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PTSD/TBI Factor #5 – Threat of Dying

Posted Jun 22 2012 6:38am

This is a continuation of the discussion about PTSD from TBI – Exploring some possibilities .

Obviously, the threat of dying is going to stress your system. But even more significant than the actual threat, is the perception of the threat. Belleruth Naparstek makes this point in Invisible Heroes (pp. 50-51), in particular about heart attack survivors. What makes people more likely to develop post-traumatic stress after their heart attack is not how bad it was, but how bad they perceived it to be.

This is particularly important for TBI survivors, especially mTBI (including concussion) survivors, who may have their thinking turned around — and on top of it have a hyper-active fight-flight response. Like I discussed in the last post about betrayal , you can jump to conclusions pretty quickly about situations, and your thinking can be completely wrong. But you have no idea, because your brain has been rearranged a bit.

And that just makes things worse. Because underneath it all you can have this nagging feeling that you’re missing something, and that just adds to the sense of stress and pressure. On some level, even the most minor threats can seem life-threatening. And you can become completely convinced you are in extreme danger, because you’re getting cues and clues that tell your body and your brain that you are going to die.

I believe this happens on a neurological level (or as some would say – “neuroceptively” – or the level at which your nervous system perceives things and interprets the data it gets). I also believe this amplified “death threat” interpretation happens as a result of our body-brain feedback loop, which is compromised in TBI, both in terms of our brains being less able to decipher information, and our bodies being hyper-tweaked and on hyper-alert and over-reacting to just about everything that comes along. Over thousands upon thousands of years, the human brain has learned how to interpret signals from the body that tell it that the environment is not safe, and then our brains (not our minds) kick into action and send out signals to respond. The more extreme the signals (and with a haywire autonomic nervous system, that’s what you can get), the more extreme the response we muster. And with our brains already being on alert from having to work harder to just do normal things, we’re already primed to overdo it on the reaction front. And when our over-zealous reactions send out waves in the world around us, the people we look to for support and feedback can retreat, leaving us alone to work things through — and that adds more stress, which in turn sends danger signals to our bodies and brains, which interpret them as threats to our lives.

And indeed they may be.

So we end up in a cycle of escalating worry and isolation, and all the while there’s this ever-present threat of extreme isolation — which can feel like the equivalent of death.

I really believe that this phenomenon is particularly true of mild traumatic brain injury or concussion, which “doesn’t look that bad” to most folks, and which all too often results in isolation and increasing dysfunction over the years. Having a “mild” head injury kind of disqualifies you for any sort of compassion or accommodation. After all, you should be able to get back to normal, right? You just hit your head… you didn’t crack it open or end up in a coma or anything like that. So, what’s the problem?

The problem is, some of our most fundamental characteristics (and coping mechanisms) have changed, and we can no longer rely on them. In some ways, part of us dies — or morphs into someone or something we don’t recognize or fully understand. And we lose a sense of ourselves and our connection with life as we once knew it — which on a fundamental, basic level, is the equivalent of a death threat.

Mild TBI is anything but mild, if you feel like parts of yourself have died or are dying off, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. Especially if you don’t realize what’s happening.

It’s this behind-the-scenes, unarticulated, unexpected, all-but-invisible quality of the life-threat that makes it so pernicious. Our bodies and our brains are getting all these signals about being in danger, and we become increasingly paranoid and antsy and, well, driven to survive.

Meanwhile, the stress is building up with nowhere to go, because half the time we don’t even realize it’s there. Or we depend on it for our energy source.

Ironic, isn’t it, that we use a life threat as a lifeline? I know I do… and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Bottom line is, with TBI, especially mild TBI, the important thing isn’t whether or not you’re really in danger, but whether you (your body and your mind) think you are.

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