I’m happy to report that I am getting back to balance (literally). I’m not 100%, but I’m a far sight better than I’d been for the past few days. I really had to do something — the vertigo was seriously messing with my head and making me difficult to live with.
So, I did some smart things, last night — had a decent supper of real food, and checked out early. I spent half an hour stretching and breathing before I went to bed at 9:30. I also used some decongestant/vapor rub on my neck around my eustacian tubes, which has helped me in the past. I’ve got a lot of congestion in my sinuses and e-tubes. So, I took a hot shower, relaxed and breathed and stretched and also indulged in some Advil… and breathed some more… and I got about 7 hours of sleep, which isn’t my max, but it’s a start.
This morning I’m feeling like a new person. Still a little “off” but able to deal with it. I also took the time to exercise a little — the last couple of days, I haven’t had as much time as I wanted, to work out/warm up in the a.m. I think that hasn’t helped, either. So, this morning I did something about it. Nothing really huge, but still significant. I had to stop a few times to catch my breath and get my heart rate back to normal, so that’s a good sign that I’m actually being active. Didn’t push it too terribly, but I did get my system jump-started.
And now I’m ready and rarin’ to go.
I have to tell you — and I’m going to sound like an evangelical, here, which is sorta kind what I am — exercise is saving my life. Seriously. I was making pretty good progress with my neuropsych and my studies, for the first year or so that I was seeing them. I was making pretty decent progress, piecing my life back together from the shattered, edge-of-the-abyss state it was in. My neuropsych really helped me back away from the edge where I was teetering.
Emotionally, I was a wreck. Logistically, I was in big trouble. I was making bad decisions in my work and career, and I was really on the verge of catastrophe. I can see that now. But since I started working out regularly in the morning, my life and my decisions and my sense of who I am and what I’m all about, and what I’m capable of doing, has just skyrocketed. And this from someone who was convinced for many years that they couldn’t make basic decisions on their own.
I was in the habit of avoiding potentially sticky situations — like the plague. I had all sorts of defenses in place to justify why I would avoid certain scenarios. I had all sorts of explanations for why I wasn’t doing everything possible with the abilities and interests I have. I had all sorts of justifications for living a shadow of the kind of life I could have. And it all made perfect sense to me.
Of course it did. I had it all worked out in my head, and nobody was allowed close enough to me to tell me any different. I was a rock. An unapproachable, aloof, inscrutable rock who couldn’t be criticized or told anything other than what I’d decided in my own head.
It wasn’t until I started talking to a therapist on a regular basis, that I realized something was up with my ‘confident’ thinking. It wasn’t until I heard myself talking out loud to another person, that it sank in that all was not as it seemed. Now, I’ve said before that I’m not the biggest fan of therapy, and in some ways it did set me back. But if nothing else, hearing myself saying things out loud and watching my thought process with another human being really brought certain of my issues front-and-center.
One of the biggest ones, was “denial” of things that were going on with me. In one session, I’d talk about something, but the next time, when Therapist #1 tried to follow up on it, I’d back away. And I couldn’t figure out why that was — because I was the one who’d brought it up in the first place (and quite enthusiastically, I might add).
Why was I backing away from something that clearly was of interest to me? Why would I bring something up, say “Yeah, I really want to deal with that…” and then the next time just refuse to approach or even acknowledge the topic?
It made no sense to me, especially because intellectually it was so clear what I had to do. And emotionally, it didn’t feel like that big of a deal.
But it was a big deal to me, on some level — to my body.
See, here’s the thing:
My body has stored a ton of unhappy events in its biochemical wiring. Lots of stuff I’ve been through — much of it having to do with/directly related to the traumatic brain injuries I’ve sustained — has made this sort of “imprint” on my system. The stress hormones, the adrenaline, the cortisol, the flood of reaction — which at one time was more extreme than it eventually became and is today — made a huge impression on my system.
And it left its mark. Deep and wide, in some cases. On a different level than my everyday waking world. On a much deeper level — a non-verbal, experiential level, that I could often ignore or sail right past. But when I got closer to that experiential “physical memory”, all my thinking, verbal systems shut down, and there was no getting close to it.
It made no sense to me. Truly. I honestly didn’t see why I was so intent on “avoiding” my issues… Why would I react that way?
I just didn’t get it.
Until I started paying attention to my body. And I realized that I had a distinct physical reaction to the topics I was “psychologically avoiding”. Psychology had next to nothing to do with it. I was having a physical reaction, and my body was doing its best to protect itself, my mind, and my spirit, from this perceived “threat”. It was my body, not my mind, that was calling the shots. And any attempts at approaching my problems from a psychological standpoint fell flat on their face.
All the while, Therapist #1 kept sitting there looking at me like I was too emotionally damaged to address this stuff. News flash — it wasn’t my emotions that were the most impacted. It was my body, and when it got wind that an old threat was reappearing, it kicked in and took over. Because clearly, my mind hadn’t protected me well from that threat in the past. So, my body “thought” it had to take over again.
I’m sure there are folks who will take issue with my assessment of what happened. After all, I’m not a trained psychologist. But that was my experience. And I’m sure there are others in the world who would echo the same kind of experience.
Truly, it wasn’t until I started being active on a daily basis… and I made a priority of taking care of my body, each and every day, in a deliberate and focused way… that I started making some real progress. I was just kind of hanging out in recovery/rehab limbo, taking two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward, three steps back… all the while struggling with stuff that seemed like it should be a lot easier for me.
I knew I shouldn’t be having the kinds of problems I was having. Everybody around me was certain I could handle things. But everything kept getting all screwed up. Now, in the past, I’ve said that the culprit is this hidden disability of mTBI. And others don’t/can’t understand it, can’t see how it holds me back, can’t see how it screws things up. And that still holds true for me. But there’s another piece of things that complicates the complications even more — the physical reactions I have to the logistical troubles I encounter, which pumps me full of biochemical distress and keeps me from thinking as clearly as I could.
As though I need any more problems thinking ;)
Well, anyway, let’s fast-forward about 10 months, to where I am now. I have been actively addressing my physical fitness issues — warming up in the morning, working out a bit each and every day — and I’ve been dealing with my anxiety and agitation with conscious breathing. And can I say, the difference is phenomenal. It’s like I have this whole new life — a whole new “me” if I dare say so (I don’t much like the expression, actually). And I have a whole new appreciation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Seriously. When I look back on my difficulties, I can trace so many of them to a seriously tweaked sympathetic nervous system — all that fight/flight/freeze/fun was frying my system in a very big way. It was like I was driving my car at top speeds when the gas gauge was always on Empty. If you run your car on empty too long, it gets all the crappy sludge at the bottom of the gas tank into its system, and the results are… well, less than optimal. The body’s the same way. It operates on an “alternating current” of sorts — the sympathetic nervous system gets us all charged up and ready to take on whatever shows up in front of us, and the parasympathetic nervous system helps our system back off and regain its balance, so it can return to action even stronger than before.
It’s the same principle as over-training for a sport. If you’re training hard, you have to rest to give your body chance to rebuild the muscle you’ve torn down. It will do that naturally. The body is built to do that. But it needs time and nutrition and rest to do it properly. If you don’t give it that, you eventually get into a diminishing returns situation, where you’re just… well… broken down.
That’s where I had gotten to. It’s where I had been for quite some time. In the midst of my severe difficulties with work and money and relationships, I “overtrained” and broke myself down. I kept running into walls, having little crises, and I was constantly on alert, thinking that if I just pushed harder, tried harder, worked harder, I would eventually come out on top.
All I accomplished, was sending myself down a rathole and digging myself deeper and deeper with every push. My “solution”? To push harder. To prove to myself that I could do it. To work and work and work and never give myself a moment to back off… and breathe. That “breathing stuff” was for wussies, I thought. How wrong I was.
Yes, I was over-taxed and over-extended, but I never gave myself a chance to replenish my resources. I thought that trying harder and working harder would get me there. I thought that coffee and cheap carbs and sugar highs were enough to see me through. But the roller-coaster of the blood sugar ups-and-downs wreaked havoc with my system even more.
Indeed, the physical aspect of recovery from TBI was one of the big pieces I’d been missing — and it was right under my nose for so long. I was walking around in the midst of the problem — and the solution. And here, I’d been telling myself all along that the way to prevail was to focus on my brain… when it was my body — indeed, my mind, which encompasses the whole of my body-brain intelligence and directs it — that I needed to tend to.
In a (fairly long) nutshell, here’s the deal:
- Traumatic brain injury (especially the “mild” kind) throws off your life in significant, fundamental ways. It disrupts your personality and causes your brain and your experience to be very different from how you expect them to be.
- Also, (m)TBI can be quite well-hidden from others, so they’re not necessarily going to adjust their interactions/actions/behavior towards you.
- So, you end up doing things, expecting certain results. And others expect those results, too. And when the actual results turn out different from what was expected, that sets off little Warning! alarms in the system — in yours, and others’ as well.
- The alarms are, well, alarming, and they trigger biochemical cascades of stress hormones to respond to the perceived imminent danger. Also interactions with other pissed-off people set off alarms that release the biochemical cascades.
- One or two of these little alarm situations every couple of days, is one thing. But when you’re impacted by TBI, these little alarms can go off tens, if not hundreds of times each day. And with each subsequent alarm, your cognition is a little more impacted, a little more impaired.
- Of course, the alarms are “small” and invisible to most folks (including the survivor) and they take place in a non-verbal, experiential sphere, so they are often not properly identified as being the alarm situations they are, and they continue — sometimes escalate… to the point where you’ve got a substantial buildup of this biochemical Warning! concoction.
- Under normal, obvious threat circumstances, this biochemical alarm stuff comes in handy and you can recognize it and deal with it later by talking it through with someone you trust, or taking some other steps to rest and relax. But when you’re just dealing with “everyday life” and there is no apparent reason for you to be so tweaked over “little things”, there doesn’t seem to be much point in recognizing or addressing these little incidents and their resulting biochemical pump.
- Over time, the cumulative effects just build up. There’s plenty of literature about the cognitive impact of too much cortisol in your system for too long… the negative effect it has on cognitive processing, behavior, etc. Biochemically, you end up a walking “pharmacy” of stress-response hormones.
- What’s more, this hormonal overload (yes, guys, not only women get all hormonal over stuff — everybody does) can eventually translate into a nasty case of Post Traumatic Stress — and it can lead to a disorder which tacks the “D” onto the end of PTS. Fun, huh? Not.
- Long story short, all those “little things” add up to a big honkin’ problem — and what makes it even more maddening and damaging, is that nobody thinks you should have this problem. Including yourself.
“How can I possibly have PTSD, after my brain injury?” You might ask. “The injury was some time ago, and I seem to have gotten through it just fine.”
Well, from where I’m sitting, the real source of TBI post-traumatic stress is not necessarily the injury itself, but the long-term effects of one TBI-inspired fiasco after another. One failure after another. One unhappy surprise after another. One problem after another after another… all of them unexpected, and many of them serious.
It’s not this “bullet hole” of a single traumatic incident you have to deal with:
It’s the “shotgun blast” of a hundred… no, a thousand, little post-tbi “hits” that pop up out of nowhere to put you seriously on edge and make you question your sanity (which in itself can be traumatizing):
And ultimately it adds up to a large blast area.
Just ask a city cop which kind of gun you should get if you want to do the most damage and be sure to hit something — a shotgun is an urban dweller’s choice, as it hits a larger area and can do some serious damage.
Same thing with post-tbi “micro-traumas” — they don’t look that big, but they add up. Especially when you’re not actively managing the biochemical results in a conscious and deliberate way.
And this is where the body comes in
As complicated as your life may be, thanks to TBI, one of the ways to address your issues is very, very simple: Taking care of the body, and in particular the breath.
Because PTSD is directly linked to a hyper-activated sympathetic nervous system, we actually have the means by which to counteract the hyperactivity — with our parasympathetic nervous system.
We’re built for this, people. We are physically constructed to regain our biochemical balance. It’s not rocket science and it’s not magic. Each and every one of us has another aspect to our autonomic nervous system that can and will replenish the resources we drain in the process of dealing with all the crap that flies our way throughout each day.
Controlled breathing at 12+ seconds per total breath — 6+ seconds to inhale… 6+ seconds to exhale — will activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The slower you breathe, the more it’s activated. (Just remember to keep breathing!) Also, deeeeeeeeep breathing will stimulate the vagus nerve, which helps the PNS to kick in. It works so well, that a vagus nerve stimulator was created to implant in people with intractable epileptic seizures. The vagus nerve calms down a hyperactivated system. Everyone has one. It’s also the biggest nerve in our body. So, let’s use it!
What’s more, exercise has been shown to stimulate the parts of the brain that control executive function — the frontal cortex. And conscious focus on breathing has also been shown to stimulate the pre-frontal cortex. Exercise and conscious breathing can both stimulate the higher-reasoning parts of the brain. And that’s exactly what you want to do, to get yourself back on track after a TBI.
Of course, it takes time to get in the habit of using the body to correct the brain. Most important things do. But the beauty is, you can start experiencing benefits from controlled breathing immediately. No waiting there. The PNS is always at the ready, waiting for its cue. So, cue it. Do deep breathing and count your breaths. Block out everything for 3 minutes, no more, and breathe… and see where it takes you. I did it this morning, and it really improved how I was feeling about my day.
Now, of course, everyone is different. But without exception, we all have an SNS and a PNS. And we can use them both to make or way through life — and deal with the fallout from TBI. This is true not only for survivors, but for caregivers as well. Caregiver fatigue is a very real problem. But addressing it can be as basic and as simple as focusing on the breath and relaxing for a short period of time.
I’m not making light of serious issues. They are real and they really need to be dealt with. What I am saying is that our own nervous systems are extremely powerful, and they are always at the ready, waiting for their cue to do their work.
The body truly is a wonder. And the brain needs its help, to get better. Knowing this can make all the difference.