After a brain injury, it’s awfully easy to get stuck in every single moment.
Everything seems different. Everything is different. Your brain has changed, and you have to devote a whole lot of time to each and every moment, as though it were the only one in your life.
Focusing on the present with laser-like attention became my main form of brain injury rehab. After all, I had to retrain my brain to make sense of what was going on around it, and I had to acclimate (all over again) to certain things I had once taken for granted.
Like brushing my teeth and taking my shower and getting dressed in the proper order each morning.
Like washing dishes and cooking and fixing simple snacks without losing my temper.
Like going to bed at a decent hour and getting up to exercise each morning.
The things that I had once taken for granted… well, that familiarity was taken from me, when I fell in 2004. And everything fell apart.
We don’t realize till it’s gone, how much we really do take for granted, and how much we depended on the predictability to structure our lives. When it disappears, all hell breaks loose. Literally.
But now, after 10+ years of really drilling down on the details of every day, moment to moment, I seem to have turned a corner. And now I’m looking at the “long haul” — what’s ahead of me, not next week or next month, but 10 years down the line… 20… 30… and beyond. I wasn’t born yesterday, but I also come from a long-lived family, and I can realistically expect to live at least 20 years longer than my peers. Maybe even longer than that.
So, I’m shifting my attention away from immediate stuff and concentrating on the big picture. What else is out there? What else can I learn? How else can I grow? Where can I find interesting things to expand my mind and life?
It’s all out there, waiting for me. And it is for you, too.
I’ve been uptight for way too long. I’ve been cranked up, worked up, stressed out, for as long as I can remember. In fact, I didn’t know how to relax until about 10 years ago, when I started deliberately practicing that.
I had no choice. My spouse was seriously ill. I was losing it. I had to figure out a way to get myself back from the edge… I was dangerously close to it, and my life was literally disintegrating around me, along with my sanity.
I got help. I found a neuropsych who could work with me.
I also learned how to do “progressive relaxation” — and I did it on a regular basis. It wasn’t just some fun thing I wanted to try out. It was life-and-death, and the balance of my life depended on it. I sat za-zen. I meditated each day before I did anything, and then again when I went to bed.
Over the years, I’ve lost touch with that old practice. I just didn’t feel like doing it anymore. And I’ve gotten increasingly cranked up and tied up in knots, as the months and years have progressed.
I’m back at that “choice point” again. Relaxation isn’t optional for me. It’s got to become a way of life. It’s not that I’m close to the edge. I’m just sick and tired of being stressed out about everything, and having nothing good come of it. Consider it a reality check on the ROI of being stressed. The return on the “investment” isn’t good.
That means, the time and energy spent is it’s not an investment. It’s a waste. I can’t get those hours and days and weeks back, that I lost to being stressed. They’re gone for good. And what do I have to show for them? A little, but not a lot.
So, I’m going to try something very different. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, but my plan is to keep my system in a prolonged state of relaxation. Just let my body relax. Just let my mind not worry about all that sh*t that everybody else is so worried about. I get too bent about crap I can’t control. It’s just kind of dumb. What the heck do I expect to happen as a result of my outrage, anyway? That it’s going to change anything? It doesn’t — except my internal state of mind. It just wrecks my peace. It doesn’t actually turn the speeding car in the right direction. If anything, it just pushes my internal accelerator to the floor.
And what do I have to show for it, after all those years of slamming the pedal to the metal? Not a whole lot, to be honest. I’ve spent a lot of time being angry, frustrated, outraged, confused, and not nearly as successful as I’d like to be. I’ve gotten in my own way, with all the frenzy. I’ve literally made myself sick, by letting my fight-flight response get the better (and worse) of me.
I know, I know, TBI has complicated matters for me. It’s at the root of much of my suffering, and not understanding it has made things so much worse. There’s no doubt of that. But I’ve also made things more difficult for myself by my choices to get bent out of shape, and stay that way — and also by not actively managing my issues. I have no excuse, now. I haven’t had an excuse for years. I know I’ve got sh*t going on with me, and it’s my responsibility to handle it, already.
But I’m getting tense again.
Let’s try to change that… No, don’t just try — DO.
To quote Yoda…
It is possible to actively change your internal state from fight-flight to relaxation. I’ve known how to do it for years. But I haven’t consistently made a habit of it.
Till now. Till I got sick and tired of having nothing to show for my outrage, other than… outrage.
For the past couple of days, I’ve been deliberately relaxing when I felt myself tighten up. I tighten up — get tense — a lot. After being in a constantly tense state for most of my life, I know how to do that. It’s an immediate reflex. A knee-jerk response.
And when I consciously relax — just let it all go — things tend to clear up. Even if they don’t completely clear up, I feel better. And that’s something. I’m tired of feeling bad all the time, for no good reason. I’m old enough to know better, and I do. I’m also old enough to want to just enjoy myself, instead of chasing all sorts of distant goals that — if I’m honest — were never going to work out, in the first place.
Enough wasting the energy. Enough wasting time I’ll never get back.
So, if migraines are vascular — as I’m told they are — and (in my case, anyway) they develop when my heart rate is elevated… then might it be possible to manage them and calm them down, by managing my heart rate and/or blood pressure.
Interestingly, my blood pressure doesn’t seem to bring them on when I am exercising. It’s when my heart rate gets up there. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened in a while. My headaches have been pretty chilled out, actually.
Perhaps due to cutting back on coffee, as well as stretching more.
Anyway, I’m really practicing lowering my heart rate, as well as my blood pressure, on a regular basis. And it seems to be helping.
Just this morning, there was an early knock on the back door — really loud. It startled me, because we rarely get any guests who come to our back door. And the knocking was really loud. I wasn’t yet dressed, so I threw on some clothes and ran downstairs. My heart was pounding — it was still early, and I wasn’t yet warmed up for the day.
Turns out, a workman had the wrong house. He was nice enough, but my system was still on hyper-alert. And all of a sudden I got a splitting headache.
After I pointed him in the right direction, I went back upstairs and did my controlled breathing. That throbbing behind my eyes was starting to set in, which worried me. So, I breathed slow and steady. My system was full of adrenaline — ready to fight — and I needed to back it down. I checked my heart rate and BP, and my BP was fine — 110/76 or thereabouts. My heart rate was 109. And I know it was going faster than that, when I was running downstairs. I did some more breathing, and my BP stayed about the same, while my pulse went down to about 97. Progress. I put away the blood pressure cuff, and just chilled out, breathing slowly and steadily. Before long, the headache subsided from an 8.5 to a 5… and it’s been slowly decreasing since then. I imagine breath filling my head, expanding gently and then washing the pain away… and it seems to help.
So, for now, I’m hopeful that I can eventually clear the headache and just have a good day.
I’m supposed to get the offer letter for my new job today, and it’s pretty exciting. Then they will need to get me into the system and finally approved (probably with a background check), and I can give my notice by the end of the week.
Then the final countdown starts… and the transition to my new chapter in life begins.
So, last night I went to bed in intense pain, almost unable to breathe. I couldn’t move, without searing pain shooting through my muscles, so I got in bed early and tried this new “somatic” approach I found by accident while looking for an image to use for one of my posts. The image said “Fine tuning the nervous system will have your body respond in a different and more positive manner”, and it struck a chord with me.
I checked out the site, and I discovered this different way of moving and relaxing and releasing which was unlike anything else I’ve found. It’s not about pushing and pulling and making the body do things it “doesn’t want” to do. It’s about retraining the body to do what it “wants” to do, but has forgotten how, over all the years of use and misuse.
It’s about making a movement gently and slowly, then un-making that same movement much, much more sloooowwwwllllyyyyy… and then relaxing, so the brain can release the chemicals the body needs to release. Pretty amazing, actually. It sounds good, but logically (based on my past experience), it doesn’t seem likely.
Still, I tried it. What else could I do? Just lie there in excruciating pain, struggling for breath?
Well, whatever it is that makes this approach work, it worked wonders for me, last night. I really did feel amazing — the pain was actually gone. And I could breathe. I could really breathe — deeply and slowly without struggling.
Pretty phenomenal, actually. And when I really paid attention, I could tell that I was using extra muscles to move different parts of my body. When I arched my back, for instance, I could feel my legs pushing — which is totally unnecessary. But I guess because my back has hurt for so long, I just got used to pushing with my legs.
So, I stopped that and backed off on the effort, and it actually became easier for me to move.
And it’s good. A vast improvement. I did sleep wrong on my arm and I woke up with pins and needles and swollen hand, but that happens. I got up and worked it out, and now it’s gone. So, that’s good too.
The idea of being able to move without excruciating pain is, to put it lightly, very exciting to me. It’s like getting a whole new lease on life. Just being able to breathe last night and relax… pretty phenomenal. I’ve never been very good at relaxing — always too tense, always too wound up. Until several years ago, I couldn’t see the point in relaxing — probably because I didn’t yet know how to do it in a way that really released the tension and pain. Whenever I relaxed, the pain would become overwhelming. So, my solution was to just keep going, just keep pressure on, and not give myself enough time to stop and check on how I was feeling.
That works… to some extent. But the real change comes from actually knowing how to relax and breathe and also release the tension. It’s all come together relatively slowly for me, after years and years of pain. I guess I’d gotten to a point where I figured it was permanent. But now it seems that it might not be… And that’s pretty exciting.
What could I do with more energy? More flexibility? More movement? I know it would definitely take the pressure off… and also simplify my life. When I’m in pain and I’m stressed, I do things like adding way too much crap to my plate that I think “must” be done. It doesn’t have to be done. I just think it does, because my brain is looking for more stimulation to keep its attention off my discomfort. I’ve been doing it for years, so it’s habitual.
Because I hadn’t found a better way.
Here’s hoping this new way continues to work. I have a feeling it just might.
Okay, now that I have opened up the Pandora’s box on this chronic pain and have started paying attention to my muscles when they move, I’m realizing that one of the reasons I don’t always breathe evenly, is because it hurts to breathe.
The simple act of filling my lungs causes my shoulders to lift, which hurts.
It ties into my neck, which also starts to hurt.
And my ribs expand, which also is painful.
Oh, well. I’ve been pretty active, physically, which has something to do with it. I’ve really been pushing myself, lately, lifting heavy weights and doing movements I haven’t done in a long time. I feel much better when I lift heavy weights. I find it very soothing.
At the same time, thought, I tend to be physically active a lot – especially in the winter, when I try to get out and get active as much as possible. I actually do better in the winter, since I can warm up — while in summer I can’t always cool down.
So, I’ve been pushing my body, exercising muscles a lot, and all the extra lactic acid along with the micro-tears in my muscle tissue… well, it’s adding up to a whole lot of pain. Especially when I breathe.
So, I need to really work on that. It’s hard to relax, when I’m not breathing regularly, but my body instinctively tenses up and avoids the pain that comes with deep breathing.
You see my quandary.
Oh, screw it. I’m going to eat some dinner, have some more Advil, take a long hot shower, and crash. I’m pretty wiped out, so I should be able to sleep reasonably well. And when I sleep, I’ll be breathing regularly, so my body will be able to settle back into a rhythm.
I’ve been complaining a bit more than I would like, lately. The space bar thing has thrown me off, to tell the truth. I really need to be able to type quickly, and it’s stopping me from doing that.
Maybe I’m in too much of a hurry, anyway.
It’s Monday. I’m tired from watching the Super Bowl last night and getting so pumped up at the end. But I did sleep till 7 a.m., which is a recent record for me. I’ve been waking up at 4:30 a.m., over the past few weeks, which has not done much for my energy levels.
I don’t have a lot of meetings today, so that’s good.
It will give me time to think things through with work.
It will also give me time to work on my coherent breathing, which has become much more important to me in the past weeks.
I have let my breathing practice slack off, for some reason. Maybe I got to a comfortable place and figured I didn’t need to do it so much anymore. Or I got lazy. Or I got bored. Whatever the reason, I have been feeling the effects of having an out-of-balance autonomic nervous system, with my fight-flight way up there.
I think I let myself get into that state when I need the energy. I need to get pumped up to make it through,and I run out of steam with my daily schedule that is a long slog, each and every day. So I resort to stress to keep myself alert.
This is a common strategy throughout our culture. I’m not alone. But for someone with TBI, it can be a killer. It screws up our thinking process, and it makes it harder for us to function, even though we feel like we have all our ducks in a row. Too much fight-flight blocks your ability to learn, and that learning is the keystone of a solid recovery.
We have to retrain our brains to do many things — sometimes even the simplest of things. Learning is key for us. If we can’t learn, we’re screwed.
So, where does the energy come from? I’ve felt for a long time that we have massive stores of energy within us, waiting to be released. We just don’t always know how to release them. The trick is, figuring out how to release them. Figuring out how to access them.
One way to access the energy is through adversity — facing down situations that are tough and threatening, and rising to the occasion. And then really celebrating, when we come through to the other side in one piece.
My hands are getting tired, so I’m going to leave off now, but that’s just something to think about.
I woke up early – around 4 a.m., which is never good. But things got better after that. I listened to my relaxation MP3s and I managed to get 2 more hours of sleep, which was great. I was having weird dreams, though — something about walking around someone else’s house, and having my car stolen… and not being able to find my way back to where I was supposed to be.
I had some early meetings, then I had another meeting around noon. Then I had the afternoon to focus on getting some work done, and it was pretty productive.
I even had 20 minutes to step away and do my breathing/relaxation, which was good.
All in all, it was a good day. And I even got my weekly acupuncture in, as well.
One of the things that made today especially good, was that I fasted today. I did about a 22 hour fast — from 9:30 last night till 7:30 tonight. I felt good all day. I didn’t suffer terribly with hunger, the way I have in my previous two fasts (it was pretty rough at times). And even when I felt hungry, it wasn’t that panicked kind of voraciousness that made me feel like I was going to die, if I didn’t get something to eat.
This is good. I just realized I was hungry, and I got my mind off it. Did other things.
One of the nice things about fasting, is that it saves me time in the day. If I have a lot to do, it saves me at least 2-3 hours in the day, that I’d normally spend planning on eating, getting something to eat, and then eating. It also kept me more awake all day.
Plus, when I’m hungry, I know I can get difficult. So, I paid an extra amount of attention to my mood and my behavior, and I kept it together extremely well.
Today was a very good day. After the past week or so, I’m due 🙂
This post How I learned to slow my heart rate is by far the most popular one on this site, and it has helped a lot of people, from what they tell me. Folks have shared links to it, and hundreds of people see it each week, which makes me very glad.
Some have even said it helped “save their life” — and that makes me even happier 🙂
Please remember: I am not a doctor. I am not qualified to give medical advice. I have just found a technique that works for me and helps me get my heart rate under control in a few minutes. I hope it helps others, but it’s not a substitute for medical care. See your doctor if you have issues and/or concerns.
I talked before about how sitting za-zen helps me to physically wake up. I can’t sit for very long before I go to sleep, because it wakes me up too much. So, I sit in the mornings – and I’m going to try to sit in the afternoons, when I have a few minutes. I just set up a reminder on my calendar to do it every day at 3 p.m., and we’ll see how that goes.
Now, waking myself up is fine. But in fact, for me, sitting za-zen is about more than that. It’s actually about training myself to choose what kind of experience I want to have — if I want to give in to fatigue and frustration, or if I want to dig down and find the resources to deal better with my situation. I am actually able to change my frame of mind in different circumstances — that’s what I do when I interact with certain types of people. I suffer from terrible dread in so many situations, but I “buck up” and decide I’m going to have a different experience that being full of dread and anxiety, and when I do that, it actually works. I forget about my fears and dive in… and almost always, the result is a good one
Sitting za-zen has given this to me. That’s what it’s about for me — choosing the experiences that I want to have.
It’s very much about learning to choose my reactions to situations… training myself to wake myself up as needed, or to calm myself down if necessary. Sitting with focus demands that I pay close, sustained attention to some very simple things — my breathing and my posture. It trains me to pay attention to how I’m feeling in my body, so my posture is always good. It also trains my attention on my breathing, as I count my breaths and make sure I am breathing at a constant rate. It trains me to note any ideas and thoughts that are flit-flitting through my head, which are taking my focus away from my breathing and my posture.
And it’s hard. It’s quite demanding. It’s so demanding, that it’s rare that I can count 17 full cycles of breath without some interference from thoughts and distractions. I do my best, but it is incredibly difficult at times, to just keep my attention trained on my posture and breathing. My posture is not typically za-zen — I can’t sit cross-legged, because it is too painful and I have back and knee problems, so I generally sit up in a chair. My breathing is steady and balanced — five slow breaths in, a slight pause, then five slow breaths out, followed by another slight pause. Many’s the time when I get to 7 full breath cycles, and then my mind starts to wander.
But after working with this for many years — on and off — I am doing much better about not losing track of the number of breaths, and I’m not as “absent” as I used to get, when I would sit and breathe.
It turns out that this kind of practice is incredibly good for the brain — it decreases the activity which is associated with falling asleep and actually wakes you up. So, contrary to a lot of beliefs that meditation is all about relaxing and chilling out, according to the Awakening Is Not A Metaphor study:
“… the result (of meditation) is not a calming in the direction of relaxation/sleep, but rather a move in the opposite direction: toward an increased alertness and vigilance that counteracts mental laxity and sleepiness.” (p. 6 of 18 in the pdf of the study)
The study talks in depth about it, listing a number of examples where meditation training of one kind or another improved alertness, reduced fatigue, and had positive after-effects for months after a single training session. From personal experience, I can testify that when I sit za-zen regularly, I feel better, I act better, and I’m able to handle what life throws at me, even in very challenging circumstances. I’m training myself to decide — for myself — what my reactions to life are going to be, and I’m reducing my overall reactivity. I’m teaching my brain to not just run in every different direction, following whatever shiny object it might find, and I’m training my mind to not chase after my brain when it starts acting like a monkey running off into the forest with my car keys.
This is such an important part of my TBI recovery — it really supports and strengthens my ability to choose for myself how I will behave, how I will think, how I will react. That choice can mean the difference between saying and doing things to others I will regret and not be able to take back, and keeping my relationships neutral and healthy. It can mean the difference between getting into hot water with the cops and getting let go with a warning, or getting sent to jail. It can mean the difference between becoming angry and letting it go, or letting the rage take hold of me to the point where I break something or hurt someone.
It literally can make all the difference between a temporary upheaval — a speed bump in the road of my life — and a semi-permanent deep-sh*t situation that I have to then manage and smooth over and fix, taking tons of time out of my regular life to fix what I’ve broken.
So, sitting za-zen is more than just a way to pass the time. It’s an important part of my everyday life, that helps me not only feel better, but also helps me act and overall function better. It wakes me up. Because I’m training my brain to wake up. And I’m teaching my mind to react the way IT wants to, not the way others expect or try to force it to.
So, I’ve had a crazy busy week, and I’ve taken a few steps to make my life simpler and less hectic.
The first thing I did, was unfriend a person who has become a tremendous pain in my ass. I work with them, and our relationship has really altered over the past months, with them climbing to the top of the corporate ladder, and me holding back and not diving into all the politics and drama for a number of reasons. First, I’m not at all impressed with the opportunities available to me at work. Second, I’ve already done the ladder-climbing thing, and while it was exciting for a while, back about 15 years ago, I saw the dark side of it and opted out. Third, I’m not big on games. Fourth, in their heady rise to the top, they compete intensely and step on people to get there, and I’m not interested in being someone they compete against. That sh*t just depresses me.
So, while this onetime friend of mine has been maneuvering and operating all over the place (and trying to pull me into their activities), I’ve really cooled to them. And I unfriended them on FB. Which kind of freaked them out and made them feel rejected (which they were, if you think about it). But it simplifies my life, because now I don’t have to worry about getting miffed over something they post — or some comment they make to one of my posts.
FB has gotten way too intrusive for me.
The other thing I did was remove FB from my mobile phone. It was just getting too enticing for me, and I was spending way too much time on pretty much nothing. I mean — like so many others — I would start looking at posts, pictures, movies… and before I knew it, an hour had passed me by.
Which is never good. Especially when I have so little time for the things I truly want to be doing.
So, I made it harder for myself to go on FB, and I removed it from my phone for a few days. And it did simplify my life. (Turns out, I had to reinstall it last night, because my internet connection died, and my smartphone was the only way I could reschedule a meet-up I arranged for today) Just not having access to FB for a few days gave me additional time to focus on projects that are late-late-late, and just calm the heck down.
The calming down is the important part. Because even when the things I see on FB are good, they are still energizing and invigorating, and they get my blood pumping. There are jokes, there are observations, there are rants. And they always get me thinking and reacting. They jump-start my system as few other things can.
Now, that’s fine, if I actually do need a boost to wake me up. But all that uproar, all the time? It’s not necessary. And even if I am dragging a little bit, the neurocognitive / biochemical jolt of Facebook is usually a lot more than I really need, to get going. Going on FB for me, when I am a little “off” is like drinking a couple cans of Red Bull when I’m feeling a little distracted. It’s way too much for me, and no matter how good it feels to get that Facebook “rush”, it’s still putting a strain on my system that ultimately wears me out.
So, now I’m repairing the damage I’ve done, and I’m doing several things:
I’m rationing my Facebook time and staying OFF it, first thing in the morning, as well as last thing at night.
I’m back to doing za-zen, or sitting silently and focusing on my breath and my posture for set periods of time.
This is accomplishing several things:
It is keeping my system from becoming drugged by biochemical / neurocognitive overload.
It is re-training my system to develop its own ability to wake — or rest — at will.
Za-zen — my own version, which is simpler than thinking about koans, but more focused than Shikantaza (which is just sitting) — is for me about simply sitting, being wakeful and mindful about what is going on in my body and mind, but not “taking the hooks” of thoughts that “want” me to follow them, like monkeys running off into the woods with my car keys.
I have noticed, over the past years of sitting za-zen (which I have done for over 20 years, since I first learned about it), that I have actually learned how to wake myself up, even when I am incredibly tired. Sitting — just sitting — focusing on my breath and keeping myself alert to my posture, the sensations in my body, and whatever thoughts might be rattling ’round in my head, doesn’t relax me. In fact, it does the opposite. So much so, that I cannot sit za-zen right before I go to bed, because it wakes me up too much.
I sit in the mornings, instead. And I’m considering starting to sit in the afternoons when I start to get cravings for sweets. When I’m feeling low and groggy, I tend to reach for the trail mix, which is a far better option than a Snickers bar or some other kind of sugar. But I often end up eating too much sugar in the course of a busy afternoon, so I need another option.
The more I think about it, the more za-zen seems like a good option for me. Sitting with silent focus, even for just a few minutes, does wonders for me. And if I can incorporate it into my daily life — not only stepping away to sit in silence, but also having that attitude of za-zen when I am in meetings at work, or I’m trying to better focus on what’s in front of me… well, so much the better.
I used to actually do that, years ago before my last TBI. And it helped me so much. It “leveled out” the upheavals that had long been with me, because of all my previous TBIs. But when I fell in 2004, that completely threw me, and I became just a shadow of myself. I stopped sitting. I stopped meditating. I stopped thinking about anything except the daily business of just getting from Point A to Point B, and not falling victim to the demons that seemed to rage in me.
Now much has evened out with me, and I’m in a place where I can actually put my focus back on za-zen. I’ve done this before, so it’s not new to me. And the Awakening study confirms that people with past meditation experience can have greater increases in “tonic alertness” which is where you can become more alert in unexpected situations.
That’s what I’m striving for, these days — more alertness, more engagement in my daily life, less reactivity, and more skill at handling sudden and unexpected situations. And it turns out that I have the past experience and the present tools to help make that happen.
When I just sit and breathe and count and focus on my posture, even for just a few minutes, everything gets better. And that’s what I want. Better.
I’ve got another full day ahead of me, so it’s time to get going. On it goes.