Anxiety: Rewiring The Brain

 

My autistic brain likes to research. I have an almost pathological need to understand things. I can’t take things at face value. I have to dig deeper. So, I have an anxiety disorder and in true ‘me’ fashion. I have to know why I am an anxiety case.

I’ve spent 47 years living with anxiety and the last seven years researching it. Maybe that makes me something of an expert? I don’t know what it’s like not to have anxiety on some level. I think I came out of my mother’s womb hyperventilating but having anxiety and understanding it are different things.

I understand anxiety.

I understand panic disorder.

Knowledge is power.

So, the educational stuff..

The Cortex (or Tex because I like to give things names)

Tex

Tex is the thinking part of our brain. He’s what makes us human, able to reason and know when some bastard has short-changed us. It’s also where we develop negative thoughts and irrational thinking. This is cortex based anxiety.

Tex is a good bloke but sometimes he gets overwhelmed by the volume of negative self-talk we throw at him with all the ‘I’m a shit person’. ‘I will never be happy’. ‘What’s the point?’ ‘This is just too hard’. Not to mention the ‘What if’s?’ In time, these negative thoughts repeatedly trigger the fight or flight response which releases stress hormones into the body. We have physical symptoms. Then we worry that we have a life threatening disease. When this happens, we have become mentally ill.

Simplified: Tex thinks.

The Amygdala or Amy for short. (see above)

Amy

Amy is small, almond shaped and responsible for the response and memory of emotions, especially fear. She is also the reason we don’t become extinct because: No amygdala = no fear = extinction.

Whenever your flight or flight is triggered, that’s Amy doing her stuff.

Amy is responsible for phobias. The reason I break out into a cold sweat when I clap eyes on a spider is because I found one crawling around in my nightdress when I was five.

I SCREAMED THE HOUSE DOWN.

Amy remembers this event so every time I see one of the eight-legged fuckers, my heart bangs like an old barn door in a gale.

I have bad dreams every night and wake up in a state of anxiety because my fight or flight response has been triggered by my subconscious. This is amygdala based anxiety.

Simplified: Amy reacts.

Some people have cortex based anxiety. Some have amygdala based anxiety. Some unfortunates have both.

I have both.

One thing can be said of me.. I do NOT do things by halves.

My physical symptoms have given me cause to imagine the very worst is happening to me, as in terminal illness instead of anxiety. This is cortex based anxiety. Basically, a Dementor has poor old Tex in a choke hold and is draining all the happy from him. How’s that for an analogy?

Every night my Quentin Tarantino-esque dreams prompt Amy to leap into action, cape and all. She’s literally a super hero trying to save my life. Only, she doesn’t understand that the ‘danger’ to my life is a harmless dream – not an axe murderer making his way up the stairs.

None of this is Amy’s fault. She is trying to keep me safe. She must be knackered though. I know I am. Therefore, changing how I think is necessary if I want to control my anxiety instead of it controlling me. Note I say ‘control’ as opposed to ‘cure’. I have to be realistic here. I’m autistic and the autistic brain is prone to anxiety. I’ve always been anxious and, failing a lobotomy, I always will be. The best I can hope for is to be able to control my anxiety instead of it controlling me.

Changing how we think is important but there are other things we can do to help to rewire our brains. The first thing is to understand the effects fear has on the body and how relaxation can reverse it.

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)

The sympathetic nervous system is part of the fight or flight response.

Adrenalin and cortisol are released.

Our hearts beat faster.

Blood pressure goes up.

The digestive system slows right down.

We tremble, sweat or get the chills.

We have the urge to open our bowels or have a wee because a full bladder isn’t helpful when we need to run like buggery or punch a mugger in the face, right?

When SNS kicks in, the amygdala has been activated. Remember, Amy doesn’t know if you are in danger of being run over or if it’s merely your thoughts that are asking her to step up and save your life.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)

Heart rate slows

Blood pressure lowers.

Gastric juices increase enabling digestion.

Breathing slows down.

Body temperature returns to normal.

PNS is the body returning to normal.

We need BOTH responses to live. It’s just a question of balance.

Research shows that doing deep breathing exercises, mediation and relaxation exercises helps to activate PNS. If you do relaxation exercises regularly you will eventually be able to stop your amygdala from responding to your thoughts as if they are a threat on your life.

If your anxiety is cortex based, you need to work on your thoughts.

Things you can do include:

  • Writing your thoughts down and, if you want to, trashing them.
  • Try and look at your situation in a different way.
  • Do what makes you happy.
  • Avoid people off who make you feel like shit. If you are in the quicksand, you want someone who will lift you out, not push you down even further.

If your anxiety is amygdala based, relaxation therapies are the way to go.

Relaxation therapies include:

  • Yoga
  • Guided meditation
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Mindfulness

Any of these therapies will help to rewire your brain but you have to be prepared to put the effort in. It won’t happen by itself. The beauty of breathing exercises is that they can be done anywhere and nobody will know you are doing them except for you. Also, progressive muscle relaxation will teach you exactly where you hold tension in your body. For me, it’s my jaw, shoulders, stomach and, believe it or not, my arse.

Moving on..

Breathing

We need to breathe or we die. Simple.

Anxious people don’t breathe properly. They breathe so shallowly that they hyperventilate which causes a whole load of unpleasant symptoms.

Learning to breathe properly is probably the most valuable thing we will ever learn.

Try it when you feel stressed.

Take a big breath in.

Feel your diaphragm expanding.

Then let it out s l o w l y.

Do this another three or four times.

If you’ve done it correctly your heart rate will have slowed down a little and you will feel calmer.

If you do nothing else, learn to breathe properly.

When it comes to therapies find what works for you but be consistent.

I find it helpful to acknowledge when my thoughts are turning funky and to do my breathing exercises.

It slows my heart rate down.

It calms me.

It stops Amy from launching into action.

I tell her, ‘I don’t need you, Amy. It’s just my crazy thoughts. Go wash your cape or something.’

So, when you think you will be this way forever and it’s hopeless, remind yourself that it is possible to rewire the brain by changing your thoughts and doing exercises which activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

Whenever you think that it’s impossible and you can’t be arsed because it will never work etc etc – just change the m to an s and put a lil space in to make it is possible.

There is a way. You just have to find what works for you.

Cheesey vector art to close the post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Dream of Sleep

I don’t remember when I last had a good night’s sleep. You know, the kind of sleep where you close your eyes and the next thing you know it’s morning?

I go off to sleep well enough, providing I don’t do anything too stimulating in the evening. For instance, I have found that if I write a blog post after 6pm, I am unable to switch off. I can lie in bed for three hours or more before I finally fall into an anxiety-filled sleep. Then I wake up at 4am, then 5, then six…

Sleep is vital to our well-being. We know that much and if our sleep is crap, we feel like crap. It’s that simple.

Anxiety sufferers know that a good night’s sleep is hard to come by. Medication may help in the short-term but it isn’t the long-term answer because it doesn’t address what is causing the insomnia in the first place.

When we have an anxiety disorder, we are in fight or flight mode 24/7. Adrenalin floods the body, mostly when we don’t want it to, like when we are trying to sleep or relax. The saber-toothed tiger is always there – ready to rip our throat out.

IT GONNA EAT YOU AND YOU GONNA DIE!!!!

Under these circumstances, maybe you can understand why a good night’s sleep is so elusive?

I dream but my dreams are funked up. It’s as if Quentin Tarantino lives in my head with creative input from Tim Burton and Alfred Hitchcock. However, there are a few things that we can do to improve our sleep.

Routine

Keep to a routine and try to be in bed the same time every night. Do like the old people do and be in bed by 10pm with a Horlicks and a copy of People’s Friend. OK, maybe not People’s Friend but some gentle reading. Remember, what you think about before you go to sleepyland, will affect your dreams…

Temperature

Try not to have your bedroom too warm or too cold.

For the menopausal insomniacs, you’ll just have to do your best, m’dears. Dangle a leg out of the bedclothes if you’re too hot and shove it back in when you get too cold. If your other half is emitting too much body heat in summer – roll the motherfungler off the bed and throw a pillow over his face to muffle his snores.

Exercise

Go for a run or walk the dog. Any exercise is better than nothing at all. However, it’s not a good idea to exercise in the evening because it’s too STIMULATING. Maybe a bit of gentle stretching?

Light

Try and have your boudoir as dark as is possible. Use blackout blinds if needs be. If all else fails, use a sleep mask.

Noise

If sounds annoy you, shove some earplugs in. If the silence annoys you, listen to some relaxation apps, like a nice calming waterfall. Just make sure to have a big wee before you go to bed, or you’ll be up and down to the toilet, which kind of defeats the object of getting a good night’s sleep.

Gadgets

Don’t take your phones. iPad’s, laptops and other electronic paraphernalia to bed with you. They all emit a blue light which tricks your brain into thinking it’s awake. Read a book or have a shag. If you live alone, shag yourself.

Sex is good because it releases relaxing hormones called endorphins, which is why blokes are snoring like warthogs within five minutes of eliminating their ‘man-milk’. You get me?

Diet

Drink six cans of Cola a day if you must but don’t complain when you’re buzzing like a frenzied bee at 3 o clock in the morning. Ditch the caffeine or make sure you only have one or two cups, max, and AVOID AVOID AVOID after about 3pm. There are some decent decaf options around. Fair dos, some taste like camel barf but if you shop around you are bound to find something that you can live with. I recommend a nice decaf Earl Grey.

Relaxation

Breathing exercises, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, listening to classical music. It’s good practice to set aside some ‘you time’ each day.

Worrying

Don’t lie in bed worrying about paying bills or shit stuff like that. You’ll just drive yourself nuts. Tell yourself you will worry about them in the morning instead. Fill your frazzled mind with thoughts of stars, unicorns and moonbeams or just take yourself off for a walk along an imaginary beach. Imagine the waves gently rolling in and out. Then a sun-lounger magically appears in front of you. You throw yourself on it and doze off. THOSE are the kind of thoughts you want before bed. Not. ‘OMG, I DIDN’T PUT THE BINS OUT!!!’

If any of these tips work for you, let me know. Or maybe you have one or two of your own you’d like to share?

For a couple of months, I actually got my anxiety under control enough to be sleeping through. My dreams were still, er, weird, but I wasn’t waking up at silly-o-clock. But I’m a person who stops doing stuff as soon as I am feeling better. Mrs Knobhead, right?

Some people dream of holidays in the sun or winning the lottery. Me? I dream of having a good night’s sleep.

“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.” ~ David Benioff, City of Thieves

Creative Commons Image Via Pixabay

 

 

 

 

 

 

Somewhere Only I Know

I wake up with a racing heart..

‘For f**ks saaaaake!’, I whine (a bit pathetically)

This time it’s different though because I don’t fear the sensation. It’s unpleasant but it will pass. I’ve been here a hundred times before.

‘Don’t you DARE look at the clock!’, I warn myself, though I imagine it’s around four. I elbow OH in the ribs because he’s snoring like a bastard, then I make myself comfortable.

I close my eyes..

I breathe in for four seconds.

I hold my breath for four seconds.

I breathe out for four seconds.

I reach into the certifiable mess that is my mind and retrieve a happy memory of a sunny day on a beach in Wales. I remove the people from the memory so there is just me. No stressed-out parents, no screaming kids and no Mr Whippy van with his highly irritating mechanical chimes..

I change the weather from hot to warm, because I can.

Editing done, I start to walk along the beach, seeing myself in first person perspective, just as in life. Though it has to be said that my feet are hideous..

There are sand dunes to the left of me, cliffs behind me and the golden Welsh sands stretch out before me. I walk for a while then turn to face the ocean..

I love the sea. It has the ability to take my life within minutes. Ok, seconds, yet can soothe my frazzled mind. The only snag is I can’t swim.

I watch as the waves roll in and out, synchronizing them to my breathing. Then I become aware of my bare feet sinking into the cool sand and a catastrophic thought creeps into my mind. I see myself being dragged under by deadly quicksand. This is because Mum, bless her, nearly ended herself on a beach in Bournemouth. Thankfully, all she lost was a flip-flop and her dignity.

The seagulls fly above me but there’s no danger of them crapping on my head. Nor are there any Carling cans and fag-ends jammed into the sand ruining my view because this is my special, no shit allowed, place.

Suddenly I feel something cold on my leg and look down to see a beautiful Lurcher with his nose pressed against me. He has golden fur, the kind that’s comfortingly rough. His eyes are caramel brown with more love inside them than you could ever imagine..

He starts to dance around me, nudging my leg and woofing like a mad thing.

Play with me?

A piece of driftwood appears, as if by magic, and I hurl it into the sea with all the finesse of a shot-putter, not that he cares. Off he bounds into the waves, barking excitedly. He finds the driftwood and brings it back to me. ‘Again?‘ his eyes implore me..

So I indulge him, again and again until I have to tell him to sod off because my arthritis is giving me gyp.

He hurdles the waves, like Usain Bolt, only with fur. He is uninhibited and for a moment I envy him because he isn’t scared of anything..

After a while he tires himself out and makes his way towards me. I crouch down to his level and stroke his face. He makes this noise, like he’s singing, only it’s more of a howl. It’s dog-speak for ‘I’m happy’.

Miraculously, his fur has dried out. How did that happen? Because it can, that’s why.

I put my face to his and breathe him in. He smells like sunshine. Because he is sunshine. His aroma comforts me and I can feel my heart rate slowing right down. This moment lasts as long as I need it to, then he gives me one last look with those beautiful eyes before he ambles off towards the dunes..

I gaze down to see two sets of prints in the sand, one of hideous size 4 feet, the other of paws.

My four-legged friend is nowhere to be seen. No doubt he is lying in the shade somewhere chasing rabbits in his dreams..

A gentle breeze stirs up so I walk some more, watching as the clouds pass along the blue sky like big balls of cotton wool. If heaven exists, I want this to be mine.

My heart rate has returned to a steady beat and my breathing to normal. I am calm.

I stare at the ocean one last time then make my way towards the dunes where there are a set of steps. In reality, those steps lead to some public bogs that reek of piss but I edit that bit out because, well, it’s a bit shit.

As I climb the steps, I congratulate myself because Fear didn’t win this time. I showed that little shit who’s boss, i.e. me.

By the time I reach the last step, I am opening my eyes and blinking in the sunlight, or dinge, whichever is applicable. Back to life, back to reality..

The brain is a powerful thing. Thoughts can destroy and heal you in equal measure. My brain frustrates me on a daily basis with it’s catastrophic thoughts yet the memory of a much loved friend, who died over ten years ago, has the power to heal me.

The memory is real and it’s a privilege to have, just as it was a privilege to share part of my life with such a loving creature.

The first time I saw him in my guided relaxation, he simply appeared without me having thought of him. Did my subconscious bring him to me? Or did he find me?

Either way, I am grateful because each time I wake up panicking  I go to my special place and there he is, waiting.

Footprints CC Image via Pixabay