Handling anxiety and its obnoxious little friends

In CRPS and dysautonomia, several parts of the brain get under- or over-enthusiastic (or both, unpredictably.) It’s easy to oversimplify, but even more confusing; each part of the brain has many jobs, so I can’t say that the anterolateral cortex does one thing and the cingulate cortex another.

Sketch of brain, with bits falling off and popping out, and a bandaid over the worst

I can boil it down by the effects that these remappings have, though. That’s relatively simple!

So, in me, this is what happens as a result of these scrambled brain bits.

1. Obviously, pain signals don’t know when to pack it in. That’s obvious. They just keep going and going and going and going and…

roadblocks using supports shaped like pink bunnies,  in pairs, leading around the corner

2. Coordination gets impaired. I used to be freakishly well coordinated, so I don’t normally get much sympathy, but this is a bit unfair.

I had 38 years of knowing exactly where my body was in space, of being able to move without triple-checking myself, from the time I first learned to walk. Or, rather, the time I first learned to climb out of my crib. … Several months before I was steady enough on my feet to toddle, I’d do a layback (a climbing maneuver where you grab one edge of a gap with your hands and then walk your feet up the opposing surface) to get up the side of my crib…

woman climbing up a crack in a steep rockface, hands pulling one way and feet pushing the other
Feet push, hands pull, and you go upwards. Photo JMiall on Wikimedia Commons.

 

…then rappel down the rails and crawl down the hall to my parent’s room to let them know that it was almost dawn and I was ready to play.

I also learned to jimmy the rails so they came down altogether, but that took a little longer. More engineering and upper-body strength involved, you know. (I got a bed well before I was two. They figured it was safer.)

I’m not used to living in a world where my body isn’t exactly where I think it is. I probably take more damage than someone who’s been this poorly coordinated all their lives, because there’s this huge layer of bewilderment and surprise. Not to mention lack of preparedness.

I don’t compensate for it unconsciously — I have to be very conscious about being careful bending over, walking not running down stairs, always wearing de-skids when I go outside in the snow. This requires a bit more bandwidth than just doing things as you normally would.

3. The third and most annoying thing is, my brain just LOVES to go to anxiety.

brain_limbicsystem-inflated

Anxiety is a bit of a circus. It pushes up my blood pressure and makes my heart beat fast, which is worrisome in itself. It makes my vision go whitish, like everything is covered in fog. All this makes it rather hard to think, to reason out whether I really have cause to be anxious.

Then my stomach starts nudging the back of my throat, which is never pleasant. I keep ginger near all the time, because Tums just make it worse and I can’t stand Rolaids or any of the others.

Then my waste systems get into a tizzy and I feel like I have to go wether I do or not. If I don’t need to go now, then I will in half an hour, because (as I’m sure you remember from anatomy class!) the adrenals sit right on the kidneys and when your adrenaline goes up, so does your kidney activity.

medical artist drawing of kidneys with adrenal glands sitting on top of them

So, on an eventually related subject, I recently got worked up for endocrine and allergy issues. The tests are still rolling in. A couple of blood tests were funky, so I need to get screened for gynecological cancer, and I need to get checked for pancreatitis — which, with my squeaky-clean life, would be decidely, wildly, completely idiopathic — if it isn’t cancer.

Naturally, part of my brain is throwing up images of a midsection riddled with malignancies. I’ve seen a few of those, so it’s not a big stretch.

That’s it, I’m doomed.

Lead-grey statue of dark angels swooping down from the sky

Blood pressure.

Heart rate.

White fog.

Stomach… wait, the stomach goes with the pancreatitis.

What notion of reality am I in now? The cancer one or the anxiety one? Because I can ignore the anxiety one — OMG I might have metastatic cancer! Everything’s turning white! My heart’s going too fast! AAAUUUGHHHH —

And this is where my head starts spinning around and the pea soup comes out at projectile velocity.

Not really. It just feels like being in a horror movie sometimes.

gaudy logo of the horror film, "House of Wax" it comes off the screen right at you!

I’m lucky. I have a sense of humor. I just think about horror tropes when this circus starts, and I snort and calm down a little bit.

I have to jump on that first lowering of tension or it spins right back up. This is the dysautonomic brain at work — getting right back to panic is the easiest thing for it to do.

If mentally reaching out for my anxiety dials and trying to turn them down doesn’t help, then the very next thing to do is yawn.

yawning_Macaca_fuscata_juvenile

It’s an incredible tool — no bad side effects, many uses. Plus, you can do it in company.

yawning_Rudolph_Valentino_and_Carmel_Myers_in_All_Night

Let me explain.

Yawning starts with pulling air into the deepest part of my lungs. I can imagine it going all the way down my spine and filling the bowl of my pelvis. My ribs reach out and stretch nicely. This deep breathing is the first key.

The second key is that my jaws open up wide, releasing that clenched set of muscles there. It’s impossible to grit teeth while yawning.

Tiger yawning hugely

I may find myself in a yawning cycle — yawn after yawn, for a good five minutes. I figure I need it. All that oxygen, all that jaw-releasing… hard to beat.

Now that my torso, shoulders, neck, and jaws are unclenched, now that I have enough oxygen circulating to let color come back into the world … now I can begin to cope.

The first thing I do, before getting up, is check my breathing. I’ve gone back to breathing from my belly, drawing air down to where it needs to go. Good.

The next thing I check is my head and neck. My jaw muscles feel softer and my neck is flexible; I give it a stretch or two each way to check. This is good.

This is a functional situation now.

Okay, I’ve done all I can. I’ve pulled myself out of the anxiety tailspin. I’ve made the next round of appointments.

As I keep telling others, don’t borrow trouble; all I can do is get on with my life while I wait for those appointments and their results. I’ll take it from there.

It doesn’t help matters that I’m worried about friends and acquaintances who are facing verified life-threatening situations. The background anxiety makes my own triggers harder to handle. But I’ve done all I can there, too. I have to accept my limits and hope for the best for them.

Editorial note…

It’s hard to see good people being treated like disposable objects. There’s something very wrong with that.

As a historian, I know that human societies go through these cycles where the empires get bigger, the oligarchs get out of hand, and then a lot of people die as the system falls over and much is lost, and then eventually a set of new systems arise from the rubble. Eventually some of them flourish, a few emerge as empires, and the whole cycle goes around again.

I hate being in a falling-over period of history. There is so much we could be doing that does not involve ripping people and nations apart to see how much money can be made from the minions before everyone dies.

Sadly, I don’t get to make that decision. I’m not an oligarch.

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First, keep breathing

I say that a lot.

The first thing our bodies do when we get a burst of pain or other shock is, clench. Hard to breathe effectively when clenched and, oddly, it’s hard to do anything else — except let the anxiety-mad sympathetic nervous system run riot.

For normal people, the exercise I’m about to describe is a calming exercise, but for the chronically ill and chronically hurting, it’s more like an elementary coping exercise.

That feeling of being frozen? It’s shock. It’s normal to go there, but don’t dwell in it.

Ways to help yourself through it are largely little physical shifts that send a message back up to your brain that it’s time to process now.

Notice where your shoulders are. Just notice. Notice how your neck feels. No judgment or “I should”s, just notice. Notice how you’re sitting or standing. Notice how your hips are rotated in relation to your posture. Just observe these things.

Now exhale all the way. Not to the point of straining or coughing, just comfortably emptied out. Let your lungs spring open naturally and — this is key — open your teeth as you inhale.

Now, when you breathe out, purse your lips softly, as if puffing out a match. That does two things: keeps your jaw unlocked and nudges a little extra oxygen into your lungs.

When you breathe in, after that first open-mouth inhale, breathe in through your nostrils if you can. If you can’t, put your tongue tip on the roof of your mouth and breathe around your tongue. Either way, it opens the back of your throat slightly so you can…

Imagine the breath sliding down your spine and into the bowl of your pelvis. This helps your body do an end-run around the clenched-torso breathing we get into when we freeze. Just let the good air wash into your spine and slosh into the bowl of your pelvis.

Then let it out through gently pursed lips, and in through opened throat, then down, and back out, and so on.

Do ten cycles. It’ll be a different and better world after. Notice how your shoulders and neck soften, and your hips unwind. Colors are a little brighter. Feelings are closer, but less overwhelming.

You can do this. I have faith in you. You are life warriors and we handle it. It’s our gift to be this strong and still be this alive.

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Ted’s Talks #1: know yourself best

A fellow martial arts teacher/competition judge once barked at Ted Mancuso, “None of your students move like you!”

Ted blinked, barked back “Good!” and walked away, shaking his head.

He refuses to model a move more than the essential minimum, and is no great fan of the mirror, either. However, he will coach the most clueless student with bottomless patience, week after week, as long as they don’t give up.

His model of teaching is based on the (all too rare) assumption that each of us should be the person most aware of, and most in charge of, our own bodies.

… I know, right?

If you follow the logic through, this implies that the correct structure for moving through, say, Fair/Jade Lady Weaves Shuttle (which is an upward block snappily followed by a nose break, which tells you something about those names)… as I was saying, the most effective and correct structure for that move is going to vary from one body to the next. The correct structure for HIS configuration of bones, ligaments, muscles, and chemistry is not going to be the most correct (or even passable) structure for MY configuration, or yours, or anyone else’s.

Ted doesn’t just say that, he bases his whole approach on it, from start to finish. His crogglingly refined sense of how to read that on others is probably another article, or rather book. Gifted pedagogue, yes.

In the long years of wrestling to take back control of my body from CRPS and all its ghastly little friends, I’ve taken PT for months, done intensive massage therapy ditto, and been overdosed on nearly every class of drug used to treat it — except the ones I flatly refused.

This inward/martial training with Ted is the first one that not only requires physical self-awareness, but actually helps me learn that awareness from the inside out, rather than passively requiring me to learn it from the outside in.

Once I gave permission for him to go to town on my structure, it would be tempting to say that he’s become merciless. That would be totally wrong, in both senses. He lives in an ocean consisting of equal proportions of mercy, humor, precision, and a degree of awareness of others that seems uncanny until you reflect that he’s been working on that since I could walk. So, yeah, he’s got that healer’s mercy that means he’ll do what’s right for you even if it sucks right now.

I’m now on the second round of fighting with my low back and hips for control of my spine, and it really sucks right now.

I am tired of trying to unlearn 40-odd years worth of faulty structure from the inside; it hurts, and more pain is tediously wearing.

So I found a massage therapist who suits my needs, and went to line up a series of sessions.

First available time?

3 weeks out.

… I know, right?

I came for a hot tub and chiropractic adjustment (which I believe is within spec for Ted’s style, given the intransigence of bony tissue and the ubiquity of hot water) and sat there letting my knotted thoughts and knotted muscles melt… until I smacked my forehead and started to laugh.

Why is my low spine putting up such a fight? Why has it kept falling back into the same darn reef-knots, despite the PT and massage and Round 1 of this struggle last year and so on?

Right.

It’s obvious, now that I think about it. There are no shortcuts! I have to learn how to identify, unravel, and rebuild those structures from the inside out. That’s the whole point. That’s why I undertook this training. This is exactly how it’s supposed to happen, aches and all.

This is me, having another laugh at my own expense, releasing one last sigh, and figuring out how to do this from the inside.

I love that teacher. I don’t exactly like him a lot right now, but that’s okay.

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Your normal is my catatonic

On top of my careful eating and constant self-policing… I’ve cut my online time to the bone, to conserve neurotransmitters and wear and tear on my telomeres.
 
I’m moving to a sunnier flat, to improve vitamin D uptake and exposure to beneficial UV bands.
 
I’ve gotten a cat, to lower my bp and help stabilize my diurnal cycle. (They get stirred up and worried when you stay up past your bedtime. It’s the cutest form of nagging ever.)
 
I’m doing my autogenic exercises as often as I can bear to, to bring my baseline level of overdrive down and begin to approach “normal”.
 
For better or worse, I’m getting more closely in touch with what a “normal” state of relaxation really feels like — and realizing how far from “normal” it is for me.
 
If I am as close to “normally” relaxed (or “normally” tense — its the same thing) as I can get, I’m nonfunctional.
 
All I can do is lie there, bathed in the peaceful antitoxins of adequate tissue perfusion and a still mind. Getting up requires dropping that calm, because there just isn’t enough energy there.
 
I’m far, far too tired to function as a normal person. My very cells are tired — I can feel it when I let down this chemical structure of overdrive and tension. Their very organelles are tired. The vacuoles, I bet, are tired.
 
Why? I mean, weariness is all very well,  but isn’t this a little ridiculous?
 
Ridiculous it may be, but not irrational or inappropriate. Here’s why, as far as I’ve thought it through.
 
– For one thing, pain is exhausting. An hour of pain is as wearying as an hour of running, but without the cardiovascular benefit or endorphins. Quite the opposite. And it never really stops.
 
– Moving the body with degraded muscles is hard work.
 
– Making decisions and doing the business of life (rent, bills, laundry, shopping) with a brain that flickers on and off… requires a lot of repeated trips and extra effort — also tiring.
 
– Remember that list of JCAHO-rated crises I mentioned on my last post? That was a sample from the latest in a series of years, each of which was about as harrowingly difficult, in different ways. Truly, I had no idea that so many ghastly things, most far too protracted for Hollywood to use in even their most grueling work, could grind through one measly life.
 
So maybe I should give my weariness some credit. Maybe I should stop bitching about how I just can’t get things done. Now that I’m trying to ratchet my ANS responses down from the stratosphere, maybe I shouldn’t wonder that it’s becoming hellishly difficult to get off the couch most of the time.
Maybe I should stop obsessing on my characteristic need to be productive.
 
Maybe it’s finally time to stop ignoring the fact that I’m really damn TIRED, and put my attention on getting more rest.
 
That might be the most productive thing I could do.
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Marathon — second thoughts

I’ve gotten some interesting responses to my marathon proposal, some of them very worried, bless their excellent, loving hearts. I feel I owe some explanation.

My tiny handful of fellow “imps of the possible” are all for it, completely understanding the uncertainties and sidetracks and possible (even probable) different endings in store – and knowing that it’s the reach that’s important, that spreading

Making progress

Yesterday was my first workout: walking 0.8 miles around the block. I live on the side of a pretty steep hill, so that’s not completely trivial.

On the steepest part, I wanted to stop, but my old athletic training kicked in: do anything *but* stop, because it’s worth it to get the hill behind you. So I moved forward less than one foot-length at a time, giving the sick feeling in my chest enough ease to pass. (At least I know it’s not a heart attack. One of the wonders of chronic CRPS is, your physical experience of life has changed so much that words don’t exist to explain it. But I know for sure it wasn’t a heart attack.)

Today was my second: the same distance, but noticeably better – on the steepest part, I could maintain something close to a walk, and I never got that sick feeling in my chest.

Wonderful progress!

Today was also my first lesson in biofeedback. I thought I was hot stuff, because I can knock 10 to 12 points off my blood pressure at will. Today, though, we measured galvanic skin response. It’s much more subtle, and a lot harder to finesse. I got compelling evidence that the physiologic back pressure of this disease is pretty much as bad as I’ve ever said it was. I won’t go into that, because it’s depressing.

I’ve been thinking about a blog entry on breathing, the simplest and most profound of our daily actions. I have to absorb today’s lessons first… I really see why I haven’t been able to put it together yet, even though it’s been on my mind for weeks. Breathing, like living, is so fundamentally simple that I have to think it through very carefully before I try to put it to words.

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