Wednesday, September 30, 2015

How To Change Your Mind

I was reading a blog post at around the same time I was doing my recovery-from-brain-injury homework (see post on "Post-concussive Mud") and something clicked. Not sure one or the other alone would have done more than skim off the surface of my "this doesn't really fit" filter for getting better.

But together? Wow. Something happened, a door unlocked, and I saw a new path that led further down the road to healing.

Also further away from the "old me," the one who I'd been trying so hard to get back to, but that's part of the revelation. She's gone, and that's okay. Who I am now and who I become are what matter.

So here's the article if you're curious: "To Change Your Life, Change Your Mind"

And here's the book I was using for homework: Back in Control by David Hanscom.

I think the article outlines the general principles of the book in a non-pain-related context, which is what I needed. I have had chronic back pain at times so I could relate, but I was using the exercises in the book as a treatment for Post-concussive Syndrome (PCS) and there was slippage for me between the two frameworks.

I'd tried other mind-body approaches that said they applied to a broad range of problems but were still focused almost entirely on how pain becomes detached from its physical cause. A good example is phantom limb pain, which lasts or recurs after the injured limb is amputated and can be just as excruciating as the original injury. Homework in these books and programs circled around the core issues that seem to set a chronic pain loop into motion, with the underlying assumption that addressing root psychological conflicts (like depression and grief over a traumatic loss) will lessen and even eliminate symptoms.

Alan Gordon does a great job explaining why people with identical imaging studies of their back will have completely divergent experiences with pain and how the key to breaking the link is training your brain not to fall for the bait. Sure, you had a herniated disc. Yes, it hurt like hell. But if the pain alarm is still blaring months later, that may be more about the alarm than the disc. If the alarm's stuck on "high" and the injury itself is down to "low," getting the two aligned takes some work.

Mostly this involves cognitive strategies like the ones Gordon lays out in his self-guided TMS Recovery Program but also a close look at how your body has learned to handle stress (using something like Harold Schubiner's MBS Worksheet from his Unlearn Your Pain book), as well as with mind-body integration practices (like meditation) that improve your physical and emotional awareness and the junctures where one might be affecting the other.

All of this applies in general to PCS once the brain injury has stabilized, even without chronic pain from headaches. Why? Because we're human and this is how we roll--we hide emotions in some pretty weird parts of our body (and some not-so-weird, like muscles in our neck or jaw). Digging those out doesn't always feel worth the effort, which is fine, but then the physical aches and pains start to multiply and become debilitating. The only way to have full control of our bodies and minds is to find all the hidden links between the two and snip them. Then we feel our emotions no matter how much we'd rather not, experience them as distinctly different from illness or injury, and find effective ways to feel better. No more panic attacks that feel like heart attacks. No more rage ulcers, or binging to fill an emotional void. All really good.

But would PCS symptoms go away? Are they driven more by emotions than structural damage within the brain? And if not, if there are (like most of us with the disorder would testify) fundamental changes in the way we think, react, sense and feel after a serious or series of TBI's that are mostly caused by structural damage, then would MBS strategies help anyway? Conventional MBS treatment says no, that if you believe any of your symptoms have a physical cause then you will not benefit. You get better only once you convince yourself that the symptoms are fully within your control.

The thing is, I believe both, and in treatments like DBT this is expected. The DBT twin mantras are "you're doing the best you can" and "you can do better." That's the dialectic that gives you control when your're facing a towering problem. It also helps when disentangling which PCS symptoms are most amenable to change. There's always something you can do to change the situation for better, or even worse.

But I prefer better, and the steps outlined in the book and Back in Control website have done me the most good, by far. To show you how, I'm going to do a much shorter ;) daily "Mind Change" post every day in October, starting tomorrow, in the hope that it will help you too.

See you then.

Love, Lisa

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