More than ever before, I’m convinced (and riding the bandwagon around the square, beating on my drum) that the body and mind are so closely intertwined, that you cannot possibly separate out the two.
You take care of the body, and the brain will benefit. The mind will benefit, too. I differentiate between the mind and the brain because I believe (like others) that the biological, physiological organ of the brain is just one part of what makes up the mind. When you take care of the body, the brain benefits. And when the brain benefits, the mind has something to work with.
Body-brain-mind connections matter. They have such a profound impact on our health — and our illness. That goes for mental health. It goes for TBI recovery. It goes for effective and lasting healing for PTSD. If you leave you body out of the equation, while trying to fix your brain, your mind may have a hell of a time getting back on track and up to speed.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t advocate that everyone who’s struggling with mental health issues, TBI, and/or PTSD run out and join a gym and get ultra-ripped. I’m not saying that you have to become a competitive athlete or reduce your body mass to 5% (which might be physically unsafe, in any case – our bodies need fat). And I’m not saying that if you’re in poor physical condition, you’re going to be a vegetable.
I am saying that exercise, when done carefully and regularly, can and will benefit not only your body but also your brain and your mind. It’s not blind faith I’m falling back on — it’s scientific fact, documented research, and personal experience. It doesn’t have to be torture, it doesn’t have to involve pain. It can be as pleasant as a walk on the beach with a loved one and your dogs, or perhaps a swim in a beautiful lake. It can be as everyday as taking the stairs three flights up, instead of taking the elevator. And it can be as invigorating as a game of touch football with your friends on Thanksgiving Day.
But if it’s not at all a part of your life, and you’re dealing with the challenges of TBI and/or PTSD, I’d hazard to say that your row is going to be a bit harder to hoe.
By now there is so much documented evidence that exercise and aerobic movement aids the brain, that it’s impossible to ignore. And it would be negligent of me to not beat on my exercise! drum, if I genuinely want to help people overcome the challenges of TBI (which I do).
The fact that exercise is such a simple thing for everyone to get — even in moderate amounts — makes it one of the best-kept secrets of TBI recovery. It’s so secret, even the top experts make passing reference to it, but aren’t nearly as passionate about it as, say, the folks at the Concussion Clinic at University at Buffalo. Watch the “Sportsnet Connected” – UB’s Post Concussion Syndrome Treatment Program for some very exciting developments.
For all the talk about TBI and PTSD among veterans, nowhere do I hear anyone talking about how soldiers returning from Iraq and Afgahnistan can help themselves with exercise. The VA may not have the proper pieces in place for highly effective diagnosis and treatment, and they may be discharging soldiers with inaccurate “personality disorder” diagnoses, but the one thing I see time and time again, when I look at YouTube videos of soldiers training, is gym and exercise equipment. Even gyms built in shacks on the sides of mountains in a godforsaken country far, far from home.
This puzzles me. Why would a treatment so effective and so familiar and so self-directed not be promoted and plugged (especially for soldiers), till everyone is sick of talking about it? Maybe it’s “too easy” and people think that it’s something that’s “extra” in addition to meds and/or directed therapies. Maybe it requires “too much” consistency and people don’t know how to work up the motivation to do it regularly enough to make a difference. Maybe the VA didn’t get the memo about U@B’s success stories. Maybe veterans are waiting for someone else to initiate treatment and get them on the right path.
It’s complicated, of course. I suspect it may also have to do with the professional interests and personal makeup of the top experts. After all, if earning your bread and butter (not to mention your reputation) comes from the control of information and the dispensing of advice and assistance under strictly controlled and controllable circumstances (like your office or a rehab facility), and you feel your professional position is threatened (or you may lose clients to outside forces), you don’t necessarily have a deep-seated incentive to encourage people to do simple, common-sense activities on their own (which provide tremendous benefits without requiring insurance billing codes).
Plus, if you’re a person who’s made your mark in the world sitting at a desk or standing at a podium, and you don’t have a real focus on physical fitness in your own life, why would you even think to recommend exercise to your clients/patients? The personal element to this — i.e., non-athletic individuals (who may have gotten into science and medicine because they sucked at sports) who have an aversion to exercise — should be factored in.
Plus, the focus on the brain and psychology and “mind over matter” that pervades Western science probably hasn’t helped us appreciate the role of the body in the functioning of our brains and minds.
Personally, I don’t have those sorts of conflicts of interest or an individual bias against exercise. Quite the contrary. I love to move in coordinated and sport-like ways, and I’ve got nothing to lose by telling everyone I encounter (or who reads this blog) that exercise can help heal what’s been hurt. And the more I think about it, and the more I use regular exercise in my own recovery, the more passionate (even zealous) I become. Each and every day, this flame burns a little brighter in my belly.
To say that exercising regularly changed my life for the better would be an understatement. Once I started working out (very lightly and low-impact) each morning before I got started with my day, my anxiety level almost immediately began to decrease. Less anxiety meant less agitation, less temper flares, less acting out, less losing it over stupid shit. It has meant that my spouse can now be in the same room with me for extended periods of time. A year ago, that wasn’t the case. It has meant that I can start out my day without two or three private melt-downs that used to deplete me daily and leave me feeling broken and wrecked even before I left the house to go to work. It has meant that my constant headaches have subsided and my aches and pains which followed me everywhere and never totally went away, did in fact calm down. They’re not gone completely 100% of the time, but they are generally much less intense, and they don’t stop me from living my life, like they used to.
To say that my life between my fall in 2004 and my starting regular exercise in 2009 was getting progressively worse would also be an understatement. All that agitation, that anxiety, and the unstoppable extremes of panic and fight-flight-freeze gushing through my system were tearing the hell out of me. It was more than “just” TBI. It was (I believe) also a sharply spiking case of PTSD that arose from the constant “micro-traumas” of my TBI-addled experience, and it was destroying my life.
My brain was broken, and my mind was, too. In no small part because my body was broken in ways that no one could see.
How frustrating it was. I was trying like crazy to figure things out… totally fogged from my messed-up wiring, all disconnected and confabulated, and cognitively impaired by the daze of biochemical gunk that built up in my system.
It was like driving down a dark, unfamiliar road that’s full of potholes that I kept hitting, with the inside of my windshield fogged up.
But then I started exercising. And you know what? Everything started to get clearer. Getting regular exercise each day was like taking a paper towel and wiping away the fog inside the glass. The road was still dark, and there were still potholes, but as long as I kept the inside of my windshield clear, I had a fighting chance. And slowly but surely, the sun started to come up.
The road wasn’t particularly well-paved, and there were still potholes, but I could see them, at last, and I could adjust to my circumstances. As long as I was all jacked up on cortisol and adrenaline, I was S.O.L. and hurting from it. But when I started to clear that crap out of my system, I at last had a fighting chance to get on with my life.
My feeling about exercise are similar to feelings among my relatives about being born-again religious converts. There’s something so invigorating, so life-giving about this “new” discovery, that we feel ourselves transformed. And in a way, exercise has become a kind of spiritual practice for me. It gives me new life each and every morning, and even on those days when I’m not feeling as moved as other times, I still recognize the worth and value of this practice.
I would go so far as to say that exercise comes about as close to a “magic bullet” for TBI/concussion recovery, as anything I’ve come across. More and more experience and research is bearing that out, and plenty of TBI/PTSD survivors will agree. And the best part is, it not only strengthens the body and the brain, but it also gets you off the couch and/or out of the house and can get you into the company of other people where you’re less isolated, and you can interact with them in a structured context. TBI and PTSD can be terribly isolating. Having structured physical activity to get you up and out, and also provide a way to control your own social interactions is helpful in so many ways.
Out for a walk? You’re not only giving your veins and arteries and lungs and lymphatic system a much-needed boost, but you can also encounter people along the way with whom you can chat. Having trouble understanding what people are saying to you and following the conversation? You can excuse yourself and walk on, and no one will think anything of it. Feeling bad because you had trouble with the interaction? You can walk it off.
It’s what I do.
And the results have been amazing. (Obviously, not everyone has the same experience, and you’ll certainly have your own, but this is mine.) After hiding myself away for years, I’m back in the swing of things, taking care of what’s in front of me. Granted, I have my down days, and motivation is still a problem with me, but feeling as good as I do (aches and pains notwithstanding), I feel up to dealing with it all.
These results (and more) came after a relatively short time of doing them. Seriously. I started seeing real results after only a few weeks. Just in terms of feeling better, more centered, less foggy, more awake in the morning.
And this, after a prolonged period of sedentary isolating.
Oh, sure, I was active as a kid (and clumsy and prone to falling and hitting my head, unfortunately), and I went through periods of working out regularly and getting regular exercise as an adult, but after my last fall in 2004, the whole exercise thing went right out the window. It was bad. I went from being a regular at the gym to not even being able to set foot in the building, because I was having so much trouble understanding what people were saying to me — it totally freaked me out.
That freaking out was a problem. It was a problem at work and at home. It was a problem when I was with people or alone. My sympathetic nervous system was whacked and everything I encountered that was new or unfamiliar felt like a life-and-death threat, which had me pumped up on adrenaline all the time. I was a mess to live with. I had fallen, and I couldn’t seem to get back up.
I became intensely inactive. I stopped mowing the lawn and taking care of the plantings around the house. I stopped clearing leaves when they fell. I stopped sweeping the driveway. I stopped fixing things around the house when they were broken. I stopped going for the walks that I’d loved to go on for as long as I could remember. I stopped talking to people. I stopped talking to my spouse. I just stopped. Everything I encountered felt like a monstrous threat — one to be fought to the death or fled from in terror.
God, how miserable that was! The wild thing is, I didn’t even realize how whacked I was. All my alarm felt 100% justified. I felt absolutely positively certain that every novel situation I encountered was indeed a threat to my safety and sanity. I was going rapidly downhill, and I wasn’t going down alone. I hate to say it, but my spouse’s health declined rapidly as my own TBI issues escalated.
So, what got me out of that? Realizing, for one, that I was in danger of being put on meds for my attentional issues. My PCP had mentioned the possibility of putting me on something for my distractability, and my neuropsych had started mentioning the different medication options available. Talk about freaking me out. I had been on some heavy-duty meds for pain, back about 20 years ago, and they totally screwed me up. To the point of partly disabling me. What’s more, the thought of having someone else control my biochemistry — whether a pharma company or my neuropsych or my doctor (none of whom have to live in my body and brain, and none of whom are instantly available to me, should I get into trouble) — freaked me out enough to get me to sit up and pay attention and try to find some other way to wake myself up in the morning.
I had been trying for some time to figure out how to get exercise into my life, as I watched my weight increase and my strength decrease. I just didn’t have the intensity of focus required to figure out how.
When the docs started talking meds, I found my focus real quick.
The rest, as they say, is history. My life has done a 180-degree turn, and my mind and body and brain are doing better than ever. My neuropsych kind of looks at me oddly when I rave about how awesome exercise is, but theyr’e not living in my body and dealing with my brain, so how would they know what a qualitative difference it’s made? My PCP, thank heavens, is no longer talking about meds, and my level of functioning is on a whole new plane.
All this, I believe, because I have a solid physiological foundation. I’m exercising all my brains — in my skull, my heart, and my gut — and exercise helps them all communicate better with one another. My anxiety experience is now such that I can delay the knee-jerk reactions that plagued me for so many years. And I can stop to ask myself what’s going on, before I get carried away by my impulse to flip out.
It’s that effective and that powerful. And it’s so simple to do. Exercise. Take the stairs. Walk briskly instead of ambling along. Park at the other end of the parking lot and hot-foot it to the front door of the store — even in the rain. Get out for a walk on the weekends. And make a point of doing some light calisthenics before you get into your day. It can make a difference. It will make difference. The attention you pay to this will give back to you, over and over and over again.
As Nike says, “Just do it.” Your mind will thank your body for helping your brain.