The Amygdala Hijack
How Stress Affects Your Brain
Understanding Trauma: How Stress and Trauma Cause Chronic Condition Pain, Anxiety, Depression & PTSD:
Getting the Gunk Out – Again and Again
Here’s your memory training image for the day (sorry I have forgotten to include these in the past days)
So, I’m starting my new job tomorrow, taking it easy today, catching up on my rest, and not going too crazy with everything. I had some errands I intended to run, but I went to bed, instead.
Just as well. Those errands can wait.
I’m pretty excited about my new role, and I can’t wait to find out how it’s going to go.
I got myself some really nice, fresh food for dinner, and I’ll start cooking that up in a little bit. I need to get my things together — make sure I have clean socks, as well as a formal suit to wear. It’s my first day. I want to look my best. I’m sure it will prove to be a lot less formal than I’m dressing for, but I’ll just take off my jacket. Roll up my sleeves.
I’m trying to drink a lot of water, so I’m clear for tomorrow. The last few weeks were pretty action-packed, and I need to settle my system. Yesterday I ended up being pretty busy and active, which wasn’t my ideal. I really wanted to have yesterday off, but that’s not what happened. Oh, well. That’s what Sunday’s for, right?
I spent a lot of time, this afternoon, relaxing and stretching and breathing. I did that after my nap, while I was lying in my warm bed, feeling comfortable and easy. I am having more trouble with my upper back, shoulders, neck, and trapezius muscle. I’m really stiff and sore, and not feeling great. All that lifting and moving yesterday didn’t help. Oh, well. I stretched, rolled on a tennis ball to work out the knots, and I “breathed into it ” as my chiropractor tells me to do. In the end, I felt better than when I started, but it’s still tight and painful to move at times.
The main thing for me is to work on clearing out the stress sludge from my last job. Let by-gones be by-gones, and also help my body clear out the biochemical leftovers from all the ridiculous dramas and conflicts that people seemed to dream up to keep themselves entertained. It’s not a small thing, clearing out the sludge. We have to do it, in today’s world, because nobody else will do it for us. We live in very stressful times (especially as the new political season picks up), and our systems are deluged with all kinds of conflict and strife and perceived threats.
If we allow it to build up and stay there, it takes a toll. It puts additional stress on our systems, and it drags us down. I dunno about you, but I don’t need anything else dragging me down. Especially if I know how to clear it out.
So, I’m breathing – steady as she goes – count of 5 in… count of 5 out… nice and even, relaxing all the while. It balances my autonomic nervous system and gets me out of fight-flight mode. It backs down the stress response and makes it possible for me to clear my head, so I can think properly.
This is important. This is critical. I know how to do this, and I must do it. It’s no longer optional for me. Not just some interesting thing to try out, here and there, but a discipline I need to regularly do.
Like the image memory exercises.
Both help. In different ways. They really help.
And now, get your pencil and paper and draw the image you just looked at above. No peeking. It’s important to see where you come up short. If you succeed each and every time, you’ve learned nothing. Good luck.
The Grand Canyon of post-TBI traumatic stress
Trauma from traumatic brain injury is about more than what caused the injury.
Life after TBI (or other brain injuries) is traumatic all around. And the stress of living with yourself after TBI, can be like a river cutting a canyon into the earth, one bad experience at a time.
If you really want to help, you have to factor in the stresses that come with TBI.
You need to understand how traumatic it is to deal with the changes of a brain injury — the changes to how you process information, how you react to that information, how you interact with others, and how that compares with who you knew yourself to be, before.
You also need to understand how traumatic those changes are — what a threat they pose to your identity, your sense of self.
You need to “get” that the trauma builds up and can overwhelm an already taxed system. And if it is not cleared by things like exercise, good nutrition, some sort of self-help routine like meditation or mindfulness, and regular interaction with strong social supports, it can — and will — erode a person’s ability to function over time.
The other thing it’s important to realize is that while the Grand Canyon may always be there, you don’t have to stay in the bottom. The effect of the damage is fixable — it’s even reversible. No matter how far down a person has gone, it is always possible to help them rise back up. They don’t have to stay at the bottom of that gulch. They can climb out of that canyon and find firm footing again.
The human system is built to rise from the ashes, to re-wire its circuits, and find ways to become fully human… even if your sense of human-ness seemed to be long gone.
I have been caught in my own canyons many times. And I have climbed out of them, repeatedly. I have rebuilt my system, seemingly from the ground up, many times over in the course of my 50 years on earth, and I know from personal experience how impossible it can feel.
I also know from personal experience, how possible it really is to get up and out of The Pit.
But before you can do that, you need to understand that what’s pulling you down is very, very real, and it needs to be accepted as “a thing” and addressed directly.
Avoiding the trauma aspects of traumatic brain injury is a mistake. But it’s also reversible. And you have to do it in the right way, in the right sequence, with much sensitivity and intuition, not to mention common sense.
More on this later. Must get to work. But this is important. For all of us.
Found something to help me sleep
Okay, so I’ve been functioning on an average of 6 hours of sleep a night — my acupuncturist says that this should be enough for me. I’m getting older, and as you age, you tend to need less sleep.
My neuropsychologist, on the other hand, knows full well that it’s no good for me to get 5-1/2 hours of sleep one night, then 6-1/2 hours the next, and 6 hours the next, and then (if I’m lucky) 7 hours of sleep. They know what havoc it can wreak with me, and there’s none of that fanciful “6-7 hours is more than enough” stuff coming out of their mouth.
I know, myself, that 6-7 hours is nowhere near enough. I’ve been struggling along with about that much sleep, each night, for quite some time now. Months. If not years. I function better on at least 8 hours a night — but I’ve been struggling to get even 7 hours at a shot.
Last night I got about 8-1/2 hours. Woo. Hoo. I went to bed early at 9:30, and I woke up around 6. I woke up actually feeling like I’d gotten some sleep. Pretty amazing. And I’m ready for whatever the day brings, which is a handful of errands, followed by a get-together with friends (and some strangers) to celebrate someone’s pending nuptials.
So, what worked? What helped me get to sleep by 9:30? Well, a couple things:
- I was actually tired last night – I could feel it in my bones. This is different from how things usually are with me, because I’m usually so tired that I cannot even feel how exhausted I am. I’m wired, pushing through on adrenaline, and nothing can stop me or even slow me down. It’s a terrible way to live, and going to bed is a real chore and a struggle when I’m that exhausted. But last night, I could feel how tired I was. I was yawning like crazy before, during, and after dinner, and I couldn’t even keep my attention on the television, so I turned it off, did the dishes, wrote a little bit, and went to bed. When I got in bed, it felt so amazing to be horizontal and just be able to sink into the mattress and let it all go. How did I manage to let myself feel tired? Here’s how:
- I had a nap yesterday afternoon. I managed to step away from my work for 45 minutes, and go to my car, which I parked in a remote dark corner of the parking garage. I lay a jacket over my body and face, and after I few minutes of getting comfortable, I slept. I’ve had a hell of a time being able to relax at work. I’ve tried stepping away to sit and meditate, and that does help me at times. But nothing helps like just getting 20 minutes of sleep. That’s the only thing that actually keeps me going. The only problem is, I haven’t been able to come close to feeling sleepy at work. I know I’m wired. I know I’m beat. I know I need to catch some zzzz’s. But I haven’t been able to get myself there. Till yesterday. How did I manage to sleep? Here’s how:
- I put on my “Stress Hardiness Optimization” (S-H-O) relaxation CD, and I just let it all go. I originally intended to just do the relaxation, but I often end up sleeping when I do that, so that tells me I really needed to sleep That’s what happened yesterday. I got a little turned around with the settings on my phone, and I had to fiddle with that a little bit before I got the tracks to play properly, but I did figure it out eventually, and that was good. I had a some trouble just relaxing at first — which is to be expected. But after a little while, I was able to just relax and let it go… and then I got some sleep. I only slept for 20 minutes or so, which is all I needed. And then I was up and ready to go back into the fray — which is what it is.
I’ve missed listening to those MP3s and I realize that they’re really an important part of my continued recovery and functionality. I have been listening to Belleruth Naparstek, now, for about 7 years. You should really check her out, if you get a chance. I believe she’s got MP3s up on iTunes, and you can get her CDs off amazon.com. I can’t recommend S-H-O enough – it’s literally a life-saver. She’s got a bunch of different recordings — for sleep, overcoming trauma, anger… you name it, she probably has a CD to help with it. Even dealing with dying (if that’s happening in your life, these days). And it helps. The science is sound, and my experience is even better evidence for me.
My experience is really all I need, to be truthful. It tells me, this works.
I found out about Belleruth from a friend who was dealing with PTSD, ’round about the time when I was figuring out my TBI issues, and I went to see her when she spoke, a few hours away from where I live. I was skeptical, at first, because it seemed like so much woo-woo flowery touchy-feely “wellness” stuff, that it turned me off.
But I tried to keep an open mind, and when I heard her talk, and I overheard others at the conference talking about her — and not only frilly psychotherapists, but tough guys who taught inner city public school — I was warming up to her work. And when I read her “Invisible Heroes” book and read about the physiological science behind PTSD and recovery and the role that guided meditations can play in recovery, I was well convinced.
And when I started using her CDs myself, I was converted 100%.
I have listened to her stress hardiness exercises intermittently over the years, and they really helped me, at the start of my recovery. But I got away from it because it started to get boring. And when they upgraded my phone at work, I lost the MP3s I had on my old phone, and I didn’t get around to putting them on my new phone. Yesterday, I had some time in the morning before I went to the office, so I put the MP3s back on my phone, and I’m really glad I did.
I think the thing that works for me — that makes the S-H-O work for me, is that I can turn off my head and listen to someone else do the talking for me. And there’s music that sets a slower pace… and the whole thing is engineered to calm down your system and strengthen you. It’s actually designed for military and first responder personnel, as well as people in intense work situations — the last of which applies to me. I am in an intense work situation, and I need the extra help. Removing stress from my life is not an option — it’s there, and it’s going to be there, and as long as I’m dealing with my TBI stuff (which is all the time), there is continuous stress in my life. So, I have to find a way to optimize my system for it, rather than running from it or trying to get rid of it.
So, I got my sleep last night — 8-1/2 hours worth. Woo. Hoo. This is seriously good news. And now I need to pace myself for my morning and give myself time later this morning after my errands, to listen to S-H-O again and do my relaxation. Maybe even get some sleep. Because the one thing that helps me sleep through the night, is getting a little nap during the day.
It just makes everything more workable. It totally saves my ass. And for power naps and stress hardiness optimization CDs, I am eternally grateful.
When life sucker-punches you after TBI
The Concussion Blog posted a great video a little while back explaining concussion
One of the things they talk about in the video is how the “sucker punch” can do you more harm than a hit you can brace for. A sucker punch doesn’t let you get ready to get hit. You just get hit.
The same kind of thing happens with your life after TBI – you have all these “sucker punch” experiences, where you get hit with all kinds of unexpected circumstances, because you think things are going to go one way — based on your prior experience and brain training — but they go completely different, because of your brain being a bit “re-adjusted”. Things that “should” be easy, turn out to be hard. And you can end up in a state of panic and confusion on a regular basis.
This is a problem for a number of reasons.
First, it sucks. It’s unpleasant, it’s irritating, and it can be distressing in the moment when it happens. Your best-laid plans fall apart. Your plans and expectations don’t pan out. And you don’t always know why.
Second, it makes you doubt yourself. One mistake is a mistake. Two are a possible coincidence. Three are a pattern. Four can make you start to second-guess yourself from every angle. And when this happens to you, day in and day out, the cumulative effect is… well… not good.
Third, it hampers your ability to learn new things and re-train your brain. See, the thing with TBI is you have to retrain your brain and learn new things and restructure the way your brain works. When you are stressed and defensive and confused, it is harder to learn. It is harder to acquire new skills. It is harder to re-train your brain’s connections in the way you want them to be trained. Stress seriously impedes our ability to learn new things — and that’s exactly what you need to be doing after TBI — learning new things.
Fourth, it can trigger a case of PTSD. Not many people out there seem to be paying much attention to this. They seem to think that PTSD and TBI have different causes. But TBI, with its recurring “micro-traumas” can build up a real stockpile of stress and stress hormones and ultimately cause full-blown PTSD to emerge. This is just common sense. When you understand the nature of PTSD as a mental and physical response to unresolved mental and physical traumas, and you understand that TBI can be an ongoing source of traumas that never get cleared out, in part because nobody’s paying any attention and taking them seriously… well, then you’ve got a problem.
What to do? Learn ways to clear out the traumas on a regular basis — physically first, then mentally. Find ways to get your body to clear out the “sludge” that comes from shock and surprise and stress — including exercise, meditation, breathing exercises, rest and relaxation — so that your body isn’t hijacking your brain’s attempts to right itself. If you can find someone to talk to about your situations, who can help you feel supported by someone in your corner, that can help, too. The main thing is figuring out ways to clear out the after-effects of all those little unpleasant shocks and surprises that cross your path on a regular basis.
Speaking of clearing that stuff out, it’s time for my walk. I have about 36 hours left in this vacation, and I’m going to make the most of it.
TBI Recovery: Getting used to the highs and lows – Part 2
For many, many years, I have swung from one extreme to the other — from euphoria to panic to depression — with intermittent periods of balanced moderation, where I caught my breath before going back into the fray. I’ve long sought out work situations which were crazy and stressful and stupidly health-endangering (which passed for “challenging” in the job-spin-speak of the tech world), because I needed that constant pump to keep myself going. TBI can slow down your processing speed and make you feel like you’re half asleep, so those stressful times passed for “wakefulness” and made me feel more alive.
In hindsight, I realize that I was pretty much a ticking time bomb and that it was only a matter of time before I hurt myself badly enough to be ejected from the “everyday world”. I have had multiple mild TBIs over the course of the years (at least 9 that I can recall — and there have probably been more that I can’t remember). So, the effects have been cumulative, and sure enough, back in 2004, I had another fall that eventually put me out of commission.
The past years have been about weaning myself off that need for drama and stupidity. I’ve become increasingly aware of how much damage it does to me, and I’ve been acclimating myself to the idea that I don’t actually need it all, like I used to think I did.
Now I feel like I’m in a good and centered space, where I don’t have to have it, but at the same time, I do need challenge. And even moreso, I need to be able to respond to challenging situations with a level head and a clear mind.
Looking back at my life when it was still dictated by after-effects of all those TBIs, I see how much my life was comprised of reactions. Just reactions. Not measured responses that were determined by me, according to what was best and right at the moment — but knee-jerk reactions dictated by fear, anxiety, panic, external circumstances, and others’ expectations. That’s no way to live. Surely, there must be a better way.
So, I’ve been headed down that road, of late, looking for ways to live better, live more fully, and to have the kind of life I want to have. I think about the things that hold me back, the things that I have done that have held me back, and the habits of thought that have prevented me from moving forward. And it becomes more and more apparent to me, as I think about it, that no outside circumstances have been The Culprits in my limitations, rather it’s been my own reaction and my own experience and my own choices that have held me back.
Now, certainly, things like getting clunked on the head a bunch of times, being hounded and bullied in school, being mistreated by both my parents and teachers alike, and being raised without much money in a household turned upside-down by a drug addict sibling and their associates, certainly didn’t help. But those things didn’t keep me from doing the things I could have done to help myself. It was the patterns of thought in my mind that held me back — as well as the biochemical reactions to circumstances which short-circuited my choices and actions.
All those years, I certainly did take a beating. But plenty of people take beatings and get up and go back at it, like nothing ever happened. Not everyone interprets setbacks as signs of permanent disability. Granted, I wasn’t surrounded by people who were positive, pro-active thinkers who knew how to free their minds. But at any given point, I did indeed have the capacity to pick myself up and keep going, but the thoughts in my mind and the biochemical sludge in my system short-circuited a lot of the good that could have happened.
My constant biochemical state of intense fight-flight (which was made more intense by what I thought was happening — and never adequately questioned) made it all but impossible for me to imagine all that I was capable of doing, and over the years, and after all the injuries — especially the last one — my possible world became smaller and smaller and smaller, and I made myself less and less capable, in my own mind, of truly following my dreams.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Over the years I have done some Big Things, and I have had some big accomplishments that have gotten me awards and recognition. But these were all substitutes for what I really wanted to be doing. My One Big Dream that I had since I was seven years old, never “panned out”, and year after year, my resolution to do something about it drifted farther and farther from my reach. Until I just about gave up on it.
These days, things are very different for me, and I realize just how much biochemistry has to do with what’s held me back. And at the same time, it both absolves me of prior blame, and it also offers me the opportunity to change things.
Because now I understand how those things work. I understand how TBI has prompted me to take risks over the years and keep myself in a constant state of stress. I also understand what a toll that has taken on my life over the years, and I’m now resolved to do something about it.
In order to do so, I need to get a grip on my autonomic fight-flight response, which is what I’ve been doing, slowly but surely. I am now moving into the next stage, where I am testing myself a bit, here and there, to get myself familiar with how it feels to be on the verge of panic, and then walk myself back from the edge with the tools I have. I’m stressing myself just a little bit, here and there, to inoculate myself against the stresses. Some call it “exposure therapy”, and maybe that’s what it is. Having read about exposure therapy, it strikes me as more intense than what I’m doing. I don’t want to force myself into a seemingly dangerous situation and then have to sweat it out. No thanks.
What I am doing is similar to doing interval weight training — I’m doing “stress intervals” — intentionally stressing myself for a short while, then backing off and taking a good break. I know I’m going to push myself hard — and I also know I’m going to let up. So, there’s not that impending sense of doom that comes when I can’t see an end in sight. I know there’s going to be an end, so I can push myself — sometimes pretty hard — and not get freaked out about it.
This gets me used to the highs and lows. And it helps me feel more comfortable with the sensation of those highs and lows.
See, that’s the thing – it’s not the highs and lows that get me. It’s my internal reaction to those highs and lows — the physical sensations of high energy or low energy trigger a dumb-ass (and extreme) reaction from me that sets certain behaviors in motion and put me into a certain mindset. Some examples:
- I get back from a long and grueling trip to see both sides of my family, and I decide that I’m a worthless piece of crap who will never amount to anything. I’m physically and mentally and emotionally exhausted from a temporary situation, yet for some reason I’m convinced that I’m permanently damaged beyond repair. Accordingly, I slack off on my work and do nothing productive with myself for days, even weeks.
- I work too hard and sleep too little, and I end up having a full-on blow-out/meltdown that fries my brain with a flood of raging emotions. Afterwards, I am exhausted, and it takes several days for the biochemical load to clear from my system. All during that time, I feel stupid and numb and dull and once again am convinced that I’m permanently damaged beyond repair.
- I am incredibly excited about something that’s happening in my life. The sensation of all that adrenaline pumping through my system feels an awful lot like danger — it feels just like it used to feel when I was being hunted down by the kids who bullied me in grade school. Consequently, I stop doing what I need to do, to make progress with my goals. I also look for other things to work on that are less “stressful”, and my project falls behind.
All of the above are problematic, but it’s the last one that’s the burner. It’s the thing that’s kept me back, time and time again, and it’s the one I need to really focus on addressing.
So, to that end, I’m deliberately putting myself in exciting and tiring situations, getting used to how they feel while telling myself that this is just a feeling, not an indication of what’s really going on. And then I take a break. I have all but cut wheat and cheap carbs out of my diet to reduce the “junk load” from my system — which in itself is a little stressful, but has great benefits. I’m also doing things like taking cool showers to get my stress response jump-started for just a few minutes in the morning, and I’ve changed up my morning routine a little bit to heighten my attention.
And all the while, I’m using the techniques I’ve learned for balancing out my ANS and keeping the fight-flight response within a manageable, non-tyrannical range. I do it both — stress and relax. Intermittently. Not constantly, because that would be counter-productive, but at intervals.
I have to say it feels incredible. It’s tiring, at first, and taking cool showers instead of hot, is definitely an adjustment. But it’s really helping.
TBI Recovery: Getting used to the highs and lows – Part 1
One of the things I’ve been actively doing, over the past months, is getting use to the highs and the lows that are just outside my comfort zone. I’ve struggled a great deal with panic and anxiety over the decades, which I believe has been connected to a hefty dose of post-traumatic stress (or PTS). The classic symptoms of “disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and hyperarousal” have been a regular part of my life for as long as I can remember. The strange thing is, my flashbacks and numbness have been related to events that many others would not consider that stressful — making a fool of myself in front of other people, having bad choices of words, doing stupid things, making poor decisions that got me in hot water with authorities (including the police), and so on.
I’ve been flashing back on things that others would consider “just embarrassing” for a long, long time, and I’ve been intensely stressed out over it, avoiding situations, and on edge (that is, ON EDGE) for as long as I can remember.
Until, that is a couple of years ago, when I really started to come out of my TBI fog and things started to fit together for me, better and better, like they never had before. To be clear, I didn’t just magically come out of my fog for no apparent reason. I did the following, which all helped:
- Got myself on a daily schedule of doing specific things at specific times in specific ways, so I didn’t spend a lot of mental energy figuring out how to do things. This allowed me to develop the objective, observable 100% certainty that I could get myself up and cleaned up and dressed and out the door each morning in a predictably good way. It took the pressure off my mornings and let me relax about the details — because I didn’t have to think about them. At all.
- Exercised on a regular basis. For several years running, I got up and lifted weights and did some light cardio, the first thing in the morning before breakfast, each and every day. I never wavered from that. It was my morning routine, part of what I Just Did, and the jump start to my brain and body made me feel worlds better than I had in a long, long time.
- Started cooking more complicated meals. I have been the main cook in my household ever since my spouse got very ill about six years ago, and it made a great deal of difference in both our health. I got into a bit of a rut, and ended up making the same things over and over. When I started cooking more complicated meals, it pushed me to work on my timing as well as my sequencing. And it make our diet more varied, which was good.
- I learned to relax. This took some doing, but with some guided imagery tapes that I combined with rest/nap time, I have slowly but surely acquired the ability to relax. And for the first time, I know how good it feels to do that. Up until a few years ago, that was not the case.
- I started sitting za-zen (my own version of it) and doing conscious breathing. My version of za-zen involves just sitting and breathing, sometimes a short while, sometimes longer. I have come across a number of pieces of scientific literature talking about how this helps to balance out the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and get you out of fight-flight. It helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and get you back to a place where you’re not tossed about by every wind that comes along.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve changed how I do things — some of the things, like regular exercise and za-zen, I stopped after a while. I guess I just got bored with them and felt like they were keeping me from doing other things I needed to do. I also let them get rote and boring, and they stopped being any kind of a challenge. I need to be challenged, or I can’t keep my interest piqued. It’s a shortcoming of mine, I know, but that’s how I am.
Currently, I’m back at the regular exercise. All I have to do is look at my skinny little forearms (typing isn’t nearly enough exercise for them) and look at myself in the mirror to realize that I need to do something about this sad state of affairs. Also, my endurance is way down for doing chores outside, which is not good, either.
I’m also taking a za-zen type of practice into my everyday life, using it in my 90-second clearing approach to really take the edge off my everyday experience. I haven’t completely abandoned it. I just needed a new way of using it in ways that got me going in my life, instead of taking me away from life — as sitting za-zen will do.
As for the exercise, after laying off for a long (too long) while, I’m doing more strengthening in actual movements that I do on a daily basis — not the isolated types of movements that focus on a specific muscle group and are useful for bodybuilders. I’m building overall strength, not just specific muscles.
I’m continuing to do my rest/relaxation thing, stepping away from work during my lunch hours to listen to guided imagery and relax — sometimes sleep, too.
And these several pieces are important for what I’m doing now, which is pushing myself a little beyond my routine to challenge myself and keep things interesting. I’m training myself to handle my highs and my lows, and not let them get to me.
To be continued…