Updated: Oct 20, 2020
Since encephalitis (e) and acquired brain injury, anxiety has made its way into my life. Prior to this, apart from the occasional stressful moments, I didn’t really understand anxiety, I can’t say that I really experienced it and therefore, I didn’t have to manage it either. Now, well it’s a completely different story. I often have to be mindful of taking deep breaths to slow my brain down, to in turn, slow down the avalanche of Weird and Wonderful things that anxiety can trigger.
The whole anxiety aspect has no doubt been triggered by all the changes that came about following "e" and the funky re-wired brain that came with it. The nature of the changes are quite extensive. To name but a few I’m thinking the main ones are probably personality changes, cognitive aptitudes, communication abilities, mental and physical capacities and the whole environmental overload that I can feel in some of the most ordinary situations. All of these changes are present on a daily basis. They are part of my new Weird Wonderful Brain, but in time, I have learnt to identify that anxiety brings things to the next level. When anxiety cramps in, it seems to accentuate all of those changes even more and to make my life a heck of a lot harder to manage. I have also come to notice that anxiety depletes my brain of energy at a much faster rate. When you live with a brain injury, your energy tank is often only half full to start with, therefore, adding anxiety into the mix calls for disaster and for a pretty sudden crash.
Anxiety can be pretty scary, it can result in losing even more control over my body and mind. It isn’t a great feeling at all and you can sometimes see things crumble in front of you like a house of cards. It feels as though there is no stopping it from happening. The downward spiral has been set in motion and you just have to watch it happen powerlessly. Or do you? Well, luckily I've learnt to differentiate the changes triggered by my Weird Wonderful Brain and those triggered by anxiety. I often have to remind myself that there is the bruised brain bucket, but there is also the anxiety bucket. Although they are closely intertwined, although one has clearly been triggered by the other one, they are also very distinct. The bruised brain bucket I have very little control over. The damaged pathways are there, making every little thing harder to accomplish. They are slowly healing, but healing can’t be rushed so I pretty much have to deal with that bucket as is and manage the amount of water it is filled with on a daily basis. I have however come to realise that I do have some control over the anxiety bucket. Managing it still isn’t easy, but when I am able to differentiate those two buckets, I know through trial and error that I can work on lessening the effects of the anxiety bucket.
What does anxiety feel like for me?
It can sometimes be very confusing because there are so many cross over between the acquired brain injury effects and those of anxiety. Both can feel quite scary at times, but I know anxiety is in the picture when I find my mind rushing through hundreds of scenarios in what appears to be a millisecond (my bruised brain can’t work that fast anymore) and when that feeling of an unknown fear of “something” emerges. When I can recognise those two signs, I know that I can regain some control over the heightened effects of my bruised brain by working on the anxiety bucket. That being said, the bruised brain residual effects that seem to generally go up a notch for me are:
Heat rate ramping up randomly
Vision going funny
Feeling intensely confused
Trouble with word finding
Poor concentration and attention
Struggling to retain information
Feeling weak or intense fatigue
Being easily irritable
Now please don’t get me wrong, many of those symptoms are present regardless due to the brain injury, but anxiety tends to increase them tenfold. I still find it hard to believe that anxiety can generate such devastating effects. For a long while, I was putting it all in the bruised brain bucket, but once I started working on better managing my anxiety, I realised that recognising and accepting that anxiety plays a role is actually a good thing. It means that I can regain some control over my situation. It means that I can work on bringing the encephalitis residual effects to a level that isn’t as crippling.
What are my go to techniques to manage anxiety?
The first step is for me to identify and realise that anxiety is actually playing a part in the given situation that I find myself in. Once I’ve been able to acknowledge that, I can start managing it through a variety of techniques.
Sometimes anxiety is brought on even before an uncomfortable situation occurs. I’ve found that if I get to the bottom of my worries before they get out of proportion, I can then talk myself out of them by looking at the facts. By putting some of the emotions aside, avoiding the mind-reading, the catastrophising and the what if(s), I can stop the downward spiral from gaining momentum. The unnecessary worries disappear or at least lose some of their powers.
Being well rested is a huge one for me. A bruised brain tires easily and has to work much harder to get to a desired outcome. If I’m well rested, many of the residual effects of encephalitis are lessened resulting in me having better control over all those subtle changes and therefore keeping anxiety at bay.
But life happens and you can’t always rely on the two above techniques. When I’m in anxiety damage control mode, the following are what works best for me:
Taking deep breathes
Taking a little break in order to get back on track
Focus on identifying five things that I can hear, see, smell or feel, to bring the brain back into the present moment
Going for a walk or gentle exercise (e.g.:yoga)
Asking for support
Calling it a day
I’ve recently come across the work of Karen Young, psychologist and founder of Hey Sigmund. I found her work very enlightening when it comes to anxiety and above all, I love how she managed to shine a positive light on anxiety. Since reading some of her work, I’ve been reminding myself of some of the words she used. I remind myself that anxiety comes hand in hand with courage. I remind myself that the reason I might be feeling anxious is because I’m about to do something that feels brave for me…therefore making me feel brave instead of scared. Some days I need to use all of my tools to manage anxiety so looking for other ways to manage it just gives me another ace up my sleeve.
Funny life lesson that has stuck with me
We now have a tween in our house. Maxim is quite interested in music and it always amazes me how he knows the lyrics of just about every song. Maxim is our quiet one, but loves singing along to music. Besides his quiet singing, he doesn’t say too much and you’ll rarely hear him complain. Even when he is sad or frustrated, he’s a pretty even natured kid and he generally tends to deal with things pretty well on his own. He watches a lot and can read situations really well for a dude his age. I know I can tend to worry a lot at times and it turns out this young fellow of ours has also picked up on my changes in behaviour when I start losing control over my anxiety bucket...or the anxiety bucket of his younger brother actually. The other day, we were sitting at a table, I was tired, my brain had already started to shut down and I was starting to get agitated. Then my Maxim who was sitting next to me said in his signing voice:
“Don’t worry about a thing, ‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright – Bob Marley”
How spot on was he? I thought it showed a lot of maturity to recognise the power of those words written by Bob Marley years ago. Since then, when I feel the abundance of worries taking over, I’ve been singing (very quietly because I’m not a good singer at all) those same words and guess what…they’ve helped reduce my anxiety. Maxim, thanks for adding yet another tool to help me deal with my anxiety bucket.
If worry is part of your life, I would actually challenge you to try singing those lyrics. If you do try, please let me know how you got on!