TBI/PTSD anger management by using the breath

Breathe
Breathe in... breathe out... relax

I just found this poem, while looking through WordPress for blog posts on anger. It says so well in far fewer words, the same thing I’m about to elaborate on.

I’ve been studying a bit of breathing over at coherence.com and also thinking about things I’ve read there. I’ve also been studying sitting zazen, as it’s described by elders who have been practicing it for many decades, and I am struck by the similarities between the two.

Now, breathing can take may shapes and forms, and different people have different ideas about how it “should” be done. I’ve actually been criticized by friends who thought they’d been taught the “right” way to breathe. They said I was breathing too shallow, or too fast, or not having the right posture.

I appreciate their concern and wanting to help me, but … whatever.

And then there’s the formally trained respiratory therapist I came across, years ago, who said that there is no wrong way to breathe. And that was a real breath of fresh air for me — literally and figuratively.

Anyway, in my reading about Coherent Breathing, I’ve come across the concept of “Breathe… then relax.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I was usually told “Relax… then breathe” but it never quite did it for me. When I read up on coherent breathing, I understand why — because you need to give your body what it needs to relax. You can’t just order it — RELAX!! — and demand that it comply. But if you give your body what it needs to relax — a balancing of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which gives them both equal time and lets them work together, instead of at odds — you actually CAN relax.

I’ve come across more and more talk about the autonomic nervous system (ANS) — the combination of fight-flight sympathetic and rest-digest parasympathetic nervous systems — when I read the writings of elder (or deceased) lifetime zen / buddhism practitioners. While everybody else seems to be fixated on things like mental calm and personal peace and spiritual enlightenment, they focus in on the basic physical components of calm and peace and enlightenment — the balancing of the ANS.

This, they say, is the foundation for what so many seek. And yet so many are focused on things other than their bodies.

Now, I’m not going to spend a lot of time yammering about all the high-minded stuff right now. What I AM going to talk about is something very basic, very essential, very critical to TBI and PTSD recovery* — Anger Management (*and yes, for those who believe they are chronic lifelong conditions that you can never completely cure, I’m going to use the word “recovery” anyway — in the sense of recovering our composure, our presence of mind, our human dignity, our relationships, our futures).

My own Anger Management, I am finding, is made about 1000-times better, when I use steady, conscious breathing to keep my ANS in balance. See, here’s the thing — I hate to admit it, but I get anxious really easily.  I also am prone to panic attacks, which I would never admit until this past year — heck, I didn’t even realize I was having panic attacks!

Now, I used to be pretty chill, but since my TBI in 2004, all that gradually went away. I believe it’s because of a combination of physical biochemical changes that took place when I fell, the constant restlessness that feeds my brain’s agitation, and the repeated abrupt, jarring surprises I had, time and time again, when my brain wasn’t working the way I expected it to. Any way you look at it, I can be a real ticking time bomb, if the conditions are correct.

Now, this has been a HUGE problem for me and my family — I also had a lot of problems with this when I was younger (and having a concussion or two about every year or so). But I never made the connections or figured out what would help me chill out my anger, till pretty recently.

See, the thing is, everybody I’ve ever talked about has approached anger management from a psycho/spiritual standpoint. They’ve encouraged me to “get in touch with what’s bothering me”… to “learn to love myself”, to “make peace with my shadow” and learn to “dance with my demons”. All good advice. But it’s all geared to a level of experience that is a symptom of my agitation and rage, not the cause.

The REAL cause of my anger management issues? I believe it is, was, and (almost) always has been, an out of whack Autonomic Nervous System — a hair-trigger fight-flight sympathetic nervous system taking over and pushing my rest-digest parasympathetic nervous system out of the way, like a bully shoving a “sissy” down into the mud and stomping on their head.

Flying into a rage over the slightest thing? Not because I wasn’t “my own best friend” — rather, because I was tired and agitated and I flew into fight-flight mode on an instant’s notice.

Getting pissed off while in traffic and getting aggressive towards other drivers? Not because I projected my own insecurities onto them — rather because I was already on edge about being in traffic, I was already in fight-flight mode with my amped-up SNS, and all that adrenaline just fed on itself to make itself even more virulent and aggressive.

Melting down and flipping out over seemingly small issues? Not because I was spiritually damaged or had some character flaw — rather, because I panicked, plain and simple, and it came out as a melt-down.

Holy smokes… if I’d known this just five years ago, how much different could my life be right now? I’m telling you, seeing my anger outbursts and hair triggers as a physiological phenomenon, not some sign of psycho-spiritual disturbance, makes all the difference in the world. It instantly makes the challenges about something other than my broken self, and turns it into a physical situation that I have the tools to manage.

Again, let me say it loud and clear:

Anger issues, for me, are NOT about psychological problems, emotional damage, mental illness, or a defective character. They are about my fight-flight sympathetic nervous system being in an uproar that drowns out my system-balancing parasympathetic nervous system. Anger issues, temper outbursts, rage attacks are all reliable signs that the innermost “wiring” of my body is in need of some attention. And when I give it the attention it needs, it chills everything out in a way that doesn’t just fix it once — it lasts.

So, how do I give it the attention it needs? By breathing consciously. I breathe slow and steady into my gut, feeling my belly expand when I inhale, and filling up my whole chest cavity too. I count my breaths, focusing on them instead of all the crap that’s going on outside, and it keeps my mind from falling into the trap of someone else’s mind games, or some mistaken perception I have. When I focus on my breath, not only do I take a break from the soul-sucking drama, but I am also strengthening my whole system for future times when I need to keep balanced and sane.

I am training myself for future times when I am so bombarded, I have trouble keeping my presence of mind to breathe. The more I practice, the easier it becomes. So, it’s important for me to practice.

On the one hand, this really excites me that I have figured this out. On the other hand, it really bothers me that it’s not more widely known and used. Rehab facilities could be using this… recovery groups could be using this… hospitals could be using this… therapists and counselors could be using this… occupational therapists and physical therapists could be using this… and so could family members who want to help both their injured loved ones as well as themselves. Trauma survivors of all kinds could be using this, including traumatic brain injury survivors, particularly mild traumatic brain injury survivors, who often lose more in the long run than you’d ever guess or expect.

I think part of the problem is that when people find something that works, they instantly become very strict, rigid, and orthodox about it — they decide what the rules are, they tell people the rules (with the best of intentions), and then they enforce those rules to no end.

I’m in the position, myself, where I’m not a big fan of strict rules and regulations. I think everyone is different, and we all need to find our own ways. What works for me, might not work for you, so you have to figure out what’s most appropriate for your situation.

But I do think it’s helpful to understand the underlying “mechanics” of how this all works — to understand the physical principles behind what you want to achieve, so you can figure out the best way to do it for yourself.

Try the conscious breathing thing… counting your breaths, or just noticing how you feel when you’re taking slow, measured breaths. It’s free, it doesn’t require a trained professional to teach you to do it, you can do it anytime — no scheduling required — and you can keep practicing in many different situations, to gain your composure and strengthen your sense of self.

Conscious breathing for anger management… Try it. You might like it.

Or, as Miro says at http://warriorpoetwisdom.com

When people think of warriors
They think of blood and death
The truth is that a warrior
Is all about deep breath

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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.

8 thoughts on “TBI/PTSD anger management by using the breath”

  1. Breathing is a necessary part of life but how we breathe can make life easier for coping or dealing or preventing choices that lead to regret. It takes awareness to know when to do the way of breathing that works and in my case I am poor at awareness. Training the behavior takes commitment and self-discipline. I also am poor at that.

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  2. Well, these things take practice, that’s for sure. One thing you can do is just do conscious breathing, without any particular reason or cause. It will still have benefit for you, and you can use it to fill in the spaces of time when you are waiting… sitting in traffic… on hold on the phone… or any other number of occasions where you have some extra time. It might help if you just do it without needing a reason…

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  3. YES … simply a huge YES. One mindful breath begins to change everything! 🙂

    I’ve been reflecting lately on the fact that it’s taken me 35 years to come to a similar realization … The simplicity of it — the breath, engaged mindfully — is mind-blowing … and I just breathed several times with the words ‘breathe …’ on the inhale and ‘soften …’ (my word for ‘relax’) on the exhale and yes, it’s a very different experience. The word ‘relax’ — with the ‘ax’ sound at the end — never softened me …

    It’s a lifetime of learning to soften and soothe the metabolic mayhem that comes after trauma …

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