No, stress is NOT all about our interpretation of TBI…

There’s more going on here…

So, I have some time to catch up on some reading, and I just came across a stress management consultant with many years’ experience coaching and counseling, who says “the source of all stress is the subjective meaning we attach to events”. I won’t say who it is, to protect the not-so-innocent.

Okay, that’s fine. I get that to a certain extent. Stress can be a killer — and it is, for many, many people. And the subjective meanings we attach to events can indeed add to the stress of our lives.

Here’s the thing, though — when you look at stress from a broader point of view that includes the physical part of life as an integral part, things start to be a whole lot less clear-cut. Or maybe they become even more clear. Because over time, you can build up a lot of physiological stressors which contribute to your overall stress levels… to the point where it doesn’t really matter how bright and shiny and positive your psychological outlook is — you feel like crap, and that stresses your system… and it also impacts your frame of mind (which is now inclined to look on the dark side, for reasons it cannot cognitively identify).

Even if you can get your mental, spiritual, and emotional stresses down, if you don’t have a handle on your physical stresses, there’s only such much progress you can expect to make.

Take for example, this scenario, which shows the relative stress levels of the four different areas over a time span that has a lot of the usual stresses we experience on a daily basis: trouble with the boss, re-org at work, $$$ worries, health problems, marriage troubles, promotions, raises, recovery, family problems.

Cumulative stress effects over time

Even if you do manage to cut down on the mental and emotional and spiritual stresses of your eventful life, you can still have a buildup of stress in your body that, if not dissipated or reduced in some way, will still keep your overall stress levels high.

Even when everything is going great.

Now, with a situation like TBI, where all of a sudden, sh*t is all effed up for no reason that you can explain, something as simple as making breakfast or getting ready for work can be a huge physiological stressor, because things that used to be so simple for you — like buttoning your shirt or combing your hair or getting milk and cereal to end up in the bowl instead of on the counter — aren’t going so well, and it’s just one surprise after another… one little “micro-trauma” after another, getting those fight-flight juices flowing like never before.

On a daily basis — and this is what a lot of folks fail to understand about TBI — you can experience hundreds of these little surprises, which pump up your adrenaline and alternately make you high as a kite and downright depressed. It makes you seem/feel bipolar to those who are fond of that label, and it keeps you on high alert, just trying to make it through the day trying to do all the things that used to come so easily to you, but now require a different sort of attention.

And those stresses add up. The biochemicals keep collecting in your system, by default. Because you have to stay ON, to keep from falling off. And you end up on constant alert, a perpetual first responder to your own personal mini-disasters… which may not be that big, objectively, but seem bigger and bigger and bigger because, well, you’re really pretty tired from all the adjusting, and that adrenaline and ephinephrine and norepinephrine is actually making it harder for your brain to learn the new things it needs to learn.

Which is yet another source of stress… which has next to nothing to do with how you look at things.

Now, I’ve talked with neuro-rehab folks who were of that same philosophy — that the thing that gets us into trouble with our stress levels is the way we interpret what’s happening to us. And I agree, to some extent, that interpreting everything along catastrophic lines raises our stress levels and is a big culprit in frying our systems. At the same time, people seem to be overlooking or discounting the role that the body plays in all this — in the role that physiological stressors play in our lives. It’s NOT all about how we look at things and the meaning we ascribe to what happens. It can be just as much — sometimes even moreso — about the physiological burdens that we have to deal with.

Does our mindset affect our physiological stress levels? Absolutely? We can flood our systems in an instant with a reaction of our choosing. Can our mind reverse physiological stressors on its own? I’m not so sure. I think the body needs to be directly involved to do that to the fullest.

All this being said (and I wish I could say everything that’s in my head, but I’m still a bit foggy from the past week), I think that any stress management program needs to incorporate the body. Actively. On purpose. As a full partner in the whole process. We need to use our bodies to move all that biochemical sludge along. Can you say lymph?

And I also want to say that I don’t think that stress is necessarily a bad thing. It’s the long-term effects of stress that do the job on us. I personally believe that when we develop ways to discharge the effects of stress and use the energy for good instead of evil, we can build up a sort of immunity to the downsides, and stress can actually become a vital and productive part of our lives. Rather than being something to dread and try to control and “overcome”, stress can be our friend. One of our best friends, in fact.

I have friends who would cringe to hear me say how much I love stress. But I can’t help it – I do. I really thrive on it. The thing that gets me in trouble is when I don’t allow myself enough recovery time from tough stints. I also work in a stupid job that is constantly stressful and doesn’t let you stop moving for a minute, so that’s another effing culprit. I work at a very high, fast pace, and I can get pretty intense. I get a ton of stuff done on a regular basis, and I enjoy it. I’ve figured out how to be ultra-productive after years of experimentation and trial-and-error, and it works for me. I just know how to get sh*t done. And Stress (capital “S”) is a big part of that. So removing stress from my life — rising above it, overcoming it, keeping it within “liveable levels” — is the kiss of death for the parts of my life that I love the most. Hey, I’m a jock, okay. I want to run faster and lift more and be stronger… It’s in my nature, so if you take that away or diminish it or talk it down, then you’re hacking away at my innermost core and you’re pulling the rug right out from underneath me.

The thing is, I know what a toll all this can take on me. It gets me hurt. It ruins my life. I burn out  in a very big way. So, I need to find a middle ground that lets me keep going, without heading right off the cliff.

Nowadays, what I’m working with — especially with my 90-second clearing — is letting my energy spike, then bringing it back down, consciously, to restful levels. I push myself hard for a period of time, then I stop, slow it down, get myself out of that frantic mindset that drives me forward, and put myself in a calm, relaxed state that actually feels really good.  For me, it’s not the pushing hard that does the number on me — it’s not having a rest/recovery period to let it all sink in and integrate. I’ve been recovery-deprived for a long, long time. Only in the past few years have I actually learned how to relax and feel good. And only since I learned how to feel good while relaxing, has it truly become clear to me that my continued growth and improvement depends on recovery as much as it does on testing my limits.

It might even depend more on it.

For my money, one of the most important things anyone recovering from TBI can do, is figure out how to get to that sweet spot of emotional/spiritual/mental balance, where it’s possible to feel physically good. If you don’t know how to get there, and you don’t get there on a semi-regular basis, your recovery is going to be hampered. You’re going to stay amped up on fight-flight biochemicals, and you’re not going to learn as well as you can, when you’re able to relax and just enjoy yourself. Feeling good doesn’t have to even be a huge deal — if you can just manage it for a few minutes a day, and remember what it feels like to take the edge off, that can help. Absolutely positively. But if you never figure out how to get there, and you find yourself unable to relax and settle into a sense of being OKAY, I predict you’re going to have a tough row to hoe.

And we don’t want that.

Anyway, it seems I found the words I was looking for.

Bottom line is, as much as some folks would have us think that it’s our interpretation of events that does a number on us, rather than the events themselves, I have to respectfully disagree. The stresses and physical reality of dealing with one surprise after another, having to pump yourself up to keep going, and having to constantly be aware of ways you need to shift and change, can be physiologically stressing in ways no change of mindset will reverse.

We need to recognize the role the body plays in stress, and find ways to address our physiological stressors, so that our minds can relax and we can learn the lessons we need to learn.

It’s all a process, of course, and an imperfect one at that. But if we pay attention and keep an open mind and realize that 9 times out of 10 we are unconsciously deluding ourselves — and then take corrective action, we just might get somewhere.


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.

4 thoughts on “No, stress is NOT all about our interpretation of TBI…”

  1. For me the saddest thing about TBI and the physical stresses…it makes me want to withdraw even further into my shell. If I don’t see other people, then I’m less stressed by having to try to remember the “social filters” that are gone, that there are things I can no longer do, and that at times…life really S**ks!

    Yeah, my TBI was five years ago…9:48:57AM, May 23rd….that was not a good day!!!

    Doing better today…



  2. Hey Pirate,

    True. At times it really *does* s**k. I think we all go through these cycles of being keenly aware of the things we cannot do anymore, and sometimes we can find a way to either make peace with it or change it a little bit. I have found that I go through various stages of “dis”ability — some days I cannot cope at all, and the best you can expect from me is a grunt in response to what you say to me… or at least not having me attack you verbally for disturbing my frazzled line of thought. On good days, I can deal somewhat with the rigors of everyday life, and I get to the end of the day knowing that it was a good day, no animals were harmed by me, and I have earned that rest I so desperately need. It’s been a long time since I felt like my old self, although now and then I will catch glimmers of how I once felt, but then it’s back to my brave new world, and once again trying to figure things out.

    I’ve been on the fence for a long time about withdrawing from others. I had a very on-off experience with being around other people since I was a young kid — and as a result of so many social failures, I developed a very active internal life where I found peace and solace that was a true relief for me. So, not being around others has not always been bad.

    But for someone who has been very social in the past, it must be very difficult.

    The thing I try to keep in mind in my own life is that no matter what the conditions, there is always loss in life. And we have to say good-bye to a lot of things we once really loved. People, places, things, experiences, abilities… life is one long experience in learning to adapt to loss and change. TBI introduces sudden changes that can be catastrophic at first, but can be adapted to, just like every other kind of crippling loss. Looking around, I can see myriad examples of people who adapt well and people who don’t… people who rise to the occasion and become stronger, and people who crumble under the pressure and meet an early end (of one kind or another). I am trying to be the kind of person who adapts, who is resilient, who can modify their strengths and behaviors in the face of the extreme changes that TBI brings. It is not easy, and some days I’m convinced TBI will be the end of me yet. But I keep going, I keep trying, I keep learning. And something always comes of it, as long as I stay honest with myself and can deal with the things I learn that are not so hot.

    As for the physical stresses, I find a handful of approaches work for me:

    1) Ignore them. Acknowledge that they exist, but find something so compelling and interesting, that I keep my focus on that, rather than the physical issues. I try to find something positive to focus on, like calming music I can listen to when I am driving in heavy traffic while I am dog-tired and the sun is shining brightly… or trying to appreciate the scenery around me.

    2) Get better sleep. I am not so great at this — still learning — but I am doing a better job about not staying up past midnight on weekends, and getting to bed before 11 on weeknights. I am also scheduling naps for myself whenever I can get them, and I am just doing it, even if others tell me it will mess up my sleeping. If I am exhausted — which I am, by mid-afternoon — I am no good to anyone. Seriously. This has been the one issue that has trashed my life more than anything — fatigue and the inability to get adequate sleep. If there was one accommodation I need as a result of my TBIs, it is having an afternoon nap. That’s really the only thing I would need an employer to sign off on, for me to be productive. But since I can’t disclose any of this to my employers, I have to make do on my own, and do my best.

    3) Live an active life and get some exercise. I find that a lot of my pain comes from having a lot of energy that “has nowhere to go”. It’s like it’s a drain that gets backed up, and if I don’t do something with the nervous energy, I get really stressed and the pain starts to spike. When I can at least get up and move around — take a walk or move a bit — that helps. Also, exercising regularly helps my muscles stay strong and limber. When they’re not, the pain sets in big-time, because everything gets shortened and cramped. Not fun.

    Anyway, these are some of the most basic things I do to deal with my physical issues. I realize that I have had many of them just about all my life, and when I think about it, they haven’t really held me back from living my life. They’ve made it really uncomfortable and harder than I’d like, but really, it’s all I’ve ever known, so I just deal with it. I do take some comfort in knowing that everyone goes through some sort of pain — no one is exempt — so I am not alone. Yeah, it really does suck at times, but things change.

    Just remember that — things do change.

    I hope they change for the better for you.

    Have a great day.


  3. BB makes some good points but both they and the stress expert miss a very big point that may be the biggest point in the TBI world. Environmental stress needs to be taken in to account. By environmental stress, I mean the visual and audio stress that often surrounds us. A very high percentage of brain processing power is used to filter sensory stimuli into that which is important and that which is just background clutter. The brain has to do this for everybody but with the TBI brain, this capability is often working at severely reduced capability. The visual clutter and auditory clutter has reached epidemic proportions. Cell phones ringing, loud noises, voices, even audio clutter designed by advertisers to raise our attention levels combined with similar visual clutter pushed into our brains in the effort to sell us, entertain us, influence us, etc. put the brain in a serious energy crisis.

    It is difficult to block out this environmental stress but failing to include environmental stress into the stress load creates additional stress load risks. Taking a break from these environments to allow our brains to recover is important. Even a home with kids running around can be moderated to lower these stresses. It starts with recognizing the burden of this stress, accepting it as having a negative impact, and making a choice to change or avoid it when possible.

    Why do New Yorkers who can afford it use a Town car/ car service instead of taxis even though they may have to spend more time arranging the car service? Comfort, the biggest of which is the lower stress environment. The car makers know this and include quiet cabin and ride in their design and sales objectives. Expensive noise canceling head phones are designed for this same purpose.

    Traveling/commuting when traffic is less, avoiding loud (auditorily and visually) meeting places for quieter settings, and making other choices to reduce our environmental stress load can greatly improve our lives and functions.

    I can now better understand the constant ‘hamster wheel’ existence of BB with their comment about thriving on this high stress environment. Science shows that this stress is damaging to the healthy brains. What is it doing to injured brains? Is life truly enjoyable when stress and competition are the driving forces? Many of us have learned, some by force of our injury, that stopping to smell the roses is a choice we can make that pays great dividends. It rewards us personally and it rewards those around us with a better interaction with us.

    Stress has a purpose in our lives. It is designed to increase our awareness and reaction speed to life threatening situations. A dragster thrives on high stress to be the faster vehicle to finish the quarter mile. But, those operating the dragster tear the engine apart while it is still hot to repair the damage caused by that stress. Alcohol does not repair stress. It just hides it. A game of racket ball may release stress comforting neurochemicals but it does not undo all the damage stress does.

    So, how we choose to moderate stress in our lives is our choice. It can make or break us.


  4. Good points Mark –

    It’s true – chronic stress, rather than intermittent stresses that can be modulated and offset with rest, can be murder. I guess I’ve been in the thick of it so long, and it’s pretty much inescapable for me at this point in time, and I get tired of hearing myself complain, that I just “suck it up” and keep diving back in.

    Great points about auditory and visual stress. I find working in a space where there is an open line of sight around me 360 degrees to be the worst thing. Having no walls (even cubicle walls) and that open line of sight is intolerable, and I’ve not had the same level of productivity and effectiveness since we moved to this new space.

    The weird thing is, nobody else seems to be bothered by it. Maybe they’ve resigned themselves to it, or maybe it just isn’t as much of an issue for them. But it’s an issue for me, and it’s done some serious damage.


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