TBI and PTSD – The chicken or the egg?

I’ve been giving a lot of thought, lately, to how TBI and PTSD interconnect and “feed into” each other. In my experience, the two are closely interconnected, and they can make each other pretty confusing and convoluted. Each condition changes the brain in subtle but important ways, and when the two interact in one brain/body/mind/spirit, the compounded difficulties can be exponentially more difficult to identify — and treat.

Traumatic brain injury is by its very nature traumatic, and post-traumatic stress disorder comes out of trauma. So, when you fall and hit your head, or you are in a car accident, or you are attacked and knocked out, trauma happens to the body. The body is threatened – sometimes mortally – and the brain kicks in with all sorts of great hormonal and biochemical survival mechanisms. Adrenaline gets pumping. Endorphines start flowing. Glucose gets delivered to muscles. And the less-survival-based reactions we have get pushed off to the side, so our bodies can focus on one thing: survival.

Even if we are not consciously aware that we are in danger — like when I fell down the stairs in 2004, and I didn’t fully realize the extent to which my physical safety had been threatened — our bodies are aware that they are under attack, and they respond accordingly. It’s not something we can control, it’s not something we should control. We need our brains to be able to care for our bodies without our minds knowing how to do it. The problems start, when our brains don’t realize that we’re out of danger, and/or we get caught in a constant feedback loop of detecting perceived danger, reacting to it, stressing out, and never getting a chance to settle down.

That settling down piece is very important. After our sympathetic nervous systems have risen to the challenge(s) of a perceived threat, our parasympathetic nervous systems need to kick in and help our bodies chill out. Rest. Restore. Relax. Digest… Take a break and get back to balance. But if we never take a break and get our nervous systems to relax and get back to normal, we can get stuck in a constant roller-coaster of fear/anxiety/stress/hyper-reactivity that just won’t quit. And traumatic stress eventually turns into post-traumatic stress disorder. Not fun for anyone.

One of the big ways I think TBI contributes to the development of PTSD is in the “debriefing” phase after a crisis or trauma. TBI can impair a person’s ability to self-assess — sometimes we literally don’t know that something is wrong with how we’re experiencing/reacting to life. It can be harder to detect physical experiences and decode behavioral problems, not to mention cognitive ones. And that diminished ability to self-assess makes it more difficult to self-regulate… to consciously and deliberately change your behavior and actions so that you can “power down” and let your over-taxed body restore itself.

At least in my case, when I went through traumatic experiences — let’s take one of my auto accidents as an example — I wasn’t able to think things through after the fact and assess how I was feeling. I literally didn’t know that I was having trouble understanding what people around me were saying. I thought it was them, who were suddenly refusing to speak intelligibly. I literally did not realize that my sleeping schedule was off — I just stayed up later and got up earlier and pushed myself to go-go-go… and then drank and drank and drank to get myself to relax. I wasn’t even able to determine how I was feeling physically. All I knew was, something was up with me, and it really made me feel awful.

So, I pushed myself even more to “keep up”… and it just added to my already overtaxed body being stretched beyond its means. Not good.

A few posts back, I wrote about being wired to survive and all the biochemical activities that take place as a result of some traumatic crisis. The thing to remember about that wiring system is that it is totally independent of rational thought… but rational thought is necessary to deal with its aftermath. The physical experience of all that adrenaline and endorphins and glucose is not a walk in the park. Our bodies need our brains to take over, after we have rushed to safety, to tend to our frazzled nerves and make choices that allow us to relax, regroup, recuperate, and restore the delicate balance in our central nervous systems.

But with TBI, even mild ones, the brain is impaired and it cannot process clearly. So, we can end up making choices that do not help us relax, that keep us on edge, that keep us going-going-going, so we never really get a break from the crisis and drama.

And post-traumatic stress disorders emerge, which further alter our brain chemistry and how we make choices and take action in our world. PTSD actually alters our cognitive functioning. It makes us think differently than we would, under normal, non-stressful conditions. And that different thinking is not always the smartest thinking.

But wait, there’s more…

Impairments to our thinking — our heightened hyper-reactivity, our hair-trigger response systems that are fried and frazzled — can cause us to make choices that are dangerous and risky. Choices that can cause further head injuries. Being all PTSD’ed-out can make us very quick to anger, in situations where we’re likely to get in a fist-fight, even if our opponent is twice our size. It can make us “slow on the uptake” so we miscalculate choices while we’re driving. It can cloud our judgment about whether or not to take up skydiving. And our increased appetite for stimulation can cause us to pursue activities that are custom-made for yet more traumatic brain injury.

And so, we end up with a vicious cycle of traumatic head injury feeding our post-traumatic stress, which evolves into disorders of mind, body, heart, and spirit… and leave us wondering why the hell everything around us is going to shit. Our brains have been injured, and our judgment is impaired. And each condition feeds the other.

I’m not sure how much research has been done on the interactions of TBI and PTSD. I think it’s a topic that’s ripe for harvesting, and we could probably learn a lot from taking a close look at the two pieces of the puzzle. I think that folks being treated for PTSD should also be evaluated for TBI, and vice versa. Having experts and folks in positions of authority say that “most TBI suvivors heal” sends the message that the brain will just take care of itself, and everything will be fine. But while the brain is healing — to whatever extent that may be — post-traumatic stress can emerge, which can feed a vicious downward spiralling cycle that affects not only the mind, but the spirit and the body as well.

And that needs to be addressed.

And I do more of that here…

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Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

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