues” I have on a daily basis. For any doctor who is reading this, please take note: TBI can introduce a whole host of physical issues, from noise sensitivity to light sensitivity to touch sensitivity to pain to ringing in the ears… a whole host of physical issues that can cloud the overall picture of one’s health. And that’s not even the mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, which can make everything seem 1000x worse than it really is… or it can make everything seem like it’s nothing at all. This obviously has implications for patients with TBI being able to accurately self-assess their level of well-being. And it’s helpful to address that aspect of our experience.

The only problem is — and I realized this when I was driving to my dr. appointment and was thinking about the best way to broach the subject. I thought about how I would approach it, how I would introduce the topic of my not being a risk-taker, but just a person who struggles with sorting through all the stimuli of each day… and I considered (based on past experience) what my doctor’s response would be.

I’m glad I did think it through, too, because it gradually dawned on me that if I talked about my issues the way I was, my doctor would try to prescribe me something. Or prescribe tests. Or try to DO something, instead of just understanding and thinking things through and letting that inform their approach with me. They tend to jump right into action! as though that will solve anything right off the bat. Sometimes it does. But in some cases, you don’t need a procedure, you need comprehension and understanding and a slightly different way of approaching things.

Knowing what I know about my doctor, after seeing them for a number of years, I really think that if I’d “had the talk” about my issues, I might have ended up fending off a slew of prescriptions and tests — they’ve already tried to get me CT-scanned and/or X-rayed over sinus issues. I mean, I’m sure they mean well, but I am not exposing myself to a bunch of radiation over a sinus infection. Seriously… It’s just not going to happen. Not unless I am in serious danger.

Likewise, I’m not going to raise a red flag that my doctor is going to treat like an invitation to charge. They’ve got a bit of a fight-flight predisposition, and the last thing I want is to have to try to explain and fend off their headlong charges and attacks against what might be vexing me, when all I really want is for them to temper their responses with a little more knowledge. I can easily see them ordering a bunch of tests and prescribing a bunch of meds, in the interest of helping me… and all the while, I just get sucked into the medical system with more crap on my chart to fuel the standard-issue medical responses that pathologize and (over)medicate my condition… when all I really need is some understanding and consideration. All I really need is for people to slow down… but knowing my doctor, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. At least not with them.

So, I didn’t have “the talk” with my doctor, and I’m a little disappointed in myself. At the same time, though, I’m glad I thought it through carefully ahead of time. In a way, I feel like I may have dodged a bullet from a weapon that I had trained at myself. I unloaded the weapon and put it down, and now I’m feeling a bit better. What I really need to do is speak up, in the course of conversations, when I feel that things are going too fast or my doctor says something that doesn’t sit right with me. Sometimes I can speak up and defend myself quickly, other times I can’t. I’m working on that. The times when I don’t speak up, I feel terrible afterwards, so that’s more impetus for me to practice speaking up.

That was something I did do on Friday — I spoke up about the meds and the tests and the assumptions my doc was making. They seemed a little peeved that I was questioning their judgment, but you know what? It’s my body, it’s my life, and I need to do what I need to do. Provided, of course, I’m not putting myself in danger.

Anyway, that’s one example of things not working out as planned, and it being okay.

Another example is last night, when I decided to go to bed early, then I got caught up in going on Facebook “one last time”. I swear, that thing is a massive time-sink, and I have to be careful. By the time I got to bed, it was over an hour later, which just sucks. Oh, well. I’ll just have to nap today. I had planned on doing some last-minute Christmas shopping, but the other thing that’s happening is that we have company from the party last night. Rather than driving home, we had someone stay over, which is fine. But now I need to be social and hang out, instead of running out to the mall. That’s annoying to me. But come to think of it, I actually knew that we might have company staying over, so I’m not sure why I was thinking that I was going to run out, first thing this morning, and take care of that. More annoyance — this time with myself.

Oh well — tomorrow is another day, and I can probably get all my shopping done early in the morning before the crowds hit the mall. I pretty much know what I want, and there’s not much of it, so it will keep things simple. Plus, having less time to spend on it really focuses me. Even if that doesn’t happen, and I get stuck in the crowds, and the lines are long, and I get trapped in the holiday crush, I can always check Facebook while I’m standing on line.

So, yeah – plans. I have them. We all have them. And when they don’t go the way we expect them to, then it’s up to us to decide how we’re going to handle them. I can get worked up and bent out of shape. Or I can roll with it and come up with another course of action. I can get annoyed at this, that, and the other thing, or I can just let it all go and see what happens. When I’m tired (like I am today), I am less able to just let it all go. When I am stressed (like I am over my job, even though I am off on vacation for a week and a half – the residual stress is ridiculous), it’s harder for me to just BE.

I’ve noticed an increasing level of intensity with me – I’m starting to lose my temper again (though inside my head, not out in the world around me so much). I’m starting to react really strongly to little things… like I used to, before I started exercising regularly and doing my breathing exercises. I’m noticing a change, and I’m not liking it much — especially the parts where I’m not rolling with changes as well as I would like to. Things are starting to sneak up on me again.

So, it’s back to using the tools I was working with  before. Despite my good progress, I had gotten away from the exercise and the breathing for a while, in part because I just got so uptight over doing it each and every day like clockwork, and also because I just needed to let it all sink in for a while. I was working really hard on my technique and also my regular practice, and it got to be just another chore that didn’t have much sense to it.  I just hit an impasse with it — maybe I had too many ideas and my head was spinning, maybe I had too much experience that I needed to just get used to… in any case, I needed a break.

So, I took a break. And I must admit it was a pretty big relief to not “have” to do the sitting and breathing every morning. All of a sudden, I had extra time, and ironically, I felt like I could breathe. I was still doing intermittent breathing throughout the day, when I felt my stress level increasing, but I didn’t have a daily practice.

Still, I do feel like I need to get back to a bit of that again. I’ve had my break. Now I need to try it again to see how it helps me… pick up where I need to — maybe where I left off, or maybe somewhere else… Just do what I need to do to get myself back on track and take the edge off this intensity, which has been building and is starting to drag me down.

Things change. Plans change. What we think we can do is often very different from what we can do, which is also different from what we DO do. Life has a way of changing directions on us when we least expect it, and the only constant is change. So, I need to work on my flexibility and chill-ness, so I don’t end up ship-wrecked over every little thing. Yeah… I need to work on that. And so I shall.

Now, to go for my morning walk in the woods.