For TBI and PTSD, exercise like your life depends on it

Flood damage in Tanzania

Here is a link for Japanese readers who are seeking information on dealing with PTSD

Because it may.

See, here’s the thing – when you’ve been through a truckload of trauma (be it combat, assault, disaster, car accident, traumatic surgery, random violence, or some other life-altering/impacting event that seems like it’s going to kill you), your body responds the way any living organism would. It floods your system with biochemicals to either help you escape or make dying less painful. And if you do neither — you can’t escape, but you don’t die — there’s this huge backlog of chemicals still stuck in your bloodstream.

If you’ve ever been a flood victim, you know what it’s like — the waters rise, sometimes very quickly, and then they recede. When they go, they can take with them some of the most precious belongings you own… they can wash out roads and compromise foundations of buildings, and turn a familiar place into a hellhole. And what’s left, when all the water is gone, is this nasty goo and muck that you have to wash out, sweep out, clean out. Sometimes you can never get it out completely. And the odor stays in that place for years afterwards.

That’s sort of like what happens when you go through intense trauma, and you end up surviving (despite how things looked when you were going through it all). Your body has responded the way it’s supposed to — adrenaline, noradrenaline, epinephrine, cortisol, glucose, and more… it’s all poured into your bloodstream, your muscles, your soft tissues, to help you get through it all.

But once you’re on the other side, even though your body doesn’t need those chemicals anymore, it doesn’t know it. It’s your body. It’s on autopilot. And it’s so fried from the experience(s) it’s been through, it can’t think straight.

Literally.

And you end up extremely jumpy over every little thing. It’s not “just stress” — it’s something much bigger and much badder. It’s your body expecting and planning for more danger, being on high alert — whether it needs to be or not — because that’s what helped you before. That’s what helped you get through. And as your body continues to hyper-react to the world around you (it thinks it’s protecting you, the same way it did before), you end up marinating in this stress chemical soup that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and a self-perpetuating loop.

People keep telling you to “relax” — clearly, they don’t understand what’s going  on with you. They just don’t get it.

So, what to do? You can’t go on indefinitely, stewing in your own stress juices. You’ve got to do something. I should know — I’m one of those people who was on high alert for years, thanks to my body being convinced that it needed to be. Couldn’t relax. Didn’t want to relax. Relaxation meant danger. It meant death, to my wired system. Relax? Ha! But still, I just couldn’t go on like that.

Here’s what I’ve done that has actually helped me. In more ways than I can say.

I exercise. Not fanatically, not extremely, like some folks do. But I do it religiously, with a daily discipline that surprises me sometimes. I get up in the morning, do controlled breathing exercises (to counteract out my always-at-the-ready fight-flight response) and then I get on the exercise bike for 10-20 minutes. If I’m away from home, I do some other sort of exercise for 10-20 minutes. I do knee bends. Light calisthenics. Jumping jacks. Anything to get my body moving and get the blood flowing. As I do it, I imagine my veins and arteries and muscles clearing out the gunk from years of always-on alertness, and I breathe into it. I push myself, on and off, to get myself in a frame of mind to focus in and finish what I’ve started. If I’m riding the bike, I do intervals that really make me work at it — I’ll ride hard for about a minute, then pedal slowly for 15-30 seconds, then I’ll ride hard again for about a minute. If I’m not on the bike, I push myself with the jumping jacks or the arm/leg raises.

After the bike or calisthenics, I stretch and then do some light weight lifting. The lifting (I use relatively light dumbbells) is important for building strength to help with my balance and overall physical stamina. It also feels good.

Again, I don’t go overboard with this. I stay focused and keep it limited to about 30 minutes a day, because I have to get on with my day, and I can’t spend all my time working out.

The results, as I said, have been phenomenal. My mood issues — the extreme ups and downs and violent temper flares — have lessened to about 15% of what they once were. Once upon a time, I was very difficult to be around, if I was tired or agitated or anxious. I’m not like that anymore. I’m literally a different person. I look people in the eye. I listen to what they have to say. I am involved in my own life on a level that I never before thought possible. And it just keeps getting better.

So, if you’re struggling with TBI and/or PTSD, I really encourage you to start exercising first thing in the morning. First thing is important, because it gets your metabolism going better, and it also gets you woken up in ways not even a cup of coffee can. It’s good for your head and it’s good for your heart, and it helps you fight off infection and sickness as well as strengthens your whole system.

I’m probably sounding like a religious convert, and in a way, I am. I truly want to testify that the impact on my life has been nothing short of phenomenal. I believe it has a lot to do with me clearing out the biochemical sludge from all those floods of emotion and stress and hyper-reaction over the years of being ON. Seriously — I was so driven, so pumped up all the time, someone close to me once said was the most driven person they knew. At the time, I thought it was a compliment, but now I realize it had a price.

Now, there are experts who say you need to do moderate-to-intense exercise 30-60 minutes a day, 5 days a week. My life was changed (at first) by 15-20 minutes of light exercise every morning… and it slowly evolved into 30-45 minutes of light-to-moderate exercise. Do what you can, and work from there.  But do it.

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.

5 thoughts on “For TBI and PTSD, exercise like your life depends on it”

  1. Excellent post! Exercise as you describe it for the body works like journaling does for the heart and soul–getting the “gunk” out is important, no matter how you do it. In fact, some studies of “expressive writing”–or writing about our thoughts and feelings–has shown in offers benefits to physical well-being, too.

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  2. Thanks – I do believe that writing helps, too. I’ve done it for years, and I really notice it, when I don’t write for a few days running. It’s just not good.

    But I’m writing now, so that’s just fine. 🙂

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  3. Really good post with good info. I too exercise pretty much every day. It has helped me also tremendously. It has dramatically aided in my recovery from a brain injury….encourages neuroplasticity. It has also regulated my anxiety which was through the roof. I was on antidepressants for years…no more. Exercise is the best antidepressant around.

    Our health does depend on exercising and, hence, our lives. If only more people realized this. It truly can make just about everything better. Has for me.

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  4. Unfortunately i went from someone who did regular and pretty intense exercise to having numerous physical struggles that came about from my accident. Still I concur that exercise is vital and I believe that my determination to keep it up did play a major role in my recovery – it was also an essential tool in sensory re-integration. However the physical pain I experience is still debilitating – I am now -several years later – taking yoga in an attempt to address this – and I am finding it helpful. Not miraculous but helpful. We carry a lot of tension and emotion in our bodies and I feel this as I attempt to do the various postures. I am fortunate that the classes are supportive. However the cost is sometimes prohibitive = and unfortunately there is little coverage for preventive care.

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  5. Have you read Robert(?) Scaer’s book “The Body Bears the Burden”? I think he offers great explanations about other possible sources of intractable pain. He loves to say “it’s trauma, not tbi!” so you have to take it with a grain of salt, but lots of info he offers is very useful, imho.

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