Telling the difference between threat and danger

Here it comes...

One of the things that I believe makes traumatic brain injury so problematic, especially with mild traumatic brain injury, is the ongoing, long-lasting trauma aspect of it.

Post-traumatic stress complications especially emerge when someone is aware of the threat they are facing. There are plenty of documented cases of people who were drunk while driving who were in awful car accidents, who didn’t show any signs of PTSD, but people who were in far less serious collisions ended up with long-term debilitating conditions. With mild TBI, which doesn’t always involve loss of consciousness or the same level of amnesia that other forms of TBI do, post traumatic stress disorder(s) can emerge. There’s increasing research coming out about this, but I’m running short on time, so I’ll have to cite it later. (Google it, to find out for yourself.)

And that’s a whole other problem, in and of itself.

Post traumatic stress can make us hyper-vigilant, can intensify our reactions to perceived danger, and can “wire” us to respond way out of proportion to the dangers we are facing.

Granted, overcoming PTSD is a whole process in and of itself. It can be lifelong undertaking. But we can’t very well just quit living our lives until the PTSD symptoms disappear. We’ve got to come up with another way of relating to the world around us.

Personally, I’ve found that what helps me is giving myself pause to let a moment or two pass, before I do or say anything. This works very well when I am rested and have presence of mind. It works less well, if I am tired or stressed or thrown off balance about something. When I am rested and thinking clearly, I can stop, modulate my reaction, and then return to the interaction without having a ton of “charge” around things.

But when I’m feeling threatened or put-upon or not up to the task before me, I do tend to snap. And that’s not good.

The big thing for me, is telling the difference between threat and danger. It’s the difference between a perceived/sensed situation, and the real deal.

To me, a threat is something I perceive as a danger to me — my reaction is internal. It’s more related to a feeling I have — like despair over hundreds of dollars that got mysteriously spent for no apparent reason, which gives me an intense sense of lack of control… or my fear of people at work judging and resenting me for either doing too good a job, or not a good enough job, hence possibly jeopardizing my employment (and the rest of my life).

Danger, on the other hand, is something objectively dangerous to me — like a bus coming down the street towards me, when I haven’t looked both ways, or the neighbor’s dog coming at me with teeth bared and saliva dripping.  It’s an external force that is actually putting my health and safety in jeopardy.

One of the truly challenging things about TBI, is that the two often get mixed up — perceived (not always real) threats get a huge amount of reaction, while actual dangers get a minor notice — if I even notice at all. And I spend a lot of time reacting to things that SEEM like threats to me, when it’s really my internal biochemical storms that are kicking things up and crying WOLF! Objectively, there may be no real threat or danger involved, but by God, it sure as hell feels like it.

What to do? Well, I need to pay attention to what the hell is going on around me and not take the chatterings of my nerves so seriously. Sometimes the thing that helps the most is just stopping and taking a few long, deep breaths, stretching my shoulders and cracking my back, and things start to feel a whole lot better. Or I go for a walk. I move. I get the energy unstuck from wherever it’s jammed up. And I often find that the things that were bothering me the most are no longer a real issue. Or, I can see the real issue, and it’s very different from the one I was just concerned about.

But above all, the thing that helps me the most is realizing that not all “threats” are what they seem to be. Sometimes they are just my internal reactions to what I think is going on. It’s my autonomic nervous system out of whack, with the sympathetic fight-flight going into overdrive just ’cause it can… while my parasympathetic nervous system tries to find ways to balance out all that crazy stuff, so I can rest, digest, and integrate what I’ve learned.

I also need to realize that sometimes the “smallish” deals that I shrug off, are bigger deals than they seem to me. And not let my fight-flight keep me from addressing them.

This Autonomic Nervous System stuff is turning out to be a bigger and bigger deal to me. The beauty part is, I can actually do something about it. It’s not beyond my control, and I can have a hand in setting things to right.

Alice in Wonderland was never so upside-down. Oh, well. I guess everybody’s got their rabbit hole. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken the red pill… No, I should have. I’d rather know what’s going on.

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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