Friday, January 29, 2010

The light at the end of the tunnel or a train?

There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, right?  Faith is believing that it is not a train barreling straight at you. Somewhere during the first year after my brain injury, I quit running like hell through the tunnel, scared to death all panicky and sweaty.  I slowed down, calmed down, and developed the innate knowing that it was not a train coming at me and that somewhere down the tracks the darkness was going to lift and there would be sunshine.  I am at the point now where I am walking...kind of sauntering and whistling even...and I can see the suns' light streaming in at the end of the tunnel and feel its warmth.  Behind me is pitch blackness.

Believe it or not, I am grateful to have had my brain injury and would not go back to being the person I was before even if given the chance.  "If you like where you are, then you can't complain about how you got there" is one of my favorite sayings these days.  Wouldn't do any good anyway.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I would rather have my fingernails pulled off slowly with tweezers than go through the whole thing again, but the experience does have its benefits.  Like any other seemingly "bad" thing, it has given me some profound gifts.

Let go of the past.  A large part of my memory was wiped out with the brain injury. It follows no rhyme or reason as far as I can tell.  While I can remember the words to almost every inane song that comes on the radio, the memories are not really there in detail for my sons' births.  Pictures become my memories here if that makes any sense.  I also do not remember all the little and some of the rather big hurts that I accumulated and lugged around everywhere with me over the years.  They eventually became so heavy that they sunk the boat.  I feel so much lighter now.

Appreciate the little things.  When you have hit rock bottom there is no where to go but up.  I used to "chug" my arms when walking because I did not know what else to do with them, and they did nothing naturally.  Sure makes me like the the cool way they just automatically swing now without me even having to think about it.  Just going to the grocery store used to make me break out in a sweat and had me mustering all my courage.  "Please, please, please don't let the cashier be chatty,"  I would pray.  Now, no problem, and I am the one with witty banter.  While my speech is still affected and it is no where near sounding like the drunken slur that it once did, I sure wish I could just sing a song under my breath effortlessly.  I'll get there one day.

Focus on the abundance.  Before my brain injury, I had so much abundance in my life, but all I could see and obsess about over and over was what was absent. I have not been shopping except for necessities since the injury.  Every time I open my closets, it is like going shopping.  "Weee!  Where did all these clothes come from?" Before, I had two sons living with me.  I did appreciate them, but like any other full time, single parent, I would get annoyed much more easily by the little, every day things. I took them being in my everyday life for granted.  They now live with their Dad in a different state.  When they come in, I just revel in the energy they exude and notice and enjoy so many little things I did not before.  Now, farting in the car, I don't think I will ever come to appreciate.

Have no fear.  I used to be afraid.  If you knew me, I don't think you ever would have known it.  Tough girl.  I put up a very brave front, and part of it was real, and I wanted the other part to be real very badly, but inside I was still terrified of just life.  Over the last two and half years, I have had to draw on strength I didn't even know I had.  I have learned that I can trust and depend on myself.  For a person who had perfected playing the victim, that is major.  Now, literally nothing scares me.  Well, OK - maybe bungee jumping.  I know pretty much that I can go through anything and even find some joy along the way.  Bring it on!

I could continue, but you are probably getting bored.  I can often be seen smiling or giggling to myself these days because, I know it sounds corny enough to make you wanna throw up - me too, but I actually see joy and find happiness all around me in the mundane everyday.  Tee hee!  It can never be taken away either.  Pretty neat.  As they say in yoga class "The better it gets, the better it gets!"

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Mood Ring for the Mind

Many fads gain popularity for unknown reasons.  Remember polyester leisure suits, beanie babies, or pet rocks?  Thank goodness, most of them fade back into wherever they came from pretty quickly.  A few have staying power and even prove to be visionary.

Mood rings are an example of this.  They were actually an early form of biofeedback.  Biofeedback is a therapy in which people are taught to improve health and performance using signals generated by their own bodies such as heart rate and breathing.  NASA and top athletes have been benefiting from biofeedback for years.

Neurofeedback is a specialized form of biofeedback in which a person physically learns to alter their brainwaves.  The learning occurs at a subconscious level and is permanent.  It has been used successfully for many conditions where the brain is not functioning optimally including chronic anxiety, autism, ADHD, depression, brain injuries, addictive disorders, seizure disorders, learning disabilities and more.  It can also be used just to perfect and heighten focus and concentration such as required in school or in playing golf or other sports.

I can say that neurofeedback has undoubtedly made the most dramatic difference for me in my recovery.  I started doing neurofeedback 14 months after my brain injury.  My practitioner has told me stories about people 13 years post injury having remarkably successful results.  It is never too late for your brain to learn.

In neurofeedback, EEG sensors are put on the head and ears.  Think good blackmail pictures.  The EEG reads the amount of electrical energy put out by the brain in the form of brainwaves at the different sites.  Just like a radio station, the electricity is measured in terms of "frequency."  The brainwaves are monitored by computer software that processes the EEG information and provides feedback to the person.

Feedback can come in several forms.  It can be in the context of a video game and, when the set criteria are met, a rocket ship goes faster or a pac man gobbles up dots more frantically.  When the brain does not meet the desired levels, the game slows and the reward stops.  With practice, the brain learns to regulate itself and this actually produces permanent physiological changes allowing the brain to perform differently and to continue to make adjustments when not training.

I have done it so much, that all I get these days is a lousy little "ding" and the technical computer screen - no fancy games to entertain me anymore.  I have learned to read these and to watch the raw EEG data to monitor my own performance and train my brain.

Because it is a learning process, the results of neurofeedback occur gradually over time.  For me, my thoughts and my speech which had been separate with a time delay in between, if you can even imagine, came together and became simultaneous within 10 sessions. Shortly after I began neurofeedback, I  started sleeping soundly and deeply.  Until then, my sleep had been fitful and not restful. I spent a lot of time just staring at the ceiling and took way too many baths when I should have been sleeping.  I know that sleeping more contiguously and productively allowed my brain to really start doing some serious healing.

We would train specific areas of my motor strip, and I could physically feel the corresponding areas of my body waking up with what I have come to technically call "the tinglies."  At first, my gait was somewhat spastic, my coordination was kind of jerky and my balance was definitely off.  Now, my movement is much more natural and fluid, and, while I am probably not going to go dancing anytime soon, I could still do a mean robot.

Once I saw that it was really doing something pretty miraculous, I did neurofeedback as much as I could, up to 4 times a week.  Currently, I am doing it twice a week.  I do foresee the day when I do not feel that I need it at all, but, for now, I continue to see benefits and results.

This summer, we did neurofeedback treatments on my oldest son pretty intensely while he was here with me.  I see it as an investment in his future.  He does not have any diagnosed disorder.  He has reported that he can tell improvements in his concentration for schoolwork and that he just feels calmer and less reactive emotionally.  I think his younger brother has less bruises to prove it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Brain Basics

Let's talk about that three pounds of jelly under your hair that separates you from a starfish.  You use it every minute of every day and it is a crucial part of your functioning in this world, but most of us never even give it a second thought and take its miraculous and still somewhat mysterious workings completely for granted. I know I did.  I also know that you would give it a second and third thought if something about it did not work as it should. It was not until after my brain injury that I took notice.  When I couldn't even do something as simple as run because my arms and legs would not cooperate, I thought "Why, can't I do this?  I know how."

If you take your hand and make a fist with your thumb folded cozily inside, this is a "handy" model of your brain.  Your thumb is your brain stem.  It connects to your spinal cord and is the most primitive part of the brain sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain.  It controls the basic, automatic bodily functions like respiration and heart beat.  The fight or flight response is housed here also because it was necessary to keep us from being eaten by a wooly mammoth way back when.

The back of your hand is your cerebellum.  It mostly controls coordination and balance while also being involved in some known language and attention functions.

Your fingers are the cerebrum or your mammalian brain.  The back area primarily processes the external world, and, generally, as you move from the back to the front here, we become more and more human and the functioning becomes more complex.  Our ape friends must think we are really ugly because our brains have grown so enormous as to push our foreheads out kinda funny like. It really is a good thing.  It is the brain behind these large foreheads that allow us to be humans with complex thoughts, emotions, imaginations and problem solving skills.

The cerebellum is divided into two halves.  The left side usually houses the more analytical functions like math and writing skills while the right side is the more abstract and generally is where creative functioning is located.  Except on the head, the opposite side of the brain is in charge of the opposite side of the body.

Your brain is extremely complex.  It is much more sophisticated than the most expensive computer with all the latest whiz bang gadgets.  It contains more information than google.  The adult brain has about 100 billion nerve cells that branch out and connect at more than 100 TRILLION!! points called synapses.  I don't even know how many zeros that is.  This makes a dense, tangled up neuron forest - think Christmas lights.

Signals travel across the nerves and synapses as electric impulses carried by neurotransmitters.  The electrical activity of these signals is manifested in a brain wave.  In order for a brain to function optimally, brain waves need to be within a certain voltage range called amplitude.  Amplitude varies for different points in the brain and each point has a spectrum of wave ranges that serve different purposes.  Signals also have to be able to get through the neuronal maze quickly and with no road blocks.  This is connectivity. While specific parts of the brain do correspond to very specific functions, the brain is also global and operates as a whole.  It takes several regions of the brain cooperating and communicating to create a thought, feeling or sensation.

Because I used to not know how many nickels were in a dollar and many other similar things, I have deduced that my left brain was more damaged than my right, but my injury was global.  A quantitative EEG showed my amplitudes to be very low overall and my connectivity was like a bad cell phone connection.

For me, having to live out of my right brain was kinda good actually because it forced me to think more abstractly and creatively and imaginatively.  It shut down the pragmatic, pessimistic more realistic voices that had told me my whole life that "you can't!"  My brain injury allowed me to think, I believe, more openly and more positively.  The voices now said "Why not? Anything is possible." I have since come to believe that the mind and the brain are two seperate things entirely. Changing one allows you to change the other and vice versa, but that is a whole different blog.

Because the brain is very delicate, it is protected by the thick bones of the skull, but is still very susceptible to damage and must maintain a very sophisticated, intricate balance.  The most common forms of physical damage are closed head injuries such as a blow to the head or a stroke or exposure to neurotoxic chemicals.  Genetically based conditions, such as Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis or autism are a malfunction of the brain processes.  A number of psychiatric conditions are thought to be physically based in the brain.

Neurologists estimate that a person is aware of about 2,000 bits of information per minute.  As impressive as this is, your brain is actually processing 400 billion bits of information per minute.  Miraculously, the brain remains in control of each one and filters out what is not required to function at the present moment.  So even when you think you are not doing much of anything, you are doing a lot.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Deeper than down in the dumps

I want to talk candidly about something near and dear to my own heart and brain...depression.  First, let us be clear about what depression is not.  It is not some yuppie fad for people with way too much time to think on their hands and not enough interesting stuff in their lives to keep their minds entertained.  It is not people who think pessimistically and need to become happy campers living in a world filled with sunshine and butterflies.  It is not people who do not not go to church enough.

Depression has a real physical basis in the brain and it kills.  It almost killed me.  Suicide is the second leading cause of death in females aged 15 to 40.  Suicide takes more lives annually than traffic accidents, AIDS, or lung disease.  It kills about 800,000 people around the world every year.  Pretty staggering, huh, when put that way?

Depression is in the brain.  The standard theory is that it is a disease caused by imbalanced levels of essential neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.  It has generally been assumed that depressed people have low levels of these key chemicals.  However, it is not really known exactly how the mood is disordered in depression. 

Doctors are far too happy to and careless in writing prescriptions for antidepressants.  They are the number one prescribed medication and their use has doubled in the last 10 years.  These are serious medications which alter the brain's chemistry.  I was two weeks into a new antidepressant when I tried to commit suicide.  Of course, they do have strong warnings which I totally ignored not to drink while taking - which most certainly would include a whole bottle of wine at one sitting.

Only about 50% of depressed people respond positively to antidepressants at all and their positive effect wears off pretty quickly over time.  Something else has to be going on here.

New research is showing that depression may not be so much a disorder of the negative emotions, but rather a disorder of positive emotions.  The basic idea here is that some depressed people cannot maintain positive emotions.  These recent findings effect which medications are used to sustain the reward system in the brain.

While medications can and do help some people.  Some people find success with altering their behavior through mindfulness, affirmations, positive thinking, prayer, meditation and other cognitive practices.  Remember, what you do repeatedly in your life will make real, physical changes in the brain.  Some people find beneficial results with a combination of these and or other methods, and some do not find relief at all, unfortunately.  It really is a mystery.

Personally, I weaned myself off of antidepressants within 6 months after my suicide attempt.  I also did not go to a traditional mental health counselor at all except the obligatory time frame right after the attempt.  Still do not. I had taken pills for years and talked until I was blue in the face with little success obviously.  It was not until I quit looking for a quick and easy fix in a pill or in a therapist that I really began to confront and work through my issues and make positive changes in my life. 

I would say that my problem was physically based while environmentally and socially reinforced for decades from an early age.  In this case, my brain injury actually helped me in that it erased the habitual pathways in my brain and, hence, well established behavioral patterns which had become the defaults for me.  I started with kind of a clean slate so to speak. I had to learn new ways of responding and make new connections in my brain.  The old ones were gone.

I did neurofeedback therapy which trains the brain to perform at optimum levels.  I believe this radically taught my brain to function properly and allowed it to make healthier connections.  Simultaneously, through mindfulness practices and meditation, I have amazingly changed my thinking and my approach to life which, in turn, also reinforced different connections and pathways.

I am not advocating that anyone get up off of the therapists' coach (although I never did lie down) and throw away their pills.  This is what finally worked for me.  Thank goodness.  Each individual has to find what works for them.

I am saying that depression is real problem with a real physical basis.  However, unlike a cancer victim or someone who has a heart attack, depressed people are generally negatively judged and blamed in society and there is a stigma that goes with the disease.  Believe me, I think most depressed people would be more than happy to just buck up and get over it if they could.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The play dough in your head

Happy New Year!  The beginning of a new year.  I like it.  It gives me the sense of a fresh start with infinite possibilities.  What do you want this year to consist of for you?  We have much more power to shape our reality than most people even know due to something in our brains called neuroplasticity.  It is like having super powers or a secret weapon.  Very cool.  It is with us from birth.  We are using it all the time whether we know it or not.  It is our choice to use it consciously.  To me, it has been the key to my recovery, and I fully plan to continue to direct it and exploit it to the fullest.  You can put it to use for you too, and it will change your life.  Promise.

The brain is pretty much like play dough minus the funky smell. It is changeable, malleable and adaptable even into adulthood.  This quality is called neuroplasticity.  Technically, nueroplasticity is defined as the property of the brain to change its structure and function.  We are talking real physical changes here.  The changes occur in response to actions we commit, our senses and perceptions, and even our thinking and imagining.  Basically, what we do and think every day in our lives.

Thought actually changes matter.  There is the secret weapon we all have available to us.  You can just think about your hand raising and it does.  That in and of itself is both extraordinary and very ordinary.  Thoughts actually lead to changes in the brain.

Neuroplasticity has pretty amazing implications for every aspect of human nature and culture including medicine, psychiatry, psychology, relationships, education, and more. Neuroplasticity has allowed people who have experienced strokes and brain trauma to recover amazing functionality.  It has allowed conginatively blind people to learn new methods to see.  It has allowed children with cerebral palsy to learn to move more gracefully and children with autism to make cognitive strides which were thought not possible.  It is allowing people to erase chronic pain.  The examples go on and on.

These same principles can be used to change entrenched behaviors or patterns in your own life.  Nothing is "hard wired."  If there is anything in your life you want to can.  You just have to actually make the effort to do it with some consistency and your brain will respond by making permanent changes.

Wanna quit smoking?  Interrupt the pattern habitually and your brain will become your ally in this.  Wanna stop craving sweets or drinking coffee nonstop all day?  Your brain can work for you here too. Wanna drop 10 pounds?  Start visualizing it among other things. Wanna quit yelling or change your outlook or thought processes?  Do it!  Want your nagging back pain to lessen?  Put your thoughts to work on it.  Just about anything in your life, you can change and your brain will change too and reinforce the new pattern.

I personally quit smoking.  They wouldn't let me light up in the hospital two years ago.  So, I figured it was a good time to stop anyway.  However, the biggest change I have made is in my thought processes.  I had years of mental health counseling and had taken antidepressants for years.  I did all this and still tried to commit suicide.  Not too successful in my book.  Without pills or professional help in the past two years, I have literally rewired my brain to think differently...and I do.  That is the best super power of all.

The bottom line is that we have grossly underestimated what the brain can do and the huge role it can play in shaping our lives and our reality even.  I encourage you to put yours to work for you this year.  You have a magic wand.  Use it!