Pre brain injury when I had health problems there was normally a fairly clear diagnosis and explanation of what the problem was and how it can be fixed. It was often involving the mechanics of the body so it can be easily explained and understood. Immediately after my brain injury I was hoping for a similar process, that I would be told exactly what had happened, what the consequences would be, what I could do to help fix it and how long it would take to get better.
As we know these answers aren’t available. Furthermore it is often expected that there is a solution somewhere, we just need to speak to the right person, take the right medication but again it simply doesn’t work like that.
Learning about trauma and the brain was a real eye opener for me as it was the first time things started to click, as I began to learn more about the mind, how it is designed and how it has evolved it suddenly started to make sense as to why I have the symptoms I do. For the first time there was a logic to, and a reason for, what was happening to me. After a couple of years of confusion things started to make sense. And in understanding the reasons for it I could understand how to make things better.
A further aspect of understanding more about trauma is that I stopped feeling as though I needed to ‘get a grip’ and stopped putting pressure on myself to get over it, stopped thinking the solution was just around the corner and then being disappointed when I never found it. This takes away a significant source of stress which in turn allows you to start to be more relaxed, which in turn gives your brain more of a chance to re-network and improve, which in turn speeds up the whole process.
You have to realise that a brain injury will result in really significant psychological trauma. You are damaging the organ that is us, that is our everything, and almost all brain injuries whether they are acquired or traumatic are a total shock and come from no-where, it’s a massive physical and psychological assault, it is quite simply an enormous threat.
This is a very brief run down of some of the main aspects of trauma and the brain, there is a lot more depth behind it which is well worth learning about.
The best place to start is with the main role of the brain, and that is to keep us alive and thriving as both individuals and as a race. This isn’t just in the context of keeping us alive in the modern world, but throughout the history of man. The brain is sometimes referred to as being the ‘old brain’ and the ‘new brain’. The old brain relates to desires, feelings and needs which are common to all creatures, for example safety, food, warmth, reproduction and shelter and we have had this part of our brain for millions of years. It is in the fulfilling these needs that we have prospered. However 2 million years ago there was a further evolution of our brain that allowed us to ‘think’. And to be aware that we are thinking, that we have a sense of self and an identity, we are able to think about the past and the future, have aspirations and goals and further ourselves as individuals, this is known as the ‘new brain’.
There is complexity in the relationship between the old and the new brain. The response mechanisms of the old brain are quite primitive and operate in an automatic and reactive manner, unlike the thinking and reasoning new brain. Unfortunately for us our response to threats is still dealt with by the older part of our brain as dealing with threat effectively has been an evolutionary imperative. This is why there is a lack of logic to our symptoms, as I said previously we can be outwardly angry and aggressive when we are actually weak and vulnerable, the old brain is automatically being aggressive as it feels under threat. Also trying to tell ourselves it’s all OK and we will be fine doesn’t result in us feeling like that as the old brain doesn’t do reasoning and logic, it’s under threat and that’s that. This explains why we can find it so difficult to make things better using the same tools we did before the brain injury such as discussion, reasoning and finding perspective.
The actual part of the brain that deals with threat is called the ‘Amygdala’ and it is thought that this part of the brain can be prone to over reacting, can be a little ‘trigger happy’. It will also override other parts of the brain, again this makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective, what is possibly more important that your safety. However in the modern world once the injury has happened the threat has effectively passed, we will receive medical treatment and then return to our very safe modern existence where daily threats to our lives don’t exist.
However the brains threat system has been activated and it doesn’t back down easily, again this will override other positive emotions. It is sending messages to the adrenal glands to throw out more cortisol which is a stress hormone and telling all our senses to be on high alert, we have suffered the ultimate threat and need to be on our guard, a symptom of this is hyper tension and why it is so hard to relax, sleep or make considered decisions.
The new brain is trying to make sense of this by thinking, it is aware that we aren’t right and it is worried by it which is making us anxious. The new brain is scared by the prospect of the new us and what this will mean for our lives, our relationships with others, our work, our sense of self, our confidence. This worry feeds into the old brain and makes the whole situation worse and continual. Not a best case scenario. And even worse when you consider that you are already trying to survive in day to day life with significantly reduced brain capacity which would lead to significantly increased stress levels anyway, and you have hormones swimming around all over the place.
There is another aspect to all this which is our ability to relax and sooth ourselves. With any animal, when we are not under threat we are able to play and relax, the brain releases endorphins which create a sense of well being. Endorphins also gives us compassion towards others, and ourselves, and allows us to care. Unfortunately this is overruled by the threat system so you don’t receive endorphins, hence why it is so hard to relax and feel a sense of wellbeing.
As I have mentioned life post brain injury requires a lot more management by ourselves. Things that used to happen seamlessly and naturally simply don’t anymore. There has been more thinking recently about having a ‘compassionate’ approach to ourselves when dealing with trauma. We have to realise that we have suffered from significant trauma that came as a total shock and there are parts of us that are really hurting and shocked and scared as a result. You can’t expect to give it the old stiff upper lip and hope things get better. You have to take an active role in helping yourself. There are actions you can take that I cover in the next page, however learning about the information above and making sense of it was a real milestone for me. I was able to take some pressure off myself, my outlook on what was happening in my head changed and made more sense and this allowed me to better support, understand and direct things.
I will finish this page by saying that the brain is largely not understood (President Obama committed £300 million dollars into a Brain Initiative to try and learn more about it). As it isn’t understood there is lots of speculation about it, as is often the way each theory about the brain sounds like it makes sense and is perfectly plausible, however there are hundreds of theories and they often contradict each other. In terms of the information above I can’t say it is 100% true and how the brain works, however it was when learning about this aspect of the brain that I had my first eureka moment, it made sense to me and my circumstance, it works for me. Essentially it has helped me to help my brain and get better which is what its all about.