Incredibly simple. Unbelievably hard.

Why do/don’t we do it?

My neuropsych is out of town for a couple of weeks, so I’m fending for myself. I had a kind of rough weekend, capped off with a meltdown over some real concerns over my spouse’s self-care habits (such as they are).

What I had hoped to convey was, “You have to take care of yourself, or you might as well be leaving me – it’s not healthy to live the way you do, and I care about you too much to be comfortable watching you live like this.”

What actually came out was, “I can’t believe you are doing this shit all over again! Didn’t you learn the first time? Do you really want to cut your life short and have it be friggin’ miserable, because you can’t be bothered to actually take care of your own health?!”

Clearly, they’re different messages, and the second one is a far less effective one, because it just triggers all their fears and anxieties about death, and they end up terrified and on edge and not wanting to be anywhere around me. I got home from work late last night, and they promptly left the house to “run an errand”. Yeah, I got the message. Whatever.

Really, people, it’s not that complicated to take care of yourself. It’s also not that complicated to recover from concussion/mild TBI. Granted, there are complexities in the brain and the human psyche that complicate things terribly, but when you break it down into its different pieces, and when you have the orientation that the human brain and the human system work on simple cause-and-effect… and the brain is constantly rewiring itself along the lines that we choose to rewire it… it simplifies things even more.

So, why is it so friggin’ hard to make lasting changes in our lives? Why is it so incredibly difficult to recovery from mild TBI/concussion? Why are the long-term outcomes so disheartening, and why are so many of us – each and every day – struggling with things that could be so easily dealt with? Why do we not do the things we know are good for us, and do the things we know are bad for us? Furthermore, why do we do things that are obviously BAD for us, thinking that they are somehow good? I don’t get it.

I think the thing is, we don’t do what we do because of logic. We do what we do based on how things feel. We “go with our gut” when we should really be using our heads. And we can easily and quickly talk ourselves out of doing the exact thing we should be doing, with some lame-ass excuse that doesn’t even look good on paper. We can justify anything — hell, we DO justify anything — just… ’cause. And in the end, we do tremendous damage to our bodies and minds and hearts and spirits, for reasons we cannot detect.

There is so much needless suffering in the world, it’s not even funny. And yet we just accept it as “the way things are” and go on doing what we do that screws us up, day in and day out.

Looking at people who are close to me who choose to do things that are just unbelievably unhealthy, the one common theme that unites them all, is that they’re all trying to ease the pain. The pain of a difficult childhood. The pain of dashed dreams. The pain of lost love. The pain of disappointment and hurt (both incidental and deliberately inflicted by others). So much of what’s done by the unhealthiest people I know is about easing their pain… rewarding them for just getting through the day… making them feel normal and whole again, if only for just an hour. They spend countless hours in front of the television, snacking… or on the computer (again, snacking)… or sleeping… or distracting themselves from their discomfort with gossip or chatting with friends or playing games of one sort or another.

And yet, very, very seldom, do I see these people actually taking regular steps to overcome the behaviors and habits that cause them pain in the first place. They are in a lot of pain over pulled muscles and they can’t move much… but they don’t actually do things for themselves that will heal those muscles and strengthen them when they’re feeling better. They have diabetes and high blood pressure, but they ease the pain of anxiety over their health by sitting around and snacking till 3 a.m. They have problems with their eyes, which need to rest to heal, but they push themselves even harder and just put drops in their eyes when things become intolerable. They have problems at home, and they can’t stand their relatives, but they still go along with their spouse on trips to visit those problem family members and they give into whatever their in-laws ask.

Some small changes could go a long way to making things easier for these people, but they don’t seem particularly interested in making those changes. Somehow, it is easier to just keep doing what they’ve done, even though it’s made their lives more difficult and even dangerous. And when I talk to them about making changes and keeping on with it, they agree that they would like to, but it “just never seems to happen.”

Hm. Okay, then. Here might be one of the issues — seeing life as something that “just happens” rather than being something that we direct, each and every day, with our thoughts and behaviors and choices. The belief that life “just happens” to you seems to go hand-in-hand with a history of victimization as a kid — at least among the folks I know. Those I know who make the most hair-raising choices about their lives and do the least for themselves, were abused as kids in one way or another, and they openly state that they’re lucky just to get through the day. They see themselves as incredibly unable to actually make changes in their lives — change is what happens to them, it’s not what they make for themselves.

How do you talk to people like that? When I say they’re “incredibly unable to make change” — I mean just that — it’s in-credible — not credible — not to be believed. It’s just flat-out untrue. We all make changes in our lives, each and every day. We just aren’t aware of it, either because the changes are slow coming or because we’re so used to doing certain things that result in certain results, that we just take those things for granted. Like turning the steering wheel of your car will move your vehicle in a completely different direction, some of the choices and actions we take in life are so ingrained that we don’t even really think about them.

But other choices and actions — some of which take less practice than steering a car, or are even simpler to do (it doesn’t take nearly as much eye-hand coordination to not dish up a third helping of that high-calorie, high-carb foodlike substance for your dinner at 10:00 at night) — seem so difficult… so impossible… that “it just can’t be done.”

And so we stay stuck.

Same thing with mild TBI/concussion recovery. I know I need sleep. I know I need at least 8 hours to be normal and human. I know I need to track my activities and behaviors, and I know I need to exercise on a daily basis. But do I? Not nearly as well as I could — and should. I operate on far less sleep each night, I don’t track my daily activities like I once did, and I don’t exercise each and every day. I am working on all these things, which are quite simple to do — but they’re also unbelievably hard to accomplish, each and every day.

Now, I know I’m human, and life is an experiment in imperfection, but there are some hard and fast guidelines that will obviously help me live my life to the fullest — and I haven’t been following them the way I should. I run out of steam. I lose motivation. I can’t seem to get inspired. And I fall short. Again and again. It’s pretty discouraging, actually, because I know what I know and I am determined to use that knowledge… and yet I don’t. Like my diabetic friends who just don’t take care of themselves, there are plenty of things I just don’t do — much to my detriment.

The weird thing is, I’m not a victim. I don’t perceive myself as one, and I don’t live that way. Or do I? All the world, it seems, is full of messages about how helpless we are, how hapless, how terribly victimized we — and others — are in the face of terrible events. Watching the news and/or other evening television, there seems to be a constant stream of messages about how helpless people are, and what a pity it is for everyone to have such bad luck. I see this on television dramas, as well as the news — someone tries to do something, then fails. Someone attempts to do something, but can’t. Due to circumstances beyond their control, sh*t gets eff’ed up. And they end up even farther back than when they started.

So why start, right?

It’s weird — it’s like there’s this concerted effort to educate us in very subtle ways about how it’s all quite futile, and the best we can expect or hope for is to be comfortable in the midst of our suffering. I grew up with folks who believed that this life was all about suffering and the best they could hope for was eternal reward for doing good on earth while they were here. There wasn’t much hope in that outlook. Nor is there a lot of hope in the movies and television shows that portray people making poor choices, getting into trouble, and just being lucky enough to extract themselves from near disaster. Nobody talks about how they might have avoided the situations entirely if they’d just thought things through. It’s all about overcoming adversity — even if the adversity was created by you.

Anyway, there’s a lot more to it, but I’m running a little behind schedule, so I need to wrap up. What makes us do the things we do? What makes us think the things we think? There is so much — so very, very much — that we can do to help ourselves, whether we’re dealing with TBI or not. And yet, so often, we don’t do it. We do something completely different, as though we had good sense. And then we wonder why things don’t work out.

Ultimately, I think it comes back to the body — our physical state — and the idea that many of our decisions actually happen prior to the emergence of conscious thought. Our bodies are primed for fight and flight — especially if we have a history of trauma or traumatic injury — and we rely on that state to get us through our days. We rely on it so much, that we create conditions that put us into a state of constant stress and strain, because this will give us the kind of energy we’re used to having and using to get by.

After being wrapped up in my job change drama-world for the past month or so, I’m coming back to the Polyvagal Theory information that I got so excited about a while back — then got distracted from, because my attention got pulled off in a million different directions, and somehow I felt I HAD to explore those different directions. The Polyvagal Theory says just what I have been suspecting for quite some time — that the thing that drives so much of our action and our decisions actually takes over before conscious thought, and it hijacks our decision-making process to serve its own individual needs.

With this understanding of cognitive hijacking, the question of why people do what they do (when doing that is obviously so bad for them – and might even kill them) makes a lot more sense. And it brings me back to my exploration of the Polyvagal Theory. Gotta get that focus back — it’s incredibly simple, and it totally makes sense. But it’s also unbelievably hard.

True Independence

There are many different ways to do things

I think I need to start seeing my chiropractor again. The headaches are back after quite some time of being away, and I haven’t been feeling that great, lately.

Lots of pain. I wake up in pain, and at the end of the day I’m in pain. I also haven’t been sleeping that great, either. All of these things were better when I was seeing my chiro, but I had to stop because I ran out of money and I couldn’t afford $120/month for adjustments. It’s just too expensive, even when insurance does cover it. When I’m fully covered, it’s $15 co-pay, and I have to go twice a week, so that’s $30/week — $120/month. That money needs to go to things like my electric bill, to run my air conditioners, pay off some back bills, etc.

Come to think of it, I guess I don’t need have the option to start seeing my chiropractor again. There’s just no way I can come up with that kind of money on a monthly basis. You’d think that it wouldn’t be a problem because of my job and my salary, but between car repairs, mortgage payments, food and gas, and … well, you know the drill. Something has to give, so I have to find another way to do better for myself and feel better in my daily life.

So, it’s back to the drawing board and doing basic things like stretching and moving on a regular basis… getting decent sleep by making it a priority and making sure I at least start to bed well before midnight. I also need to watch my posture and make sure I don’t stress out my body by slouching or getting stuck in off-balance sitting positions at work all day. Just basic stuff, really — but the kind of basic stuff that gets lost in the shuffle, because, well, it’s just not very sexy, it’s drab and everyday and it doesn’t always grab my attention.

But it’s the kind of stuff that matters — really matters — on a regular basis. And if I don’t pay attention on a regular basis, I just get into trouble. In a way, seeing a chiropractor was compensation for me living like a bit of an idiot. I wasn’t taking good enough care of myself, so I hired someone to fix what I’d broken and wasn’t taking care of. I get that now. So, it’s no more excuses — and back to basics.

Which is a good place to start for July 4th – Independence Day. If I think about taking care of the basics in terms of supporting my own independence from expensive experts and professionals (who may or may not be able to help me), then it becomes a lot more interesting and compelling, than thinking about it as something I “have” to do (sigh)… or else.

What a difference a slight change of perspective can make. It can mean the difference between an odious task and something I do on my own to make my life better, to make myself better, to be stronger and more free than ever, without being held back by lack of money or access to professionals.

If that’s not what Independence Day is about, I’m not sure what is.

Speaking of changes in perspective, I’ve been reading more on the Polyvagal Theory, and it’s making a lot of sense to me. The basics are pretty self-evident to me — we have a three-fold system for dealing with challenges in our lives:

  1. An ancient, primal (vagal) system which automatically shuts down our heart rate and breathing and muscle tone in response to inescapable threat. I call this “hypo-freeze” because hypo means “lower” — as in hypotension or hypothyroidism.
  2. A more recently developed sympathetic nervous system which causes fight-flight (and hyper-freeze — which is the high-muscular-tone freeze that’s completely different in nature from the hypo-freeze primal vagal impulse) to kick in to override the hypo-freeze, so you don’t get killed off by your body’s own automatic response to inescapable threat.
  3. A more developed vagal response system which can control the two earlier systems. This system is closely tied in with the muscles of the face and neck, and it can literally signal the “all clear” based on observing the expressions on others’ faces, among other things.*

Essentially, what can happen, is that you can run out of coping and response strategies when faced with inexplicable, inescapable, and seeming insurmountable challenges. When we run out of higher-level approaches (like being able to think things through), we revert to the older ways of responding. And then we can get stuck in those ways of responding, because the “neuroceptive” response (what we take in on a biological/neurological level, rather than an intellectual/conscious level) which is based on prior experiences, kicks in at levels thatprecede conscious thought.

Long story short, our bodies are wired to survive, and when they’ve become trained to respond with fight-flight, time and time again, we automatically jump to that without even thinking about it. Even if we are thinking about it, we sometimes (or often) can’t stop the process of kicking into fight-flight mode, because our bodies are so well-trained in doing that.

Which ties in with the readings I’m doing on trauma and PTSD. It puts trauma and post-traumatic stress in a whole new light. And it gets it out of the domain of the psychological mental illness… and into the domain of the physiological. It explains a whole lot, and actually excuses a whole lot, too. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it excuses the brain’s/mind’s role in “causing” bad behavior to happen.

And what happens, when we get our brains/minds off the hook for our “mental illness” and start to see our cognitive-behavioral issues as physical issues which were trained to be that way? For me, it tells me that I’m NOT crazy, that I’m NOT mentally ill (as well-meaning and ill-meaning people like to pronounce me). It tells me that I am dealing with a physical condition that was trained into place, and it can be trained to do something different. It doesn’t just get me off the hook in ways I never should have been ON the hook, to begin with. It shows me the way to do something about my situation — and approach my challenges in whole new ways.

Being human and all, of course I have a lot to learn, and my understanding is still imperfect. It will probably always be imperfect. But at least now I have more to go by, than I did just six months ago.

And that’s the beauty of the right information — and access to the right information. I have found a bunch of really great papers and links on the polyvagal theory (I’ll have to dig them up and share them here), which have served to really expand my understanding and give me much hope. I can’t say that my understanding is perfect, but when I practice what I read and I think about what it all seems to be saying, it helps. It helps a great deal. It’s information that I can put into practice, by doing my daily breathing exercises first thing in the morning before I start anything else, and also recognizing the biochemical processes that are kicking off when I (or others around me) start to get revved and rammy. It helps me come up with different responses and it motivates me to take better care of myself, get better sleep, take it easy (especially last night after the fireworks, which were both beautiful and very stressful with all the noise and lights — and me being behind on my sleep). It gives me more to go by, than “I’m a nervous wreck again” — and it shows me the way to level out after those extreme spikes and jolts that used to just wreck me.

Information is power. Knowledge (the ability to put information into action) is power. It’s all power of the best kind — not power over others, but power over our own lives, our own experiences, our own futures… beyond the dictates of fate.

Well, it looks like it’s turning out to be a beautiful day. The rain of this morning has given way to sunny, clear skies. We needed the rain, and now we have a clear day for the 4th. Not bad. Not bad at all.


* People are calling the most recently developed vagal system the “social” vagus, but to me, that’s just a related aspect of the mechanism that doesn’t describe what it actually does. It describes how — based on just some of the ways it operates. The “social” moniker seems to have sprung up as a result of people connecting malfunctions of this vagal system with autism and other social challenges, so they’ve taken a bit of a conceptual detour (probably in the interest of popularizing the concept and making it more appealing to funding sources). But my arguments about naming conventions are getting me off track, so more on that later.

Just understanding makes things better

So, I’ve been reading up on the Polyvagal Theory, and it’s really making a lot of sense to me. In a nutshell (if I dare to summarize), the human system has three systems which respond to the environment, especially perceived threat:

  • The primal vagus – which is responsible for the freeze response like turtles have — shutting down the system in the face of inescapable threat. This kind of freeze slows the heart rate and reduces oxygen to the body — it’s basically getting ready to die, and making sure you don’t feel the pain when you go. This is not a system we can really control.
  • The sympathetic nervous system – which is responsible for kicking in the fight-flight response. It also kicks in a different sort of freeze response than the primal vagus — the sympathetic freeze response is where you tense up, like a deer in headlights. This freeze is completely different from primal vagal freeze, because your system does the opposite and increases breathing and heart rate. This system responds to our thoughts and reactions and interpretations of our environment, so we can sort of control it to some degree.
  • The “directing” vagus – which regulates the other two systems and also makes it possible for you to consciously slow your heart rate or breathing, and regulate your system intentionally. The nerve endings are very closely located to the muscles of the face and neck, and we “cue” off the facial expressions that are produced from messages the social vagus detects in our system (like fear or anger or happiness) to regulate our own social behavior, as well as our reactions to our environment.

The directing vagus (as I call it) is the most recently developed system, next is the sympathetic nervous system, and the primal vagus is the oldest and least controllable of the three. The cool thing about this three-fold system, is that they all interplay with each other, and the more developed systems can override the more primal ones.

If the sympathetic nervous system couldn’t override the primal vagus, there would be a lot less people in the world, because the human system can’t handle extended periods of shutting off oxygen and blood flow (like reptiles can). Our lives would be much shorter, if we didn’t have the SNS fight-flight to kick in and take over in times of extreme danger/distress.

But at the same time, staying stuck in fight-flight 24/7 is no good, so we have the directing vagus that helps us consciously regulate our systems and power down the fight-flight when we no longer need it. The directing vagus is closely connected with interpersonal interactions and reasoning. It not only delivers messages from the body to the brain, but it also helps the brain regulate the body. Problems arise, like PTSD and other mental health issues like panic/anxiety, when we get stuck in that fight-flight loop and can’t get out.

So, how to get out…? I must admit, I’ve been reading a whole lot, so some points may not be totally clear for me yet, but the way I understand it is this: When you’re really stressed, physiologically and neurologically, you are not capable of thinking clearly, and your problem-solving abilities really suffer. But when your system is balanced and rested and responding well to the world, it’s possible for you to “recruit” the full range of your problem-solving abilities and approach your life as a learning experience, not a continuously pitched battle. Now, stress is inevitable in today’s world, but through the directing vagus, you can override the instinct to fight-flight and call on other abilities to deal with your environment that don’t involve still more battle.

And how do we activate the directing vagus? Well, we can do it socially, through talking and sharing meals (talking and eating activate systems in your body that are close to the directing vagus fibers, so the vagus is stimulated as well). We can also do it consciously on our own, through certain types of breathing, movement, mindfulness, and other activities. (The directing vagus both “listens” to the body and gives it instructions, so mindfulness is sort of like exercise for your vagal pathways.) We can also do it semi-consciously by changing our attitude and re-intepreting our experiences to be less combative. By changing our minds about things, we can literally retrain our systems to get out of fight-flight mode, relax, and come up with different approaches to our situation in life.

And that’s important. Because the three systems work in a loop. If the more developed directing vagus system can’t cope with what’s in front of it, the body activates the sympathetic nervous system to spring into fight-flight. And if the SNS isn’t working out, then the primal vagus kicks in to start shutting down the system (preparing to die). It’s an automatic and sometimes uncontrollable chain reaction, and it’s set off when the hierarchical systems fail in the order of sophistication. It’s like the body is looking for the first, best answer to the situation — if the complex thought processes of the directing vagus can’t solve the problem, then fight-flight kicks in, and if that fails, then the primal system takes over and rational thought and conscious choice become that much more elusive. The body keeps looking for answers, and if it can’t find something that will let it respond to a perceived threat, then it just goes into “kill me now and get it over with” mode.

And that’s a pretty rough place to be.

So, what will keep that cascade of diminishing options from kicking off? Well, to me it seems that information and understanding — both about the environment and your internal resources — will go a long way to helping. If you understand in your mind what’s really going on with you (for example, that your brain is acting up because you didn’t get enough sleep last night), and you can reason your way through to a solution (going easy on yourself and taking a nap later in the day), then there’s less reason for the fight-flight response to kick in, and you still have a bunch of cognitive resources available to you. You’re still able to access all your circuits, and that frees you up to make well-informed choices.

Even if you do go into fight-flight mode, and your “unnecessary” neural processes start to shut down because of the stress response, you can take a step back, take a deep breath (or two or three or 20), and re-think things. You can consciously slow yourself down and get yourself back to a more balanced state by using the directing vagus to chill. And that frees up more of your circuits to come up with better ideas and a plan for getting out of the jam you’re in.

Just understanding what’s going on around you — and inside you — can make all the difference in how you approach your challenges. This is why I believe so strongly that TBI/concussion survivors and their loved ones should be educated as much as possible about the brain and how it reacts to traumatic brain injury. Just knowing that you’re not crazy, that this upheaval is a natural response to the injury, and that things will change over time, can help dispel a whole lot of anguish.

I know it did for me.

On top of having information about TBI/concussion, it’s also critical to have knowledge of yourself, to know for a fact that you are capable of handling the things that come up in life, and to be confident that, no matter what happens, you’ll be able to figure things out. Confidence of that kind can be hard to come by in the aftermath of TBI, but cultivating that is so very important. It’s also contagious — your confidence tends to carry over to others, thanks at least in part to the directing vagus, which communicates with the rest of the world via facial muscles and the interpretation of clues and cues coming from others’ faces.

Bottom line is, knowledge is powerful, and in approaching the trauma of TBI and/or concussion and managing the symptoms and after-effects, you can’t put a price on knowledge and understanding. Having more information makes it possible for us to turn to reason — having less information forces us to resort to fight-flight tactics, which just adds to our stress (and that’s probably connected with why experiences with doctors/medical experts can be so traumatic for so many – they just don’t give us much to work with).

Understanding is hugely important on many different levels. You can’t put a price on it.

And with that, I’m off to work, operating with the understanding that I didn’t get nearly enough sleep last night, and that I need to pace myself and also look for an opportunity to catch a quick nap later this afternoon.



Off to a better start (today)

After the flood

Well, I got another lesson yesterday. I’ve been really struggling with my sleep and my workload, and yesterday I thought I’d try to pack in as much as I could — and it totally backfired. I ended up really frying my system and getting into a protracted argument with my spouse that really took it out of me. By the end of the day, I was sick and more tired than ever, and feeling like crap.

I felt terrible about myself, about my behavior, about my inability to just buckle down and get things done, and about the dynamics at work which have been pretty intense. I was sick to my stomach and sick at heart, and just feeling completely depleted and defeated.

One thing I noticed, however, was something that actually helped me feel better about myself. See, I’ve noticed in the past that after relatively minor “infractions” — a heated argument, or a stressful period of time — my mood spirals and plummets, and I end up feeling disproportionately terrible about myself. In many cases, the arguments or the difficulties I had were not catastrophic, and in fact others who were involved did not end up hating themselves or feeling like trash. But I ended up feeling really, really terrible about what went down, and no matter how I tried to rationally talk myself out of feeling like the world was going to end, nothing seemed to help.

Rational thought was a lost cause. I felt like shit, and that was that. Nothing helped by sleep and keeping chilled out for the next few days.

A few years ago, when I was having some intense episodes of panic and meltdown, followed by terrible feelings of worthlessness and despair, I realized that the times when I felt the worst about myself were when I felt the worst, physically. I know people (including my neuropsych) who believe that our physical well-being follows on what we think about ourselves and our environment, and how we interpret them. That is certainly true to some extent… additionally, I have found that when I feel bad physically, then my mood plummets, and no amount of good sense will turn me around, until I am physically well and balanced again.

It’s like, when I get into these tight situations where I am “pinned down” and feel like I cannot escape, I cannot master the situation, and I am sliding down that ragged slope into a meltdown, my whole body goes haywire, and it fires off all these charges that fill my system with bursts of adrenaline, stress hormones, and whatever else floods my system when I’m feeling cornered. It’s a primal physiological experience, and it completely takes over and shuts down my abilities to deal effectively with whatever is in front of me. I simply cannot recruit the whole of my coping abilities… and in situations of tension where people around me are already on the verge of panic and leaning on me to mirror their own concerns (because not acting as panicked as they are makes them nervous and uncertain), I feel intensely trapped, cornered, and persecuted. But the only way out is through, so I have to deal with them.

But dealing with them in times of intense stress (when my fight-flight response is trying like crazy to override my freeze reaction) the result is some pretty intense battle skirmishes which leave me feeling completely wiped out and destroyed.

It’s not even true that I AM destroyed — I just feel that way. And even if things turn out okay and everything resolves to everyone’s satisfaction in the end, I am left with a backlog of biochemical sludge, just like when a river floods and then recedes, and I’m left with all the sludge-covered bicycles and deflated basketballs and shopping carts and trash that got thrown in the river over the years.

That’s literally what it feels like, and it’s figuratively how it is. Because when I get to that breaking point, I am not dealing only with the present moment. Oh no. I am dealing with all the other moments and hours and days and years behind me when I felt pinned down and couldn’t get myself out of danger… when I was put on the spot by people who meant me ill or well, and I couldn’t come up with anything useful or good to do or say in the moment… and then the memories after the fact of people being so hard on me for things I got wrong or didn’t do or say the way they wanted me to.

When I’m cornered, I’m not just cornered at that moment. I am cornered through all the moments of my prior life — and all my imagined moments in the future.

And I flood. Like that Hungarian town where the container of toxic sludge broke open and doused the town in ochre red poison. That would be me.

And I feel terrible. Physically awful. Like shit.

And then I start to get down on myself. I feel awful mentally and emotionally.

The thing is, the mental and emotional anguish comes after the physical problems. The physical things come up as a result of my mental perception, but the after-effects, which are the most debilitating for days on end, follow the physical effects.

So, it’s not all about my state of mind and emotions that dictates this. It’s also my state of physical being that matters.

And this is key. Because in knowing this, I can take concrete, definite steps to address how I’m feeling mentally and physically. Rather than staying down in that low state, with my hands shaking, my stomach in knots, my thinking foggy, and my voice halting and slurred, I can simply go to bed. That’s what I did last night, after all the BS was over and done with. I went to bed. And I slept. And when I got up this morning, still feeling dull and foggy and sick, I got my exercise in. I didn’t just lie in bed and look out the window. I got on the exercise bike, did my leg lifts, and I lifted my weights, after being away from that for several days.

It’s critically important that I keep up with my exercise. If I don’t, and if I don’t keep to some sort of schedule, then I go off the rails, and I end up feeling physically bad — which in turn results in me feeling mentally and emotionally fragile. Like glass. It seems ridiculous to think about, but that’s how I feel — like glass. And over what? A misunderstanding that escalated quickly out of control.

But there’s more to it — it’s not just what/how I think about things. It’s how I physically experience them. If I am pushed to the brink, I react physically. We all do. And with me, I react probably more extremely than most normal people do. I escalate very quickly — and it’s not just about my thinking process. It’s about my physical reaction to things, which I really believe is tied in with my underlying autonomic nervous system reactions that have evolved over decades of stress and strain. As a result of so much that has happened to me, as well as systemic issues that come from my TBIs, I’m wound more tightly than I’d like, and I’m on a hair-trigger — all for a ton of different reasons that all add up to a potential explosion, over the seemingly most minor of things.

I’m not saying all this because I’m trying to excuse my behavior and get myself off the hook. I’m saying all this because it’s critical for me to understand, so I can manage it all. This is not a situation I care to be in. I am capable of better, and I know it. The thing is, I can’t manage a situation, if I don’t understand the underlying issues, and I can’t understand if I don’t identify what’s going on.

I’m sure I’ve written about this stuff in the past. I just can’t remember right now. My thinking is still foggy and a bit clunky. The thing is, I’ve at least started out on a better foot than I did yesterday or the day before. I got up at a decent hour. I got my exercise. And I had my breakfast and vitamins. I didn’t overdo it and I didn’t underdo it. I just did it. I also realize that my feelings of depression and despair are physically based, and I know they will pass as I continue to do healthy things over the coming days. It helps to know this, even if I feel like sh*t right now. And despite feeling like a once-flooded Eastern European village, that’s starting to make a difference.

The other thing that’s making a difference, is my increasing understanding with the Polyvagal Theory, which explains so much that I’ve had hunches about before, and confirms my suspicions from personal experience. In many cases — more than some guess, I believe — our bodies set the stage for our mental and emotional reactions and well-being. It’s nice to think that a “top-down” approach of mind-over-matter can control our destiny, however there’s a ton of bottom-up information our systems are constantly dealing with, that affects how we react, how we think, how we live.

So, it’s time to give the body its due. It’s time to recognize the physical components of experience — the felt experiences that affect our thinking and state of heart. And it’s time to take positive, constructive action that makes the most of this recognition. That’s my goal for today, anyway.

Now, off to work…

What happens in vagus never stays in vagus

In my pretty much relentless pursuit of what will relieve some of the stress and strain of the effects of multiple concussions/TBIs, I’ve been told a lot of things, and I’ve also read a lot of things. I’ve also been routinely “diagnosed” by strangers and friends alike (none of whom have been willing to factor TBI into my equation), as one or more of the following:

  • heavy-duty trauma survivor
  • depressed
  • manic
  • obsessive-compulsive
  • “Peter Pan” syndrome (unwilling to grow up)
  • arrested development (unable to grow up)
  • tortured genius
  • artiste
  • etc.

The eagerness of others to diagnose me, sometimes on the spot, is a little irksome, I must say. But now that I’m reading up on the Polyvagal Theory (which explains how the autonomic nervous system is actually comprised of more than one vagus nerve, and is much more varied than many have thought/learned), I’m seeing some common threads between these perceptions.

Stephen Porges, who has been refining the Polyvagal Theory since the mid 1990’s, proposes that there are two distinct branches of the vagus nerve

  • one which is primordial and closely related to how prehistoric tortoises react to threats (e.g. freezing), and
  • one which is more recently evolved, which has the ability to override the sympathetic (fight-flight) response and regulate our internal systems in more subtle and immediate ways

Both of these systems interact with the fight-flight sympathetic nervous system reponse, and when the whole is “out of whack”, you end up with things like neuroses… and/or the inability to control your autonomic nervous system. Porges has proposed that much mental illness can actually be traced back to difficulties with autonomic self-regulation. When you’re unable to get out of perpetual fight-flight mode, and your system is fried from way too much sympathetic stress or way too little “tone”, you can end up with real problems — both in your head and in your life in general.

So, being able to control your inner state is essential to good health — both physical and mental. The beauty of the Polyvagal Theory is that it identifies some core characteristics of issues that are usually considered separate and different from one another, and it provides a way to approach those underlying core issues that is common-sense and also highly practical. What’s more, a lot that you can do to help your vagal tone is actually free and you can do it yourself. Not to say that serious issues can be fixed with a “home remedy” of mindfulness meditation, intentional breathing, and self-talk… but a little of that, done on a regular basis, can go a long way.

At least, that’s how I understand it. And frankly, I have the distinct impression that doing so could dramatically improve the quality of life for a whole lot of folks who suffer with serious self-regulation issues.

And in more ways than one. Because the vagus nerve (the “wanderer” nerve) is the longest nerve in the body, and it reaches into all our viscera — our heart, lungs, digestive system… the whole works. And it both carries information back to the brain and sends information to the organs, so that it’s this constant feedback system that both tells us where we’re at and how we’re doing, and also lets us direct our internal systems, through our thought process, our self-talk, our attitudes, the meanings we ascribe to things, our gut reactions — all of it — in one continuous full circuit.

When the circuit is communicating well and has useful and constructive direction to give to our organs, then we get health. When the circuit is whacked with too much stress and strain, then we get… something else. It’s oversimplified, I know, but the bottom line is, what happens to the vagus happens to our whole body — and it also happens to the rest of the world around us, as it influences how we experience and react to life around us.

Seriously, the vagus is one bad-ass nerve. It’s my favorite nerve, in fact, just after the trigeminal, which is actually interrelated with the vagus.

Anyway, I’m just starting to learn more about this, and I have a long way to go. But it is very interesting, and I intend to learn — and use — more.

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.