In it for the long haul

truck on road leading into the distanceAfter a brain injury, it’s awfully easy to get stuck in every single moment.

Everything seems different. Everything is different. Your brain has changed, and you have to devote a whole lot of time to each and every moment, as though it were the only one in your life.

Focusing on the present with laser-like attention became my main form of brain injury rehab. After all, I had to retrain my brain to make sense of what was going on around it, and I had to acclimate (all over again) to certain things I had once taken for granted.

Like brushing my teeth and taking my shower and getting dressed in the proper order each morning.

Like washing dishes and cooking and fixing simple snacks without losing my temper.

Like going to bed at a decent hour and getting up to exercise each morning.

The things that I had once taken for granted… well, that familiarity was taken from me, when I fell in 2004. And everything fell apart.

We don’t realize till it’s gone, how much we really do take for granted, and how much we depended on the predictability to structure our lives. When it disappears, all hell breaks loose. Literally.

But now, after 10+ years of really drilling down on the details of every day, moment to moment, I seem to have turned a corner. And now I’m looking at the “long haul” — what’s ahead of me, not next week or next month, but 10 years down the line… 20… 30… and beyond. I wasn’t born yesterday, but I also come from a long-lived family, and I can realistically expect to live at least 20 years longer than my peers. Maybe even longer than that.

So, I’m shifting my attention away from immediate stuff and concentrating on the big picture. What else is out there? What else can I learn? How else can I grow? Where can I find interesting things to expand my mind and life?

It’s all out there, waiting for me.  And it is for you, too.

Onward.

No, stress is NOT all about our interpretation of TBI…

There’s more going on here…

So, I have some time to catch up on some reading, and I just came across a stress management consultant with many years’ experience coaching and counseling, who says “the source of all stress is the subjective meaning we attach to events”. I won’t say who it is, to protect the not-so-innocent.

Okay, that’s fine. I get that to a certain extent. Stress can be a killer — and it is, for many, many people. And the subjective meanings we attach to events can indeed add to the stress of our lives.

Here’s the thing, though — when you look at stress from a broader point of view that includes the physical part of life as an integral part, things start to be a whole lot less clear-cut. Or maybe they become even more clear. Because over time, you can build up a lot of physiological stressors which contribute to your overall stress levels… to the point where it doesn’t really matter how bright and shiny and positive your psychological outlook is — you feel like crap, and that stresses your system… and it also impacts your frame of mind (which is now inclined to look on the dark side, for reasons it cannot cognitively identify).

Even if you can get your mental, spiritual, and emotional stresses down, if you don’t have a handle on your physical stresses, there’s only such much progress you can expect to make.

Take for example, this scenario, which shows the relative stress levels of the four different areas over a time span that has a lot of the usual stresses we experience on a daily basis: trouble with the boss, re-org at work, $$$ worries, health problems, marriage troubles, promotions, raises, recovery, family problems.

Cumulative stress effects over time

Even if you do manage to cut down on the mental and emotional and spiritual stresses of your eventful life, you can still have a buildup of stress in your body that, if not dissipated or reduced in some way, will still keep your overall stress levels high.

Even when everything is going great.

Now, with a situation like TBI, where all of a sudden, sh*t is all effed up for no reason that you can explain, something as simple as making breakfast or getting ready for work can be a huge physiological stressor, because things that used to be so simple for you — like buttoning your shirt or combing your hair or getting milk and cereal to end up in the bowl instead of on the counter — aren’t going so well, and it’s just one surprise after another… one little “micro-trauma” after another, getting those fight-flight juices flowing like never before.

On a daily basis — and this is what a lot of folks fail to understand about TBI — you can experience hundreds of these little surprises, which pump up your adrenaline and alternately make you high as a kite and downright depressed. It makes you seem/feel bipolar to those who are fond of that label, and it keeps you on high alert, just trying to make it through the day trying to do all the things that used to come so easily to you, but now require a different sort of attention.

And those stresses add up. The biochemicals keep collecting in your system, by default. Because you have to stay ON, to keep from falling off. And you end up on constant alert, a perpetual first responder to your own personal mini-disasters… which may not be that big, objectively, but seem bigger and bigger and bigger because, well, you’re really pretty tired from all the adjusting, and that adrenaline and ephinephrine and norepinephrine is actually making it harder for your brain to learn the new things it needs to learn.

Which is yet another source of stress… which has next to nothing to do with how you look at things.

Now, I’ve talked with neuro-rehab folks who were of that same philosophy — that the thing that gets us into trouble with our stress levels is the way we interpret what’s happening to us. And I agree, to some extent, that interpreting everything along catastrophic lines raises our stress levels and is a big culprit in frying our systems. At the same time, people seem to be overlooking or discounting the role that the body plays in all this — in the role that physiological stressors play in our lives. It’s NOT all about how we look at things and the meaning we ascribe to what happens. It can be just as much — sometimes even moreso — about the physiological burdens that we have to deal with.

Does our mindset affect our physiological stress levels? Absolutely? We can flood our systems in an instant with a reaction of our choosing. Can our mind reverse physiological stressors on its own? I’m not so sure. I think the body needs to be directly involved to do that to the fullest.

All this being said (and I wish I could say everything that’s in my head, but I’m still a bit foggy from the past week), I think that any stress management program needs to incorporate the body. Actively. On purpose. As a full partner in the whole process. We need to use our bodies to move all that biochemical sludge along. Can you say lymph?

And I also want to say that I don’t think that stress is necessarily a bad thing. It’s the long-term effects of stress that do the job on us. I personally believe that when we develop ways to discharge the effects of stress and use the energy for good instead of evil, we can build up a sort of immunity to the downsides, and stress can actually become a vital and productive part of our lives. Rather than being something to dread and try to control and “overcome”, stress can be our friend. One of our best friends, in fact.

I have friends who would cringe to hear me say how much I love stress. But I can’t help it – I do. I really thrive on it. The thing that gets me in trouble is when I don’t allow myself enough recovery time from tough stints. I also work in a stupid job that is constantly stressful and doesn’t let you stop moving for a minute, so that’s another effing culprit. I work at a very high, fast pace, and I can get pretty intense. I get a ton of stuff done on a regular basis, and I enjoy it. I’ve figured out how to be ultra-productive after years of experimentation and trial-and-error, and it works for me. I just know how to get sh*t done. And Stress (capital “S”) is a big part of that. So removing stress from my life — rising above it, overcoming it, keeping it within “liveable levels” — is the kiss of death for the parts of my life that I love the most. Hey, I’m a jock, okay. I want to run faster and lift more and be stronger… It’s in my nature, so if you take that away or diminish it or talk it down, then you’re hacking away at my innermost core and you’re pulling the rug right out from underneath me.

The thing is, I know what a toll all this can take on me. It gets me hurt. It ruins my life. I burn out  in a very big way. So, I need to find a middle ground that lets me keep going, without heading right off the cliff.

Nowadays, what I’m working with — especially with my 90-second clearing — is letting my energy spike, then bringing it back down, consciously, to restful levels. I push myself hard for a period of time, then I stop, slow it down, get myself out of that frantic mindset that drives me forward, and put myself in a calm, relaxed state that actually feels really good.  For me, it’s not the pushing hard that does the number on me — it’s not having a rest/recovery period to let it all sink in and integrate. I’ve been recovery-deprived for a long, long time. Only in the past few years have I actually learned how to relax and feel good. And only since I learned how to feel good while relaxing, has it truly become clear to me that my continued growth and improvement depends on recovery as much as it does on testing my limits.

It might even depend more on it.

For my money, one of the most important things anyone recovering from TBI can do, is figure out how to get to that sweet spot of emotional/spiritual/mental balance, where it’s possible to feel physically good. If you don’t know how to get there, and you don’t get there on a semi-regular basis, your recovery is going to be hampered. You’re going to stay amped up on fight-flight biochemicals, and you’re not going to learn as well as you can, when you’re able to relax and just enjoy yourself. Feeling good doesn’t have to even be a huge deal — if you can just manage it for a few minutes a day, and remember what it feels like to take the edge off, that can help. Absolutely positively. But if you never figure out how to get there, and you find yourself unable to relax and settle into a sense of being OKAY, I predict you’re going to have a tough row to hoe.

And we don’t want that.

Anyway, it seems I found the words I was looking for.

Bottom line is, as much as some folks would have us think that it’s our interpretation of events that does a number on us, rather than the events themselves, I have to respectfully disagree. The stresses and physical reality of dealing with one surprise after another, having to pump yourself up to keep going, and having to constantly be aware of ways you need to shift and change, can be physiologically stressing in ways no change of mindset will reverse.

We need to recognize the role the body plays in stress, and find ways to address our physiological stressors, so that our minds can relax and we can learn the lessons we need to learn.

It’s all a process, of course, and an imperfect one at that. But if we pay attention and keep an open mind and realize that 9 times out of 10 we are unconsciously deluding ourselves — and then take corrective action, we just might get somewhere.

Onward

Whatever I want it to be…

The last day of a long week. After another long week before that…. and another long week before that…. Come to think of it, February was a long month. The shortest month of the year was the longest, experience-wise. And packed full of new details. And as stressful as it was exciting. A real roller-coaster ride, if I say so.

I’m sure things will settle down as we move forward and people find their place. At least we have our job responsibilities clearly (well, sort of) outlined and described in our HR “goals and objectives” system. And it’s pretty good, when I step back and take the view of someone who is just passing through, rather than chained to this galley bench till the end of the sea voyage.

A lot of folks at work are incredibly stressed out over everything. There are adjustments going on with everyone, and tempers run hot at times. People are tired and long-term stressed, and we all know what happens when that happens. Unfortunate things are said and done, and then everyone gets all worked up over this, that, and the other thing. Over nothing, really… And then the fur flies, and people dig in, trying to justify why they did or said that stupid thing, 15 minutes ago… and a whole elaborate conceptual framework gets built up around people trying to defend a position they know is not right to begin with, just because they feel they need to defend it or they will lose face, lose ground, and not have the same standing with others that they want to have.

Some call it “ego”. I call it a heavy-duty bias towards the sympathetic nervous system — you know, that fight-flight-freeze response that is all but out of our control… but we can manage and modulate with the right approach(es). Some people spiral out of control in a downward slide, when things change or go wrong, while others find ways to work through them and come out on the other side in one piece. In my former life before my TBI in 2004, I was the kind of person who could deal. I could handle things that came down the pike that threw other people for a loop, and I prided myself in that ability. After I fell in 2004, that all went out the window, and I lost myself in the increasingly stressful details of my everyday life. I felt terrible about myself, I felt like I was useless, couldn’t handle anything, and that I was good for nothing to anybody anymore. It took such a toll on my self-esteem and ability to interact with others… and I built up this whole new self-perception that just wasn’t accurate. I believed that the way I acted under circumstances in a given moment, was an indicator of who I was all the time — and that messed with my head like nothing else.

Now I know that my perceptions just were not true. I can be however I want to be, and I can interpret situations however I want to. I am not chained to any one version of reality, and in fact so much of what we call “Reality” is just a conditioned response that makes us feel a certain way. Our body chemistry — like a radio — gets tuned to a certain frequency, and even if we don’t like the music at first, we get used to it. And then when we’re in that “frequency,” if it feels right, then we think that what we’re thinking and feeling and observing is true. Our systems are built to acclimate to “normal” circumstances and then reinforce us when we are in that “normal” zone.

But the thing is, all that “normalcy” is nothing more than habit. We just get used to things being a certain way, and when they’re not that way anymore, we freak out – to a greater or lesser degree. Our freak-outs can range from general discomfort… to cranky-bitchiness… to outright meltdowns. And you know what? It’s not the external circumstances that are to blame. It’s our own internal reactions to them.  We are just so accustomed to our own internal reactions and our own “scema” of “reality” that we take them for granted, and they never get questioned until something changes that doesn’t synch up with our assumptions. And 9 times out of 10, rather than blaming our assumptions, we blame the thing that changed — something outside ourselves — for the problem. It couldn’t possibly be us… right?

Now don’t get me wrong. I do think that a lot of external circumstances are genuinely stress producing and can make us miserable, no matter how well-prepared or well-tuned we are. It’s just how we’re built. And obviously something like an earthquake or flood or tornado or organizational “redesign” at work will throw you for a loop. But we often make things harder for ourselves than need be, with our reactions and our determination to interpret things in the old way — which stopped being valid, the minute things changed.

The point is, we always have a choice about how we’re going to interpret the world around us. We’re not locked into any one “real” way of thinking or doing or being. There is no such thing. And the things we believe are true, are more true to our biochemistry than they are to our actual circumstances. Especially in America, we tend to believe the more true and real and authentic something feels, the more true it must BE. And yet our feelings stem from habits we’ve become biochemically attached to, along with the reactions that we have that reinforce our biochemical experiences. They’re real. They’re visceral. And they can really save our asses in a pinch when we don’t have time to think through things. But as a way of living life… going by gut feeling and sensation alone can get you into real trouble.

Anyway, today is a new day, and I am taking special care to watch out for what I’m thinking and saying and feeling and doing about things. In the past years of my recovery from TBI, a lot has changed in my mind about my life and what it’s all about — a lot has changed about who I am and what I am all about. The bottom line is, I get to choose today, how I will feel and how I will interpret things around me. It’s a dramatic time with work changing so drastically, and it’s a hard time for so many people around me (including myself).

For today, this day isn’t just about stress and anxiety and change. It’s about opportunity and potential and growth. There are elements of both sides in all this, and there’s a lot that’s out of my control. I have been having headaches. I am generally exhausted. I have a pretty short fuse, these days. And my light and noise sensitivity is pretty amped up, these days.

But there’s also a lot of good in my life, and spring is on they way. It’s my choice how I feel about things, and it’s my choice what I focus on.

Onward.

Building readiness

Get ready, stay ready

You never know when something will come up that challenges you, and that is especially true of TBI. With traumatic brain injury, there is often a surprise just around the corner, or right in front of you when you least expect it.

I’ve been struggling with this for many years — many, many years — and over time, the constant adjustment/readjustment has really taken a toll on me. It’s pushed me and pulled me and really strung me out. And it’s doing it again with this job I have. Somehow, the things I thought I was doing well, are turning out to be not so great, according to some. And I’m feeling a lot of pressure to make things right.

It’s not so much the added work that gets me, it’s the jolt and the shock of being confronted over things that are pretty tough to hear and to handle. It’s the surprise(!) of having someone say, “You know what? You’re screwing up, and it’s making us all look bad.”

… Just when I thought I was doing so well.

I have taken several approaches with this — trying to control the situations I find myself in, to minimize the element of surprise, and trying to put some limits on how much I take on in the course of each day.

The problem is, I get busy. And I literally cannot manage and control every single experience that comes my way. There is always an element of the unexpected, and rather than trying to exclusively head things off at the pass, I need to add more readiness to my “behavioral toolbox”.

Readiness, to me, is about being able to respond appropriately to situations that come up at work and at home. It’s about having a frame of mind that’s going to help me meet the challenges with dignity and honor and the kind of demeanor I can be proud of. It’s about realizing that life is going to throw some funky stuff at me, now and then, and the more advanced I get and the more I take on, the more ready I need to be — because it’s going to get that much more interesting.

I literally have no control over a lot of things, and heave knows, there’s even more stuff that’s out of my control that sneaks up on me, thanks to my neurology.

So, I need to get myself in shape. Literally and figuratively.

I’m doing pretty well with the food (aside from a surprise addiction to fruit and nut trail mix that I developed a month or so ago), and I eat pretty regularly and in reasonable moderation (most of the time). I’m also doing pretty well with the exercise, incorporating more rest into my weekly routines. I need to get stronger, that much is for certain, and I should probably invest time time at the gym at work lifting heavier weights. Looking at my calendar, I can see a couple of days I can do that this week.

Now I need to do a better job of managing my time and workflow, so that things don’t sneak up on me that really shouldn’t. I need to develop the habit of sitting down with my schedule at the beginning of each day and at the end of each day, and walking through everything I need to do. I used to do this in the morning while I was exercising, but that’s not working anymore. I need to do it when I get to work, first thing… and last thing before I leave at the end of each day.

In some ways, it really is about developing habits — habits of excellence that set the stage each day for some sort of improvement. There will be many days when I fall short, but rather than seeing that as a disappointment, I can see that as proof that I’m pushing myself to go farther, do better, be better.

At the same time, though, there’s only so much that I can depend on planning. I can do my best to minimize unnecessary surprises — so I can keep my energy for the real surprises. Because there will be many of them. In some ways, it’s like developing combat readiness — though on a much smaller, much less dangerous, civilian scale. It’s like developing the physical hardiness to keep strong in the face of some daunting tasks and schedules, and developing the mental hardiness to face up to any challenge that comes across my path.

I have a CD from Belleruth Naparstek that she created for first responders, called “Stress Hardiness Optimization”. It’s for use by firefighters and policemen and EMTs and soldiers — people who face day-to-day challenges that fry their nervous systems. My own experience is something far less extreme than that, but the principles still apply — sudden shocks, immediately pressing challenges, high stakes, and high performance demands are a regular part of my everyday life. And I need to live like that’s the case.

So, here’s to fostering more readiness — I’m reading up on the idea of readiness, drawing from different sources, from athletic and military and civilian emergency preparedness literature online. There’s a lot to read, but the basic concepts are there — training, preparedness, strength, flexibility, endurance… all the ingredients you need to stay smart and safe in a tough situation.

Perhaps the biggest threat I face on a daily basis is not one on the outside — it’s the internal threat of taking things for granted, of slacking off when I should be stepping up, of taking the easy way of not eating right or not getting enough rest, and not planning properly. But the most hazardous danger of all is underestimating my own challenges.

Speaking of which, I’m running late. Gotta go — I’ve got a meeting in a little over an hour…