After TBI or concussion – slower brain, craving stress

brain-firingOne of the amazing things about the brain is that it has an uncanny ability to get what it needs in the short term, but which actually hurt you in the long-term.

After injury, it can push you to do things that will feed its immediate need, but the ultimate result is just not good.

Take stress, for example. And danger. And risk-taking activities. All those things look like either bad habits or a taste for self-destruction. But actually, it can be the brain seeking out the pump of energy it needs to function.

After TBI or concussion, the brain’s “tonic arousal” (its general level of wakefulness) can be negatively impacted. The brain is literally more “sleepy” and doesn’t respond as quickly as it once did. Many concussed folks complain of feeling slower than before their injury, and while there may be a number of different reasons for that, tonic arousal can be a big component.

So, what does our brain do? It seeks out opportunities to come alive — to feel like itself again. WOO HOO! And for a little while, when we’re stressed out over our procrastinations, or our altercations with others, or our other poor decisions made in the heat of the moment, we actually do feel alive. We feel like ourselves.

The only problem is, stress and drama actually keep us from learning. The parts of our brain that need energy and information can be literally shut off, when we’re under extreme duress. And as a result, we can end up repeating the same stupid mistakes over and over again.

Because A) We haven’t had the chance to learn from our last mistakes, and

B) There’s a part of us that actually thrives on those stressful situations.

So, it’s a vicious cycle.

And it applies not only to folks with TBI and concussion, but also those with ADD/ADHD, PTSD, or other brain-related issues that slow them down. When you need to go faster, your brain will do what it needs to get its requirements met. The only problem is, over the long term, this can be… just a little disastrous.

You can read more about this here at:

A Perilous Relief

Just something to keep in mind…

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Achieving more by doing less

I am really resisting writing this post, but I have to put it out there for the sake of honesty — and also to get it into my head that this is the way things are now.

It’s not that what I’m thinking about is a bad thing, or even an unpleasant thing. It’s a new thing — a true thing — that I’ve been resisting for as long as I can remember, much to the dismay of my family, my coworkers, and my neuropsych.

I hate having to admit that I have been wrong, and they have been right… but in this case at least, I have to admit it:

I get more accomplished, when I do less.

Now, it might not seem like that big of a deal, to admit it. What’s the big deal?

Well, people have been “on” me for years, that I do too much. I take on too much. I have too much on my plate. I’m spread too thin. My spouse has been lecturing me for years, that I don’t relax enough and I have too many projects going on. We’ve actually had some pretty bad fights about it. I defended my hyper-busy-ness with every fiber of my being, till the bitter end, and it’s not helped our marriage at all. But I was convinced that I was right, in having twelve balls in the air. I felt so energized. Like I could do anything. And it never seemed like there was a problem. If I didn’t finish things, so what? They were boring, I told myself. And I needed a fresh start.

Well, that outlook has modified somewhat over the past couple of years that I’ve been working with my neuropsych.  Taking a long, hard look at my patterns on a regular basis, I’ve realized that being super-busy is often a direct result of anxiety. It’s not about positive exuberance. It’s not about having a vision of a future I can eagerly step into fully and with all confidence. It’s about existential angst that is welling up and driving me ahead of it, like a wild stagecoach driver whipping the team of horses into a mad gallop… in the meantime not holding the reins or guiding them in any particular direction.

This mad gallop is plain to everyone else’s discernment. It’s obviously a ploy on my part to avoid life, rather than engage with it. But it is disguised from my view by something in my perception that interprets a mad dash towards whatever comes to mind as a positive and life-affirming thing ;}

Over the years, countless people have tried to get me to stop and look at what I was doing, but I resisted — and resented — their “interference” with my grand plans. I wasn’t planning, of course. I was just flying willy-nilly in every and all directions, for the sake of flying willy-nilly. Nothing more. And when I got to a point where I couldn’t continue with what I was doing, I’d drop it… and then wonder, sometimes years later, why I ever quit what I was doing, if I was so devoted to it.

Crazy.

Well, as I mentioned, that’s been changing over the past year or so. Once I started logging all my activities and tracking them — for real, not in some quasi-reflective journal entry that rambled on about this and that for pages on end — I started seeing what was really going on in my life, and I wasn’t pleased. I looked back on all the projects I’d started — each one seeming like the thing that was going to catapult me to greatness and/or solve all my personal problems through professional success. What I saw was not greatness, but whatever-ness. Oh, man… what a wakeup call.

And I started to admit that maybe I was spending an awful lot of time on things for the wrong reasons. Maybe I was spreading myself too thin. No… obviously I was spreading myself  too thin. Judging by what little I was getting done versus what lots I was putting into my efforts, my approach was not effective. It was downright disastrous.

So, I decided to change things up. I swept a whole bunch of projects off my plate. I trimmed the fat off my docket considerably, tabling projects I thought would be cool, but obviously demanded a lot more time and energy and manpower than I could muster. I decided to do without a lot of the lists I made for myself. I also quit imagining I was going to have these multiple career paths, and be able to pick and choose between the cream of the crop, on down the line, whenever I chose to switch my path.

And it was working out pretty well. Suddenly, I had a lot more time to devote to my pet projects — the really pet ones, that is. I could focus more on the details that had slipped by me before. And I had a lot more bandwidth to do the things I enjoyed during my free time. Sleep hasn’t appealed to me much over the past months, because I was still totally into the idea that I could continue to keep up a blistering pace on a select few things — for the fun of it. Literally. I felt really “on” at work — I felt like I was really making headway and was taking the tiger by the tail.  Woo hoo – right?

Um… not so much. Now, months on down the line, I find myself worn out, all turned around by myriad details that once seemed so clear to me, and not delivering at the rate my boss wants me to. My thinking is not clear, my relationships at work are suffering, I feel like I’m slipping into a hole of my own digging, and I’m battling to get myself out. I find myself taxed and tapped, angry and raging and resentful and antagonistic and defensive and increasingly volatile… saying things I wish I hadn’t… and my marriage and work situation are both suffering as a result.

Here, I’d thought I was supporting my family and my coworkers better by driving myself like a crazyperson, taking on all sorts of tasks, when all I was doing was driving myself — and my spouse and my coworkers — crazy.

Which brings me to what I’ve been learning — the hard way — over the past couple of weeks.

I actually perform better, and I accomplish more, when I do less.

… As in, when I work in intervals — planning and thinking things through ahead of time, then mustering my energy and tackling tasks with full attention and focus.

… As in, when I spend less time on busy-work, and I devote the bulk of my attention to strategic and tactical planning and implementation, saving my logistical energy for select tasks — no more than two or three a day.

Indeed, I do better, when I tackle less of the little niggling details work that’s just filler for my time and is more about my brain thinking such-and-such is important, when it’s not really.

And I accomplish more when I don’t insist on taking on this mountain of everything by myself, as I’ve always been prone to do.

Truly, the practice of only doing 2-3 significant things a day, when I used to tackle at least five-to-ten times that amount, is a huge change for me. It’s a difficult change… An unsettling turn of events. It makes me nervous — incredibly anxious. I feel like I should be doing something. But during those stretches when I’m “doing something” to the tune of 20 deliverables a day, and I look back on my notes about what I actually accomplished, well, the results are a lot less impressive, than my fantastical plans.

But if I break it all down and pick and choose from the things I need to get done and don’t worry about the other things, till I get the most immediate couple of things done, it’s friggin’ magic, man.  I get waaaaaay more accomplished if I take things 2 and 3 tasks at a time and do them in an extremely focused and intense fashion, than if I “pace myself” and take on 20-3o items (no joke) at a “reasonable pace”.

They say timing is everything. It’s true. It’s even more true that the right timing in the right way for the person in question is more-than-everything. Some people can go slow and steady through a mountain of small details. I, on the other hand, drown in those details. Just like there are slow-twitch muscles that long-distance runners use, and fast-twitch muscles that sprinters use, I’m more of a fast-twitch kind of person. And if I slow down to go at a “reasonable” pace, I’m toast.

So, there we have it. I’ve had my helping of crow for the day. I have to admit, it feels good to say/write it out loud, but it’s been a long time coming. And I have a lot of work to do, to reverse the damage that’s come from ignoring and denying the truth about how I work best — and worst. But reverse this, I will. I’m the comeback kid. I’m not going to quit till I get where I need to be.

Even though I know it’s good for me and it’s the only way I can really work effectively, the idea of only doing a few things  a day still makes me intensely anxious. I don’t expect to get used to it overnight.

But you know what? Doing a little bit at a time in a very focused, intentional way gets me there. And since actually getting there is what matters to me (and my spouse and my coworkers and my boss) — even more than the “journey” on the way — that’s what I’ve got to focus on. Results. For real. Not plans and methodologies. Results. What works. What works for me.

Onward.

Too much of (a) good thing(s)

Well, I’ve done it again…  I’ve let my exuberance get completely out of hand. I’ve got a handful of really great projects I started, over the past couple of years, and as I often tend to do, I didn’t follow through on a bunch of them till they were complete, but ran off to start something else (that we equally cool), leaving the started-but-not-finished projects to languish…

Until I remembered them again and circled back to take another look at them. Then, I realized that they were really cool, and they were good ideas, and I need to follow up on them… Only now, I have not one or two projects, but six or seven.

What’s a creative sort to do?

This is one of the classic ways my little brain gets me in trouble. On the one hand, I have lots of great ideas and some pretty significant strengths. On the other hand, I only have so much time in the day/week/month/year, and my brain tends to get tired… and agitated… and anxious… and when that happens, I tend to seek out other things to do, which will take my mind off my agitation and anxiety. I find it very soothing to start new projects, and since my agitation level goes up, when I’m fatigued, the more tired I get, the more confused I get, the more projects I start… and then I get myself roped into all sorts of wheel-spinning – chasing-my-tail – go-go-go’ing… which ultimately gets me nowhere, but frustrated, with a really messy office.

That’s where I am right now. In my really messy office, trying to put my life in some semblance of order. I “check out” of regular life for about 10 days, for some fun and sun and lazing around. But now I’m back from my week-long beach vacation, and it’s time to put my energy to good use. I promised myself, while I was sitting on the beach, marveling at the constant flow of waves, that I would get my disarrayed house in order, come hell or high water. And that’s what I’m setting about doing. (After I finish this post… and get another cup of coffee.)

It’s so wild… Looking around, I am surrounded by piles of things I thought were really important, once upon a time. And at the moment, they were. Slips of paper. Scraps and notes and scribbles. Ideas I jotted down without having a context or an outlet for them — concepts I wanted to flesh out or explore. The sum total result is a whole lot of disjointed thought without a focus or a sense of continuity. Lots of trees, not much forest. And some of the “trees” are crowding each other out.  Some of the fast-growing ideas which really aren’t good long-term prospects, are keeping the more solid ideas from getting enough “light” to grow.

Time to thin the woods and trim back the fast-growing “soft woods” that are stunting the slower-growing “hardwoods”. I want a forest filled with oaks and maples, not just white pines. I’ve got nothing against pines, but I need solid, sturdy materials to build the ship of my life, so I’ve got to cull out the fast, cheap, and easy activitities that are keeping me from really achieving something significant in this life. I have my limits. My brain has limits, as does my body. There is literally only so much I can do in a day. I’ve spent the last week decompressing and kicking back and taking stock of my life, and now that I’m back I have renewed energy and resolve.

I really do not want to live and work in the midst of perpetual disarray. I used to think it kept me creative and inventive, and in a way, it did. It’s always been very invigorating for me to be surrounded by stimulating images and ideas. But now – whether from age or from injury – I realize that I just can’t do that crazy-busy jumbled mess thing. Who  knows? Maybe I never could before, but I was so busy running from one thing to the next, that I never noticed that it was dragging me down.

Well, whether that’s true about my past, I know now that it serves virtually no productive purpose to run around, chasing after this-and-that just for the sake of chasing. I now realize that I am much better served by narrowing my focus and buckling down to finish the things I start… before I start something else. We’ll see how that goes. But at least I get get going with this office-cleaning business.

After my second cup of coffee, of course 😉

Connections between pain and PTSD

The past couple of weeks have been crazy for me, and it’s taken somewhat of a toll. I’ve been busy with work, busy with other activities, busy, busy, and more busy. I also did some traveling for about a week to out-of-state relatives, for a big family get-together. In and of itself, it was a great time. But the change in my schedule, the long hours of driving — over 30 hours, all told, in the car — not being able to get enough sleep, and the change in food choices (how do they eat that stuff?) all threw me off, big-time.

I managed to keep it together and not completely blow-out/melt down during the trip, or immediately afterwards, which often happens when I travel to this particular branch of the family tree. But the past few weeks have been packed full of crazy-busy-ness that I now realize has been a pretty concerted effort to dull the pain of the trip.

I’m not talking about emotional pain… though it’s never easy to spend time as an outsider, when everyone else is connecting and having a wonderful time being together — I’m the oddest bird in the family, and between my difficulties in keeping up with what’s going on around me and my narrow and intense interests that aren’t run-of-the-mill, people often don’t know what to do with me.

What I’m talking about is physical pain.

Yes, physical pain — the kind that burns, that aches, that throbs, that stings. The kind that makes my clothing hurt me, that rakes my legs when my pants rub against them… the kind that makes me jump whenever someone touches me… the kind that sends a shock wave of smacking ache to the marrow of my bones when my spouse puts their hand on my forearm… the kind that keeps me from sleeping, because I can’t stand the feel of sheets on me, but I also can’t stand the feel of air-conditioning blowing across my skin… the kind htat gets worse when I am stressed or tired or upset or all of the above… the kind that I often don’t even know is there until someone makes contact with me, and I jump, and they feel like they’ve done something to hurt me. They have. They didn’t mean to, and they would never do it on purpose. But they hurt me.

It’s not just the emotional pain of family visits that gest me. It’s the physical pain, as well.

Here’s the deal — for as long as I can remember, I have had issues with a whole slew of sensory problems, the most disruptive of which was body-wide pain. I can remember, ever since I was a little kid, feeling like I was being hit, when people would just reach out to touch me in very innocent, social, appropriate ways. I would shrink back from them, and they would often take offense or get angry with me for “rejecting” them. It sorta kinda messes with your head, when the people who love you the most cause you intense pain when they try to show their affection for you. And it tends to muck up your relationship with them, when you can’t accept their (appropriate) affection, but they don’t understand why.

To tell the truth, I didn’t even understand why. It’s hard to explain, unless you’ve been there, but the experience of painful touch is such a visceral, physical thing, it sometimes doesn’t translate into words. It’s just there. You can’t describe it, you can’t even really pinpoint it. Sometimes you have no idea it’s there, until someone makes contact with you. Then, all you know is, it hurts, and you pull away to avoid it, so you can just get on with your life.

And you do things to avoid/mitigate it. You steer clear of expressive people. You avoid demonstrative friends. You always keep more than arms’ length away from other people, just in case they reach out to you. You spend time with people who either don’t like you or couldn’t care less about you, because the chances of them touching you is small to none — and it’s easier to be around those types of people, than the friendly ones who like to make contact.

These things are done on a subconscious, instinctive level, and sometimes they don’t even register with you when you’re doing them. Like pulling away from people when they come close. Like shrinking back from a hug someone is trying to give you. Like jerking away quickly when someone touches you accidentally.

And depending on how sudden or shocking the pain is, it can trigger a whole cascade of other sensations/symptoms/reactions that look a whole lot like PTSD.

Over at Helpguide.org, I found this list of symptoms

Re-experiencing the traumatic event

  • Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event — memories of past painful contact tend to show up suddenly
  • Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again) — yes, it does feel like it’s happening all over again
  • Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things) — sometimes nightmares do follow an extremely painful episode, tho’ that’s rare
  • Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma — yes, it is intensely distressing to be reminded of it, it just sends me in a downward spiral
  • Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating) — my heart sometimes starts pounding, I tense up, and I feel sick to my stomach, when people touch me, sometimes

PTSD symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma — I tend to avoid physical human contact of any kind; women frighten me, because they tend to be so tactile, and it’s literally too painful at times, to interact with them
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma — I tend to block out the particulars of painful experiences. All I know is, it’s hurt me before, like it’s doing now
  • Loss of interest in activities and life in general — Why should I get involved, if it’s just going to hurt like the dickens?
  • Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb — Oh, yes… ’nuff said.
  • Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career) — how precisely am I supposed to live fully, if the experience of basic human interactions promises me pain?

PTSD symptoms of increased arousal

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep — could have something to do with my insomnia?
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger — yet one more contributing factor
  • Difficulty concentrating — it’s tough to concentrate, when you’re on high alert. Especially if you’re working with tactile people.
  • Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”) — someone might be approaching…
  • Feeling jumpy and easily startled — but of course

Other common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Anger and irritability — not being able to establish comfortable human contact makes me nuts and pisses me off
  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame — why can’t I just be normal like everyone else and tolerate a hand on my shoulder?
  • Substance abuse — been there. Thank heavens that’s behind me.
  • Depression and hopelessness — my occasional visitors
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings — once upon a time, occasional visitors. Now, very rarely.
  • Feeling alienated and alone — not just feeling… BEING alienated and alone
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal — it’s hard to not feel that way, when everyone around you might possibly cause you pain
  • Headaches, stomach problems, chest pain — the first two, yes. The third, not so much

So there we have it — PTSD arising from chronic body-wide pain. Painful touch. There’s even a word for it — Allodynia (meaning “other pain”) — a painful response to a usually non-painful (innocuous) stimulus. I haven’t been formally diagnosed. That would require that I talk about it to my doctor. And talking about it out loud to anyone has never really been an option for me, except for with my last therapist who is long gone by now. It’s just too painful. Emotionally and physically.

I’d rather keep my own counsel and just live my life. Pain-free. Alone, but pain-free.

Being alone not only keeps me out of arms’ reach (literally) from people who may hurt me, but it also keeps emotional upheaval at a minimum. It’s hard to get worked into a state, when you don’t have much contact with people who affect you emotionally. I can block out all the politics and social drama pretty well. But the emotional connections I have with people… well, they’re trickier. So, I steer clear of them, by and large. And I steer clear of emotionally charged subjects with people — like avoiding talking about my chronic pain issues with my doctor.

It’s wild, how emotional distress can heighten physical pain. Emotional pain sets off an alarm state with me, and that alarm state unleases a whole avalanche of stress hormones and hypersensitive biochemical agents into my system. And the buildup of all the stuff that gets “stuck” in my system does not help me. Not one bit.

Over at Healthjourneys.com, Belleruth Naparstek quotes from her book Invisible Heroes and describes it well:

Chronic Pain Conditions
This constant activation of the alarm state leads to an accumulation of metabolic waste products in the muscle fibers, and the release of kinins and other chemical pain generators in the tissue, resulting in myofascial pain and the appearance of those seemingly intractable chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic headache, TMJ and more.

And because these conditions are generated in the brain stem and the motor reflex centers in the spinal column, and routed through a perturbed, automatic, arousal circuitry, peripheral forms of treatment provide only temporary relief.  Constantly activated by everyday sensory cues, normal muscle movement and spontaneous memories, symptoms grow and become more and more entrenched over time.  In other words, this is one nasty gift from the kindled feedback loop that, if not interrupted, will just keep on giving.

Our epidemiology research has already shown us an astounding percentage of people with baffling chronic pain conditions and “functional” diseases that have no obvious causes, who have been found to have prior histories of severe trauma.  Probably if we could tease out the subset of traumatized people who experienced substantial dissociation during their trauma, and a truncated freeze response in the midst of it, we might find closer to one hundred percent suffering from posttraumatic stress.  Unfortunately for them, they are often assumed to be malingering or engaged in attention-seeking behavior for neurotic reasons, instead of suffering from a very serious, self perpetuating condition with a potentially worsening trajectory.

Included in this group of maligned and misunderstood patients would be scores of people suffering from pelvic and low back pain, orofacial and myofascial pain, genito-urinary and abdominal pain; interstitial cystitis; and the previously mentioned headache, fibromyalgia (FM), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD); irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD), multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) and migraine.

And there it is — in part, anyway. The post over at Belleruth Naparstek’s blog asks Is There a Connection Between Fibromyalgia and Traumatic Stress? but it’s not just about Fibro, to me. It’s about the “and more” she mentions. It’s about the “whole lot more”.

So, what the hell can I do about this? I’m of the mind that the best reason to talk about anything difficult, is to figure out what to do about it to make it better. To reduce the quotient of human suffering in the world. That includes my suffering (I’m in the world, after all). What can I do about this pain business?

Well, first, I need to get back on my schedule. I need to get back to my sleeping routine, which I’ve been doing pretty well with. I need to get back to eating the right kinds of foods at the right times of day — and I’ve been doing that pretty well, too. I also need to exercise and do other things that will enable me to discharge some of the built-up stress from the trip. I tried explaining to my new therapist how disruptive that sort of travel is to me, but they didn’t seem to “get” the intensity of it, so I’m not getting much support there. Screw it. I’ll support myself. I’ve been having a lot of good long cries, in the privacy of my own company, over the past few days, and that seems to be helping me. I also need to get back to my regular work schedule and just get some stuff done. Being productive has a way of chilling me out nicely, so I’ll do that.

And drink plenty of water. Take some Advil before I go to sleep. Listen to the Healing Trauma CD from Belleruth Naparstek to deal with the PTSD. Have a good cry. And another. And another. And make sure I let loose in my own company, away from others who neither understand nor want to understand just how hard things are for me… and end up minimizing and negating and invalidating my feelings about what I really go through, and tell me I’m fine and I don’t have a problem and I shouldn’t worry about this stuff,  just because they either don’t have the emotional resources to hang with me, or they’d be too traumatized, themselves, if they knew what it’s really like to live in this body.

Most of all, I need to keep it simple. Count my blessings. Remember just much good there is, along with the bad. And remember, tomorrow is another day, and all things considered, I’m pretty lucky to be alive.

The Magic of “Analgesic Stress”

Clearly, the human body is built to survive. And the mechanisms that kick in to save our asses are as built-in as breathing heavily after a sprint or sex, as instinctual as brushing shaggy hair out of our faces when we encounter someone or something we need to see more clearly.

What’s more, the survival mechanisms we employ to escape imminent physical doom are also important parts of less extreme, yet equally vital physiological and psychological survival strategies. Physical responses to mortal danger don’t have to originate only from physical situations, like a mother grizzly discovering you standing between her and her cubs. They can just as easily — and probably, in today’s world readily — arise from psychological ones, such as a sneaking suspicion that your boss is going to fire you at the one-on-one meeting they just scheduled, or the surprise discovery of your spouse in bed with the neighbor.

In order to trigger the biochemical cascade of fight-flight-fright, our brains don’t have to be presented with cut-and-dried physical reasons to pump our systems full of glucose, adrenaline, cortisol, etc. The juices can start flooding our systems over perceived threats, as well. And those threats can be just as existentially distressing if they’re job-related or relationship-related, as threats that involve our physical being.

If something truly threatening to any aspect of your survival is registering, your brain doesn’t particularly care whether it’s a charging bear or a discharging boss. It doesn’t matter if the grizzly is coming at you with a roar, or your spouse is coming with a scream. A threat is a threat, and the part of our brains that differentiates between different sorts of threats is offline, at the time we’re reacting to something wretched happening to us. Sure, the refined, discriminatory, gray-area-friendly parts of our brains are still there, but they are waiting till after the excitement has died down, before they start to tell the difference between a purely physical fight-flight-fright scenario and one that’s all about our emotions or our self-worth or our hopes for the future. The problem is, in the interim, while the sensible part of our brains is “down,” the survival-based part of our brains is flooding our bodies with all sorts of biochemical franticness that both hops us up and dulls us down, that pumps us full of energy, while shutting down the very systems that can regulate the rest of our delicately balanced systems.

So, where does that leave us, if we’ve experienced tons of traumatic stress over the course of our lives? Where does that leave us, if we’ve been stressed and over-taxed and put-upon in very intense ways over a long term? Chances are, it dopes us up with a pretty compelling case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that modern version of “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” or “nervous exhaustion” that clouds our judgment and heightens our reactivity.

And the more it happens, well, the more it happens. If you get sucked into a cycle of intense trauma response often enough, your reactions become so sensitized that your experience doesn’t need to be extreme to trigger a heightened stress respose. I’m no neuroscientist, and I’m not a formally trained psychologist, but it’s my understanding that if you’re put through enough trauma over the course of your life, your body can get in the habit of switching on those stress hormones at a moment’s notice, just to get you through the day. You don’t even need to be in severe mortal danger, for the action to take effect. It can just look/feel/seem like severe mortal danger to the body, and the mechanisms that prevent disaster will spring into action.

That’s where PTSD really digs in and becomes more persistent, more pronounced, more likely to take over. Which cycles around to exacerbate not only its own instantaneous reactiveness, but also its after-effects. And they aren’t pretty. PTSD’s symptoms can include (in no particular order, and in a bunch of different combinations):

Re-experiencing the traumatic event

  • Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event
  • Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)
  • Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things)
  • Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma
  • Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)

Avoidance and emotional numbing

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
  • Loss of interest in activities and life in general
  • Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
  • Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career)

Increased arousal

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”)
  • Feeling jumpy and easily startled

Other common symptoms

  • Anger and irritability
  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame
  • Substance abuse
  • Depression and hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • Feeling alienated and alone
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
  • Headaches, stomach problems, chest pain

Which can all conspire to make you feel like you’re either losing your mind, or you’re not fit to live in the world, or everyone is out to get you, or you just can’t make it through the day, or all of the above. And more. I’ve had a pretty eventful life, myself, thanks at least in part to the after-effects of multiple traumatic brain injuries, so I’ve got my fair share of trauma in my past. And post-traumatic stress. And full-blown PTSD.

My brain’s biochemical reactivity has, in many cases, worked very much against me. And I freely admit that I haven’t done nearly enough tending of my parasympathetic nervous system to decompress and regain my balance on a regular basis. But where my brain has often worked against me in stressful times, it has also worked for me, thanks to stress. And the things that have worked for me are those handy endogenous opioids I talked about in my last section.

Remember, the biochemical/hormonal stress response in humans doesn’t care what the stimuli are that are freaking out the brain. All it knows is that it’s freaking out, and it needs to supply the right magic cocktail of hormonal juices, so that the taxed system can function adequately in the face of mortal danger. Even in the absence of lions and tigers and bears and horrific natural disasters, in our modern world, endogenous opioids kick in to numb us to our pain, suppress responses that would keep us from fleeing to safety, and keep us bright and alert on some level — and they can save our asses just as much as they did our Grendel-fleeing ancestors’. At least that’s my experience.

And this is not something we can necessarily stop, once it gets started. We are literally hard-wired to have these biochemicals kick into gear when we’re in danger, we’re uber-stressed, and when we’re in pain. Whether the stress is from a charging bear or an angry boss chewing us a new one in a performance review… whether we’re in danger of losing a limb or losing our job (and our house and our car and all the stuff we owe money on)… whether we’re in pain from lacerations to our legs or sleep-deprived, repetitive-stress-fried joint agony… our bodies are still sending signals via stress hormones (our messengers to/from the gods) and our instinctively hard-wired brains are going to get a shot of numbing sweetness that takes our mind off our ills and lets us live to see another day.

And so a heightened stress response becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a self-perpetuating loop of spontaneous over-reaction that not only jacks us up, but chills us out, as well. It’s like having an existential smoke — nicotine has the dual effect of first stimulating the system, then chilling it out (which is what makes it more addictive than heroin, I’ve been told). Getting that rush of adrenaline, feeling the mind clear, sensing the body coil and prepare to pounce or flee… and then getting that soothing rush of endorphins… It’s hard to beat that, when it comes to being fully functional.

And it does make me fully functional. In more ways than one. The net result of our inborn neuro-biochemical survival/support system is the heightened ability to respond to immediate threats, reduced pain experience, and clearer, more focused thinking. And when I am in a state of extreme agitation and sensitivity, the effect on me is like the effect of clicking the button on a morphine pump for someone who has recently come out of surgery.

Indeed, I have to say that the same survival mechanisms that let me haul my ass out of mortal danger, also enable me to function at a “normal”level in my day-to-day life. This is probably going to sound crazy to some people, even mentally ill to others, but there’s a logistical reason I find my ass in a sling, time and time again — an inborn, ingrained need, even dependency, on stress hormones to function adequately in the world, and actually feel like a normal person.

Putting myself in the direct line of danger — whether by cultivating friendships with people who are innately hostile towards me, seeking out work with employers whose environment seems custom-tailored to trashing my work-life balance, or taking on too much work at a time when my body is sorely in need of rest and rejuvenation — triggers that magic biochemical cascade of endogenous opioids, and suddenly everything is better. It’s not only BETTER, it’s just better. Normal. Regular. Boring. Standard-issue. Uneventful. Drab. Blah.

This probably sounds odd, but normal, uneventful, rote life is something I really need to work at. Whether due to my head injuries or just my nature, I seem to be hard-wired for excitement. And that tends to get in the way of living my life — especially around other people and when I’m at work. Plus, I have a raft of physical/sensory issues that really get in the way and keep me from getting on with it in a productive and steady way. I don’t need my experience to be over-the-top better, just normal. Just regular. Just standard-issue, run-of-the mill… the way everyone else’s life seems to be, and the way I wish my life were.

And analgesic stress lets me do just that.


A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

Picking and choosing and trimming the fat

I’ve been taking a long, hard look at how I’ve been living my life for the past 20 years. I suppose that’s to be expected, as I have a birthday coming up, and I’m in a living situation that needs some work. My marriage is good. It’s great, in fact. In spite of everything, we’re still going strong, and the relationship continues to evolve and grow and change and stretch and do whatever it has to do, to keep going. Because, well, we love each other. We’re really well-suited for one another. And we both realize just how vital each is to our individual and mutual well-being.

To do anything less than tend to this relationship and keep it going, no matter what, would be self-destructive. And neither of us – head injuries or no – is that.

But in a number of areas of my life, I need some real work. I have indulged an awful lot of fantasies and schemes over the course of the past two decades, some of which have been mildly disrupting, others of which have completely derailed my progress. I have started – and abandoned – countless little projects, sketching them out and scoping them and putting all the plans in place to make it happen… only to lose focus, lose interest, and end up wandering away to do something else.  And all my hours of planning and thinking and BIG IDEAS just went to waste.

The wild thing is, I just didn’t care, when I let them go. I found that I had almost no investment in actually following through with them. It was the busy-ness that appealed to me. The process of imagining. The activity of dreaming, not taking action, that really moved me. And when I got to the point where it was time to actually do something… well, then I just lost my mojo.

Which is fine, if you just want to twiddle away your life, spinning your wheels and passing the time. It’s fine, if you’re either independently wealthy with a trust fund that’s hermetically sealed and shielded from market conditions, or you’re not particularly invested in keeping a house and home and lifestyle running. If you’re either extremely wealthy or materially indifferent, you can spend your life just jumping from one Big Thing to the next.

But I’m not in that situation. And every day, it hits home a little harder, how much my bad habits of “recreational busy-ness” have cost me. They cost me every day, in fact, in terms of lost focus, lost productivity, lost effectiveness. These aren’t just corporate-speak weasel-words. These are real things. I haven’t been able to complete tasks I’ve promised I’d do. I haven’t been able to finish jobs in the timeframe I said I would. I haven’t even been able to concentrate on things long enough (in advance) to figure out exactly how long they will take will take me to complete. For someone in my kind of job, doing my kind of work, on my kind of team, this is a bad thing.

And it needs to get fixed.

You see, I like my job, and I want to keep it. I need to figure out how to settle in and do the work, already. Quit being so danged fancy-pants and focus on the basics. The fundamentals. The boring-ass stuff that requires a great deal of concentration and focus, but that has to get done. I need to figure out how to just do it.

This has been sorta kinda nagging in the back of my mind for weeks, now. But I’ve managed to just kind of gloss over it. Things at work have been really disorienting, and that has been emotionally draining for me. I get it in my head that this is my One Chance, my One Shot to Make It, and I get fixated on the idea that if I screw this situation up, I’ll be out of work permanently. That crazy-ass one-sided thinking picks up speed very quickly, and before you know it, I’ve convinced myself that one more screw-up is going to land me back on the streets, I’ll lose everything, including my marriage, and I won’t be able to even open a bank account. When my head gets going like that, it’s not a pretty thing. But I go there so quickly…

The thing is, that thought process really keeps me from just doing what I need to do — focus in and get the job done. It keeps me focused on details — and implausible ones, at that — and it swamps me in minutiae that are not only distracting but extraneous and not central to my core issues.

So, what are my core issues?

After watching myself pretty closely for the past year and a half, I have to say that the biggest problem I have, that affects me all across the board is… (drum roll please…)

Fatigue+Distracting Busy-ness+Fatigue+Distracting Busy-ness

Fatigue Cycle

You see, when I get tired, I tend to get agitated. When I get agitated, I tend to want to do something. Anything. Just something to get my restless mind off my agitation and mounting anxiety. And so, I find something “important” to do — like a new project or some ground-breaking discovery — and I launch into that with all my might.

Thing is, I get so swamped in details that my brain starts getting turned around, and I start to fixate on the wrong things. I get consumed by minor aspects of a project, get pulled off on associational tangents, and my thoughts spin out in all directions, picking up speed, the more overwhelmed they get and the more agitated and restless and anxious they get.

It’s really something to watch, objectively speaking.

Subjectively speaking, it’s a wretched downward spiral into the breaking-point zone of my cognitive behavioral swampland.

The more tired I get, the less well I can think. The less well I can think, the more keyed up I get. The more keyed up I get, the more frantic I become, and the busier I get, and the less that actually gets done.

At the time it’s all happening, it seems like I’m just cooking along, making good progress. But I’m not making progress at all — quite the opposite. And eventually I melt down in a shaking, sputtering pile of profanity-spewing wreckage.

So much for my pet projects, my “cutting edge” concepts, my pioneering initiatives.

That all being said, now I’m taking a close look at what I’m really working on, these days. I’m removing a whole lot from my plate — and I’m seeing how many new projects I’ve started, just in the past six months. I also see how little I’ve actually finished in the past year. This is depressing me, as some of those projects are near and dear to my heart. Two of them, in fact, I am still very excited about. And there are a few others that are close behind. I need to finish them. I have needed to finish them for months, now. But it didn’t get done.

What’s more, there are things I need to do for work that haven’t been done properly. Not yet. It’s really bad. My job is to produce, and I all that I have been producing has been promises. My job is to deliver, and that’s been lagging.

Granted, life happens, and there have been a number of things that have kept me busy outside of my various projects. But this is just getting to be ridiculous. Something must be done.

So, I’m doing something about it.

  1. I’m working through all the different things I’ve got going on — personal and professional — and I’m getting more disciplined about them.
  2. I’m making sure that I’m only working on things that actually serve a long-term purpose, like sharpening key job skills, or teaching me new ones.
  3. I’m making lists of the things I’m working on and figuring out where they fit. And if they fit.
  4. I’m pitching out the things I started on a whim — as an effort to do nothing more than soothe my jangled nerves.
  5. For the things that fit, I’m coming up with some new tools — since I’m a software engineer, I’m engineering my own tools — and I’m designing/building a truly good-looking project management program that I can use without pain (the standard-issue ones are so visually unappealing, they actually make it hard to use them).
  6. I’m consolidating what projects I can, and I’m prioritizing them according to:
  • how much I want/need/have to do them
  • how long they’ll take to get done
  • when I originally wanted them to be done
  • when they are required to be done
  • which ones will totally screw me up, if I don’t do them
  • etc.

There’s more, but I need to get on with my day and do some of this stuff, instead of thinking about it all the time.

One thing is certain, I cannot continue to work as I have been — willy-nilly floating from one thing to another. I need to dig in and finish one thing before I start another. I can’t just keep starting new projects as “stress-management” techniques. If I need to burn some energy and work off steam, then I need to exercise, rather than doing more strategizing. If I need to take a break from one thing I’m doing, then I need to take a break from that kind of activity, not that specific activity.

Where I tend to fall down is, I “take a break” in ways that are not breaks at all — rather than resting to let my brain catch up, I drive it harder to get the stress hormones pumping that take the edge of my cognitive discomfort. I tend to push myself even harder, rather than letting up, and my broken brain thinks everything is just fine — simply because I can’t feel the pain anymore.

But it’s not fine. It’s anything but. I’m distracting myself, not restoring myself. I’m adding to my cognitive load, not lightening it. And ultimately, I get overwhelmed. Again. And it’s back to the drawing board… again… with even less self-confidence and self-esteem than before.

So, there it is. Time to prune back. Time to restore focus. Time to get my scattered brain together and make some real progress.

Any time I devote to activities should be an investment, not an expense. I just can’t afford — literally and figuratively — to waste my precious life force, anymore.

A Perilous Relief: Bliss From Within – The Glory of Endogenous Opioids

For better or for worse, I tend to have pretty high stress levels. It comes from an eventful past, as well as a busy present, and the intense drive to realize my deepest desires for my future. Certainly, it’s not much fun having to constantly “quality control” my thoughts and my actions, so I don’t get myself in trouble over post-traumatic stress that has nothing to do with what’s really going on around me. I certainly don’t want my energy and attention to get pulled down by old stuff that still makes me jump when an unidentified figure appears out of the corner of my eye. And it’s no fun “melting down”

But being highly stressed isn’t as bad as it might sound. In fact, there is a side to my typically high levels of stress that feeds me. And I love it. After years of being down on myself for being “over-stressed,” I’ve come to terms with that shadow side of myself. And I’ve learned to love my stress.

Here’s why:

In addition to these classic “fight-or-flight” responses to get you going, the little almond-shaped gland in the brain, the amygdala, triggers the brain to release endogenous opioids (opium-like chemicals that originate in your own system) which help your system function adequately in high-demand situations.

These endogenous opioids are a built-in part of our naturally functioning system and they are ever-available in varying quantities. Endogenous literally means “from inside”. And endogenous opioids are magic opium-like potions our systems create on their own (it’s been discovered that the human body actually produces morphine in small amounts). Yes, Virginia, there is a way to get high on your own steam, as the biochemicals our brains produce are of the same type as the illegal, intensely addictive stuff you can buy in a plastic baggie from some sleaze who will take sex as payment for the goods instead of money. They’re just a little different, so they match our body chemistry better. And they aren’t usually available to our bodies through our brains in the intense concentrations that leave overdosed junkies dead on the street.

In particular, these internal substances can have a hypoalgesic or analgesic (pain reducing) effect on the body, which helps you deal instinctively with whatever threat is in front of you, without having to deal with pain, as well. I’ve read that endogenous opioids serve to suppress the “lick response” in injured animals, so they can escape. (An animal, when injured, will instinctively stop to lick itself and tend to its wounds, but if it’s been injured by a predator this instinctual response makes it easy prey for its hungry attacker. By suppressing the pain – and the lick response – this natural impulse lets the animal ignore its wounds and focus on escaping to live to see another day.)

The same holds true with us humans. Imagine how short-lived we would be in crisis situations, if we were distracted by pain and other heightened sensations. We’d be too busy going “Ow! Ow! Ow!” and checking to see what bone we broke or what piece of flesh we tore, to get out of the way of the oncoming rockslide, tidal wave, or speeding bus, or haul ourselves out a burning car and run to safety before the gas tank explodes. The adrenaline rush and sudden biochemical cascade of pain-numbing opioids makes it possible for us to do important things like rescue each other, even when the rescuer is injured… to pull ourselves from danger, even if we’ve been hurt… and do things that would be utterly impossible, if we had to deal – for real — with intense pain. Endogenous opioids may well have been what let that tech guy save himself from dying on an ill-fated hike through the California wilderness by hacking his arm off below the elbow with a pocket knife.

Now, these endogenous opioids are truly wonderful things. Among them are Endorphin, Enkephalin, and Dynorphin. More research keeps trickling in about these substances — and others like them. It seems implausible that we could know so little about these important biochemicals until recently, but some of these have only been identified and studied since the mid-1990’s. And by the time I write (and you read) this, much more will probably be known about these substances, and how they interact with our sensitive systems.

It’s my understanding that the reason that artificial opiates work is because they are so much like the opioids we produce in our own bodies. Like a copy of a master key fitting into a lock, artificial/man-made opiates “open the same doors” that our own bodies normally have closed… and then open, when properly prompted by our biochemical “keys”. If you consider how strongly heroin and morphine can affect the human system, and if you consider that the only reason they work is ‘cause they mimic the qualities of opioids we already have in our own brains/brains, you can begin to understand just how powerful our own biochemical systems intrinsically are.

Yes, these endogenous opioids have the same sort of effect on us as opiates. They cut pain. They give us a euphoric feeling. They help clear our minds. They do amazing things to make life worth living. Lenny Bruce, the heroin addict, said of his addiction, “… it’s like kissing God.” If you consider that endogenous opioids can work the magic of relieving/inhibiting pain, imparting euphoria, and making us think better, it explains how human beings can sometimes perform at super-human levels irrespective of pain, danger, stress, or other normally stymieing influences (like, for example, the voice in their head urging them (in vain) to keep a low profile).

These magic potentialities we have in our brains have recently been getting more “air time” from scientists like Irving Biederman, who studies perceptual and cognitive pleasure. According to Dr. Biederman, we’re not only wired to survive — we’re wired to enjoy ourselves in the process. A lot. Things like learning new things, encountering novel situations, looking at innovative art, “tickle” the parts of our brains that release endogenous opioids into our systems.

So, under the worst and the best of circumstances, endogenous opioids are about as close to a gift from God as you can get. Not only do they buffer our bodies from the ill effects of extreme duress, but they also reward certain kinds of behavior (learning, in particular) with a pure shot of unbridled joy.

Kind of makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it?

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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What keeps me going

coffee and notepad and pen on a table

11/10/18 – Ha! I just discovered this old post from 2009. I’m not sure why I unpublished it, but I like it.  So, I’ll republish it. Here you go.

Ever since I read about how the ‘Thirst For Knowledge’ may be a kind of opioid craving, my thinking about how my mind manages my physical pain has really changed. Actually, it jumped ahead in a big way, when I read about Mary Meagher’s work on how fear and anxiety have different affects on physical pain. But having the kind of associational brain I do… a brain which isn’t very good at sticking with linear, sequential tasks, but eagerly hops around from one related topic to another… I did end up here, thinking about how the human brain craves novelty, and why that might be.

I’ve come to realize, in the past months, that many of my patterns of risk-taking and danger-seeking behavior, not to mention my constant stream of distractions that keep me all jazzed up, have a lot to do with relieving my constant levels of discomfort, distress, and pain. Not only that, but they seem to be linked to a sort of depressed state in my thinking — not necessarily emotionally depressed, but functionally slowed. My history of TBIs has not helped my cognitive processing speed, and there are parts of my brain (as evidenced on my EEG) that physically work more slowly than would be expected.

Actually, come to think of it, emotional depression sometimes follows on my cognitive depression/slowing, so I can’t discount that part of my experience.

Now, when it comes to getting on with my everyday life, risky decision-making and flawed judgment are just part of my problem. Chasing conceptual chimeras — such as my all-consuming obsession with my MRI, as well as new and emerging neuroscience research, which I may never fully understand but which fascinate me to no end — and commencing projects that I will never actually finish — like that 500-page documentation set for one of my favorite software programs of the day — are actually more disruptive and pose more of a risk to my adequate functioning than outright risk-taking behavior.

And yet, I chase after these new ideas and take up new projects, left and right, neglecting the real parts of my life that suffer from my lack of attention. I’m so busy researching and reading and exploring my MRI in 3D, that I forget to pay bills. Or do paperwork. Or make calls I need to be making.

I don’t think I fully understood the impact that my intense need for mental stimulation had on my life, until a little over a year ago, when I came across one of my old notebooks that had plans and details and milestones for all these projects I had once been utterly consumed by. There were no less than seven different highly involved, complex projects that filled different parts of that three-ring notebook. And then I found more in another notebook. I uncovered a whole bunch of different projects that I’d started… then got distracted from and completely forgot about.

Discovering those notebooks opened my eyes in several ways.

First, I realized that I had so completely forgotten about those projects, that they might as well have never existed. And that happened, after I had invested literally hundreds of hours scoping and planning in great detail for each of them. It seemed impossible that I would forget even one of these projects. But I had lost track of more than ten.

Second, I realized just how irrationally compulsive I was about my projects, and it occurred to me that someting might be very wrong in my thought processes. The majority of people I know don’t do this sort of thing… why was I?

Third, I realized that even if I had all the time in the world, I never could have finished all of these Very Important Undertakings. But that didn’t matter to me. What mattered to me, was the doing. The “journey”. The process of pursuing these things. It went against every fiber in my pragmatic being and seemed like a total waste of time. Yet, part of me didn’t care. It would create with abandon and not give a crap about what might actually come of it all. And that troubled me. Because it didn’t seem like me.

Or maybe it did. All my life, I’ve been fascinated by fringe interests and I’ve pursued them with gusto.  When I was a kid, I had a lot of projects going on all the time, and my parents and teachers used to just writhe with frustration at how I could never take any of my projects to a higher level, where they would develop fully and be shareable with others. I would read all about certain subjects and discourse on them at great length, but I could never seem to develop my interests in other directions. I had a “chemistry set” in the basement, where I did extensive studies on the interactions of vinegar and baking soda, and I mixed leftovers from my father’s aftershave with my mother’s talcum powder. But my interests never went much farther than that, for all I learned about fizzy cooking ingredients and the crackle patterns of dried personal care products.

In my adulthood, the intensity of my interests increased substantially, as has their esoteric “quotient”. Over the past 20 years, I have frequently found myself deeply engulfed in studies that interested maybe 5 other people in the world, but my devotion ran to the very core of my being. I’ve also found myself utterly consumed with a topic that was probably well beyond my ability to understand — quantum physics, biophysics, medieval history, and more — all sorts of information-intensive subjects that require years of training (which I didn’t have) to understand completely. My interest has intensified and evolved over the years, but the shareability of my learnings actually decreased. I would read and take in and then recount what I had taken in, but my writing was dense and obfuscated by way too much detail.

Then I fell in 2004 and hit my head and found myself unable to focus and sustain the same level of attention to my old areas of study. My office is filled with books I’d bought, intending to read them in my line of study, but it could be that will never happen.

Still, I do crave my distractions. And between 2004 and 2008, the number and kinds of projects I was consumed by increased exponentially. I just careened from project to project, spending long hours scoping and planning and thinking and noodling. I got so swamped in the details, I couldn’t see my way clear to completion on any of them. But I didn’t care. I just wanted the high of that novelty. The newness, the freshness, the rush that came from a bright new idea.

While I was in the thick of my planning and dreaming and scheming, all was well. But when I stepped back and took a closer look at how much energy I was expending, and how it was getting me nowhere, it just didn’t sit right with me. And I’ve been trying to figure out what the underlying mechanism of that is, ever since.

I think I’m closer now to figuring it out, than I’ve been in quite some time. I can’t speak for anyone else, but what I’ve found makes sense in my own personal context. It’s neurological. It’s biochemical. It’s ingrained. And it’s essential for my mental health and general well-being. I need my distractions, my rushes, my “pump” in order to feel normal. In order to feel human. And the thing that delivers a better rush and pump than just about anything else, is novelty. A new idea. A fresh concept. It’s a tonic to me… and an essential one at that.

Dr. Irving Biederman has some really interesting things to say about this stuff. It’s my understanding that he specializes in things like the neurology of face recognition (which, it occurs to me, could be really useful to folks who study autism/Asperger’s Syndrome and are trying to understand why ASD folks have a hard time decoding facial expressions). This “info junkie” track he occasionally writes about seems like a lesser area of interest for him, from what I’ve read. But it’s much more practically useful to me, than shape and face recognition.

So, that’s what I dwell on, vis-a-vis his reasearch.

Here’s an article about the sensual lure of mental novelty, which I swiped in its entirety from the LA Times:
From the Los Angeles Times

The 411 to avoid boredom

As ‘infovores,’ information is the fuel that keeps our brains all fired up.

By Irving Biederman

July 19, 2008

Crackberry. Only a metaphor for our addiction-like urge to check e-mail? Or does the term shed light on a deep biological truth about our hunger for information?

Human-motivation studies traditionally stress well-established needs: food, water, sex, avoidance of pain. In a culture like ours, most of these needs can be satisfied easily. Just open the refrigerator door, or blow on that spoonful of hot soup. (Satisfying the need for sex may require a bit more doing.)

What’s been missing from this scientific research is humans’ nonstop need for more information.

We are “infovores.” The human eye makes three fixations a second on the world around it, and not at random. Our gaze is drawn to items we suspect have something new to tell us — posters, signs, windows, vistas, busy streets. Confined to a featureless physician’s examination room, we desperately seek a magazine, lest we be reduced to counting the holes in the ceiling tiles. Cornered at a party in a banal conversation, we seek to freshen our drink.

Without new information to assimilate, we experience a highly unpleasant state. Boredom. Conversely, at one time or another, each of us has felt the joy of information-absorption — the conversation that lasts late into the night, the awe at a magnificent vista.

Cognitive neuroscience — the science that seeks to explain how mind emerges from brain — is beginning to unravel how this all works. At USC, my students and I use brain scanning to specifically investigate the neuroscience behind the infovore phenomenon.

The explanation involves opioids, one of many neurotransmitters — which are molecules that the neurons in our brain release to activate or inhibit other neighboring neurons. The effect of opioids is pleasurable. In fact, the same neural receptors are involved in the high we get from opiate drugs, such as heroin or morphine.

In the past, these opioids were believed to exist primarily in the spinal cord and lower brain centers, where they reduced the sensation of pain. But more recently, a gradient of opioid receptors was discovered in a region of the cerebral cortex, humans’ enormous outer brain layer that is largely responsible for perception and cognition.

In the areas of the cortex that initially receive visual or auditory information, opioids are sparse. But in “association areas,” where the sensory information triggers memory and taps into previous knowledge, there is a high density of opioid receptors. So the more a new piece of information tickles that part of your brain where you interpret the scene or conversation, the bigger the opioid hit.

Staring at a blank wall will produce few, if any, mental associations, and thus standing in a corner is punishment. Looking at a random mass of objects will produce strong activation only in the initial stages, where there is little opioid activity to be had.

Gaze at something that leads to a novel interpretation, however, and that will spur higher levels of associative activity in opioid-dense areas. We are thus thrilled when new insights tap into what we have previously learned. We seek ways to feed our opioid desires; we are willing to endure the line at the movie theater in anticipation of the pleasure within. We pay more for a room with a view or a cup of coffee at a Parisian sidewalk cafe.

But if we get more opioids from making connections to our memories and knowledge, why do we then prefer the new? The first time our brains take in a new perception — a scene, a movie, a literary passage — there’s a high level of activity in which a few neurons are strongly activated but the vast majority are only moderately or weakly activated. The strongly activated neurons inhibit the weak — so there’s a net reduction of activity and less opioid pleasure when our brain is exposed to the same information again. (Don’t feel sorry for the inhibited neurons, the losers in this instance of neural Darwinism. They are now freed up to code other experiences.)

No wonder we can’t resist carrying a BlackBerry 24/7. Who knows what goodies it will deliver? A breaking news item. A piece of gossip. An e-mail from a long-ago girlfriend. Another wirelessly and instantaneously delivered opioid hit.

I hope you got a few opioid hits, too, in learning about your inner infovore.

As for me, I’m starting to feel separation anxiety. Where’s my BlackBerry?

Irving Biederman directs the Image Understanding Laboratory at USC, where he is a professor in the departments of psychology and computer science and the neuroscience program.

I did indeed get more than a few opioid hits while I was reading this. As Dr. Biederman says, in “association areas,” where the sensory information triggers memory and taps into previous knowledge, there is a high density of opioid receptors. So the more a new piece of information tickles that part of your brain where you interpret the scene or conversation, the bigger the opioid hit. And because I’ve devoted so much of my life to acquiring and taking in information… data… knowledge and what memories I am able to create and maintain are quite intact (my info absorption during memory creation is about around 60%, but my retention is close to 100%, so I have very detailed recollections of a little more than half of what I am exposed to), that my association areas are well-disposed to getting high off this information.

I suspect that’s what makes the internet so addictive for me — and others. It’s not about the movies and games and pictures. It’s about the novel information that I can read and take in and assimilate and use to feed my inner needs, which are more than just an information addiction.

And I suspect this is what makes my world of projects so fascinating and compelling for me. It’s not about commercializing or publicizing my work. It’s not about profiting from it or getting famous from it. It’s not about taking the projects public, or even actually finishing them. It’s just about doing them. Creating. Being. Doing. Having at it and seeing what happens. Learning. Driving. Getting energized. And cutting the pain I’m usually fighting, in the process.

It’s not about the projects. It’s not even about my progress. It’s about the pain. Getting rid of it. Doing away with it. Keeping my mind off it. Not being debilitated by it. It’s about relieving the distress that comes from the daily difficulties I have with the most basic shit on earth — getting out of bed, taking a shower and using soap and shampoo, making sure I don’t lose my balance and fall in the tub, getting dressed in clean clothes that I didn’t wear yesterday, making a breakfast that will get me through the morning, feeding the cat and gathering my work stuff, making sure I have my wallet and car keys and my daily minder, and getting in the car without bumping against it and getting my work clothes covered with salt and dust that’s leftover from the winter and I haven’t gotten around to cleaning off my car, just yet.

There is so much that others can take for granted, when it comes to everyday life. How hard can it be? Well, if you don’t know… trust me, you don’t want to know. All I can say is, when I look at my distractions, my intellectual compulsions, my wide array of Beloved Projects That Will Probably Go Nowhere, I see a pattern of analgesic activity that may not serve a higher purpose and come to much, in terms of published papers or fame and glory and prizes, but which is utterly essential to my daily functioning as a “regular” person. Without my all-consuming interests, my fascinations, my cognitive compulsions, my life would be a lot more painful, my mind would be a lot less clear, and I’d be a lot less useful — not only in advanced ways, but in the most fundamental ways one can imagine.

Now, where are those printouts I’d gotten on the long-term biochemical effects of post-traumatic stress? I’ve got work to do…

When in doubt… sleep

Last night I officially wore too thin.

It was not a good night. After what felt like an impossibly long day, I just fell apart and broke down around the time I should have been going to bed. I got into a fight with my partner and shouted and slammed doors and stormed off and wept bitterly for about an hour.

This morning I feel hungover and groggy and stupid for having let everything get to me.

Note to self: When it’s all getting to be too much, stop trying to think things through and just get some rest.

Looking back, I can see how everything just piled up on top of me. The session with my therapist, that left me feeling like an idiot. The challenge of keeping functional at a job I’m only going to be at for another week. The pressure of learning specific skills I need to have, when I start my new job(!) in a little over a week. The insecurity I feel at stepping up my career path at this dream job of mine, which is a continuation of what I had been doing back before I had my fall in 2004. I’m terribly concerned that I’m not going to be able to hang in there and do the work. And I’m worried that my TBI stuff is going to get in the way.

But instead of paying attention to all that and slowing down and taking care of myself, I’ve been pushing myself harder and harder. My “Perilous Relief” has now swung around to bite me in the ass, and I melted down. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t pretty. And now I feel like crap.

This is something I really need to pay attention to. I haven’t been getting the kind of sleep I need, lately. I’ve been too busy, too wrapped up in all kinds of important stuff, too worried, too everything. I’ve been driven by my anxiety, my insecurity, my bubbling borderline panic.

Letting that get hold of me is no good. And it just makes my headache more intense. I need to pay attention to my warning signs… and do something about them.

So, what are my warning signs?

Being 150% convinced that a new project is something I must do.

I find myself starting to come up with new projects to work on that suddenly infuse me with all sorts of energy and fascination. I come up with things like creating 6-week courses in online job-seeking skills, or writing a full documentation set for a favorite software program that needs more detail, or launching a new career as a technical translator. In actuality, those projects are ill-conceived and not practical. They appeal to me on a high level, but I do not have the stamina — or the sustainable interest — that is necessary to make them “fly”. And I don’t usually think them through well enough at the outset to realize that there’s a whole lot more detail and involvement in them than I’m ready or willing to devote myself to.

So, I end up canning the ideas in the early implementation stage… and I get down on myself for having gone down that track.

In reality, what I am really doing is infusing my tired brain with energy. It has nothing to do with my life’s work or my chosen path. These new projects are just ways to invigorate a brain that’s pulsing a little more slowly than I’d like.

Not bothering to sleep.

The more tired I get, the harder it is for me to sleep. Funny how that works… I have been so caught up in running here, there, everywhere, tending to stuff, tending to what needs to happen, that I haven’t slowed down long enough to get some rest.

That’s bad. Fatigue is a huge stressor for me and it turns my triggers into hair-triggers.

Going too fast.

I have been kind of going a mile a minute, lately. I’ve been cramming in all kinds of extra activities into my days — running errands, writing emails, doing chores, picking up extra projects. Some of it has been really important, of course — like getting my new job situation lined up. But some of the other stuff has been non-essential — like trips to the library to get books I don’t need to be reading. I’ve been careening from one activity to the other, instead of taking my time. And that’s caused me to make little mistakes along the way, like forgetting to do certain chores and forgetting to send the emails that I do need to send. Little mistakes throw me off and turn into larger issues.

Not self-assessing.

It doesn’t really take much for me to self-assess each week. Or even each week. But I’ve been avoiding it like crazy, and it’s not helping. I’m not keeping tabs on my different issues, so they get out of hand, and I literally forget that I’ve got problems in certain areas. It’s just not good. Ironically, knowing what problems I’m having alleviates them. But ignoring them and pretending they don’t matter just makes them worse. Some people (who I say belong to the “think happy thoughts” school) say that you shouldn’t “give any energy” to troubling conditions, as though paying attention to them makes them worse. But in actuality, not paying attention to them makes them so much more problematic, than if I blithely disregard them.

So, what do I do about all this?

First, start self-assessing again.

Pay attention to what’s going on with me.

Second, get some sleep.

Real sleep. In the pitch-black guest bedroom at the back of the house.

Take looooong naps on the weekend.

Make sure I start going to bed no later than 10:00 p.m. each night.

Enlist the help of my partner to make sure I do this religiously, until I’m caught up.

Listen to my guided imagery to help me with restful sleep.

Deprioritize everything that is not essential, until I am caught up and am feeling better.

Third, stick to my plan.

I actually do have a plan for my life and work. I have specific steps I am going to follow to set things in order and keep myself on track. And I need to abide by it. Stick with the program. Don’t deviate. Just follow it through, one step at a time. Having a specific, expressed plan of action takes the pressure off the part of me that gets anxious about unknowns. And sticking with the plan makes my life a whole lot simpler — and less stressful.

Fourth, write… write… and write some more.

Writing really soothes me a great deal. It helps me focus, it helps me get in touch with what’s going on with me, it helps me keep my act together. I just need to write in ways that are structured and on-p0int. For many years, I kept journals that were rambling, stream-of-consciousness explorations of my inner world. They seemed to make me feel better, while I was writing in them, but in actuality, they were a kind of drug that numbed me to my troubles. They didn’t help me overcome them; they actually got me mired in them even more — I filled them with perpetual, rambling detail that was meaningless to everyone except me in that moment.

The kind of writing I need to do now is very pointed, very lasered, very specific to the real world I experience around me. It’s not all meant for public consumption — I have a number of writing projects behind the scenes that will probably never see the light of day in my lifetime, if at all. But the discipline of writing in a deliberate, structured way is good practice for my life.

In a way, I think that writing is my spiritual practice. I’ll have to write more on that later. But for now, it’s time for me to get on with my day. Take care of some errands I need to do, and prepare for a day of work at a job I’m phasing out.

I actually have a lot of really wonderful things happening in my life. But if I’m not rested and fully functional, all the wonderful things become a terrible burden for my little brain, and the sweet nectar of life gets gooey and a little rancid.

Yes, yes, yes… When in doubt… Sleep.

I may need to find another job…

This is really bumming me out. It just sucks. In another few weeks, I may be looking for another job, uprooting myself from the place I’ve been at for the past eight months, and transitioning into another company, position, and whole new group of people to figure out.

It doesn’t make me happy. And I hate being in this situation, but I have to do what I have to do.

Basically, the place where I’m working now wants me to go to full-time permanent, and my boss say’s they’re under pressure to convert people from contractors to perm. Either that, or get rid of the contractors (which would include me). Now, I have to take that with a grain of salt, because my boss has been known to “shade” the truth to push forward their own agenda(s), so who knows exactly what they’re being told. Bottom line is, they’re pushing to get me to convert to permanent, and it’s really uncomfortable for me. It’s terrible on a number of different levels.

First off, they’re trying to low-ball me. They converted other folks in my group to perm, and those folks are actually very weak and easy to push around, so they agreed to take less money than they could reasonably demand. Part of the problem with these folks is that they’re not the most dedicated workers, they spend a fair amount of time hanging out and doing things other than working, and they are also easily bullied — perhaps in part because they know they’re slacking and they don’t want to rock the boat.

I, on the other hand, am a workaholic, and it is rare that I’m ever not working. I was working on my stuff till 10:00 last night — in part because I love what I do, in part because I need to pace myself over the course of my day and break up my work into smaller, more manageable pieces.

But my boss doesn’t see it that way. All they see are dollar signs, so when my two slacker co-workers took less money, they set a precedent that I’m stuck with — and the bitch of it is, one of the slackers is higher up than me, organizationally, so my boss has to offer me less, which is just awful.

Second of all, no matter how well prepared and how skilled I am, the fact remains that change freaks me out. Completely. I can’t even begin to say, just how stressful it is for me. When I was younger, and before I had sustained all these head injuries (I’ve had at least three over the course of my working life, on top of the 4+ I had when I was a kid, and my ability to handle change has decreased with each one), I could shift between different tasks and different jobs and not worry about it. But now I’m having a really hard time with even the idea of change. It’s making me very, very nervous, very, very uncomfortable… it’s keeping me up at night, and waking me up early… it’s agitating me and putting me into a cycle of fatigue-driven poor decision-making patterns that are worrying me. I want to believe I can handle this, and part of me believes that I can. But the rest of me is extremely uncomfortable with uprooting myself from my routine and hauling myself off to another gig with another bunch of people, another whole opportunity to make an ass of myself, and yet more chances to alienate and irritate people who don’t really know me without meaning to.

Third, my resume has some spotty stuff on it that makes me suspect, so it undermines my confidence and ‘smooth’ presentation at interviews. Over the past 2-3 years, since I was ejected from my Good Job with that Big Company, I’ve had a bunch of different jobs, some of which went south because I couldn’t keep it together. The stress of the jobs, my poor decision-making (which was largely a result of my stress-induced analgesia/soothing-seeking cycle, where I would semi-intentionally put myself  into a highly stressed state, day after day and week after week and month after month, just to feel normal and functional), and the cumulative effects of stress on my system took their toll, and I crashed and burned and didn’t handle my exits very well. I can still smell the bridges burning, in fact, and it’s tough to think about how badly I screwed up those  jobs, not only in terms of leaving, but in terms of having taken them in the first place. They weren’t good fits for me from the start, but did I listen to myself? Oh, no! I was much too hungry for the stress and strain of bad decisions. So, now I have to explain myself to folks, if I go back out into the world. And God forbid, if they contact those people…

Fourth, if I go, then my insurance is probably going to have to change. That means I have to wrap up all my testing pronto and I have to make sure my insurance company is properly billed and all that, before I go.  It puts tremendous pressure on me to finish up something that I don’t want to rush. And it also screws up my partner’s health situation, because they have ongoing health insurance needs that are covered by insurance I have through my present agency, which is telling me there are no jobs out there — which I know for certain is not the case, because the job boards are full to bursting with work I can do. This whole insurance thing is a real problem. It’s not something that the federal government may be able to fix — a whole lot of money would go a long way towards solving it for me, but who knows if/how/when that’s going to happen?

And last but not least, I just don’t want to go looking for another job! After eight months, I’m just now getting settled into my current job, and now they have to go and churn things up by trying to convert me — for less money than I deserve, or can reasonably expect to earn, even in today’s market. I want to settle in and take care of myself, do my TBI rehabilitation, let down my guard for just one minute, and focus on restoring the parts of me that are broken. I need a serious break. And I mean a serious break. I’ve been going and pushing and striving for so long, I’ve forgotten there is anything else in the world, and I was just starting to realize there’s more to life than constantly pushing, constantly going, constantly trying to make up for lost time, lost chances, lost hopes. I want to just have my daily routine, get up and go to work, come home and contemplate my life, be with my beloved, have a nice dinner, spend my weekends hiking in the woods and reading good books and getting together with friends. I don’t want to be — yet again — plunged into the chaos of adjusting to a new place, new people, new routines, new rules. It’s so confusing and stressful for me, and then it sets me off in a downward spiral of problems, problems, and more problems. It’s just so hard, and I don’t want to have to do it!

But if I have to, I will. It won’t be the first time I’ve had to really drive myself to do the right thing, when the right thing was the last thing I wanted to do.