What REALLY happened

Storms happen

Just a quick note before I head out the door to work — I had a somewhat rough weekend, feeling sick and out of it, after my meltdown on Friday. I really felt like I’d screwed up, and I didn’t know how to make it better or what to do to fix it. I knew that I’d been over-tired, that I’d been stressed, that I’d really had a hard time handling everything, and that the next time I needed to do a better job of managing my time and my energy — and come up with an alternate plan, in case the first one doesn’t work out (d’oh).

Yesterday, though, while I was doing some work around the yard, I was giving this all a lot of thought, wondering what the hell would have possessed me to say and do the things I did. It made no sense. I know better. I have better sense. I am capable of better things than that, and I know it. I tried to do better. I really did. I almost pulled it together a bunch of times, but I could not let it go. And it tore the sh*t out of both my spouse and me.

So, why didn’t I do better? Why did I end up getting hijacked by those emotions and carried away to the abyss? Seriously, the things I was “up against” were minor, compared to other more serious things I’ve faced with more agility and control. So, why was I in such terrible form on Friday?

It occurred to me that the thing that got hold of me was not psychological. It was not mental. It was not a problem with my thinking. After all, on Friday while I was having that meltdown, there were periods when I was completely calm and lucid and at peace — then BAM! — everything changed in an instant, and I was off to the races again. The only explanation that fits, is that it was an actual neurophysiological reaction — a physical thing that got sparked by something that actually precedes rational thought in my mind. Of course, I could not defend against it, because it got hold of me before my mind could get a hold on it. And that has the hallmarks of an over-activated fight-flight response written all over it.

That is, it was not a problem with my thinking, per se, it was a problem with my body. The whole drama was based on a purely physical response. It was not a psychological drama that I created, it was a physical phenomenon — a physiologically rooted set of behaviors that kick into action way before any kind of logically calm and mindful activity could take place. In fact, it was based on a system of response that is hard-wired into me (into all of us, actually) to save me from being burned up in a fire or carried away in a tsunami. When things seem dangerous (and my body is primed to be hyper-alert to danger), like they did on Friday when things weren’t working out the way I wanted them to and I was really uptight over not having enough time to rest, my fight-flight kicks in big-time. And then look out.

Like on Friday.

Oh – I’m running out of time. Gotta go.

More on this later.

One last thought for the day: 50 bucks says that before the end of the decade, people are going to have a friggin’ clue about the role the autonomic nervous system plays in not only trauma and PTSD, but problems with TBI healing and recovery, panic-anxiety, anger management, various behavioral syndromes, ADD/ADHD, self-injuring behaviors, mental illnesses of many kinds, as well as autistic spectrum disorders… and they are going to actively incorporate physiological therapies (including regular well-designed exercise) into the mix that target specific physical elements that need to be strong and balanced, in order to get your act together. Less drugs, more exercise and attention to the body. Better health overall.

And fewer meltdowns. At least for me. (And not before the end of this decade for me 😉

‘Cause seriously folks, it’s all connected.

More on the Polyvagal Theory (pdf) later. It helps explain what really happened on Friday.

Mind Over Body? Body Over Mind?

The other evening, some friends came over for dinner, and we got to talking about psychotherapy and trauma. One of my friends is a therapist who works with at-risk teens and adults, and they were telling me about how they approach dealing with trauma in their clients. I was getting tired, as the conversation was towards the end of the evening… I got a little turned around (and upset with myself) when I couldn’t figure out how to respond quickly to what they were saying. I felt like I was starting to sink underwater, with their words rolling over me. So, I just sat back and listened. I did learn something in the process.

They told me that they have a really high success rate with at-risk teens, and they’ve gotten plenty of support from state agencies that see the good results. There’s no disputing their effectiveness, and I wish more therapists had their gifts at assessing the needs of folks who are in real trouble and helping them through tough spots and post-traumatic stress.

They talked about how there is a lot of “really awful” trauma work being done, and how they are just so turned off by therapists forcing folks to recount their traumatic experiences, as though that will change anything. “Any idiot can get someone to tell their story!” they said, and I had to laugh. It’s probably true. Especially since a lot of traumatized people are just itching to tell the world about their horrors, for validation, support, whatever. There are a lot of therapists running around, in my experience, who are quite pleased that their clients have confided their awful experiences to them… as though getting them to talk is a sign that they’re helping them get better.

Maybe it does… or maybe it just re-traumatizes them all over again.

Interestingly, the way my friend was talking about trauma made me a little uncomfortable. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, and I started to get upset with myself. I managed to calm myself down and pull back and listen more carefully. I had to remind myself that this person didn’t know that the inside of my head was a jangled tangle of sensory overload, so they probably didn’t think less of me — the way I thought less of myself. I had a feeling that they were sorta-kinda pushing an agenda or a way of dealing with trauma that worked for them, but didn’t quite fit for me. I felt like there was a missing piece to our discussion, but I was so out of it and so tired, I couldn’t figure out what it was.

One thing they said struck me, though… while we were talking, the subject of how we take care of our bodies came up. I was talking about dealing with doctors and physical issues, and they started telling me about how they hadn’t been to a doctor in 10 years, and they weren’t really interested in going anytime soon. They said that they had never paid that much attention to their body… they were more connected with their mind and spirit… and they were fine with that.

I wasn’t quite sure what to say. I’ve always been very much “in my body” and I’ve been really active in sports and other physical activities, all my life. For me, the body is an essential and central part of my life that I need to take care of, if my mind and spirit are going to be healthy. I am not in the shape of my life, by any stretch, but I’ve noticed a real connection between how my body is doing and how my brain is working.

And since I’ve been reading Rober Scaer’s book The Body Bears the Burden, I am even more convinced of the importance of the body connection with adequate cognitive functioning — at least, for me — especially with regard to trauma and post-traumatic stress. And when I look at the biggest contributing factors to my own cognitive-behavioral issues, they often turn out to be physical problems. Big physical/sensory problems.

My hands and wrists are starting to tire, after writing so much this morning, but I’ll just post this piece as a “flag” of sorts about this issue — the body-mind-brain connections that make my life so interesting… challenging… frustrating… and fulfilling.

My friend the psychotherapist may be able to live their life quite well without needing to pay attention to their body, but that’s not how I can live my life. For me, there’s a lot more to it than tending to my spirit and psyche alone. If I neglect my body and don’t pay attention to what it’s telling me, well, I just get into a whole lot of trouble.