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.

Tracking my progress in a way that makes sense

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how I manage my daily life and affairs, lately. After reading some of the Give Back Orlando GBO) material, I became pretty convinced that tracking my successes and failures each day is an important part of keeping my life together and getting (back) to a place where I want to be. In many respects, my brain is working quite differently than it did even 5 years ago, before my fall. I have a harder time reading and comprehending, I have a harder time remembering things, and I have a harder time sleeping and keeping myself on track. I’m also a lot more tired than I ever recalled being when I was younger.

And no, it’s not just getting older. That’s part of it, but the changes were too abrupt after my last accident, for me to easily write it off to that.

Anyway, I tried to track my daily performance like the GBO book told me I should. And I really did make an attempt to keep myself on schedule for some time. What I found, however, was that my life and my type of work does not lend itself to strict scheduling. And if I try to keep myself on a specific timetable, I am setting myself up for failure.

Basically, this is how it works with me: I am a software engineer, which is pretty creative work. It’s very technical, yes, but the design and coding and testing of the programs I wrote, is not something that can always be done predictably. This is especially true because I design software for the world wide web, and since different people with different browsers use it, there can be different behavior and problems that emerge as a result. I could go on a long rant about browser inconsistencies, but there’s no point to that. The people who know about them already know what I’m going to say, and the people who don’t understand probably don’t care.

Anyway, despite being a technical and machine-driven activity, software engineering is still a very organic process which depends heavily on human components, like the skill of the programmer, their level of experience, how they’re feeling on a given day, how rushed they are… every different human factor that influences other kinds of activities influences software engineering. After all, the stuff is created by humans.

And because of this variability, the work I do is really hard to schedule accurately and keep on a hard-and-fast timetable. Yes, we have deadlines we have to keep to, and yes, there is a master project plan we’re all coding to, but from day to day, it’s impossible to say for certain that I’ll be done with a certain piece of code by 11:30 a.m., and I’ll be moving on to the next by 12:00. It just doesn’t work that way for me. Maybe it does for other people, but not for me.

And when I focus on this specific time-table approach, and I mark down my inability to finish something by a certain time as “incomplete” or a “failure”, I’m setting myself up for more failure. I looked at my lists, when I was sticking with the timetable, and I got really depressed and down on myself. I had hardly any successes marked off. The tasks I was working on turned out to be much bigger and “hairier” than I had anticipated, so not only was I falling behind, but I was punishing myself for it, too.

It just wasn’t working.

Now, a part of me thought, “Well, you should just work at it more and get the hang of this scheduling business,” but when I thought about it, it seemed to me that it made more sense to take a more task-oriented approach. Rather than scheduling set times to be done, I should really focus on the individual things that need to be finished, and worry about the how and what, not the when. Focus on the quality and making sure that I was thorough in my work, rather than holding myself to a set schedule.

I also realized, in doing this, that the usual time allotments I was accustomed to giving myself did not work anymore. I realized that this work I do is taking longer for me to do… and it’s also a much more involved process than it ever was before. I’ve always found myself coming up with solutions to problems when I was far away from my notes and my computer and my work setting. There’s something about the creative process that keeps chugging away in the background, while I’m “doing” other things… and comes up with solutions to problems at the least expected times. Just because a solution occurs to me at 2 a.m. when I wake up suddenly, instead of at 4 p.m. the day before, when I had set my deadline, doesn’t mean the solution is a failure, or that my work is lagging. It’s just a different way of getting things done, and I need to make the most of that.

Indeed, while I do appreciate the GBO material, and it does make sense for everyday activities, like completing chores in a timely manner or taking care of regular business, in my line of work, building in that kind of rigidity just works against me. And because my line of work is fluid and tends to shift a lot, with priorities being reset by my boss and other coworkers on a regular basis, the rest of my life tends to be fluid, too.

So, while I don’t always feed the pet and head out the door to work by 8:00 every day, that doesn’t mean I’ve failed. If I manage to do it by 8:30, and I still get to work in time to get everything done… or if I take a little longer in the a.m. to miss the heavy traffic, and spend some time thinking about my coding conundrums… and then arrive at the office with a solution fully formed in the back of my head before I ever touch the keyboard, well, that doesn’t make my scheduling anomalies a “failure” either.

But still, I have been building in more accountability and management for my daily life. I have since modified the to-do list, where I put down a bunch of things that I must do each and every day, so I have things to check off as successes, in the midst of everything else. I also don’t hold myself to a set schedule, but I group my tasks together under common categories (work-related and personal). And I consult the list frequently throughout the course of each day.It’s a tremendous help for me.

I used to feel really rebellious about it, but that was when I felt like I was being set up by my own process. Now that I have created a management system that works for me, it gives me a sense of structure and accomplishment and greater control over my life that I really crave, in order to be productive. I like being productive. I love checking off items I’ve gotten done. And it gives me something to tend to and celebrate. Woo hoo!

I am also carrying my time/activities management into every day of the week, including weekends. Giving myself “time off” is counterproductive, because I end up missing important things I need to get done — like mowing the yard and returning library books and taking the trash to the dump and cleaning my study… all which I often intend to over the weekend, but completely forget because I haven’t written them down and I didn’t check my weekend notes to keep myself on track.

As a result, I miss the narrow window of nice-weather to mow, and then my uncut lawn languishes through the days and days of rain… getting longer and longer and longer and looking pretty ratty. My garage starts to get an odor of trash, and I end up having to haul 3x as much to the dump, which is hard on my back. I rack up library fines. And I lose important papers in my study.

Lessons learned. Over and over, till I get them. Weekends may be “off” times for others, but for me, it’s list-tending time.  Fortunately, it’s not a bad thing for me, and I’ve constructed it in such a way that I have plenty of freedom to move within my own structure. Bottom line is, I get things done that must be done. I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself to do them by a certain time, because it just isn’t always possible. But when I give myself some leeway, I find myself able to do it all — and more.

I’m quite happy with this system I have. And I’m also using it as an opportunity to learn some new technical skills. I have some gaps in my skillset that I need to fill, in order to be really, truly employable all across the board. I’m quite employable now, but having these new skills will be good insurance against shifts in the job market. So, I’m building out a time/activities management system for myself that uses these new technologies. That way, I have a time/activity tracker I can access just about anywhere there is a computer with an internet connection, I can update my progress in real-time AND I can collect all the data about my performance on a daily and weekly and monthly basis, and watch for trends. I can gather this data and generate reports so I can see, months down the line, how I’ve been improving — or where I need to improve.

And I’m expanding my technical skillset at the same time.

It’s all good.