Fighting the worry habit

Ever since I had that messed up accident a thousand bloody years ago I’ve had anxiety. I think it’s as much a habit now as anything. My body just acts like something terrible is happening, no matter how untrue that is. Even taking a rest, my back tenses up as if I’m about to lift weights. If my hands aren’t active, I’ll pick and bite at my fingers until they bleed. And much as I try, I can’t stop gritting my teeth. Ever.

At one point I caused a huge lump to appear on my jaw from clenching my teeth and until recently I had pretty much constant pain in my back/shoulders except for when working (I actually avoided time off because I’d wind up in too much pain.)

However, I’m not writing this to complain, I promise, more to share two things that have helped me recently, and might also be an answer to stress for some others out there. I’m not totally fixed, but they’ve definitely helped.

Yoga

The first is yoga, which I’ve tried many times before and never liked. I think the difference this time is:

  • doing it on my own so I’m not worrying about if I’m any good, instead just concentrating on my body and how it feels.
  • even doing yoga at home, I’d do it in a foolishly small space. Now I do it in a bigger room where I can actually spread out a bit (I do still end up hitting the sofa or kicking the wall quite often, but it’s a definite improvement.)
  • using videos of someone who doesn’t irritate me and deals specifically with the problems I have with my back. The videos are by Yogini Melbourne. She is soothing, detailed in what she says, and manages to give simple options for those of us who have a tendency to fall over. She also provides plenty of time to have a little rest, especially at the beginning of a video. When I don’t feel like doing anything active, I tell myself it’ll be an excuse to have a little lie down, which is a great incentive.

Fiddlesticks

The other thing I’ve started doing is playing with worry beads and it stops me biting my fingers, which means I no longer get so tense. I started with a broken bracelet a few weeks ago, putting it back together as a string (the bottom one in the photo.) Then today I made the top two. With the middle one I went all out and added a spring and then some different sized cogs and nuts that I had, which makes it a bit like a baby’s rattle, a step up from worry beads. I figure the top and bottom beads are for general distraction, but the rattle is for more complex thought. Like Sherlock and his three-pipe problems, I sometimes have worry-rattle problems.

Now these are intense times, so I hope none of you are too stressed. But if you get anxious what are your ways of dealing with it?

My Ridiculous Anxiety Dream

I have variations on this dream quite often, but I think this is the daftest. I do sometimes drive a tractor for my job and occasionally I have to check on trees after a storm to make sure none have been uprooted or become unstable, so it has some basis in reality.

So I’d been driving a tractor out in a field and had stopped to check that none of the trees had toppled.  Suddenly I noticed that it had got dark so I needed to get back to base. I reached down to release the handbrake, but it wasn’t there! I felt for the gearbox, but it wasn’t there either! And there was no steering wheel! I was really panicking by this point and there were a few minutes of fumbling about, wondering why I wasn’t wearing shoes or a coat, before I finally worked out that I was in bed and not on a tractor at all. Instead of deciding that everything was fine and going back to sleep, my brain started on a new course of panic and I thought,

“But if the bed has got no gears or steering wheel, how am I going to get to work tomorrow?” Feeling frantic, I switched on the light, muttering to myself,

“I drive to work everyday, how do I normally do this on a bed with no steering wheel?”

A few more tormented seconds passed while I looked at my bed in confusion, before finally realising,

“I don’t need to drive my bed to work, I’ve got a car.”

BI: Overcoming Phobias and Panic.

Phobias have been found to occur frequently in people with traumatic brain injury (the word ‘traumatic’ here means physical trauma rather than emotional). However, I would guess they can also occur with PTSD as a distortion of triggers.

 

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Note: The below method is a way of dealing with fairly simple phobias and panic, but it’s important that anyone experiencing psychological symptoms from trauma or BI also gets professional help.

 Phobias

In the year after the accident I acquired a ridiculous number of phobias. They seemed to appear at random. I became scared of the dark, crossing the road, insects, mice, conversation, sleep, lack of sleep. Some of these phobias I still have a little now, but for the more concrete ones I was able to come up with a method for getting rid of them.

My understanding of how a phobia sticks around is this:

  1. Usually, an incident causes us to associate danger with the phobia – let’s use Trevor’s phobia of the dark as the result of falling down stairs in the dark, as an example. With a BI, the phobias seem to appear without cause, but the effect is exactly the same – fear associated with specific stimuli.
  2. Every time afterwards, when Trevor is in the dark, he experiences fear, not just thoughts and emotions, but tangible physical feelings. His heart rate increases, he finds it difficult to breathe, he starts to panic.
  3. These intense reactions feed into the fear. He becomes more afraid because his body is reacting in an extreme way that is, in itself, scary ie. positive feedback.
  4. Having experienced the frightening symptoms of terror in 3. while in the dark, his brain (not the conscious bit, but all the automatic processes he has little control over) adds a few new red flags to the idea of ‘dark’ and his phobia grows.
This can also be shown by a nifty diagram

Phobias

In order to overcome a fear it is necessary to control the physical reaction to it and stop the positive feedback, this means creating new, calm associations with the phobia, to work at its blurry edges.

The Method

So Trevor starts to inch his way into darkness, using the following:

  1. He stands in a lit room, but at the doorway to a dark room, not scared.
  2. He breathes slowly, calmly, reassures himself that nothing can happen, the light is right there, he can see fine. He concentrates on the sensations in his feet, his hands; still not scared.
  3. When he feels completely calm, he takes a step forward into the darkness. He starts to feel a little panic, slight increase in heart rate and speed of breathing.
  4. So he stops. Repeats 2. until he feels calm again, all the while not moving.
  5. Repeats 3.
  6. Repeats 2.

If he reaches a point where he can’t calm himself, then he takes a step back into the light and repeats step 2. It’s important that his final association with the dark is one of calm, this is way more important than getting as close to his fear as possible.

Sometimes this takes a few attempts, and it is a slow way of challenging anything, but it seems to work.

If your phobia is one you can’t physically approach in this way, then there are substitutes. For example: looking at photos of it, reading about it or writing about it. With each of these methods, it is still important to approach the fear slowly, giving yourself time to be calm.

Panic!

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It’s also a method that can also be used in a number of other situations when fear and panic take over. Panic is very destructive for people with a BI, because it causes the brain to shut down functions that are already struggling. Whether trying to have a conversation, read a train timetable or cross a busy road, it’s very easy for someone with BI to panic when they find something difficult. This leads to irrational thinking taking over, eg I can’t do this! Why can’t I do this? I can’t do anything! or even I don’t know what’s happening! I’m in danger! But that panic then further shuts down reason and cognitive skills, leading to increased panic – the positive feedback shown above, and shown in the diagram below.

Panic

The truth is, you can’t make the BI go away, the difficulties will ease, but it takes time. However you can stop the positive feedback from making the problem worse. This also has the long term benefit of reducing stress, which in turn gives your brain and body the peace they need to heal.

The Method

Whatever it is you’re trying to do, when it starts to get difficult, as long as you’re not in immediate danger, pause for a moment and go through the following steps (this is almost identical to above, but to reiterate…):

  • Breathe slowly, calmly.
  • Reassure yourself that nothing can happen, you are fine.
  • Concentrate on the sensations in your feet, your hands.
  • Keep breathing and be aware of your breath.
  • When you feel in control, carry on.

Remember it’s ok to find things difficult, and most of the time it’s fine to wait, there’s no danger involved. The danger only comes when panic takes over and you make bad decisions (speaking as someone who has panicked crossing the road and then walked out in front of cars, leading to a phobia about crossing the road!)

Final notes:

This method does not work instantly, it takes time and practice to be able to control panic like this. The best time to start practicing is when you don’t need it and already feel calm.

This method uses techniques I learnt from meditation and mindfulness. Both of those are more difficult and take commitment and are not necessary for this method to work. However, if you can learn them, they are incredibly valuable.

 If you have any questions about this, please free to ask in the comments below.