True Independence

There are many different ways to do things

I think I need to start seeing my chiropractor again. The headaches are back after quite some time of being away, and I haven’t been feeling that great, lately.

Lots of pain. I wake up in pain, and at the end of the day I’m in pain. I also haven’t been sleeping that great, either. All of these things were better when I was seeing my chiro, but I had to stop because I ran out of money and I couldn’t afford $120/month for adjustments. It’s just too expensive, even when insurance does cover it. When I’m fully covered, it’s $15 co-pay, and I have to go twice a week, so that’s $30/week — $120/month. That money needs to go to things like my electric bill, to run my air conditioners, pay off some back bills, etc.

Come to think of it, I guess I don’t need have the option to start seeing my chiropractor again. There’s just no way I can come up with that kind of money on a monthly basis. You’d think that it wouldn’t be a problem because of my job and my salary, but between car repairs, mortgage payments, food and gas, and … well, you know the drill. Something has to give, so I have to find another way to do better for myself and feel better in my daily life.

So, it’s back to the drawing board and doing basic things like stretching and moving on a regular basis… getting decent sleep by making it a priority and making sure I at least start to bed well before midnight. I also need to watch my posture and make sure I don’t stress out my body by slouching or getting stuck in off-balance sitting positions at work all day. Just basic stuff, really — but the kind of basic stuff that gets lost in the shuffle, because, well, it’s just not very sexy, it’s drab and everyday and it doesn’t always grab my attention.

But it’s the kind of stuff that matters — really matters — on a regular basis. And if I don’t pay attention on a regular basis, I just get into trouble. In a way, seeing a chiropractor was compensation for me living like a bit of an idiot. I wasn’t taking good enough care of myself, so I hired someone to fix what I’d broken and wasn’t taking care of. I get that now. So, it’s no more excuses — and back to basics.

Which is a good place to start for July 4th – Independence Day. If I think about taking care of the basics in terms of supporting my own independence from expensive experts and professionals (who may or may not be able to help me), then it becomes a lot more interesting and compelling, than thinking about it as something I “have” to do (sigh)… or else.

What a difference a slight change of perspective can make. It can mean the difference between an odious task and something I do on my own to make my life better, to make myself better, to be stronger and more free than ever, without being held back by lack of money or access to professionals.

If that’s not what Independence Day is about, I’m not sure what is.

Speaking of changes in perspective, I’ve been reading more on the Polyvagal Theory, and it’s making a lot of sense to me. The basics are pretty self-evident to me — we have a three-fold system for dealing with challenges in our lives:

  1. An ancient, primal (vagal) system which automatically shuts down our heart rate and breathing and muscle tone in response to inescapable threat. I call this “hypo-freeze” because hypo means “lower” — as in hypotension or hypothyroidism.
  2. A more recently developed sympathetic nervous system which causes fight-flight (and hyper-freeze — which is the high-muscular-tone freeze that’s completely different in nature from the hypo-freeze primal vagal impulse) to kick in to override the hypo-freeze, so you don’t get killed off by your body’s own automatic response to inescapable threat.
  3. A more developed vagal response system which can control the two earlier systems. This system is closely tied in with the muscles of the face and neck, and it can literally signal the “all clear” based on observing the expressions on others’ faces, among other things.*

Essentially, what can happen, is that you can run out of coping and response strategies when faced with inexplicable, inescapable, and seeming insurmountable challenges. When we run out of higher-level approaches (like being able to think things through), we revert to the older ways of responding. And then we can get stuck in those ways of responding, because the “neuroceptive” response (what we take in on a biological/neurological level, rather than an intellectual/conscious level) which is based on prior experiences, kicks in at levels thatprecede conscious thought.

Long story short, our bodies are wired to survive, and when they’ve become trained to respond with fight-flight, time and time again, we automatically jump to that without even thinking about it. Even if we are thinking about it, we sometimes (or often) can’t stop the process of kicking into fight-flight mode, because our bodies are so well-trained in doing that.

Which ties in with the readings I’m doing on trauma and PTSD. It puts trauma and post-traumatic stress in a whole new light. And it gets it out of the domain of the psychological mental illness… and into the domain of the physiological. It explains a whole lot, and actually excuses a whole lot, too. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it excuses the brain’s/mind’s role in “causing” bad behavior to happen.

And what happens, when we get our brains/minds off the hook for our “mental illness” and start to see our cognitive-behavioral issues as physical issues which were trained to be that way? For me, it tells me that I’m NOT crazy, that I’m NOT mentally ill (as well-meaning and ill-meaning people like to pronounce me). It tells me that I am dealing with a physical condition that was trained into place, and it can be trained to do something different. It doesn’t just get me off the hook in ways I never should have been ON the hook, to begin with. It shows me the way to do something about my situation — and approach my challenges in whole new ways.

Being human and all, of course I have a lot to learn, and my understanding is still imperfect. It will probably always be imperfect. But at least now I have more to go by, than I did just six months ago.

And that’s the beauty of the right information — and access to the right information. I have found a bunch of really great papers and links on the polyvagal theory (I’ll have to dig them up and share them here), which have served to really expand my understanding and give me much hope. I can’t say that my understanding is perfect, but when I practice what I read and I think about what it all seems to be saying, it helps. It helps a great deal. It’s information that I can put into practice, by doing my daily breathing exercises first thing in the morning before I start anything else, and also recognizing the biochemical processes that are kicking off when I (or others around me) start to get revved and rammy. It helps me come up with different responses and it motivates me to take better care of myself, get better sleep, take it easy (especially last night after the fireworks, which were both beautiful and very stressful with all the noise and lights — and me being behind on my sleep). It gives me more to go by, than “I’m a nervous wreck again” — and it shows me the way to level out after those extreme spikes and jolts that used to just wreck me.

Information is power. Knowledge (the ability to put information into action) is power. It’s all power of the best kind — not power over others, but power over our own lives, our own experiences, our own futures… beyond the dictates of fate.

Well, it looks like it’s turning out to be a beautiful day. The rain of this morning has given way to sunny, clear skies. We needed the rain, and now we have a clear day for the 4th. Not bad. Not bad at all.


* People are calling the most recently developed vagal system the “social” vagus, but to me, that’s just a related aspect of the mechanism that doesn’t describe what it actually does. It describes how — based on just some of the ways it operates. The “social” moniker seems to have sprung up as a result of people connecting malfunctions of this vagal system with autism and other social challenges, so they’ve taken a bit of a conceptual detour (probably in the interest of popularizing the concept and making it more appealing to funding sources). But my arguments about naming conventions are getting me off track, so more on that later.

Just understanding makes things better

So, I’ve been reading up on the Polyvagal Theory, and it’s really making a lot of sense to me. In a nutshell (if I dare to summarize), the human system has three systems which respond to the environment, especially perceived threat:

  • The primal vagus – which is responsible for the freeze response like turtles have — shutting down the system in the face of inescapable threat. This kind of freeze slows the heart rate and reduces oxygen to the body — it’s basically getting ready to die, and making sure you don’t feel the pain when you go. This is not a system we can really control.
  • The sympathetic nervous system – which is responsible for kicking in the fight-flight response. It also kicks in a different sort of freeze response than the primal vagus — the sympathetic freeze response is where you tense up, like a deer in headlights. This freeze is completely different from primal vagal freeze, because your system does the opposite and increases breathing and heart rate. This system responds to our thoughts and reactions and interpretations of our environment, so we can sort of control it to some degree.
  • The “directing” vagus – which regulates the other two systems and also makes it possible for you to consciously slow your heart rate or breathing, and regulate your system intentionally. The nerve endings are very closely located to the muscles of the face and neck, and we “cue” off the facial expressions that are produced from messages the social vagus detects in our system (like fear or anger or happiness) to regulate our own social behavior, as well as our reactions to our environment.

The directing vagus (as I call it) is the most recently developed system, next is the sympathetic nervous system, and the primal vagus is the oldest and least controllable of the three. The cool thing about this three-fold system, is that they all interplay with each other, and the more developed systems can override the more primal ones.

If the sympathetic nervous system couldn’t override the primal vagus, there would be a lot less people in the world, because the human system can’t handle extended periods of shutting off oxygen and blood flow (like reptiles can). Our lives would be much shorter, if we didn’t have the SNS fight-flight to kick in and take over in times of extreme danger/distress.

But at the same time, staying stuck in fight-flight 24/7 is no good, so we have the directing vagus that helps us consciously regulate our systems and power down the fight-flight when we no longer need it. The directing vagus is closely connected with interpersonal interactions and reasoning. It not only delivers messages from the body to the brain, but it also helps the brain regulate the body. Problems arise, like PTSD and other mental health issues like panic/anxiety, when we get stuck in that fight-flight loop and can’t get out.

So, how to get out…? I must admit, I’ve been reading a whole lot, so some points may not be totally clear for me yet, but the way I understand it is this: When you’re really stressed, physiologically and neurologically, you are not capable of thinking clearly, and your problem-solving abilities really suffer. But when your system is balanced and rested and responding well to the world, it’s possible for you to “recruit” the full range of your problem-solving abilities and approach your life as a learning experience, not a continuously pitched battle. Now, stress is inevitable in today’s world, but through the directing vagus, you can override the instinct to fight-flight and call on other abilities to deal with your environment that don’t involve still more battle.

And how do we activate the directing vagus? Well, we can do it socially, through talking and sharing meals (talking and eating activate systems in your body that are close to the directing vagus fibers, so the vagus is stimulated as well). We can also do it consciously on our own, through certain types of breathing, movement, mindfulness, and other activities. (The directing vagus both “listens” to the body and gives it instructions, so mindfulness is sort of like exercise for your vagal pathways.) We can also do it semi-consciously by changing our attitude and re-intepreting our experiences to be less combative. By changing our minds about things, we can literally retrain our systems to get out of fight-flight mode, relax, and come up with different approaches to our situation in life.

And that’s important. Because the three systems work in a loop. If the more developed directing vagus system can’t cope with what’s in front of it, the body activates the sympathetic nervous system to spring into fight-flight. And if the SNS isn’t working out, then the primal vagus kicks in to start shutting down the system (preparing to die). It’s an automatic and sometimes uncontrollable chain reaction, and it’s set off when the hierarchical systems fail in the order of sophistication. It’s like the body is looking for the first, best answer to the situation — if the complex thought processes of the directing vagus can’t solve the problem, then fight-flight kicks in, and if that fails, then the primal system takes over and rational thought and conscious choice become that much more elusive. The body keeps looking for answers, and if it can’t find something that will let it respond to a perceived threat, then it just goes into “kill me now and get it over with” mode.

And that’s a pretty rough place to be.

So, what will keep that cascade of diminishing options from kicking off? Well, to me it seems that information and understanding — both about the environment and your internal resources — will go a long way to helping. If you understand in your mind what’s really going on with you (for example, that your brain is acting up because you didn’t get enough sleep last night), and you can reason your way through to a solution (going easy on yourself and taking a nap later in the day), then there’s less reason for the fight-flight response to kick in, and you still have a bunch of cognitive resources available to you. You’re still able to access all your circuits, and that frees you up to make well-informed choices.

Even if you do go into fight-flight mode, and your “unnecessary” neural processes start to shut down because of the stress response, you can take a step back, take a deep breath (or two or three or 20), and re-think things. You can consciously slow yourself down and get yourself back to a more balanced state by using the directing vagus to chill. And that frees up more of your circuits to come up with better ideas and a plan for getting out of the jam you’re in.

Just understanding what’s going on around you — and inside you — can make all the difference in how you approach your challenges. This is why I believe so strongly that TBI/concussion survivors and their loved ones should be educated as much as possible about the brain and how it reacts to traumatic brain injury. Just knowing that you’re not crazy, that this upheaval is a natural response to the injury, and that things will change over time, can help dispel a whole lot of anguish.

I know it did for me.

On top of having information about TBI/concussion, it’s also critical to have knowledge of yourself, to know for a fact that you are capable of handling the things that come up in life, and to be confident that, no matter what happens, you’ll be able to figure things out. Confidence of that kind can be hard to come by in the aftermath of TBI, but cultivating that is so very important. It’s also contagious — your confidence tends to carry over to others, thanks at least in part to the directing vagus, which communicates with the rest of the world via facial muscles and the interpretation of clues and cues coming from others’ faces.

Bottom line is, knowledge is powerful, and in approaching the trauma of TBI and/or concussion and managing the symptoms and after-effects, you can’t put a price on knowledge and understanding. Having more information makes it possible for us to turn to reason — having less information forces us to resort to fight-flight tactics, which just adds to our stress (and that’s probably connected with why experiences with doctors/medical experts can be so traumatic for so many – they just don’t give us much to work with).

Understanding is hugely important on many different levels. You can’t put a price on it.

And with that, I’m off to work, operating with the understanding that I didn’t get nearly enough sleep last night, and that I need to pace myself and also look for an opportunity to catch a quick nap later this afternoon.



Off to a better start (today)

After the flood

Well, I got another lesson yesterday. I’ve been really struggling with my sleep and my workload, and yesterday I thought I’d try to pack in as much as I could — and it totally backfired. I ended up really frying my system and getting into a protracted argument with my spouse that really took it out of me. By the end of the day, I was sick and more tired than ever, and feeling like crap.

I felt terrible about myself, about my behavior, about my inability to just buckle down and get things done, and about the dynamics at work which have been pretty intense. I was sick to my stomach and sick at heart, and just feeling completely depleted and defeated.

One thing I noticed, however, was something that actually helped me feel better about myself. See, I’ve noticed in the past that after relatively minor “infractions” — a heated argument, or a stressful period of time — my mood spirals and plummets, and I end up feeling disproportionately terrible about myself. In many cases, the arguments or the difficulties I had were not catastrophic, and in fact others who were involved did not end up hating themselves or feeling like trash. But I ended up feeling really, really terrible about what went down, and no matter how I tried to rationally talk myself out of feeling like the world was going to end, nothing seemed to help.

Rational thought was a lost cause. I felt like shit, and that was that. Nothing helped by sleep and keeping chilled out for the next few days.

A few years ago, when I was having some intense episodes of panic and meltdown, followed by terrible feelings of worthlessness and despair, I realized that the times when I felt the worst about myself were when I felt the worst, physically. I know people (including my neuropsych) who believe that our physical well-being follows on what we think about ourselves and our environment, and how we interpret them. That is certainly true to some extent… additionally, I have found that when I feel bad physically, then my mood plummets, and no amount of good sense will turn me around, until I am physically well and balanced again.

It’s like, when I get into these tight situations where I am “pinned down” and feel like I cannot escape, I cannot master the situation, and I am sliding down that ragged slope into a meltdown, my whole body goes haywire, and it fires off all these charges that fill my system with bursts of adrenaline, stress hormones, and whatever else floods my system when I’m feeling cornered. It’s a primal physiological experience, and it completely takes over and shuts down my abilities to deal effectively with whatever is in front of me. I simply cannot recruit the whole of my coping abilities… and in situations of tension where people around me are already on the verge of panic and leaning on me to mirror their own concerns (because not acting as panicked as they are makes them nervous and uncertain), I feel intensely trapped, cornered, and persecuted. But the only way out is through, so I have to deal with them.

But dealing with them in times of intense stress (when my fight-flight response is trying like crazy to override my freeze reaction) the result is some pretty intense battle skirmishes which leave me feeling completely wiped out and destroyed.

It’s not even true that I AM destroyed — I just feel that way. And even if things turn out okay and everything resolves to everyone’s satisfaction in the end, I am left with a backlog of biochemical sludge, just like when a river floods and then recedes, and I’m left with all the sludge-covered bicycles and deflated basketballs and shopping carts and trash that got thrown in the river over the years.

That’s literally what it feels like, and it’s figuratively how it is. Because when I get to that breaking point, I am not dealing only with the present moment. Oh no. I am dealing with all the other moments and hours and days and years behind me when I felt pinned down and couldn’t get myself out of danger… when I was put on the spot by people who meant me ill or well, and I couldn’t come up with anything useful or good to do or say in the moment… and then the memories after the fact of people being so hard on me for things I got wrong or didn’t do or say the way they wanted me to.

When I’m cornered, I’m not just cornered at that moment. I am cornered through all the moments of my prior life — and all my imagined moments in the future.

And I flood. Like that Hungarian town where the container of toxic sludge broke open and doused the town in ochre red poison. That would be me.

And I feel terrible. Physically awful. Like shit.

And then I start to get down on myself. I feel awful mentally and emotionally.

The thing is, the mental and emotional anguish comes after the physical problems. The physical things come up as a result of my mental perception, but the after-effects, which are the most debilitating for days on end, follow the physical effects.

So, it’s not all about my state of mind and emotions that dictates this. It’s also my state of physical being that matters.

And this is key. Because in knowing this, I can take concrete, definite steps to address how I’m feeling mentally and physically. Rather than staying down in that low state, with my hands shaking, my stomach in knots, my thinking foggy, and my voice halting and slurred, I can simply go to bed. That’s what I did last night, after all the BS was over and done with. I went to bed. And I slept. And when I got up this morning, still feeling dull and foggy and sick, I got my exercise in. I didn’t just lie in bed and look out the window. I got on the exercise bike, did my leg lifts, and I lifted my weights, after being away from that for several days.

It’s critically important that I keep up with my exercise. If I don’t, and if I don’t keep to some sort of schedule, then I go off the rails, and I end up feeling physically bad — which in turn results in me feeling mentally and emotionally fragile. Like glass. It seems ridiculous to think about, but that’s how I feel — like glass. And over what? A misunderstanding that escalated quickly out of control.

But there’s more to it — it’s not just what/how I think about things. It’s how I physically experience them. If I am pushed to the brink, I react physically. We all do. And with me, I react probably more extremely than most normal people do. I escalate very quickly — and it’s not just about my thinking process. It’s about my physical reaction to things, which I really believe is tied in with my underlying autonomic nervous system reactions that have evolved over decades of stress and strain. As a result of so much that has happened to me, as well as systemic issues that come from my TBIs, I’m wound more tightly than I’d like, and I’m on a hair-trigger — all for a ton of different reasons that all add up to a potential explosion, over the seemingly most minor of things.

I’m not saying all this because I’m trying to excuse my behavior and get myself off the hook. I’m saying all this because it’s critical for me to understand, so I can manage it all. This is not a situation I care to be in. I am capable of better, and I know it. The thing is, I can’t manage a situation, if I don’t understand the underlying issues, and I can’t understand if I don’t identify what’s going on.

I’m sure I’ve written about this stuff in the past. I just can’t remember right now. My thinking is still foggy and a bit clunky. The thing is, I’ve at least started out on a better foot than I did yesterday or the day before. I got up at a decent hour. I got my exercise. And I had my breakfast and vitamins. I didn’t overdo it and I didn’t underdo it. I just did it. I also realize that my feelings of depression and despair are physically based, and I know they will pass as I continue to do healthy things over the coming days. It helps to know this, even if I feel like sh*t right now. And despite feeling like a once-flooded Eastern European village, that’s starting to make a difference.

The other thing that’s making a difference, is my increasing understanding with the Polyvagal Theory, which explains so much that I’ve had hunches about before, and confirms my suspicions from personal experience. In many cases — more than some guess, I believe — our bodies set the stage for our mental and emotional reactions and well-being. It’s nice to think that a “top-down” approach of mind-over-matter can control our destiny, however there’s a ton of bottom-up information our systems are constantly dealing with, that affects how we react, how we think, how we live.

So, it’s time to give the body its due. It’s time to recognize the physical components of experience — the felt experiences that affect our thinking and state of heart. And it’s time to take positive, constructive action that makes the most of this recognition. That’s my goal for today, anyway.

Now, off to work…