They say it’s the brain, but it’s also the body

It's ALL connected
It’s ALL connected

TBI can seriously mess you up in the head. That’s a given.

But it can also seriously mess with your physiology.

In fact, out of all the problems I’ve had over the years, the physical issues I’ve had have far outweighed the cognitive ones – if anything, they contributed to my cognitive and behavioral issues.

  • Fatigue – bone-crushing, spirit-sapping exhaustion;
  • Problems keeping my balance, which messed with my moods.
  • Heart rate increase – or decrease, as well as blood pressure changes.
  • Light and noise sensitivity.
  • Headaches
  • Body aches
  • Sensitivity to touch, which really messed with my head, as well. Imagine never being able to have human contact… it’s not much fun.
  • Constant adrenaline rush that wired me out, something fierce.

When your brain gets injured, it can affect your whole body. Because as we know, the brain is mission control for the rest of the works below the neck.

 

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I lowered my heart rate from 90 to 73 in a minute

Last weekend, when I was recovering from a migraine, I checked my blood pressure and pulse:

100/59 with a heart rate of 90
Before… 100/59 with a heart rate of 90

My heart rate was up, for some reason (this was just after noontime), and my pulse seemed a little off. 100/59 might seem awesome, but it seemed a little low to me.

So, I did my breathing and checked again:

95/66 with a heart rate of 73
After – 95/66 with a heart rate of 73

I was able to bring my heart rate down to 73, which felt better, and I raised my “bottom number” on my BP to 66, which actually felt better.  I don’t want my blood pressure to get too low, and I can bring it up with my breathing.

So, I did.

I made the mistake of not checking my bp and pulse while the migraine was setting in. I’ll need to remember that later, so hopefully I can head it off at the pass… before the stabbing pain sets in.  Who knows? Maybe I can head off the other symptoms at the pass: light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, sensory issues, balance, dizziness, etc.

In any case, this is probably a good thing to do on a daily basis, no matter how I’m feeling. It might save me a lot of hassle – and it’s definitely easier and cheaper than dealing with medication.

Migraines have been under control

trepanning - migraine relief?
Fortunately, I have a better solution than this!

Summary: Controlled breathing seems to be helping me control my headaches, especially my migraines. After years and years of having constant headaches, I believe I’ve found a way to control them. This is good news, because constant headaches are no fun, and they kept me from really living my life.

I’m happy to report: My migraines have been under control – The headache part, anyway. Last week, I had a weird couple of days, where I was definitely altered… very strange feelings, colors brighter and higher contrast, everything feeling like it was moving in slow motion… I didn’t take any meds, because I didn’t have a headache, and I wasn’t actually sure if it was a migraine, or if it was just one of those things that comes up.

I will occasionally have bouts of dizziness (well, not occasionally… more often than that). And I will have my bouts of clumsiness and feeling spacey. Especially when I’m under pressure, feeling emotional, or I haven’t slept, it can be a problem, and with the last days of my current job winding down, all three of those boxes get checked off.

So, I just let it ride. And Saturday evening (after my nap, ironically), the headache set in.

But to be honest, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it has been in the past. Certainly not as bad as when I was cutting back on my coffee and went through that miserable withdrawal that lasted for days. And I actually have been feeling pretty good, without the constant headache. I think I must be doing something right.

The thing that seems to have moved the needle, is that I’m actively working with controlling my heart rate and blood pressure with controlled breathing. I can bring my heart rate down from 93 to 73 in a minute, using my technique. And I practice this on a regular basis, sometimes because I need to, sometimes out of curiosity.

It seems to be helping my migraines.

Now, the thing to be careful of, is thinking that one thing leads to another, when there could be other issues happening, too. I have also drastically cut back on caffeine, which supposedly helps headaches. That’s ironic, because I always heard that caffeine will help a headache, and to be honest, the times when I have been really struggling with the pain, having some dark chocolate or a bit of strong coffee really seems to help. If nothing else, they make me feel human again. I’ve also been exercising more regularly — at the very least, riding the exercise bike for 15-20 minutes each morning, and usually lifting light weights to boot. That could certainly be helping.

The thing is, I couldn’t exercise regularly for a number of years, because the headaches were keeping me from it. Nowadays, I still do get little headaches when I exercise, now and then, but when I do my controlled breathing and relaxation, they go away. Pretty amazing, really.

This is how it goes for me, these days:

Exercise: I get on the exercise bike and ride. I set the resistance to about medium, because I don’t want to overdo it. I’ll bump up the resistance and push myself, now and then, but when I do, I will sometimes get a little headache… which in my experience can turn into a big one — and big problems for the day. I back off on the resistance and check my pulse on the handlebars (there’s a pulse monitor there). If it is really high, I will control my breathing and bring it down. And the headache goes away.

Emotional Upset: My spouse and I have always had a “fiery” relationship. Our discussions sound like all-out fights to people who don’t know us. Our actual disagreements literally make other people run away. It wasn’t a problem for me, when I was 15 years younger (we’ve been together nearly 25 years), but in the past years, I’ve been getting more upset by these kinds of exchanges, and I’ve noticed a connection between the upset I feel and screaming headaches that come on — especially migraines. Sometimes I get so upset, I get an 8-out-of-10 headache (complete with light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, sensory issues, balance problems, dizziness, and nausea) that lasts for days. So, I need to find a way to deal with it. Now, when I get upset and I feel something coming on, I immediately “disengage” and focus on controlling my breathing. Sometimes I will go to a dark room and block out all sensory input. I can usually feel my blood pressure and heart rate going way up… but after a little while (maybe 15-20 minutes) of slowing everything down, I can “rejoin the living” and have a logical conclusion to what was probably a silly argument, to begin with. And no headache to speak of.

It’s pretty cool.

And it’s a relief.

Because now I feel like I can live my life without being in constant fear of headaches and migraine symptoms, etc.

Of course, there’s the other host of symptoms that come with migraine. Like feeling like my left side is carved out of a block of wood. But that’s also diagnostic. It tells me I need to take better care of myself, rest, get something decent to eat, and take the pressure off.

Bottom line is, I figured out a way to manage my migraines, and I’m pretty happy about it.

Getting off coffee — After the migraine subsides

So, this is interesting. I did something to my system over the weekend, and I came down with a horrific migraine yesterday afternoon. It was the worst one I’ve had in quite some time. I’ve had some of those where you go blind in one eye and the world is spinning and you feel like you’re going to throw up, but I don’t remember the headache and weird feeling and light sensitivity ever being as bad as they were yesterday.

Holy crap.

I really didn’t expect it at all. My weekend was going really well. I was cutting back on the coffee and eating a more substantial breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, along with more fruits and vegetables throughout the day, getting more exercise (I rode the bike a long while on Saturday and Sunday and went for multiple hikes in the woods, up to the top of a nearby hill in our local conservation area), and drinking more water. I felt fantastic, with a lot of energy. I also got some roasted dandelion root tea, to try out as a substitute for coffee. I drank some on Saturday afternoon. It was nothing to write home about, and certainly not a reliable substitute for coffee. But it was worth a try. It was in the coffee aisle at the grocery store, after all.

But I woke up to a screaming migraine after my nap on Sunday afternoon. Couldn’t stand the light, head throbbing, sick to my stomach, feeling dull and drugged. Usually my headaches are just there, but this one was intrusive. Holy crap, whenever I moved, it just thrashed me. Up around an 8.5 – 9 on a scale of 1 – 10. I had a bunch of things I wanted to do on Sunday afternoon, but all I could do was sit in a dark room with my sunglasses on, soaking my feet in a hot mustard bath.

I had half a cup of coffee, ate a banana and a piece of chocolate, took a couple of Advil, and drank water (how’s that for performance enhancement?) and I started to feel better. Not as sensitive to light and not as sick. Still not great, but better than I had been. You do what you have to do.

I suspect this was partly about cutting back on coffee… increasing my exercise… changing my diet… and drinking that tea. All that change was abrupt, even if it was in a positive direction. I have a tendency to overdo things out of enthusiasm, and I think this was one of those times. I’m nervous about the MRI, and my anxiety is really rising. So, to calm myself down, I do things that give me the sense that I have some control over my life — changing my diet, exercising, trying new foods, cutting out coffee.

I’ve done some reading over the weekend about migraines, and they can be triggered by a bunch of things, including changes to diet and activity – check, and check. I know that exercise tends to start a headache with me, and I did start to get a bit of an ache while I was riding the bike — both days. But it’s usually just a headache, not the nausea, crazy feeling, and intense sensitivity to light that had me walking around the house with all the curtains drawn and wearing my sunglasses because even through the curtains, the light was too bright.

So, I did a number of things differently than usual, and I learned my lesson. I need to take things slowly — gradually — not dive in head-first, as I tend to do. Impulsiveness plus anxiety equals — surprise!

And not a good surprise, either. Right now, I’m fighting back more throbbing pain, keeping the blinds drawn, and reaching for the Advil. I don’t want to take the Imitrex, because I don’t know what it will do to me, and I have to be “on” this morning.

So, I need to take things easy and make change gradually. Not bombard my system like it’s a machine. As much as I like the idea of roasted dandelion root tea as an alternative for coffee, I don’t think it’s going to do it for me. I think it really contributed to the migraine. After the pain subsided to a relatively simple headache of “4” on a scale of “10”, I tried to drink it again yesterday evening. And the headache started up again. So, even if it’s not the sole contributor, it did not make things better for me. Dandelion is a natural diuretic, and it has other properties, too, that are used as home remedies.  I got some to get ready for my MRI on Wednesday, so I can flush out my system and not be poisoned (too much) by the contrast agent. But I just can’t do it.

Well, better I learn now, than later. That’s for sure. I’d rather get this lesson out of the way ahead of time, while I have the time to rest and recuperate. I have a busy day on Thursday, so I need to not get knocked out by the MRI on Wednesday. Most people don’t have problems with it, and they look at me like I have two heads when I tell them I get sick afterwards, but so what? I know what happens to me, and I need to get ready.

So, it’s plain water and healthy foods for me, thank you very much.

Onward.

Taking the pain in stride

I’ve talked about pain a lot, over the past years, but only recently have I actually developed a way to deal with it effectively. That way is a bit counter-intuitive, in my mind, but it’s actually helping.

This new approach? Take it in stride. Get my mind off it. Don’t dwell on it. Accept that it’s there, and it’s probably not going away anytime soon. And focus on other things that are so compelling and interesting to me, that the pain literally ceases to exist in my mind.

Now, this has some obvious drawbacks. First, it doesn’t really get me in the mindset to change things. If I’m in pain and I’m suffering, wouldn’t I want to do something to alleviate that, to make it worse? If there is any way on earth that I can keep the pain at bay and live my life without it intruding on my happiness and well-being, isn’t that something I should be doing?

Well, yes and no. I’ve been trying working like crazy to get the pain to stop — just stop — with all sorts of approaches. Exercise. Stretching. Acupressure. Massage. Chiropractic. Drugs. Mindfulness meditation. Focused breathing. Diet changes. You name it, I’ve probably done it (except for acupuncture, which I still want to try). And the results have been pretty limited. Thinking back on my childhood, I can remember very few times when I was not in pain. I was a pretty rough-and-tumble kid, and I was also very inflexible to begin with. So, I was usually banged up or bruised or stretched or strained in one way or another. I was usually pushing my limits, and when you do that, you end up in pain.

So, I’ve lived close to 5 decades in almost constant pain. And I’ve made some pretty good progress over the course of that time. I’ve done some amazing things, and I’ve had some amazing accomplishments. All of this while being in pain.

So why, oh why, am I do intent on making the pain go away?

Sure, it doesn’t feel that great. Sure, it’s a distraction. But is it really stopping me from doing anything? Is it really keeping my mind from being alert and active? Is it keeping me from having dreams and pursuing them? It’s a drag and a pain, yes. But is it stopping me?

No, not really. In fact, when I am intently focused on what is in front of me, everything else just goes away. The pain, the fear, the distractions, the anxiety… all of it goes away. When I’m 100% engaged, and I’m feeling that flow, nothing else matters, nothing else gets in my way. I’m fully present, absorbed, transformed by that engagement. And there is no pain.

That’s my new approach — to have other things in my life that are so compelling, so engaging, so uplifting, that the pain ceases to be an issue.

Now, sure, there will be times when it’s so bad that I can’t sit or stand or lie down or do anything without shrieking heat raging through my body. But that’s to be expected. And it either goes away after I get enough sleep, or I find something else to consume my attention. I know full well that when I’m exhausted and I have pushed myself too hard for too long without a good recovery, the pain will set in. So it’s a good reminder to do that. And it’s a good barometer of how I’m doing in general. So, I don’t need to get rid of it. I need to factor it in, expect it, and just live my life anyway.

Yeah, just live my life anyway. I’ve wasted a ton of time trying to get it to stop – just stop – and it’s not going to happen, as far as I can tell. I live too fully. I push too hard. I test myself too regularly, for the pain to stop anytime soon.

Just gotta keep going and keep focused on what matters most to me. A 100% pain-free life is not one of those things. What matters most is a life-filled life.

 

Ouch – another idea for pain management

Gotta get on with it...

In a lot of pain this morning. Stiff and sore and not feeling like moving at all. But I’ve got to.

Woke up too early again. Lay in bed, writing in my journal, then was able to get back to sleep for another hour. I’ve got a lot of things I have to do today — fortunately, most of them before this evening. So, I can have my nap after I’m done with them, and get some more rest.

I’m noticing something interesting — even though I’m in pain when I am still and not moving, when I am moving around, I don’t feel the pain. So, am I actually in pain? I don’t know. If I stop and think about it, I am in pain. If I’m not thinking about it, I’m not.

So, if I just keep busy and don’t focus on the pain, that can help me get on with my life. Even if I’m still uncomfortable when I slow down.

Of course, I have to be careful that I don’t overdo it, and that I don’t hurt myself by trying to distract myself from the discomfort. I need to pay attention to what’s going on in my life, and what’s going on with my body, so I can manage it. I can’t afford to get so wrapped up in what I’m doing, that I do more harm to myself.

But the day is waiting. I’ve taken care of a few things already. Now it’s time to get on with the rest of it.

Addendum on October 23 — from http://brainblogger.com/2011/10/23/pain-is-no-matter-for-the-meditative-mind/:

Marcus Aurelius sums it up nicely,

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Bring the pain

It’s hard to describe it to people who don’t know it. It’s all but impossible to illustrate for skeptics. It’s not that pleasant to explain to loved ones. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s there — the pain.

I have grown so accustomed to it that it’s all but imperceptible, if I don’t pay attention to it. The dull ache behind my eyes. The complaints of my hands, when I spread my fingers  “too wide” in a stretch.  The catch in my shoulder when I shrug. The stab in my back when I turn. The pull in my hip when I stand up. All my body, it seems some days, is like one of those old rubber bands that comes wrapped around broccoli. You remove the rubber band and leave it on the kitchen counter, wash and steam the broccoli and eat it, and you forget about the rubber band till months later, when you’re cleaning the kitchen (finally) and you find it wedged behind the blender. It’s stiff, brittle, crackly when you pull it. And if you pull it too hard, it snaps and nips at your fingers, all the little dusty bits of it falling into the cracks you just cleaned in the counter.

For a while, I tracked my headaches. Behind my eyes. Above my ears. In the back of my head. At the base of my skull. Traveling up the back of my skull and down to my eyes, like the  insignia on a San Diego Chargers helmet. Throb. Ache. “Lightning strikes” of sharp, shooting pain — I’m having one now.

But after three months, I realized it was an exercise in futility. My doctor didn’t want to see my log. Nobody wanted to see my log. It did me no good — just reminded me I had a headache. All the time. And there was no changing it. So, I quit.

And then I tracked my other aches and pains. The stiffness of my joints, the spasms in my lower back, the tight ache in my hands that kept at an almost imperceptible level… unless I spread my fingers or actually used my hands for something other than typing. Stiff knuckles. Achey tendons. Sore phalanges. Ouch.

I tried to “track” the pain, to see where it was coming from and where it was going to… until I realized that it came from everywhere and nowhere… and it wasn’t going anywhere. I could eat Advil by the handful (which I don’t do anymore, knowing what it can do to your pancreas). All it did was take the edge off. At midnight, when lying awake in shrieking pain, every nerve ending feeling like it’s been dipped in acid, that’s not a small thing. But it’s not a permanent thing. And my internal organs cannot withstand a ceaseless parade of Advil caplets through my digestive system.

I quit tracking that pain. It just made things worse. Again, nobody wanted to hear about or see my log. It didn’t seem to be real to them. As though I was lying to them. Trying to get attention. Malingering. Bullsh*t.

One piece of my pain I cannot dwell too much on, is the all-over pain my clothes cause me. I literally cannot think about it, because when I do, it’s too overwhelming. It’s not everywhere, exactly – mostly on my arms, from my wrists up to my shoulders, especially at my wrists and my upper arms… and the tops of my thighs. Oh, also, my upper back, across my shoulderblades. Depending on how tired I am, or how anxious I feel, the pain can range from a feeling of lots of pins being pressed into my skin, to the sensation of the top layer of my skin being peeled off.  Not good.

Most days, I cannot stand to have anything touching my wrists, and I spend my days with my sleeves pushed up around my elbows. I also cannot take the sensation of a watch on my wrist, or rings on my fingers. I know folks who favor heavy signet rings and other jewelry. I don’t know how they do it. I have a hard time just handling wearing clothes — in the summertime, I wear as few as possible. Not to attract attention or get a good even tan. But to be comfortable.

Some days — today is one of those days — I am extremely tired, and everything hurts. Everything. My clothes, any movement, or just sitting. Any kind of contact is unpleasant. Some days — today is one of those days — even the air on my skin hurts it. It feels like I have a first degree burn all over my body, which is healing    veeeerrrrryyyy    ssssssllllllooooowwwwwlllllyyyyyy.

It sucks. And I chafe and cringe and try to figure out what to do about it.

Tonight, what I’m going to do, is go to bed early. I’m taking a long, hot shower and jumping into bed.

Yes… a long hot shower…. and bed.

Sounds good.

Good night, everyone. Good night.

I haven’t got time for the pain

I haven’t got need for the pain, either.

I confirmed something very important, this past week – if I do not exercise vigorously, first thing in the morning before I do anything else, I pay for it in pain.

For those who know what it is like to battle chronic pain on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis, over the course of months, even years, you know what I mean, when I say, I will do anything in my power to keep this pain from taking over my life.

For those who are lucky enough to not have that experience, you can say instead, I will do anything in my power to keep [insert something you detest and despise] from taking over my life.

I happen to be one of the former types, plagued all my born days (at least, as far back as I can remember) with pain. Painful touch. Painful movement. Painful just about everything. The only times I have been pain-free have been in the extremes of human experience — when I am either so deeply engrossed in what I am doing that my focus blocks out any sensation at all… when I am pushing myself beyond my limits to see how far I can go… when I am so deeply relaxed and entranced that nothing of human experience can penetrate the divine aura that surrounds me.

In those extreme places, I am free of pain, I am more than myself, I am a piece of a very, very, very large puzzle that dwarfs discomfort with its vastness.

But one cannot always live in the extremes. I’m neither a cloistered monastic, nor a sheltered academic, nor a professional athlete, nor a maverick rock climber. I am a regular person with a regular life, and that life just happens to be fraught — at times — with almost constant pain.

Ask me if I have a headache on any given day, and my answer will not be “yes” or “no”, but “what kind of headache?” and “where precisely do you mean?” It’s a given, that my  head will hurt. And my body, too. It’s just a question of degrees.

At its worst, the pain is debilitating. 20 years ago, I had to stop working and drop out of life for about 5 years to get myself back on my feet. Over the decades since then, the pain has fluctuated, its impact on my life varying. The variation has been due, in no small part, to my mental determination to not let it stop me. In many cases, I refused to even acknowledge it, even though objectively I knew it was there. I went for years telling myself  I was pain-free, while at night I would be forced to stretch and press points up and down my legs and take plenty of Advil to get myself past the searing ache in my legs, hips, and back.

Denial is a funny thing — so useful, so essential, at times, and so easily used, even when facts to the contrary are obvious and intrusive.

Over the past several years, however, as I’ve become more and more cognizant of my TBI-related issues, pain has made itself known to me, and I have ceased to deny it. It’s a double-edged sword, that. Even if I don’t deny it and am determined to do something about it, my plans don’t always work, and I cannot always accomplish the level of pain control I would like.

In those moments when my honesty is far more than my ability to deal effectively with my discomfort, I curse my newfound determination to be upfront and frank about every little thing that is amiss with me. I have so many other issues to think about — do I need to add unstoppable, unmanageable, uncontrollable pain to the mix? Wouldn’t it make a whole lot more sense, to acknowledge and focus on issues I can actually fix?

But now that the lid is off Pandora’s box, there’s no sticking it back on. I have to address this pain situation, I have to do something about it. I cannot just sit around and boo-hoo. Nor can I run away from it and keep telling myself it’s not an issue. It is an issue. A very sticky, troubling, problematic one that holds me back, perhaps more than any other issue I have. It’s not just physical, it’s emotional and psychological, too. And it demands acknowledgement and work, to address it.

So, I do. I get up in the morning — like it or not — and I exercise. I roll my aching, complaining body out of bed, pull on my sweatshirt over my pajamas, slip my feet into my slippers, grab my clipboard and pen, and I haul my ass downstairs. I fill the kettle with water, put it on the stove, and turn the knob to 3 or 4, to give myself plenty of time to work out before the water boils. Then I pull the curtains in the room where the exercise bike is, so I can work out in private, put my clipboard on the magazine holder on the exercise bike, climb on, make a note of the time I started, and I begin to pedal.

I ride for at least 20 minutes — 15, if I’m really behind in my schedule — and I work up a sweat. I hate and resent the first 10 minues of every ride. It is boring. It is monotonous. It is sheer drudgery. But it is necessary. If I don’t exercise, move lymph through my veins (the milky white substance that moves toxins out of our systems doesn’t move on its own — it requires circulation to clear out the junk we put in), and oxygenate my brain.

After the first 10 minutes, my brain has started to wake up and is complaining less about the ride. About that time, I start to think of things I’m going to do for the day, and I start to make notes. I scribble on my clipboard, trying to control my handwriting well enough to read my notes later, and I make an effort to be careful and legible. On and off, I pick up my pace and push myself, working up a sweat and an oxygen debt that gets my lungs pumping. When I’m warmed up and getting into a groove, my mind wakes up even more, and I let it wander a bit — kind of like letting a squirrelly puppy off its lead when you take it for a walk in the park. I let my thoughts ramble, let my mind race here and there, and then like walking a puppy, I eventually call it back, focus once more on my day, and make more notes about what I need to accomplish.

When I’ve reached my 20-30 minute mark, I stop pedaling, get off the bike, and go check on my hot water. I turn up the heat, if it’s not already boiling, and stretch in the kitchen while the kettle starts to rumble. When the whistle goes, I make myself a cup of strong coffee, and while it’s cooling, I stretch some more. I drink a big glass of water as I stretch, feeling the muscles and tendons and fascia giving way to my insistence. I’m warmed up, after pedaling, so I can stretch more easily. I can move a lot better than when I got out of bed, and I’m actually starting to feel pretty good about doing this exercise thing, as soon as I get up.

Once I’ve stretched, I head back to the exercise room and lift my dumbbells. I work with 5 pound weights (for now), moving slowly and deliberately. I focus intently on my form — practicing my impulse control. I make sure my body is aligned properly and my motions are smooth and not stressing my joints and ligaments and tendons. There’s no point in exercising if I’m going to just injure myself. I do a full range of upper-body exercises, presses, curls, flys, extensions, pull-ups… all the different ways I can move my arms with my 5-lb dumbbells, I work into the third part of my routine. I take my time — deliberately, for discipline and focus and impulse control are big problems for me that really get in my way — and I work up a sweat as I hold certain positions and move far more slowly than I prefer.

When all is said and done, my legs are a little wobbly and my upper body is warm with exertion. I am sweating and a little out of breath, and my body is starting to work overtime to catch up with itself again.

By the time I’m done, my coffee has cooled enough to drink it, and I can make myself a bowl of cereal and cut up an apple to eat.  I sit down with my clipboard again, make more notes, review what I need to accomplish, and I get on with my day.

The days when I skimp on the effort and take it easy, are the days when I am in the most pain at the end of the day. The days when I really push myself with my weights, moving sloooooowly through the motions and keeping myself to a strict form, are the days when I have the most energy and am feeling the most fluid. The days when I don’t stretch very much, are the days I have trouble falling asleep at night. And the days when I do stretch are the ones when I am able to just crash into bed and am down like a log all night.

Two days, this past week, I did not do my workout full justice, and I paid dearly for it, the rest of both days. I learned my lesson. I haul myself out of bed, now, and I hold myself to a disciplined workout. Anything less gets me in trouble.

I’ve got enough trouble, without the pain on top of it. And if there is any way I can cut back on whatever complications I can, I’ll do what I can to do just that.

It’s hard to start, it can be tedious to do, and it often feels like an interruption to my morning, but without it, my day is toast. And I am lost at sea… floating in a brine of burning, searing agony that surely must have informed the medieval concept of eternal hellfire and brimstone.

And yet, something so simple can push back the waves, like Moses parted the Red Sea. Something so simple, so basic, so good for me. Salvation comes in strange packages, sometimes. But it’s salvation nonetheless, so I’ll take it.

After all, I’ve got much better things to do with my life than suffer needlessly.

Learning as pain/stress relief

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the article I read the other day about how the ‘Thirst For Knowledge’ may be a kind of opioid craving… thinking about how that has held true in my own life.

I have to say, it really rings true for me. And I while I was having dinner with a friend the other night, they were telling me how they’ve always loved to learn. They’ve just eaten up new information and they’ve always gotten a charge out of taking in new information and putting it to good use in their life.

Interestingly, they also have a lot of problems with chronic pain — low back pain, especially. The pain pretty much derailed their life for many years, keeping them from getting decent sleep, and probably taking a few years off their life. They are in their 50’s, but they look like they’re 10 years older. It could be that their biological age — due to their chronic pain problems — is just that.

I never would have guessed that they’ve got this pain thing, which they only started really talking about with me recently. They’re one of those people who seeks out all sorts of new and novel information, and they seem to have a genuine thirst for living large, when it comes to heady stuff. Sure, they have other issues, and when they get pissy, they’re no walk in the park, but the way I’ve always seen them, is more as a hungry mind than an aching body.

It’s funny — I rarely discuss my own pain with other people, too. I don’t really get into it — there doesn’t seem to be much point. It’s just depressing, to go into the details about how my shoulders and elbows and hips and knees and back are all on fire, screaming with pain, keeping me up at night, waking me up early… and there’s precious little I can do about it. Even ibuprofin (which is the only anti-inflammatory, including prescription NSAIDs that I’ve used in the past) doesn’t always help. So, I just have to tough it out.

In fact, I rarely devote much time to thinking about my pain when it’s around. It’s just always there. In the background. Nudging me, every now and then, when I step out of line. Twinging or stabbing or whatever. Headaches. Neck aches. Back aches. Joint aches. It never entirely goes away, and I try not to dwell on it, when it comes up. Very little seems to fix it, other than scaling back on my activities and trying to get more rest and steering clear of foods that I know don’t sit well with me.

Now, when I do think about it, it just makes matters worse. I start to notice it. I start to get bothered by it. I start to get crazed and anxious and frustrated and beside myself. It’s a little like being stalked — it’s always there, lurking in the background. Not directly assaulting me so violently that I cannot function, but always reminding me that it just might step up at any time and do just that. And that drives me nuts. Feeling like I cannot escape this shadow, this constant reminder, this ever-present phenomenon that refuses to respond to medication or management techniques or even diagnosis… As Charlie Brown would say, Aaaaaaaauuuuuggggghhhhh!

One of the reasons I realize I haven’t been doing my self-assessments lately is because there are a bunch of places where I track my pain.  And when I do the entire sheet and include my pain(s) in the assessment — rating its severity and impact on my life from 1-10, describing it and its impact, detailing what I am doing about it, and recording whether that worked or not — well, I can see how poorly my coping mechanisms work. And I get depressed. Really down. Just despondent.

So, I don’t self-assess. Which tells me that I need to come up with a different self-assessment approach — probably break out the different areas into separate pieces, and only focus on one type of issue at a time — the cognitive OR the behavioral OR the emotional OR the physical — not lump them all together in one place, which gets overwhelming.

But when I don’t self-assess, I get into trouble with my thinking and my behavior and my attitude. So I need to do something about this. Soon. Today, in fact.

And so, I shall.

But back to my main topic, which is about learning as a pain/stress reliever… No matter how badly my pain is, no matter how much stress I’m under, I find that learning things provides an almost other-worldly relief for me. I’ve been going through some very heavy job stuff, lately — in this economy, talk about stress — and I’ve sorely needed a break from all the intensity. I don’t want to lose my house. I don’t want to be out of work. I don’t want my health to go spiraling downhill, because I’ve taken on more than my body and mind can handle, and it all gets to me and sends me over the edge. Times like this, my PTSD and TBIs rear their ugly heads, and my thinking gets foggy, my reactions get “dumb”, and my whole system starts to go haywire. Which is about the last thing I need, when my home and my family and my future are on the line.

I need some serious stress relief, but I’ve been having a lot of trouble with being outside in the open — lots of anxiety comes up, and I start to freak out with the bombardment of all the stimuli, especially sounds, as my hearing has been hypersensitive to a point that’s starting to drive me nuts. So, I have to find something to do inside that not only takes my mind off my physical discomfort, but also provides serious relief.

That relief comes from learning. Learning new things I need to know for my job. Learning new things from the world wide web. Learning new things from friends. Learning new things from books and white papers. Learning new things that may not be all that practical, but really interest me and keep me engaged. Focusing my attention on things that fascinate me and that enlarge my store of available knowledge does something amazing for me… it cuts the pain. It not only takes my attention off it, but it seems to physically ease my suffering.

And that’s huge.

So, I’m learning everything I can, these days, about things that interest me. And I’m also learning how to pass what I learn along to other people. I come from a family of teachers — professors, elementary school teachers, Sunday school teachers, tutors, instructors. I also worked my way through what college I could manage to complete by tutoring folks in subjects that interested me. And I did a good job. I would probably be a teacher now, if I could have finished college, but that wasn’t in the cards. But I can do it now, in my own way, without the limitations of administrative types who are looking over my shoulder, breathing down my neck, saying, “You can’t say that to those kids!”

Online, in this blog, I can share and teach and instruct. And I’m figuring out new ways of getting information across. It’s my hope that I can do a better job of communicating the stuff that’s in my head to folks who can use it. ‘Cuz I’ve spent an awful lot of time figuring out how to be highly functional and “normal” as normal can be, despite a history of head trauma, chronic debilitating pain, not to mention considerable sensory issues that — when they’re at their worst — turn me into an automaton of sorts.

The information and experience has been invaluable to me, in just living my life. And others might find it useful, too. If I can use what I’ve learned to ease others’ pain — through the process of learning, as well as the experience of using what I relate — then my own difficulties have all been worth it.

Of pain and agitation and PTSD

I am really excited to report that my pain has subsided considerably. The inflamation across my iliac crest — the top of my pelvis at my lower back — has really gone down, to the point where it’s a little painful, but it’s more discomfort than pain, now.

Also my skin is not as sensitive to every contact, like it was. I still have my moments, when I start to sting and throb and my clothes hurt me, but when that starts to happen, I press the pressure point on my hand that I talked about in this post, and I take a few deep breaths to chill myself out and stimulat my vagus nerve, and I do a quick check-in with myself to see if I’m getting agitated about things.

Agitation really seems to get to me physically. Anxiety, too. When I’m worked up, everything feels more intense. So, calming my system down really seems to help matters.

Looking around, I found a June 2001 post from Science Blog that speaks to this. It’s ‘old news’ — over 7 years old — but it makes for good reading, and it really put things in perspective for me.


From Texas A&M University

Fear, anxiety affect pain

COLLEGE STATION, June 12 – Human emotion can be a powerful force, fueling everything from improbable sports championships to tragic acts of violence. Now there’s evidence showing how powerful human emotional states can be when it comes to determining a person’s ability to feel pain.

Texas A&M University psychologist Mary W. Meagher, who has conducted pain research for 16 years, says two emotional states – fear and anxiety – have profoundly different effects on a person’s ability to feel pain.

“Fear and anxiety have divergent effects on pain reactivity in humans: fear reduces pain, whereas anxiety has a sensitizing, or enhancing effect,” says Meagher, who holds joint appointments in clinical psychology and behavioral neuroscience.

Her conclusions are based on her and graduate student Jamie L. Rhudy’s recent work focusing on the role of human emotion on pain. Previous animal studies have suggested that fear inhibits pain and anxiety enhances it, but Meagher’s results support the view that emotional states influence human pain reactivity.

“From a clinical perspective, these data suggest that a patient anticipating an unpredictable threatening event will experience enhanced pain,” she says. “In contrast, a patient that has been exposed to a threatening event will experience a fear state that inhibits pain processing.”

Meagher believes previous conflicting reports of the effects of anxiety on human pain were due to a failure to properly distinguish between the emotional states of fear and anxiety.

Fear, Meagher explains, is an immediate alarm reaction to present threat, characterized by feelings to escape and accompanied by specific physiological changes. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a future-oriented emotion characterized by anticipation of potential threats.

Fear mobilizes a person to take action – the commonly known “fight or flight” response – but anxiety leads to scanning of the environment and body, resulting in increased sensory input, she says.

With these distinctions in mind, the conclusions make sense from an evolutionary point of view, Meagher notes.

Confronted with life-threatening situations, which would elicit fear, the body reacts by shutting off the pain response because feeling pain might get in the way of survival, she says. “Alternatively, during times of low threat – those times likely to produce a state of anxiety rather than fear – the chance of survival is increased if pain is enhanced so that behavioral responses can occur to minimize tissue damage,” Meagher explains.

Meagher’s work also shows that positive emotions can lead to pain reduction as long as a minimal level of arousal is reached, but negative emotions only lead to pain reduction when they are highly arousing. In fact, she says, negative emotions can actually facilitate pain if they are only low to moderately arousing.


This is consistent with my own experience — I can definitely confirm that in my own life, if I’m presented with a situation that involves a specific, verifiable threat, all my systems kick into action and I can actually perform at a higher level, than if I’m just rolling along in a relatively event-free, stress-free life. I can see better. I can hear better. I can interact with the world around me better. Fear actually forces me to focus — that is, if the fear relates to something that is real and significant.

Anxiety, on the other hand, throws me into a panic and sends me spiraling. I can totally see many examples in my life where non-specific threats “triggered” a hyper response to everything and anything around me. It makes me more sensitive, it makes me more jumpy, it makes me more pain-filled.

And thus the vicious cycle begins… because my hypersensitivity causes me to interact with the world poorly — it makes me sensitive to pain, it heightens my hearing, my eyesight, my sense of touch… everything. It makes me avoid situations I shouldn’t, it makes me choose to wear clothing that isn’t the most socially advantageous. (Note: Wearing a sweatshirt and jeans every time I go out in the world is not sending the best message — if anything, it sets me up to not be taken seriously by other people. In fact, I believe that a number of my interactive difficulties, from dealing with doctors to dealing other professionals/consultants, have been made more difficult because I chose to wear well-worn but comfortable clothing, rather than clothes that “sent the message” that I was someone to be taken seriously.) My tactile defensiveness makes me avoid human contact, from handshakes to hugs, which impedes me socially, as well. And it makes me more sensitive to light and sound, which causes me to unconsciously avoid situations that are bright and loud — which is where an awful lot of people hang out, and where an awful lot of deals are done.

But when the offshoots of my socially and physically impactful anxiety result in poor choices or actions that endanger my social standing, my employability, my ability to function in the world at large, it sets up conditions that produce fear. Existential crisis. Serious problems that endanger my job, my house, my family, my safety, my very life. And my sensitivites shut down — they swing to the opposite end of the spectrum. I don’t pick up on clues that people send me. I don’t notice things I should. I don’t realize that I’m falling behind in my work, or that there’s a traffic cop standing in the middle of an intersection ahead of me, waving their flashlight for me to stop. I kind of “click off” in some ways, becoming numb to the world around me, as I deal with my most pressing issue at the moment: I’m late for an appointment that will get me in trouble, or I’ve fallen behind in a task I was supposed to have done by tomorrow, or my back yard is so grown up, the ticks have started to come into the house.

I’ve been in more questionable situations than I care to think about, in no small part because I was shut down while I was dealing with some other crisis that took my mind off what was right in front of me. Or because I’d just come off a crisis I couldn’t deal with and that fried my system. I’ve gone walking in areas where there was active hunting going on, following deer paths on purpose, because I was more interested in getting in touch with nature than noticing the hunters around me. I’ve hung out with underground criminals who were obviously and openly checking out my various assets and having side discussions about me, when I was in a totally new area, having just moved there on my own and not having any real way to support myself and not having a clue, frankly, where my livelihood was going to be coming from. I’ve taken chances behind the wheelof my car that almost got everyone with me killed, when I was overwhelmed with coping with some really intense, deep-seated interpersonal issues that were more than I could handle.

And the aftermaths of these times resulted in more anxiety … and behaviors that made it all but impossible for me to deal effectively with the  demands of the world around me. I descended into intense pain. Or I started drinking heavily. Or I plunged head-long into a long period of over-work, in order to block out the drama, the pain, the trauma… the pain.

I think this business of psychogenic pain — that has both logistical and physical causes AND effects — is an area that should be examined more closely, especially by the mental health field. I think that the connection of emotions — fear and anxiety — and the physical results from them, can actually explain a fair amount of how TBI and PTSD can combine and worsen each other. And it could help explain additional sources of distress and trauma for people who are dealing with emotional issues… some of which won’t “budge” despite years of psychotherapy.

Therapists, in my experience, often focus so intently on the emotional root causes, the past events, the sources, of psychological issues, that they miss the physicality of the experiences they’re addressing. And in the process, they overlook both a contributing factor and a symptom of psychological distress and dysfunction. I suppose it’s to be expected, since psychotherapy is about the psychological side of life. But the more we learn about these things, the more closely connected we realize the mind, body, heart, and spirit are… and to discount any of them, in my mind, short-circuits the process of healing and recovery from the rough-and-tumble aspects of life.

I’m working with very limited time, here, so I don’t have all the hours in my day to devote to this study, but I hope someone else out there is looking at this. Or maybe they have, and I just don’t know about it.

One person who is looking at this, I believe, is Belleruth Naparstek, a psychotherapist who works with guided imagery to address effects of trauma and PTSD and other psychological dysfunctions. She’s got a website at http://www.healthjourneys.com/ where she not only has CDs and tapes and MP3s for sale, but she also includes research and articles about the use of guided imagery in healing.

I have friends who swear by her work, and I  myself have used her PTSD and Stress Hardiness Optimization and Panic/Anxiety guided imagery with some surprising results. I’ve never been much “into” guided meditations — people who try to “guide” me tend to irritate the sh*t out of me, and it often feels like this namby-pamby coddling pansy-ass touchy-feely crap that is one of the aspects of “new age healing” that just drives me nuts. Okay, so maybe I’m being harsh and it just goes to show I have plenty of healing to do, but I just hate feeling talked down to an patronized by people who are “more enlightened” than me. I usually feel condescended to ann treated like an infant.

Belleruth’s style, however, is not like that. She seems very down-to-earth to me — at least, in her CDs — and she’s very accessible and no-nonesense. She also strikes me as being very competent and intelligent, which helps. I hate it when dense people condescend to me. It makes me crazy and is a terrible distraction. Anyway, I’ve been very surprised by the effect her CDs have had on me — after being unable to shed a tear for many, many years, I’m actually able to cry. Okay, so I’m not very good at doing it around other people, and it stresses me out when they see me cry, but every now and then, I can really use a good breakdown in the privacy of my own home. And when I’ve listened to the imagery, I can sleep. This is big. I often fall asleep in the middle of the imagery, and then I wake up when it’s done. I suppose I may be getting some benefit while I’m sleeping, but the real boon is that I can sleep, at all. I went for years, after my last TBI in 2004, not being able to sleep through the night, waking up at 3 a.m. regularly, not being able to sleep on the weekends, not being able to really rest… which fried me even more after the fall and probably impeded my recovery terribly.

Anyway, to get back to the point of this post — in tracking the sources of my pain and finding out ways to deal with it, I have to look at the emotional aspects — the agitation and anxiety and fear pieces of the puzzle — and address them. When I address them, through deep breathing, monitoring and controlling my stress, and keeping myself relatively chilled out — or as chilled out as I can be — it helps me cut back on the pain. I also do things like cuss out people who make me angry, when I’m far from polite society — in the woods, or in my car (tho’ I have to be careful when I’m venting in my car)… write letters to the people who I feel have done me wrong, and then rip up the letters (never send them)… try to get more sleep, so I can deal with the physical issues that lead to the emotional ones that lead to the physical ones… and so on.

And I use the pain points on my hands to at least give myself a little immediate relief.

If you’re dealing with pain and you’re looking for ways to deal with it, I wish you the best of luck! Everyone is different, of course, but life is all about cause and effect. Even if what I use to cut my pain doesn’t work for you, if you engage in your own process and just keep trying, you may be able to find ways that you can use to address your own situation, and get more out of life, with each passing day.

Life can be wonderful, if we figure out how to let it be just that.