Ken Collins sent along some great info about stress. Stress is by far one of the biggest problems after TBI. We experience it from all sides. First, we’re forced to deal with a very real change in how we function in the world. Second, we can get stressed about being stressed. And it builds…
I’ll add to Ken’s notes below:
KC: 99% of the stress you experience is caused by your thinking, your interpretation and your hardwired beliefs. Sure if you grew up in an abusive family, got assaulted, molested or raped, physically threatened or even wrongfully arrested those would all be examples of trauma/stress you have experienced. This trauma is buried in your sub-conscious and under stress is triggered – limbic system fight or flight response in the Amygdala.
True, true. Trauma does stay in the system, unless it is “moved out” in some way. It builds up, and over the long term, it causes traumatic responses to “kindle” more quickly. We get set off more, over time, as the biochemical load increases — and doesn’t decrease.
KC: Now think of how many hundreds of times of day it is your PERCEPTION that traffic jams, difficult bosses, rude people, arguments with your family members, deadlines, long meetings, having too much to do and not enough time to do it are the main sources of your stress? These events are only stressful if you BELIEVE they are.
True again. We tend to make up a lot of interpretations about what’s going on with us, because we need a shortcut to help us think through a situation. We also are very fond of our own versions of what’s happening, and we can actually be energized by our outrage — or stress. Especially if you’re dealing with low tonic arousal (that’s when your brain is sleepy and can’t seem to wake up), you may find that stress wakes you up… so you instinctively try to get more of it. That’s not a good long-term strategy, but on the surface it seems to work.
KC: Often times what causes us the most stress are irrational thoughts like: I’m a terrible parent, or, I’m a loser, or, I’m no good at anything, or, I’m stupid, or, I can’t do anything right! Once you really start tracking where your stress is coming from you will see, in the vast majority of cases, it’s coming from you and your beliefs, judgments and expectations about how things “ought” to be.
Indeed. We really do a number on ourselves by coming up with all kinds of criticisms and descriptions of ourselves that tear us down. We do it automatically — especially if we’ve been told over and over again that we’re losers or stupid or not good at anything.
KC: The basis of all mind/body medicine boils down to the fact that your body believes what your mind thinks. (The only proof you need of this – and pardon me for being totally frank here – is masturbating over a sexual fantasy.)
Yep, it’s true. And I can think of a lot of other examples — athletes who visualize their performance tend to do better. And our mind’s activity changes our biochemistry, so that our internal signals are received differently. Depression affects the body. As does being in a good mood. Chronic stress suppresses our immune system, and a sudden burst of applause from an audience can make competitors find that extra something to get them to the next level in terms of their abilities.
KC: So if you are worrying about if you can succeed in your treatment, or worrying about family or friends while being here, or feeling guilty about being in treatment and all the drama this way of thinking brings, your brain will start the “fight or flight” response and release stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream that will cause your heart to beat faster, your muscles to tense and your blood pressure to rise.
That tension and increase is one side of things. The other side (and there are probably more) is the effect that fight-flight has on the brain itself. It shuts down our ability to think complex thoughts. It over-simplifies everything, turning off blood flow to different parts of our bodies, and “hijacking” our thinking. So, when you’re worried about your recovery, you may actually be negatively affecting your recovery — because brain injury recovery is all about learning new ways of doing the same old things. And if your self-talk is turning up the fight-flight, it’s also dialing back your ability to think and learn and adapt and change.
KC: The only way to control this biologic process is to take deep breaths, relax and calm down.
Deep breaths that are slow and steady work for me. Breathing in to a count of 5 (seconds), then breathing out to a count of 5 has been shown to slow down the heart rate and balance out the fight-flight with rest-digest. It’s a biologic process, as Ken says. Your mind is involved, but if you can slow the physiological piece of things, you’re a step closer to getting your system balanced out.
KC: To accomplish this it will help to think good thoughts about someone you love, or good things that have happened in your life with family and friends. These thoughts will help to build new neuro-pathways in your brain and increase your ability to control stress and improve your sense of well-being.
Gratitude is a huge help for me. I sometimes have to force myself to be grateful, but once I get started, it comes more easily. When I focus on how much I have, versus how much I’ve lost… and I concentrate on being of service to others… that helps me get my act together. It keeps me headed in the right direction.