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Overcoming TBI with the breath of life

Posted Feb 24 2012 8:50am

Breathe in, breathe out

Just a note, I haven’t forgotten about the series I started writing about The wars we wage – of sport, concussion, and our warrior style . I’ll be getting back to that, this weekend.

What I want to write about right now, is how what I call “the breath of life” can help overcome TBI.

Now, I understand that a lot of people think of “the breath of life” in religious terms, and maybe I do, too. But I don’t align it with any particular religion, rather the really meaningful aspects of the everyday — and they in themselves could be considered “holy”… but that’s another discussion for another day, I suppose.

What I mean when I say “the breath of life” is breathing intentionally, as though your life depends on it (which it does). It’s about breathing consciously and steadily, with a focus on the full breath — in and out — in a way that calms you down and stabilizes your whole system.

Everybody who’s alive breathes. Yet many of us don’t realize what an important part steady, regular breathing plays in our lives. It’s common, I understand, for people to hyperventilate — to breathe faster than their body actually needs them to. Or to breath more shallowly (is that a word?) than they could. On the other hand, a lot of people take deep, deep breaths, thinking that will calm them down… when in fact inhalation actually revs you up and stimulates your fight-flight sympathetic nervous system.

What does this have to do with overcoming TBI? A whole lot. Because TBI is traumatic, from the beginning, and on through the years. The initial injury is just the start of ongoing trauma you’ll experience on a daily basis. After TBI you’re often unable to do the things you used to do, and you go through a serious personal crisis… and that’s traumatic.

And you often have to really push yourself to get things done the way you like… and that gets your sympathetic nervous system all fired up, and that can ultimately lead to diminished cognitive capacity, in and of itself, which then compounds the trauma of TBI difficulties.

And after TBI, you can often find yourself totally screwing up things that “should” be easy for you, that used to come easy to you, and that everybody else thinks should be easy for you. Screwing up, time and time again, is traumatic — especially if the mistakes take you by surprise, and you have to work double-time to make right what went wrong.

So, the trauma that takes place isn’t just with the injury. It’s with your whole life, after the injury. Maybe things clear up and get better, maybe they don’t. But they’re different from how they were before. YOU’RE different from how you were before.

So, what that means is your autonomic nervous system — the wiring and chemistry that regulates your digestion, your sex drive, sleep, your immune system… all those systems that you don’t consciously control in your body — gets stuck on permanent ON status. And if you can’t manage to disengage the sympathetic fight-flight in favor of the parasympathetic rest-digest, you can eventually find your body breaking down in hidden ways. You can get colds and flu more often. Your digestion can get screwed up. You can lose your sex drive. You have trouble sleeping, or you sleep too much. And more. It’s like you’re running your car’s engine on 15,000 rpm, day in and day out, and you never change your oil.

We know what happens to cars when that happens. Imagine what’s happening to your own nervous system.

So, this is where the breathing comes in — the breath of life.

It’s basically sitting quietly, either cross-legged on a cushion or sitting up in a chair, or even lying down, if you can’t sit comfortably, and breathing slow and steady from the belly. Just focus on the breathing, as though your life depends on it, without thinking about a lot of other things. I find that when I sit still for a while, my mind automatically starts taking advantage of the downtime to think about a lot of stuff. It can’t be helped, but I can get my attention back to my breathing just by reminding myself that I’m not fixing things right now, I’m just sitting and breathing.This can — and will — balance out the autonomic nervous system, strengthening the parasympathetic, which is so critical for making up for the wild activity of the sympathetic. You can’t have one work optimally without the other, so strengthening the parasympathetic strengthens the sympathetic, so when I DO have to go into fight-flight mode, I am stronger and have more stamina, which is helpful.

The other thing this helps with is attention. I’ve got serious attention issues, and I get really distractable when I’m tired. The breath of life helps in several ways — it helps me balance out the ANS so I rest and sleep better, and consequently the fatigue doesn’t eat into my attention as much. And focusing on my breathing and the sense of just sitting also trains my attention to stay on one thing longer. So it prepares me for when I’m not sitting anymore. This is two kinds of practice in one — for body and for mind.

This really works for me (and it’s a variation on what has worked for lots of people in meditation and zen for many generations). It’s literally helping me get my life back – so it is the breath of life for me. Yesterday my neuropsych was remarking at the huge difference this breathing practice has made in my quality of life and outlook and attitudes, since the New Year, and it’s totally true. It may work for others (and I suspect it will), but everybody’s different, so you may find it doesn’t work for you. But it would be good if you tried it.

Give it a whirl — you may find it can help you overcome TBI (or other problems, too).


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