BY: ELIZABETH MacGREGOR
Before I had my car accident four years ago, I would not have described myself as an anxious person. I would have said I was exuberant, energetic, enthusiastic, definitely not anxious.
My whiplash and concussion changed all of that. I would no longer use any positive adjectives to describe myself, but became mired in anxiety, sadness, fear, and sometimes anger.
Concussions change brains in many different ways, which is why they say that no two concussions are the same. Research shows that those who do not improve in a month and go on to display post-concussion syndrome symptoms will have anxiety as part of the package. My neurologist, Dr. Charles Tator, explained that even though I may not have described myself as anxious, I did indeed need help with this.
As someone who used to meditate, I turned to yoga, meditation, and mindfulness as a first step. I started attending sessions with a restorative yoga private teacher which helped quiet my brain and strengthen my injured body.
Every time I had an appointment with Dr. Tator he would ask if I had started receiving any help with anxiety. Although he believed that yoga was useful, he did not think it was enough. I had spent a great deal of time in denial, unable to understand the full extent of my injury or how this accident could change so much in my life. Seeking mental health help was making everything feel very real and I had been avoiding that.
I finally asked my physician for a referral, simply because I believed Dr. Tator knew more than I did about this situation. I was not comfortable with telling him that I had not followed up on his advice. I still did not describe myself as anxious, but I understood now that I was not an accurate judge of my current state of mind.
I had been rejected by the clinic that I had been referred to because they did not work or want to deal with car accident victims. Months went by before another professional came to my rescue and found a social worker for me. The social worker specialized in brain injury and agreed to see me. Once I was assessed, it was shown that, yes, indeed, I had a clinical level of anxiety.
Now it made sense why I would get upset and run from dinner conversations in my home and cry alone in my room. I now understood why I would struggle on the subway, or when I was in crowded places, and why I no longer wanted to attend family functions. There were other reasons, such as my vision being seriously affected, and my emotional state being very up and down. My fight or flight response was fully engaged, and anxiety was part of my condition.
I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with my heart racing, very anxious, for no particular reason. Apparently, my autonomic nervous system was on high alert, affecting my heart rate, breathing, calmness and sense of things being right in the world.
Through cognitive behavior therapy with my wonderful social worker I started to recognize when I was getting anxious. Recognizing the beginning stages of anxiety taking over your brain is the first step in conquering it. I saw an occupational therapist who told me that it was crucial that I learn to recognize symptoms of anxiety, anger or being off balance as soon as they appeared. I should retreat to my room, stay quiet, and meditate for twenty minutes if I could.
This would break the anxiety and anger cycle and stop negative neuron pathways from forming in my brain as a solution to perceived, but not accurate, conflict in personal interactions. At first it was so hard, but with practice, I could see the pattern as it was forming, and I learned to breathe through it and return to activity only once I felt calm again.
After I started to go out alone, the next step was to be aware of my surroundings and taking deep breaths since there would be nowhere to retreat to. Travelling on the subway or in a car was hard as I was prone to motion sickness. This would bring on brain flooding with too much stimulation, and the anxiety made it more likely to happen and escalate quickly. I would then feel as if I were going to faint. Protein snacks and water to drink helped to calm this process, so I would equip myself, and be aware of not crowding my days with activities. One activity per day was better suited for me while also checking in with myself.
Once we become better at noticing anxiety, we become better at controlling it. I stopped giving in to the impulse to feel hurt, confused, or anger, when no slight was intended. I wanted off the emotional rollercoaster and I was determined to do what the experts advised.
I fill my days with creative activities such as painting, knitting, reading and writing. I exercise regularly, yoga and meditation are a part of my daily routine. Creative involvement, exercise, and a calming practice helps to prevent my anxiety.
Post Concussion Syndrome (PCS) sufferers need to push away worries about the future and concentrate on the here and now. We do not need to be the people who monitor the news. We need to limit screen time to decrease our exposure to negative thoughts. This is especially true now, when every time we use a cell phone, tablet, computer or TV, there is much to frighten us.
We need to find a path to our inner calm.
For me, this is what has helped: talk therapy to discuss what was troubling me, vision therapy to fix many of my symptoms, and focusing on breathing to calm my autonomic nervous system. My anxiety has not completely gone away, but when it starts my day with me, I recognize it, I meditate, and I concentrate on deep breathing.
I have started tapping, psychological acupressure, based on acupuncture meridian points. It is supposed to create a balance in your energy system. I find it is another calming strategy.
Whatever you choose to do to reduce your anxiety, it is an excellent investment in yourself and your recovery as it will improve your health, your outlook on life, and your happiness.
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Elizabeth MacGregor is a retired teacher/guidance counselor who enjoys being on a lifelong learning journey.