30 September 2012

Brain fried

The melt down had been coming, I watched it approaching like a wild storm that I couldn't stop. I knew it could be serious but was hoping it might just pass over without too much damage.

One stressor on top of another, on top of another, on top of another, and after three weeks of this non stop barrage, I reached a state of melt down this weekend.  It's been a full on assault of over stimulation.

After working 40 hours in 4 days under intense pressure last week, with each day speeding up even faster than the last, it peaked on Thursday with a 12 hour work day and a long Board meeting until 8pm that flung me over into the abyss of moronic insanity.  I managed to valiantly retain my cool, calm demeanor right til the end of the meeting but by that time I was brain fried, there was no information going in, my brain was mush and all systems had shut down.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday...

Friday was my monthly day off (when I usually go away camping), but as I'd promised to look after my granddaughter (an 8 year old ball of intensity herself), my despearately needed recovery time had to be postponed another day.

Saturday and Sunday I lay in bed staring blankly at the wall for hours, sometimes drifting back to sleep, sometimes laying with eyes closed, watching the inside of my eyes and the sky show of neurons firing out of control in my brain. It has been fried to a crisp.

Many years of Vipassana mediation have made me quite sensitive to the state of my mind and brain. Sitting for long hours watching the mind one gets to know it quite intimately.

Yesterday, laying in bed and observing my mind I was stunned to see the effect of work stress so vividly: electrical spasms, like mini lightning flashes were zapping all over the frontal part of my brain. I was watching a neurological electrical storm.

Chronic Stress

I did some internet research on the effect of stress on neural pathways and YES, as I'd suspected, this kind of chronic and prolonged stress can permanently damage neurons and brain cells.

Neural Pathways

Stress excites brain cells to death

"Stress causes the release of a hormone called cortisol.

Cortisol has been shown to damage and kill cells in the hippocampus (the brain area responsible for your episodic memory) and there is robust evidence that chronic stress causes premature brain aging.

The cortisol released in stress travels into the brain and binds to the receptors inside many neurons (in the cytoplasm). Through a cascade of reactions, this causes neurons to admit more calcium through channels in their membrane.

In the short-term cortisol presumably helps the brain to cope with the life-threatening situation. However, if neurons become over-loaded with calcium they fire too frequently and die – they are literally excited to death." 

I've spent the last two days in a sort of post traumatic stress state.

Yesterday, completely burnt out and comatose, I couldn't eat at all (no energy to digest food) and stayed in bed most of the day, observing the extreme consequences of overload.

Today (Sunday) was a little better, I drank a green smoothie for lunch, ate some sushi in the afternoon and then decided a big glass of carrot and beetroot juice for dinner was all I needed or wanted.

On and off today I tried to sit in meditation, watch my breath and calm my mind - it was still on the overloaded merry go round, completely out of control. It doesn't take long for our minds to get into patterns and when those patterns are repeated (like adapting to continually process information overload and cope with a hectic work environment), neural pathways are strengthened to keep doing this and then it's very hard to reroute and redirect them. My mind has been overstimulated and running on speed for at least three weeks and this mind state is now the new 'normal'.

"The dendrite connections in our neural networks are not set in stone as once thought... Every time we learn something new, dendrite connections are changed and new ones are made that didn’t exist before.

So, the Internet of our mind is constantly changing - updating and adapting to the environment in which we place it. The purpose of this adaptation is to achieve and maintain a biological balance known as homeostasis or "Steady-State".

It appears that the brain likes predictability and consistency. Once we have acquired a certain steady-state our brain will act to maintain that state... even a state of chronic stress or depression!"

The good news? - With discipline and repetition we can change our steady-state to a "new steady-state" - or neo-homeostasis.

Whenever we try to make a significant change in our neural networks the effort is initially met with resistance. But if we persist with discipline and repetition we can make the changes we want.

While these networks have become deeply ingrained - part of a chronic steady-state... with awareness, dedication, and action, they can adapt to a "new steady-state" called Recovery.

Neurogenesis means brain growth - it’s the creation of new dendrite connections in the Internet of the Mind. In a recent article, William Horton, Ph.D. writes:
“Positive, enriching environments stimulate the brain to create more neural connections... While positive programming stimulates neurogenesis, negative programming halts neurogenesis... Regardless of the source, the effect of continued stress from negative programming is neurologically toxic... What this means is that when the brain is constantly exposed to worry and negativity, homeostasis (balance) becomes the priority and all other neural functioning suffers. In this situation, existing neurons are preoccupied with survival and the brain does not exert effort on creating new neurons…”

In other words, if you live with a steady-state of chronic stress then all kinds of imbalances occur due to the neuro-toxicity - causing neurological, physical, emotional, and spiritual degeneration (breakdown)...which leads to pain and more stress.

Healthy-balanced living, on the other hand, leads to neurological, physical, emotional, and spiritual regeneration (growth)... and ultimately health and happiness.


Changing my Mind

I sat and made a list of things that I need to change to prevent this from happening again, the most important being to CHANGE MY MIND.
As the chronic stress state began to settle down, I began the more active process of recovery and rebalancing.

And so to Yoga practice

Tonight I just got on the mat, did a very long Dog Pose, and started:

Slow, deliberate surya namaskars

All the standing poses in the Ashtanga sequence, done with a quiet intensity, long steady holds, deep even ujiya breath throughout.

Then Ardha Chandrasana and Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (standing splits) followed by Malasana which my body instinctively chose as the most perfect counter pose to Eda Pada.

To the wall for Handstand and Pincha Mayurasana

Seated poses: Paschimottanasa, Purvottanasana, Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana, Triang, Janu Sirsasana A, again long holds in each pose to deliberately and methodically open up my body, breaking up the stress induced calcium deposits, and focussing on alignment to rebalance my lopsided mind.  Gentle, breathy vinyasas between poses (not between sides) added a sense of fluidity and connection so the practice didn't slow down to a stop.
Iyengar's Matsyendrasana

Then Matsyendrasana, a deep twist, the balancing version where you sit upon your heel, not on the ground.

Backbends, oh my god, I so needed backbends. My heart and chest were tight with anxiety, my lung tissues had constricted and hardened, deep breathing into my lungs was difficult, there wasn't enough plasticity in the tissues to stretch and accommodate the incoming breath.

Salabhasana, I did the pose with my arms extended forward (instead of by my sides or clasped behind my back), somehow the full body stretch from fingertips to toes was necessary tonight. 
Dhanurasana, then Ustrasana with hands in namaste on my chest to assist me with the upward lift - easy to lean back in this pose without arching up from behind the heart.
Setu Bandha, followed by one very long, intense, ever deepening Urdhva Dhanurasana.

Then the entire Ashtanga finishing sequence, with long holds in just about every pose. I even did Chakrasana - the little hesitation to roll over prompted me to get my mind out the way: 'just do it' and then I just did it.

I'm in a peculiar place right now, far far away from the highly evolved and 'spiritual' yoga teacher I once was a few years ago. What happened?
I know the trauma and shock of Mark's death imploded my brain.  It altered the configuration forever and has affected a lot more than just my memory.  When I'm under extreme stress the events of his death surface like a tsunami - my brain fogs over to protect me from the pain and then shuts down.
There is no healing, only managing.

So I need to enforce some very serious lifestyle changes: get some help with my workload that has spun out of control and put boundaries on my work life in general; learn to say 'no' and not feel guilty, acknowledge that my extreme sensitivity to overstimulation is normal for an introvert, and normal for someone who has experienced a life trauma.

The best strategy is to strive for a healthy balance between my internal and external needs.
And the key is to work with this remarkable mind I have been given.

On a positive note to finish: 

"Revival from burnout is always about the recovery of lost authenticity. It's waking up to who we really are and realizing that heaven is not a destination, but a state of mind. If being fried can bring us to the point where we reconnect to our own true nature, then it's worth every moment of separation to rediscover that heaven that has been inside of us all along."

Dr. Joan Borysenko


Anonymous said...

We haven't met and I've only read a few of your blog posts, but I'd suggest that you're not just experiencing "a sort of post traumatic stress state" - you might very well have PTSD proper.

So much of what you wrote in this post sounds very familiar. The shock of your partner's death is more than enough to cause PTSD.

And it sounds as if right now, you are in the thick of the storm. The worst part of it all. This stage can last for years, unfortunately.

I'd like to offer the following advice: seek help. Start with your GP and look into various therapies that might help you.

Actually, I wrote a guest post on my friend Nadine's blog a little while back - perhaps have a read and see what you think.

Five Key Tips for Healing from PTSD

As you've written, what you're going through is very normal for trauma. Do take care of yourself and also, try to reach out to friends and those who might help you. I know it feels anti-intuitive but it is the best thing you can do right now.

And take care. xx

nobodhi said...

svasti, I just read your guest post about post traumatic stress and it scares me to even think this, but I'm now wondering whether you may be right. The symptoms you describe match what I am experiencing. I will take much more care now, knowing the real cause of this fragile state may be more serious than work overload.
I'm grateful you made contact, thank you.