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From the DCoE – Mind Body Skills for Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System

Posted May 06 2012 11:05am

Warrior Resilience Conference – Thank you for your service – at home and abroad

Last June, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury released a report (pdf) called Mind Body Skills for Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System , which surveys a number of techniques for regulating the fight-flight and rest-digest functions of the ANS.

I may have seen this before, but I honestly don’t remember. In any case, I’m recording it now here on this blog, so I can remember and find it later. I also saved a copy to my hard drive, and I am reading through it.

The ANS has been hugely important to me over the past years of my recovery. When I am able to step back and objectively view my progress and my capacity to live well, I can generally judge from the degree of ANS balance, how happy, productive, and involved I am in my life. More ANS balance = more sense of well-being. Less ANS balance = struggle and difficulty and feeling useless. And that holds true, whether I am more unbalanced towards rest-digest or towards more fight-flight. Either way, it’s a recipe for struggle and difficulty.

ANS balance is hugely important to me. And the mind-body approach is the often-missing piece of TBI recovery that I’ve been filling in myself, along with weekly visits to my neuropsych, to help balance things out. When I have kept my fight-flight/rest-digest nervous system activities in balance, things have usually been going well. When I have not had them in balance, things have gone rapidly south, and it’s taken me weeks to get back to where I am functioning to my satisfaction again.

I’m smack-dab in the middle of one of those recovery periods right now.  It’s taking me longer than I expected, to “right my ship” so to speak, and it’s frustrating and feels defeating, but I do feel like I’m getting there… gradually. I do need to be easy on myself – pushing harder has a way of setting me back, ironically. It doesn’t feel “right” but backing off and paying attention to the small things, while letting events take their course and work themselves out, seems to be what works best for me.

The main thing is to not get all caught up in myself and get down on who I seem to be at the moment. I keep seeing this slogan, “Life isn’t about finding yourself – it’s about creating yourself.” I agree. And I really believe it’s also about creating things that benefit other people — about literally making the world a better place through our words and thoughts and deeds.

When I don’t take care of my ANS, and I allow myself to wallow in that awful feeling of sympathetic overdrive, things tend to not go so well. I also tend to get down on myself AND not be able to see the future prospects ahead of me. The more I strive, sometimes, the more depressed I get — someone once said to me that depression is the result of driving too hard for too long, and having your system get fried, without allowing it to catch up and rest. I can see that in my own life – in the way I get so down, after I have been so up.

My neuropsych once told me about an individual with TBI who had been diagnosed as “bi-polar” by their doctor, and they’d been put on meds for it. The doctor believed that they had a “short cycling bi-polar disorder” where it took them less than a day to run the gamut between manic episodes and a depressive crash. My neuropsych worked with them to work out their daily routines and activities, and when they had gotten some balance, back — poof, the “fast-cycling bi-polar disorder” was gone.

Now, I’m not a doctor, and I’m not board-certified to make diagnoses and prescribe treatments, but in my own life, I can see a direct correlation between episodes of intense activity (even if it is activity for the greater good and/or activity that is beneficial to me), and sinking into a pit of despair. I can see patterns of lots and lots of activity being followed by an extended crash.

So, regulating my ANS — when I remember it — is really a big key to me keeping stable and sane. (If you have any doubts, check out the posts when I have not been at my best – 9 times out of 10, they came at times when I was stressed and in full fight-flight mode without respite.)

Seeing the Defense Centers of Excellence releasing a report on Mind Body Skills for Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System is really encouraging to me. I have been very troubled by the lack of support and assistance that’s been offered to our returning vets (thank you to all of you for your service, by the way). It sort of seems to me that a report like this is a way for the DCoE to provide extended assistance in the way of ideas that people can learn and use to help take care of themselves. I think it would be absolutely impossible for the VA to provide personal assistance to each and every vet who returns — especially because there are so, so many who are returning with brain injury issues, and so little is actually known about brain injury AND each injury is a little different, so short of providing a full comprehensively trained team to assist each vet who returns, the level of care is just not going to be enough, coming only from the VA. There aren’t enough people and there isn’t enough money to do it all from one central source. We literally need to pull together as a country and provide support in a variety of ways.

But a report like this from the DCoE is a step in the right direction.

The cover these topics:

  • Introduction and Background
  • Practices for Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

There are other approaches, and I’m sure time will show changes to how each of these is perceived. But it’s a start. I’m having a little trouble focusing today and keeping my attention on what’s in front of me, so I can’t speak in depth about what’s there. I haven’t been able to read more than a page at a time, honestly. But in the coming days and weeks, I hope to see that change. And I’m taking steps to get that to happen.

I encourage you to follow the link and read up on it yourself. There may be something good in it. In any case, the report was created in the interest of strengthening troops in the face of new kinds of war, and since dealing with TBI can be a series of battles, in and of itself, I can see how this same orientation might benefit me and many, many others.

These techniques are not just for soldiers — although they were explored with soldiers in mind. They can help the rest of us, too.

Now obviously, there can be no true comparison between coping with the daily micro-traumas of TBI, and being deployed three times to several different desert battlefields. The scale and quality is completely different. But in principle, if not in practice, there are ideas and habits that can cross-pollinate and assist on many levels. In TBI, especially, where we are so often in uncharted territory, it makes no sense to write off a potentially beneficial approach because of perceived differences between cases. We have to pull out all the stops and do everything we can to achieve what progress we can.

Now I need to pull out all the stops and run some errands. Life goes on.


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