The only problem with being able to survive terribly traumatic things is that our bodies have a way of hanging onto the stress of the situation, long past the event. Healthy processing of traumatic stress is a two-part process. Yes, traumatic stress is perfectly normal — one would expect that traumatic events carry a good deal of stress… if it doesn’t, something is wrong. The problems arise, when the stress becomes post-traumatic — when we continue to react to situations long after they’ve passed, and history hijacks our present (and future) by forcing us to react to situations and essentially live a life that has no basis in present reality.
While we’re in a state of crisis, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is aroused, delivering all the hormones and glucose and various biochemicals to our system. But after all is said and done, we need to get back to a resting state, so our bodies can recover. This means getting the parasympathetic part of our nervous system in gear.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is the opposite of “fight-or-flight”. It’s about “rest and digest”. Some literature describes it as acting “in opposition to” the sympathetic nervous system, but it’s not antagonistic — it’s complimentary. The function of the PSNS is to offset the effects of the SNS, so our whole system functions properly. The PSNS calms down the racing heart, the panting lungs, the high blood pressure, and restores the blood supply to our digestive and reproductive organs. Everything that the SNS has demanded our bodies give up in order to save our ass from imminent destruction — attention to non-essential details, blood flow to digestive organs, the ability to sleep and have sex and pick up on subtle social cues — is restored by the PSNS in a far more gradual process than the hair-raising roller coaster ride that the SNS took us on. If we survive the ride, our parasympathetic nervous system lets us lift the proverbial safety bar, climb out of the car, and collect our spinning wits.
Now, if our SNS were allowed to constantly run unmodulated and unfettered, it would eventually wear us down to a nub. Like easy credit that makes it possible to buy sexy big-ticket items, purchase more house than we need, vacation at swanky exclusive resorts, and run up a massive tab buying rounds of Long Island ice teas for coach-loads of beautiful tourists who lavish you with attention, a constantly active sympathetic nervous system can really tax the physical system over time. As exciting as it may be, the drain on our physical resources is the equivalent of spending a whole lot more than you make with total intoxicated abandon. And we’ve all learned where that can take us, given enough time and intemperance.
Physically speaking, long-term one-sided excess takes a toll. Cortisol builds up… Blood sugar spikes throw off the body’s ability to effectively manage its own glucose and insulin… Adrenaline rushes keep muscles tense and stressed and unable to recuperate so they can recover their full strength… And more. Our internal organs, especially our heart, feel the burn. We put on weight. We can lose our hair and our ability to have sex. The list of issues that arise from persistent stress is lengthy, and it’s a little different for each person. But the fundamental rule of sustaining healthy living systems still applies:
You can’t keep taking away without putting back in, and expect to last for long.
Now, in a perfect world, for every shock and crisis and emergency (real or perceived) that comes up, we’ll have ample time to step back and relax, have a good meal, sleep long and deeply, and regain our strength. But that doesn’t always happen (and I would hazard to say, it happens relatively rarely in our modern American world). Our sympathetic nervous systems get all worked up, but our parasympathetic nervous systems don’t always get a chance to kick in to chill us out. After all, we’re very busy people with a lot of (real or perceived) important things to do, and our current culture has a way of socially rewarding people who are “on the go” constantly.
And so our systems can’t operate full-spectrum — what goes up must come down, but we won’t let it. We have only half of our God-given pistons cranking — at double speed — and we get into a state of physical distress that actually feeds back into itself. Our high-alert condition, which saves our asses in tight spots, can persist… and keep firing off warnings about every little thing, regardless of whether it’s truly dangerous or not.
As much as our survival wiring may protect and preserve us, if left to its own devices, it can also rake us over the coals. If we don’t discharge the stress of base survival and return to a restorative resting state after all our agitation has passed, we can end up experiencing even more physiological stress after the fact. We get tired. Our judgment gets clouded. We make poor decisions and do ill-conceived things, and then we spend a whole lot of time playing catch-up, in a state of heightened stress and crisis. The stressors we experience don’t even have to be real. They just have to seem real. Our bodies don’t know the difference, and they respond to what our minds tell them with a response that seems reasonable to them. One problem feeds another… and another… and another… and eventually, we find ourselves in a deep hole we can’t stop digging.
Which brings me back to my own situation. The hole I have found myself in, after many years of “digging,” is a pretty deep one. It’s been dug by a challenging childhood, lots of troubles as a teenager, drinking, drugs, petty crime, and plenty of poor decisions that were spawned, not only by past social and emotional traumas, but by mild traumatic brain injuries, as well. I’ll spare you the gory details of my tale. I’m sure you have enough excitement in your own life. The bottom line is, after over four decades of knocking around on this planet, one of my pieces of “baggage” contains a lot of post-traumatic stress, which I need to actively manage and factor into my decisions and actions, even when I’m feeling 100% sane and competent.
Make no mistake, I am a survivor. But that survival has come at a price. And some days, what I wouldn’t give to not have to pay that price, just for an hour or so.
traumatic brain injury, trauma, threat, thoughts, tbi education, tbi, sympathetic nervous system, stress, risk, post-traumatic stress, post traumatic stress disorder, parasympathetic nervous system, mtbi, mental health, life, head injury, fight-or-flight, fear, epinephrine, danger, crisis, coping strategies, cognitive-behavioral issues, central nervous system, brain damage, brain, anxiety, analgesic stress, agitation, adrenaline rush, adrenaline, Personal Experiences with TBI, PTSD, Neuropsychological Effects of TBI, Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, Head Trauma, Brain Injury