10 Reasons I Keep Juggling

I feel like a clown now… but I’m improving!

It’s pretty amazing… the effect that juggling is having on me. It benefits me in these ways:

  1. It’s improving my eye-hand coordination. I am finding it easier to “juggle” other things, like multiple grocery items and bags I have to carry inside after work, along with my knapsack and travel mug.
  2. It’s improving my response time.  I am finding myself catching things that are falling or slipping out of my hand, much more quickly than before.
  3. It’s improving my quality of responses. I have problems with flying off the handle over things that irritate me, and lately I’ve been getting more short-tempered and reactive. Teaching myself to just pick up the ball(s) I dropped and move on without missing a beat, is so very important to know and do — all throughout my life.
  4. It’s improving my balance. Following the balls and keeping my center of gravity steady, is making a small but noticeable improvement to my balance. And that translates to better posture and more confidence as I go about my daily business.
  5. It’s improving my left-side coordination and abilities. I can now toss and catch a ball in my left hand much better than I could, just a few days ago. I think this has more to do with training my brain than my body. But whatever.  All I know is, my left side is getting a lot more coordinated and capable. And that cuts down on the distractions that come with fumbling around with crap — and also the frustration that accompanies the fumbling.
  6. It’s raising my frustration level. Dropping the ball over and over, and learning to pick it up and just move on without getting mired in frustration is good. Also, working through my frustration with not being well coordinated or very able to juggle, is good practice too. I can see myself improving a little bit each day, which is good. And I know that tolerating a little frustration now will pay off on down the line.
  7. It’s keeping me engaged and interested in something other than my boring-ass life. Some days, my life seems so incredibly boring, because I’m following my formulas and schedules and agendas — getting a lot of things done, but really bogged down in the drudgery of the everyday. Juggling gives me a way to pique my attention and get me interested in other things. I have a long way to go before I can say I truly know how to juggle, and can do it well. And even when I do manage to juggle more than two objects, and they are things other than foam balls (no chainsaws, thank you very much), I will still have room for improvement — and I will keep learning.
  8. It’s a cheap hobby that I can do just about anywhere, anytime. I have a bunch of small balls in a ziploc bag I carry around in my knapsack, and I also have balls lying around the house that I juggle when I get a chance. I can juggle pens and pencils and my toothbrush and just about anything I find lying around. I don’t have to shell out a bunch of dough, and I don’t have to reserve space to do it. I can do it indoors and outdoors. I can do it morning, noon, or night, for a long or short time.
  9. It gets me moving. Granted, it’s not the most demanding exercise, but it does get me out of a stationary state. And it does it for short periods at a time, so I don’t wear myself out. It’s really the perfect break in the middle of a long slog. And rather than pulling my attention away from what I’m doing, it helps me refocus and go back to what I was doing, sharper than before.
  10. Most of all, it’s giving me a chance to learn and develop a skill without any downsides. Nobody cares if I cannot juggle like a pro. It doesn’t matter if I’m a barebones beginner. All I can do is improve and learn and grow… and enjoy my learning and growth as I go.

So juggling is really helping me in a number of ways.

Try it – you might like it! Especially if you’re dealing with TBI after-effects, or some attentional issues.

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Yet another way of cleaning the brain

Is there more than one way to clear out the sludge?

If you’re like a lot of people who check Google News on a regular basis, you may have seen the news about sleep clearing the brain of metabolic build-up after a hard day’s work. Sleep is an important part of every living being, across all species, but until recently (medical) people haven’t know exactly why that is. Esoteric practitioners have a lot of different explanations for why we sleep, but in terms of hard science, the importance of sleep has been a mystery.

Not long ago, researchers discovered that when we sleep, the glymphatic system (the functional waste removal system for our central nervous system, or CNS), clears out metabolic buildup (read, junk that’s left over from our busy minds’ activities), getting rid of a lot of stuff that we don’t need. It just gets in the way. Which is why we need to sleep.

Here’s a video explaining the new research:

Not getting enough sleep means not getting enough time to clear out all the sludge from your brain that comes from all the mental activity we’re engaged in. It means you’re still — literally — carrying around extra “baggage” (albeit very miniscule stuff) from before, that you should really just let go — via a good night’s sleep that opens up passages in our brains to let the extra junk pass through and out — to our livers, where it’s processed out of our systems.

I’ve been pretty excited to hear about this, especially because concussion / mild traumatic brain injury produces an abnormal and complex neurometabolic cascade that floods the brain with all sorts of extras, like potassium, calcium, glucose, and other neurotransmitters which get our brains all worked up — it can really get us pumping. And afterwards, we’ve got a whole bunch of junk in our brains that we’re not used to having there… and we need to clear out.

This combination of extra junk in your system is one of the things that makes you foggy and dull after a concussion. All that stuff needs to get cleared out, for your brain to right itself — and then it’s got to do the extra work of healing and (re)learning how to do stuff that may seem very simple, but suddenly becomes hard.

So, long story short, sleep helps after concussion / tbi, because it cleans the junk out of your brain. Lots of sleep is good. At the same time, too much sleep can be a problem, too. So, you have to find a balance.

One of the issues that I have with my long-term concussion / PCS / TBI issues is problems with sleep. I have trouble getting to sleep, and I have trouble getting more than 6-7 hours a night. If I get 8 hours or more, it’s like a jackpot. Interestingly, when I get more than 8 hours, I usually feel drugged and not quite right in the head. In some ways, it’s worse than only getting 6 hours.

But when I only get 6 hours, like last night, I definitely feel it. I’m pretty much of a zombie, feeling jet-lagged and depressed and really down. The time change this past weekend did a number on me, for sure. And now that I’ve read about the glymphatic system and what it does, now I’ve got this much clearer sensation that I’m dull for a reason — there’s too much crap still clogging the lines of my brain. It’s bad enough being tired. But having my brain full of metabolic waste, on top of it… geez.

So, if I can’t seem to get at least 8 hours of sleep a night, no matter what I do, how can I ever hope to clear all the crap out of my brain? I mean, seriously, this is a real concern for me. I have been doing daily exercises to warm myself up in the morning and get the blood flowing to clear out the cobwebs and help my lymphatic system fight off infection, but while waking, the pathways in our brains through which waste passes are 60% smaller than when we’re asleep. How can I take advantage of my body’s systems and help them do their job?

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I got an email from Coherence.com about how coherent breathing may help to wash the brain (you can read the PDF by clicking here), in a similar way that sleep does. A steady cadence of 5 full breaths per minute — about 6 seconds inhale and 6 seconds exhale — helps to not only balance the autonomic nervous system (ANS), getting you out of fight-flight craziness, but may also help to jump-start the glymphatic system which removes the leftover junk from your brain.

I find this encouraging. While it’s not proven by rigorous scientific studies, the logic makes sense to me. And it’s something I can do, even when I’m not getting enough sleep — like this morning, with my whopping ~6 hours.

So, this morning as I lay in bed at 6:15 (I woke up a little before 6 and got to sleep a little before midnight), I relaxed and did my coherent breathing — counting six seconds in and six seconds out. I focused on my diaphragm, making sure I was breathing deeply so that my belly was rising and falling smoothly, and I just counted. I timed myself a few times, to make sure I wasn’t going too fast — if anything, I breathe more slowly than 6-seconds in-out, but I can’t worry about that. The main thing is that I’m in the range and that I’m balanced with the length of time I’m inhaling and exhaling.

I didn’t worry about how many breaths I was taking — I used to count my breaths, back when I was sitting and breathing each morning — and I just lay flat, because that helps to regulate the overall system pressures in the body, which aids the flow of fluids (as in cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF).

I just focused on my breathing, keeping myself in the count-of-6-in / count-of-6-out zone, knowing that I was doing something good for myself, and that not only was I balancing out my nervous system so I wouldn’t start the day in fight-flight mode, but I was also moving the crap out of my system.

That’s an important part of this, because it is incredibly difficult for me to just sit still – especially first thing in the morning, when my head is racing and I want to get going! Getting my system to calm down and focusing my mind is quite difficult – especially after a short night’s sleep, when I’m waking up riding a wave of adrenaline.

Focusing on the idea that I’m making myself more functional and more capable, helps me to calm my system down and keep me focused. Definitely knowing that I did not get enough sleep last night — and haven’t gotten enough sleep in months, if not years — gives me all the more incentive to clear out the sludge that comes from my brain having to work so hard, day in and day out. Heck, even if it’s just conjecture and the folks who promote coherent breathing aren’t 100% correct about clearing out the metabolic waste with that technique, the fact of the matter is, my system chilled out, and I got up feeling a whole lot better than I did when I first woke up. And that’s no small potatoes.

I probably spent about 20 minutes doing this — probably longer than I would have done, were it not so cold this morning. I wanted to stay in bed, so this was good justification. 🙂  And after a few minutes, I started to feel a lot less “jazzed” and amped up. Waking up after a short night’s sleep can be pretty rough — I just jolt awake, all systems GO, with my heart racing and the blood pumping. While it’s sometimes energizing, over time it gets to be a pain in the ass, because it wears me down, and I crash later in the morning, after the pump wears off — major let-down.

This way — as was the case when I was sitting and breathing regularly, back about a year or so ago — I can stay in my warm bed a bit longer, I can work on my breathing to calm down my ANS, and I can also help my brain get a “clean start” on the day.

It’s a win-win all around. Good stuff.

Onward.

Use everything to keep calm – or else

Life has been pretty eventful, lately. I’ve been very active at work, which has become even dicier than usual, because upper management has told everyone that the company needs to slash expenses by tens of millions of dollars. Not tens of thousands… tens of millions.

I guess that’s one of the hazards of working for a huge company — all the numbers get so big, and even if they are proportionately not that big — representing maybe 1/100th of 1% of the total budget — it still sounds like a lot. And people get scared.

Getting scared is understandable, but the big problem with having that happen is that the adrenaline and the cortisol can impair your thinking, which makes an already challenging situation even worse. A sympathetic nervous system on constant alert just wears you down, and if your parasympathetic nervous system never gets a chance to kick in, because you can never get a chance to rest long enough to let it come back online and do its job to repair the damage of all that stress, it wreaks all sorts of havoc with the whole system — physical, emotional, neurological, mental, spiritual.

If you never get a chance to chill and get your body back to some sort of stasis, you’re basically screwed.

And you can end up with a nasty case of PTSD, even if you’ve never been to a battlefield. Constant threats of anihilation (losing your job, your home, your marriage, your kids, your very identity)… living in the shadow of perpetual, unarticulated threat from upper management which is not communicating what it’s planning to do with the budget in the course of the next year… not to mention dealing with others who are under considerable stress, thanks to the conditions, and are falling back into defensive postures and looking for a way — any way — to protect themselves, and the devil take anyone who gets in their way…  Even if you’ve never been in a humvee that’s driven over an IED near Basra, the post-traumatic stress can build up.

And Houston, you’ve got a problem.

I’ve been thinking a lot about PTSD, lately. In particular, the connection between the over-active sympathetic nervous system (which puts us into fight-flight-freeze-fake-it-or-fun mode) and TBI. I know a lot of vets are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with both TBI and PTSD. And their families are facing their troubles along with them. The VA may be doing a bit about it, but by all reports, they’re not doing nearly as much — nearly as well — as the vets and their families (indeed, our entire country) needs them to.

I, myself, have been noticing more and more how PTSD has colored my life. There are a million little things that have set me off, over the course of the years, that strike me as being directly related to my TBIs. Yet my neuropsych assures me that the issues I have “should not” be causing me as much trouble as I’ve been experiencing. I look at my life prior to my most recent TBI — my behavior, my performance, how I lived my life — and I look at my life after my mild traumatic brain injury in 2004, and there is a marked difference.

Yet, the actual neurological issues I have as a result of the injury — compared to what others have experienced — are relatively mild and “should not” be impairing me to the extent that I have been impaired.

So, what’s the deal?

I’ve been thinking really long and really hard about this, trying to take an objective point of view and not jump to any premature conclusions. And I actually think there are a couple of significant factors that come into play that my neuropsych cannot measure or is not oriented to.

First, there’s the physical issues I’ve got. The constant headaches. The pain. The insomnia/sleep disturbances. There’s the fatigue. These things, alone, would make an average person a bit nuts. But all together, on a regular (but somewhat unpredictable) basis, serve to push me closer to the edge than I care to go.

Second, there’s the agitation/anxiety. This actually ties in with the physical issues. When I’m tired, I get more agitated and anxious. And when I’m more anxious, I get more fatigued because it’s harder for me to sleep.  The agitation sets my spouse off, because I start to “rev” and they know what that means… I’m headed for the deep end, yet again, and who knows whether I’ll go off or manage to keep my cool? The anxiety sets me on edge and gives my temper a sharp, sharp point and a much lower flashpoint, which also messes with my spouse’s head.

Third, there’s the post-traumatic stress which results from all this that tends to really disrupt my life. The jumpiness, the flashbacks on traumatic situations (even seemingly little ones can set me off), the automatic avoidance of circumstances that are similar to formerly traumatic situations, emotional numbing, and a persistent belief that my life is going to be a lot less positive and productive than others’.

There are more factors that come into play, of course, but these are the Big Three — the physical issues, the anxiety, and the PTS — that combine to make my life more “interesting” than I’d like it to be.

So, what to do? Like I said, I’ve been giving these things a whole lot of thought, lately, and I’ve been specifically thinking about them in terms of what to do to fix it all.

Because I do believe they can be fixed. Granted, the headaches may stay with me for the rest of my born days, as may the pain. But the human system is wonderfully maleable and able to adjust and change. If I can’t fix the pain stuff, I may at least be able to manage it and find ways to mitigate the effects — like the agitation and anxiety.

After all, it’s the agitation and anxiety and post-traumatic stress that affect those around me and my relationship with the rest of the world. My own personal aches and pains are my own — my main objective, nowadays, is to keep them from spilling over into the lives of others and making their lives more difficult than need be.

That being said, I’ve been working with an approach that seems to offer me some solutions. It’s simple, and it’s basic, but it’s been working well for me. Essentially, I’ve been directing a lot of my time, energy, and attention into one thing:

Staying Calm

I do it with breathing — counting my breaths and making sure that I’m not hyperventilating. Hyperventilation makes your heart beat faster, and it gets your system revved. And when my system gets revved, the vigilant part of me does its self-protective job and I instinctively think that it means I’m in danger Warning Will Robinson! Danger! Danger!, so my system gets even more revved and charged up, and I start to get even more agitated than I was to begin with.

It’s wild how that works. It’s like there’s this well-trained part of me that is constantly scanning my body for clues about what’s going on in the world around me, and when my body seems to be telling me that I’m in danger — by my heart rate increasing and my breathing going faster — part of my brain kicks in to tell me there is trouble happening NOW and you’d better brace for impact.

Meanwhile, I might be in absolutely no danger, whatsoever. I’m just breathing too fast, and my system is reacting to that — not to any danger that’s around. And my reactions to situations and events and people around me (especially family members) gets all blown out of proportion.

So, I focus on my breathing. A lot. I have to consciously think about it, because I instinctively go to the fast-breathing thing, without realizing it. And I’m unconsciously stressing myself out for no good reason, other than a bad habit. This slowed breathing thing is literally a new kind of training I’m doing — I have to teach myself to do this, and I have to do it regularly, like you would practice any other kind of physical or occupational skill. If you want to get good at something, you need to do it a lot. And if you want to  become an expert, you have to do it for at least 10,000 hours. That’s a lot of time. I’m not sure I’m going to get to 10,000 hours of regular slowed breathing practice anytime soon, but it gives me something to work towards.

Fortunately, the benefits of slowed breathing are apparent immediately. I don’t have to wait for 10 years, till they kick in. When I slow my breathing to, say, 5-7 full breaths per minute (5 breaths per minute, or 12 seconds per breath is optimal, but I’m not quite there yet), I can feel my system start to release and relax. The tension that has me all clamped up starts to loosen, and I can feel myself start to chill and calm down. Even when I’m in a very tense situation with someone, if I can manage to consciously slow down my breathing, I get more clarity and more calm. And that helps them, too.

I really need to do it for myself, though. Because getting all riled and worked up over whatever is in front of me, is NOT going to help me deal with it in an effective and satisfactory way. And in the end, my main goal is to deal with crap — preferably in a way that will keep it from coming back on me again.

I can slow my breathing down — sometimes even slower than 5 breaths a minute, because I have to get my parasympathetic nervous system to kick in


Source: Coherence: The New Science of Breath

I have to get my PNS to get the upper hand, because things are spinning wildly out of control and if I don’t get a handle on myself, I am SO going to be sorry later(!). So, I slow my breathing and breathe really deeply.

But if I’m in a situation with someone who is, themself, on the edge (and they are unaware of the importance of breathing and ratcheting down the intensity), my own modulation doesn’t always do the trick to diffuse the tension.

Sometimes my controlled breathing alone doesn’t do it. So, I have to think of something else. I have to use everything. I have to be able to think clearly, myself, and step back from the situation… step back and observe what’s going on, without getting pulled into the midst of it all. I have to use all my resources — including presenting as being very “on” so others will take me seriously… talking people through all the options and alternatives we have… using humor… or sometimes just removing myself from the situation.

It can get pretty challenging in some situations, as I have no control over what others do and say, and I may react to some unconscious signal they send and do/say something that’s not helpful — or downright harmful to the situation. But I have to do it. I have to stay calm. I have to start with my breath, focus on it, and not let anything get hold of me without my say-so. I need to be the one calling the shots in my life — not some jerk across the conference room table or some a-hole who just cut me off in traffic. I have to be the one who decides how I feel, how I act, how I react, in any given situation — rather than letting outside circumstances dictate to me what I think, feel, or do.

See, that’s the most debilitating thing about PTSD for me — how it takes away your autonomy and your ability to decide for yourself how you will think, act, react. It strips me of my independence and makes me a victim of outside circumstances — all due to things I do not/cannot see, and forces that are set in motion deep within the hidden recesses of my brain and my central nervous system.

Does this relate to my history of TBIs? You’d better believe it. As a result of all those injuries, I’ve been presented with countless challenges I didn’t understand at the time, and I’ve been immersed in chaos and confusion that set my autonomic nervous system into high gear — over and over and over again. As far as I’m concerned, PTSD is what makes TBI a long-term challenge. Even if the majority of neurological issues resolve, to all appearances, there’s the subtle and corrosive effect of one minor (or major) disaster after another, one inexplicable catastrophe after another, that kicks your body into action, often without you understanding just how much action is needed, or how extreme (or subtle) a response is required.

The result of one problem after another, one logistical surprise after another, one unanticipated screw-up after another… and the considerable challenge of dealing with a world that doesn’t much care for our screw-ups… it all adds up to stress. Post-traumatic stress. No matter how “small” the traumas may seem on the outside, no matter how “minor” the problems may look on the outside, inside a scrambled brain — one that’s driven by intense emotional lability and extreme reactions that are hard to modulate — you’ve got a potent environment to create mountains out of molehills and experience relatively minor traumas as life-shattering events.

How it “really” is on the outside makes no difference. Inside your brain – and your body – the experience is extreme. And the cascade of biochemical Alert! can be just as intense as if you’re in a serious car accident or you’re holding your buddy in your arms as he dies.

That’s the wacked-out thing about TBI — it can totally screw with your perceptions of relative importance. And it can create internal conditions that are very similar to extreme danger, when on the outside, in “reality” the situation is not that huge of a deal.

So, knowing this, and thinking about all the situations I’m presently in that I have a tendency to make into Huge Deals, I’m doing everything in my power to keep calm. Control my breathing. Consciously relax. Remind myself that things may not be nearly as bad as I think they are. Remind myself that others often have a very different interpretation of what’s going on, than I do — and they may be more right than I am. I exercise each morning to get my heart rate up and move the lymph through my system, so I don’t get sick. I make a point of getting to bed at a decent hour each night, and I make sure I stretch before I go to sleep, so I can make it through the night without cramping up and waking up from the pain of my tight muscles. I keep myself on a decent eating plan and I steer clear of a lot of processed sugar, because that spikes me and gets me all jazzed — and then I crash afterwards, which makes me crave more. I steer clear of “cheap” carbs that get me jazzed up, too. Keep my junk food consumption down, and remember to have my apple each day, so my digestive system stays regular and I don’t get all “stopped up”.

There are a hundred different tricks I use to keep calm. And some days I have to use them all. But it’s worth it. I like having a life, and if I can’t stay calm, what I have becomes a lot less like life and a lot more like just surviving.

How I learned to slow my heart rate

UPDATE: This post is by far the most popular one on this site, and it has helped a lot of people. (See the comments below to read what they’ve said.) So, I created a whole new site, called How I Slow My Heart Rate where I give more details on the technique. Visit the site

I have also written an extended eBook version that you can purchase at this link

heart-rateSomeone mentioned recently how their heart just races at times — “off the charts” is how they put it. Many, many years ago, I actually learned how to slow my heart rate from pounding a mile a minute to a regular pace. Back in high school, when I was working out for track, after a particularly hard workout, my heart would feel like it was beating out of my chest. It was pretty disconcerting. I actually felt ill when it was happening. So I had to do something.

Here’s what I did:

First, I tried just slowing down my breathing, but my heart would still race, and my body would feel like it was starving for air. So, I’d have to start breathing heavier again, and my heart rate would stay fast.

Then I tried taking in a deep breath and holding it… but for some reason, that just made it beat even harder. Yikes! I think that is because inhalation is linked with the sympathetic nervous system, which is all about adrenaline and fight-flight-freeze responses. Taking a deep breath seemed to activate the very thing I was trying to calm down.

Then I tried exhaling completely, and holding my breath for a count of 3-5, or as long as I could hold it…. then slowly inhaling, and then exhaling and holding it for as long as I could count.

Somehow the exhalation is what worked for me. It may be because exhaling is linked with the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t say exactly for sure why this works, but I’ve come across other people talking about it — like the folks at Coherence and the new science of breath (the pic below is theirs, and if you’re into the science, I recommend you check ’em out).

But all the mysterious science aside, based on my experience, focusing on exhalation is what helps me slow down my heart rate. I actually have a little bit of a heart murmur (no big deal, according to my doctor), so that makes managing my heart rate even more important to me.

To recap, here’s what I do:

  1. Exhale…
  2. Hold the breath and count to 3 or 5 or as long as I can go…
  3. Then slowly inhale and then exhale again… and
  4. Repeat the process.

If I keep doing that, I can slow my heart rate from pounding a mile a minute, to a regular thump-thump-thump. I have slowed it from over 100 bpm to around 70. Sometimes I’ve done it in the space of a few minutes. It’s pretty cool when that happens. It feels a little strange and unexpected, and feeling like I’m suffocating is no fun, but it’s reassuring when the technique works.

I can’t guarantee this will work for everyone, and please don’t take chances with your health and safety if you have cardiac/respiratory issues, but I did want to share that. It just might help.


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My solution for TBI/PTSD rage

Anger (or out-and-out rage) is one of the places where my TBIs and PTSD intersect to cause real problems. I’ve been having some rage issues, lately. Getting worked up over little things — getting angry over nothing, really. Just getting angry. Temper, temper…

In the moment, my anger — my rage — seems completely justified. I feel with every cell in my being that I am entitled to be outraged. I am entitled to be angry. I validate my emotional experience, and I end up spiraling down into a deepening pit of anger, resentment, and acting out. Yelling. Making a fuss. Putting up a stink. And getting aggressive with whomever happens to be offending me at the moment.

This is not good. I’ve done it with police officers, and I’m lucky I didn’t get cited. Or arrested. I’ve done it with family members, and it’s cost me plenty, in terms of peace of mind and my relationships. I’ve done it with co-workers, and it strained our connections to the point of breaking.

Not good.

But lately, I’ve been able to pull myself out of my downward spiral before it gets too much of a hold on me. I’ve started doing some basic things that stop the progression of rage before it picks up so much speed it’s like a runaway freight train.

First, I recognize that I’m angry, and I am convinced that I’m right about being angry. This might not seem like a big thing, but I have trouble figuring out how I’m feeling sometimes, and anger is one of those emotions that I don’t always identify well. It just feels like a rush of energy — and while everyone around me knows I’m pissed off, I usually can’t tell what’s going on with me until it’s progressed to a really problematic point. I recognize that I’m angry, and I remember that I need to not let myself get carried away.

Second, I step away. I take a time-out and just walk away. I stop myself from saying what I’m about to say, no matter how badly I want to say it. I tell myself, I’ll give it some thought and figure out how to say it exactly the way I want to say it. I tell myself… anything … just to extract myself from the situation. I step away, telling myself I’ll come back when I’m better able to express myself.

Third, I take some deep breaths.  This helps stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that chills you out. The sympathetic nervous system is what gets you worked up to respond to a crisis situation — and when I get really angry, it’s often because I think and feel like I’m in a crisis situation, and my body is getting all geared up for fight or flight (more often fight). I consciously take some deep breaths to get my parasympathetic nervous system to chill out.

Fourth, I seek out some kind of tactile stimulation. I need to get out of my head, which is spinning out of control, and just give myself a different point of focus. My head is going so madly, at this point, that I cannot even think straight, so I seek out some kind of physical sensation to get my mind off the madness. I press the side of my face against the cold side of a door that leads to the outside. I pick up something rough and rub my fingers along it. I jingle change in my pocket. Or I find something heavy and hold it. The physical sensation, along with the deep breathing, gets my mind off the crazy cycle it was in, just a minute ago, and it lets me focus on a single point — the feel of the cold door against my cheek or the feel of quarters and nickels and dimes juggling among my fingers. Tactile stimulation, like looking at a flame of a candle while meditating, helps me center and get my mind off that crazy downward cycle.

Fifth, I remind myself that my body and brain are playing tricks on me. I am probably not getting angry for the reasons I think I am — it’s my body that’s getting all worked up into a fight/flight/freeze state, and my mind is interpreting that as a real sign of DANGER. And I’m probably starting to panic a little, too. As a matter of fact, when I take an objective look at things, the rage that’s building inside of me might not even be real rage, rather a response to a hyperactive sympathetic nervous system response. It could very well be my body tricking my mind into thinking the wrong things. And I need to remember that I get to choose how I interpret my life. My mind gets to decide how I’m going to think about things, how I’m going to react. And my well-intentioned body, which thinks it needs help, is just misleading my brain into thinking that I have to do something about whatever it is that’s getting to me. When I remind myself that this is a physiological process that’s taking place, I am able to relax… and the anger subsides.

The thing I have to remember, when all this is coming down, is that It Is Not Worth It. No matter how justified my rage seems to be. No matter how entitled I am to be angry. No matter how wronged I may have  been. It is not worth it, to get so tweaked over things. When I go off on an anger “binge” I end up feeling really hungover and dumb and numb afterwards, which just makes my life more difficult, once it’s passed.

I’m no doctor, but I suspect that it may be connected with the mechanics of panic/anxiety… all that post-traumatic stress stewing in a pot, and my TBI brain being unable to sort it all out in a timely fashion… My processing speed is slower than I’d like, and by the time I figure out what’s going on, the damage is often done.

So, I do my best to recognize when I’m getting angry, I step away, I take some deep breaths and try to relax, and I do something that gets my body’s attention — like feeling something cold or rough or tactile in some way. And I remind myself that my brain and body are playing tricks on me again. They’ve done it before… and they’ll do it again.

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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A Perilous Relief – When Survival Backfires

The only problem with being able to survive terribly traumatic things is that our bodies have a way of hanging onto the stress of the situation, long past the event. Healthy processing of traumatic stress is a two-part process. Yes, traumatic stress is perfectly normal — one would expect that traumatic events carry a good deal of stress… if it doesn’t, something is wrong. The problems arise, when the stress becomes post-traumatic — when we continue to react to situations long after they’ve passed, and history hijacks our present (and future) by forcing us to react to situations and essentially live a life that has no basis in present reality.

While we’re in a state of crisis, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is aroused, delivering all the hormones and glucose and various biochemicals to our system. But after all is said and done, we need to get back to a resting state, so our bodies can recover. This means getting the parasympathetic part of our nervous system in gear.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is the opposite of “fight-or-flight”. It’s about “rest and digest”. Some literature describes it as acting “in opposition to” the sympathetic nervous system, but it’s not antagonistic — it’s complimentary. The function of the PSNS is to offset the effects of the SNS, so our whole system functions properly. The PSNS calms down the racing heart, the panting lungs, the high blood pressure, and restores the blood supply to our digestive and reproductive organs. Everything that the SNS has demanded our bodies give up in order to save our ass from imminent destruction — attention to non-essential details, blood flow to digestive organs, the ability to sleep and have sex and pick up on subtle social cues — is restored by the PSNS in a far more gradual process than the hair-raising roller coaster ride that the SNS took us on. If we survive the ride, our parasympathetic nervous system lets us lift the proverbial safety bar, climb out of the car, and collect our spinning wits.

Now, if our SNS were allowed to constantly run unmodulated and unfettered, it would eventually wear us down to a nub. Like easy credit that makes it possible to buy sexy big-ticket items, purchase more house than we need, vacation at swanky exclusive resorts, and run up a massive tab buying rounds of Long Island ice teas for coach-loads of beautiful tourists who lavish you with attention, a constantly active sympathetic nervous system can really tax the physical system over time. As exciting as it may be, the drain on our physical resources is the equivalent of spending a whole lot more than you make with total intoxicated abandon. And we’ve all learned where that can take us, given enough time and intemperance.

Physically speaking, long-term one-sided excess takes a toll. Cortisol builds up… Blood sugar spikes throw off the body’s ability to effectively manage its own glucose and insulin… Adrenaline rushes keep muscles tense and stressed and unable to recuperate so they can recover their full strength… And more. Our internal organs, especially our heart, feel the burn. We put on weight. We can lose our hair and our ability to have sex. The list of issues that arise from persistent stress is lengthy, and it’s a little different for each person. But the fundamental rule of sustaining healthy living systems still applies:

You can’t keep taking away without putting back in, and expect to last for long.

Now, in a perfect world, for every shock and crisis and emergency (real or perceived) that comes up, we’ll have ample time to step back and relax, have a good meal, sleep long and deeply, and regain our strength. But that doesn’t always happen (and I would hazard to say, it happens relatively rarely in our modern American world). Our sympathetic nervous systems get all worked up, but our parasympathetic nervous systems don’t always get a chance to kick in to chill us out. After all, we’re very busy people with a lot of (real or perceived) important things to do, and our current culture has a way of socially rewarding people who are “on the go” constantly.

And so our systems can’t operate full-spectrum — what goes up must come down, but we won’t let it. We have only half of our God-given pistons cranking — at double speed — and we get into a state of physical distress that actually feeds back into itself. Our high-alert condition, which saves our asses in tight spots, can persist… and keep firing off warnings about every little thing, regardless of whether it’s truly dangerous or not.

As much as our survival wiring may protect and preserve us, if left to its own devices, it can also rake us over the coals. If we don’t discharge the stress of base survival and return to a restorative resting state after all our agitation has passed, we can end up experiencing even more physiological stress after the fact. We get tired. Our judgment gets clouded. We make poor decisions and do ill-conceived things, and then we spend a whole lot of time playing catch-up, in a state of heightened stress and crisis. The stressors we experience don’t even have to be real. They just have to seem real. Our bodies don’t know the difference, and they respond to what our minds tell them with a response that seems reasonable to them. One problem feeds another… and another… and another… and eventually, we find ourselves in a deep hole we can’t stop digging.

Which brings me back to my own situation. The hole I have found myself in, after many years of “digging,” is a pretty deep one. It’s been dug by a challenging childhood, lots of troubles as a teenager, drinking, drugs, petty crime, and plenty of poor decisions that were spawned, not only by past social and emotional traumas, but by mild traumatic brain injuries, as well. I’ll spare you the gory details of my tale. I’m sure you have enough excitement in your own life. The bottom line is, after over four decades of knocking around on this planet, one of my pieces of “baggage” contains a lot of post-traumatic stress, which I need to actively manage and factor into my decisions and actions, even when I’m feeling 100% sane and competent.

Make no mistake, I am a survivor. But that survival has come at a price. And some days, what I wouldn’t give to not have to pay that price, just for an hour or so.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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A Perilous Relief – Wired to Survive

Something wonderful happens, when our bodies are stressed beyond our means. The human system — ever expert at staying alive despite all odds — responds to threats with a biochemical cascade of various hormones (including adrenaline/epinephrine and noradrenaline/norepinephrine) which not only reduce sensitivity to pain, but also sharpen a select group of coping mechanisms to keep you from being injured (or eaten).

Note: In case you’re wondering about this, the words adrenaline and epinephrine, and noradrenaline and norepinephrine are often used interchangeably. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are the official names for the hormones our adrenals produce, but we tend to call them adrenaline and noradrenaline, as well.

The process essentially works like this:

  1. Something happens that isn’t “normal” or expected, like a sudden loud sound or flashing lights.
  2. The senses relay the perception of this environmental “stressor” from the sensory cortex of the brain through the hypothalamus to the brain stem. In the process, “noradrenergic” activity (which is connected with norepinephrine/noradrenaline) picks up in the brain, and you become instantly alert and attentive to what’s going on around you.
  3. A sudden rush of stress hormones at neuroreceptor sites in your brain tells your whole system to use its spontaneous or instinctive/intuitive behaviors which keep you alive in combat or escape situations. Your brain takes non-essential functions “offline” and pours its energy into only the most vital elements of survival.
  4. Your body is infused with energy, your mind is suddenly clear and wiped clean of extraneous distractions that have nothing to do with saving your ass, and you’re immediately ready for action.

The process is purely automatic, and the brain knows quite well how to kick into survival mode. If it didn’t, you – and everyone else – would probably be dead, and the planet would be inhabited by creatures that did know how to survive by brute force and instinct. Possibly ticks.

Now, things get really interesting, if you perceive a stimulus as a threat. The “firing” in your brain becomes more intense and prolonged, and the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system (the part that responds to threats and stressors) gets all worked up. (Remember, the other part, the parasympathetic nervous system, is what calms us down and chills us out.) In the process of sympathetic nervous system arousal, a bunch of epinephrine (adrenaline) and a bit of norepinephrine shoots into your system from the little star-shaped adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys (the word adrenal comes from ad (atop) – renal (kidney), or literally on top of the kidneys) and regulate the release of the stress hormones adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine), as well as cortisol into our sensitive systems.

The release is, again, totally automatic, totally necessary, and pretty much beyond our control. It’s also triggered by other biochemicals that originate within our intricately wired brains, which I cannot pronounce and have a hard time spelling. There are other complex factors that come into play, but basically, this is how your adrenaline-pumped fight/flight response gets started in your brain.

But wait – there’s more. The rest of your body is drawn into the action, in the following ways. The list below is not exhaustive, but it gives you an idea of what goes on:

  • Your heart beats faster and you start to breathe faster/pant/hyperventilate
  • You pale or flush, or you alternate between both
  • Your stomach and upper-intestinal action go off-line, and your digestion slows down or stops altogether
  • Lots of blood vessels in many parts of your body constrict
  • A “shot” of glucose – sugar, sugar, sugar – gets released into your body to fuel muscular action
  • Blood vessels in your muscles open wide to allow more blood to pass through (there’s more blood available to them, since vessels in other parts of the body constrict)
  • Your eyes and mouth can get dry
  • Your pupils dilate, so you can see better
  • Your bladder may relax and your colon may empty (hence the popular expressions “pissing or shitting your pants”)
  • Erection is inhibited (the body needs the blood elsewhere, including for your muscles – see above)
  • You can lose (some or all of) your hearing for a while
  • You can lose your peripheral vision for a while
  • Instantaneous reflexes accelerate and become hyper-responsive.

All this basically spring-loads you for action, and it’s wholly automatic. You couldn’t stop the neural/biochemical escalation in a crisis, if you tried. (Well, some people probably could, but they’ve very likely been sitting in intensive zen meditation for years or they’ve received training in how to do this, which most of us have not.) Signals get fired in the brain, screaming Run!!! Run!!! or Fight!!! Fight!!! overriding (by design) your rational brain that wants to sit back and assess the situation and not get all worked up until there appears to be a good reason.

And it totally saves your ass. Like an instinctive response to the shrieking wail of approaching fire truck sirens, bright red lights suddenly flashing through your bedroom window at 3 a.m., and/or the smell of a big smoky fire coming from the apartment next door. Your body takes over automatically, making you instantly alert and highly attentive to what’s going on around you. As your brain takes non-essential functions “offline”, everything around you fades to a blur, except for the sound of roaring flames tearing through the building, the scent of thick smoke, and the sight of the window across the room that leads to the fire escape. Suddenly, the petty distractions of the day before mean absolutely nothing, as do any extraneous activities not related to living to see another day. Forget about making the bed and fluffing the pillows and making sure your hair is combed before you go outside – pull on your bathrobe, grab your keys and the cat, and climb out the bedroom window onto the fire escape. Don’t worry if the firemen can see up your shorts – just get the hell down to the ground level and away from the flame-engulfed building.

When it comes to basic survival, we’re hard-wired to make sure we get through in one way or another, and the tidal wave of biochemicals that floods our system really does take over, whether we like it or not. If those handy hormones do their jobs properly, they give us the chance – after we’re once again hauled out of the fire to safety – to sit back and process what just happened and decide in retrospect if we should have gotten worked up or not. But if they don’t do their job and we end up on a cold slab, we never get the chance to sort things out. So, it’s not a bad thing, that our survival brain hijacks the rest of our cognition in situation-appropriate ways.

It’s not a bad thing at all.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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