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Changing My Brain . . . Changed My PTSD

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April, our guest blogger, is currently participating in the Brain Highways program with her children. Here, she shares her first-hand experiences with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—and how that has now dramatically changed.

Eight weeks ago, I enrolled in the Brain Highways Pons course. I was looking for help for my kids regarding some behavioral problems. What I did not anticipate was how much the Brian Highways program would help me with my Post Traumatic Stress issues.

When I was deployed, I didn't know about incomplete lower brain development.

 

I was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2014.  During my deployment, there was an insider shooting, and 15 of my coworkers were shot.  Additionally, right as I returned home, there was an IED explosion that killed two more of my coworkers.

Once home, I had great difficulty sleeping.  I would wake up in the middle of the night, completely panicked, with a full-blown adrenaline rush.  I would also go into full-blown panic mode if someone approached my car.  My brain was back to IEDs, even though I was safe and sound at home.

I hated going out in crowds because I was so hyper-vigilant. The things that once brought me joy, like professional sporting events or a concert, were now a source of great anxiety.  My family was constantly on edge because they never knew when an encounter would lead to a confrontation or us having to leave because I could no longer deal with being in a crowd.

After a few weeks of integrating primitive reflexes, creeping, and learning about the brain, something wonderful occurred.  I slept through the night! It was the first time in almost three years that I had slept for an entire night.

As the weeks continued, the nights of restful sleep grew more frequent.  Additionally, thanks to the techniques I learned during the program, if I woke in the panicked state, I could now calm myself and sometimes even get back to sleep.

My entire family has benefited from a well-rested parent, who is not exhausted.  Even better, I was recently able to go to my son’s seventh birthday party at a crowded kids’ place–and truly enjoy the event!  I was not so anxious and on guard that I missed out on the fun.

In the pons course, I learned that my reactive lower brain did its job (so thank you) when I was in Afghanistan, when I was in true life-or-death situations. However, that kind of reactivity was not serving me well in my normal daily actions at home.

So, thank you, Brian Highways, for helping me finish my lower brain development, for teaching me how to calm my brain (so that I can return to my cortex, if needed), and for giving me back the life I once had.

Editor’s Note: To learn more about the connection of incomplete lower brain development and PTSD, listen to the audio, “How might PTSD improve with brain organization? (https://brainhighways.com/adults-physical-and-mental-health), or read the transcript (https://brainhighways.com/transcript-how-might-ptsd-improve-with-brain-organization).

Bedwetting, Accidents, Bathroom Phobias: From a Brain’s Perspective

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Bedwetting, urinary accidents during the day, and bathroom-related phobias can weigh heavily on kids, especially as they age and such problems persist. For example, if I’m 10 and I wet the bed, how do I go to slumber parties or summer camp? If I have an accident during the day, how will I cover it up so no one knows? If I have distorted fears about going into a bathroom by myself, how does that affect my overall life?

There may be a connection between bedwetting and incomplete lower brain development.

But more times than not, no one is asking, “How might brain circuitry be related to each of those problems?”

So, here are some of those answers.

Bedwetting and Accidents

It turns out . . . we don’t have just five       senses—as we’ve all been taught. We have vestibular and proprioceptive sensory systems, as well.

Now, when these systems are functioning as intended, we acquire automatic functions. But if such sensory systems are not operating efficiently, bedwetting and accidents during the day (among many other behaviors) may result. Here’s why.

When we have good proprioception, our brain naturally “senses” when it’s time to eliminate. But here, our proprioceptive system will signal us before it’s ever urgent. In other words, people with good proprioception have a grace period between getting that information and having to act.

Yet, that’s not often the case for those with poor proprioception. Their brain may only get that signal at the very same moment it’s now no longer an option to wait.

So, can the brain learn to compensate for poor proprioception? Yes, but there’s always a trade-off whenever we compensate.

For example, a child who has poor proprioception may now have to rely on his cortex to ensure there are no daily accidents. But requiring the cortex to additionally direct its attention to a job that it isn’t intended to do . . . means it’s now less available to learn and do other cortex functions. In other words, every brain can only direct its attention to so much at any given time.

Also, if we’re relying on compensations—then we’re vulnerable, meaning we can’t always count on our compensations to work. So, if a child with poor proprioception becomes very engaged in an activity, he may consequently have an accident. In such case, the cortex was so preoccupied with the activity that it “forgot” to do its extra job.

Likewise, if we have good vestibular and proprioceptive processing, we may take for granted that we automatically sense that we need to go to the bathroom while we’re asleep, and that our vestibular system then wakes us up to do so. Yet, note that many kids with poor vestibular processing already have a difficult time waking up in the morning. So, they’re not likely going to wake up in the middle of the night—when they’re sound asleep—to make a trip to the bathroom.

Of course, there can be other reasons a child wets the bed or has accidents during the day. But if traditional solutions have not worked, then a lower brain connection becomes more probable. I cannot even begin to count how many Brain Highways parents have gleefully reported that their kids longer no wet their bed or have accidents during the day.

 

Bathroom Phobias

Some kids fear going into large public restrooms, such as those in an airport. But if they have incomplete lower brain development, there may be a physiological reason for their apprehension.

For example, some of those kids may process the sound of a toilet flushing very differently than others. What does that mean? Well, imagine however we ordinarily hear a toilet flushing has now been amplified ten-fold, twenty-fold in its volume—and there are four or five toilets flushing at the same time.

Well, that may be what some kids are experiencing whenever they’re inside a large public restroom. That’s why these kids will often even resist entering such places. If made to do so, they’ll then put their hands over their ears and become very stressed. Yet, if we heard toilet flushing as they do, we’d respond in the same way.

Learning about our brain’s amygdala may be helpful when understanding how other bathroom phobias—that aren’t directly related to incomplete lower brain development—originated in the first place. For example, suppose a child has been constipated for a long time, and so, she then experiences pain when she’s finally able to go.

In such case, her brain stores that memory with that pain. In other words, elimination and pain have now been “wired together” in her brain. So, whenever she just thinks about having to eliminate in the future, her amygdala is triggered (Danger! Impending threat! Avoid pain!), and her amygdala now responds by sending a stress response to her entire body.

Yet, without understanding how to disable this kind of unproductive wiring, a child’s fear of elimination will likely escalate. That’s because this child’s brain now believes it is helpful to refrain from eliminating. After all, the brain is naturally wired to avoid pain. But, of course, the longer the child withholds, the more likely there will be pain, perpetuating a cycle that has now become an unproductive “learned” response in terms of brain circuitry.

Other kids may have different “learned” bathroom phobias. For example, some kids believe they can’t enter a bathroom—in their very own home—without someone accompanying them. But, again, once we understand how to disable such unproductive circuitry, such behaviors are truly eliminated.

And so, that’s why learning how to complete our lower brain development (if incomplete), as well as how to eliminate any unproductive, learned behavior is often viewed as miraculous. But without question, there’s a huge relief when the frustration, embarrassment—and even shame—associated with kids wetting their bed, having urinary accidents during the day or being held “captive” by bathroom phobias . . . are no longer part of a family’s life.

How to Toss Stressful Thoughts

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When we understand how the brain works, we can’t get around this fact: We act on our thoughts. So, to create a thriving brain—as compared to one that’s prone to being stressed—we need to make sure we only keep thoughts that are helpful to us.

When we toss stressful thoughts from our brain—it’s a whole new world.

So, how do we do that?

Well, we can start with any thought, and then answer five questions. For example, here’s a thought shared by most people:  Kids have to finish worksheets and homework assignments before moving on to something else. But now, rather than automatically accepting that statement as fact, we ask ourselves these questions.

 The Questions

1.  Says who?

No one was born believing kids have to finish worksheets and homework assignments before moving on, right? But we often forget that our thoughts are a cumulation of what we’ve either inherited from others or formulated all on our own throughout our lifetime.

So, to remind us of that truth, we start this process with a little attitude. “Says who?” challenges our brain to think, “Where did that thought originate?” Moreover, if we’re going to carry that thought with us (for maybe the rest of our life), it seems like we should know that answer.

Well, what if we think the thought came from an expert or someone in authority? Then, we’d ask: How did that source come to believe it? We’d also want to ponder whether that source is relevant today or to our own situation. For example, many of our current educational policies were created during an industrial revolution and reflected how people lived in the 1800’s.

But what if we discover we’re the sole source of our thought? If so, then we’d ask, “What makes me credible? My past experiences? But even if so, why do I keep bringing my past . . . to the present?”

 

2.  How much money would I invest in believing this thought is a FACT that no one could dispute?

If we wouldn’t invest much or anything, that suggests we know (on some level) the thought is not a factual statement—that it’s just a perception. Yet, we most often parade our perceptions as facts, which then prevents us from moving forward.

For example, if we view the perception that kids must finish their work as a fact, we probably won’t be open to learning how that belief contradicts with how the brain learns naturally. We probably also won’t be willing to explore why this requirement doesn’t always contribute to learning, and in some cases, has quite a negative effect.

 

3.  How does believing that perception is FACT affect my own and others’ lives?

This question is important because it reminds us that we act on what we think. So, here are some possible ways this thought (I believe kids must complete worksheets and homework by a designated time) might impact many people’s lives.

(If I’m the teacher and I believe this is fact)

I have to hold kids accountable for completing their work and then discipline them if they do not do so. If a child does not complete his work on a regular basis, I will have to contact his parents to discuss this—which may or may not go well—and may still not move the situation forward. This belief may interfere with creating a positive connection with such kids because I’m constantly having to address their incomplete work. Since some kids in my classroom will finish the work on time, I may inadvertently create a hierarchy among my students—where kids who finish their work on time achieve a higher status and recognition than those who do not.

(If I’m the parent and I believe this is fact)

I have to hold my child accountable for completing his work and discipline him if he does not. If I become frustrated that the work is still not completed, I may be willing to disconnect with my child by arguing, threatening, and doing similar reactions to try and motivate him to finish. I may even opt to do some or much of his work so that I’m not judged by the teacher as being a bad parent (for not getting him to do all of it) or to prevent my child from having to face consequences for incomplete work.

 (If I’m the kid and believe this is fact)

I may believe I’m not smart since other kids seem to finish on time, or I may be convinced that I can’t do homework without my parent’s help. If I miss recess to complete my work (while other kids get to go and play), I may resent my teacher. Or, if I’m given some other disciplinary action, I may get angry. If not completing my work is a regular occurrence, I may even resist starting any work since I’ve experienced the same scenario (i.e. I won’t finish, which means something bad will happen) is likely to occur no matter what. Or, I may learn that it’s better to just rush through work so that it looks finished—regardless whether I gave any thought to what I was doing.

 

4.  What fear or other prior belief prevents me from letting this thought go?

By the time we arrive at this question, we may have already defended, justified, or rationalized why we REALLY DO need to keep the very thought we are examining.  If so, we may not realize that we’re probably still viewing the original thought as fact—rather than perception—while also presenting other perceptions as “fact” to make our case.

For example, maybe we think, “It would be chaos if we allowed all kids in the classroom to work at their own pace,” as a fact, rather than to explore how that may be possible. Or, maybe we’re stuck on a thought that takes a detour from the original thought, such as insisting that, of course, everything we do in life has to end, right?

But here, that person is arguing a point that isn’t part of the original thought we’re examining. The focus was on whether every child needs to have completed the assignment at an established point in time and whether it’s in a child’s best interest to make him do so before moving onto something else (if he has not).

In general, resistance to something that may help us is always a great clue into our subconscious mind. Since we operate from our subconscious mind about 95% of our day, it warrants discovering what our subconscious mind believes (since, again, we act on our thoughts). It’s also important to note that if our subconscious mind has conflicting views on any topic, the most fear-based view will always “win” and be the one that dictates how we act in our daily life.

That’s why if one or more resistant thoughts kept popping up when answering the first three questions, we need to pause at this point of the process. It’s going to be more helpful to take the time to zero in on which other thoughts are getting in the way.

For example, maybe we don’t believe we can toss the original thought (about finishing work) because, “I’m not the kind of person who rocks the boat or challenges the status quo.” Or, maybe we think, “There will be a backlash directed at me and my child if I don’t believe this thought is true.”

But, if so, where did any of those thoughts originate? And that’s why at this point in the process, we put the original thought on hold to now go through this same process for whatever thought has become a roadblock.

However, once we flush out our fear-based beliefs, we’ve now created space to adopt new thoughts, while also allowing other thoughts, previously overshadowed by fear, to come to light. For example, maybe we realize that we already knew, “The model of my phone or computer or other electronic device certainly isn’t the one-and-only completed version—just as I know there will be more updated versions in the future. And, how about a new edition of a book? Each subsequent edition also means the prior editions were not actually completed. So, if schools are supposed to prepare kids for the future, why ARE we imprinting a perception that differs from how completed work is often perceived in the workplace?”

 

5.  How would I feel if everyone believed my thought was false?

If we answer something, such as “excited” or “relieved” or some other positive emotion, then (once again) we ask ourselves, “Why AM I holding onto this perception?” After all, the stressful thought is only a perception we adopted and then decided to house in our brain.  That’s it.

But since we’re the ones who created this neural circuitry, we’re also the only ones who can disable it.   And whenever we do so, we often suddenly realize how much stress WE create from believing even just one thought.

For example, look at all the stress that teachers, parents, and kids experience from believing all work must be completed before moving on. But more importantly, think how much stress would be instantly GONE if that thought was tossed!

 

Stubborn Thoughts

What if—even after we’ve completed the 5-step process—we still find ourselves clinging to the original stressful thought? Well, then that’s still great fodder for reflection. In such case, we might now ponder why keeping the stress is more appealing than letting the thought go.

Here’s a possible explanation. As odd as it may sound, our subconscious mind may have come to believe that chaos and stress in our life benefits us.  You might think, “What?” But chaos and stress provides a great distraction. Such mayhem then prevents us from having time to address whatever we don’t want to face . . . that our subconscious mind is convinced would be even more painful than the current stress.

But we do want to flush out those thoughts.  That’s because when our brain is functioning mostly in survival mode (which is the case when we have on-going chaos and stress), we greatly reduce the probability of bringing our heart into our daily interactions and decisions. Instead, our fears will continue to override what our heart wants to do.

 

Why We’d Want to Take Inventory of Stressful Thoughts

We can use this 5-step process for any stressful thought–and doing so may be easier than it seems. First, we don’t have to change how anyone else thinks for us to move forward. In truth, we can’t control how anyone else thinks, anyway. But we can absolutely choose what our brain thinks. Bottom line: We don’t need to get everyone on board before we toss a stressful thought.

Second, we truly discover how much power we already have if we choose to believe this: The speed in which our life moves forward can be gauged by the speed in which we’re willing to toss stressful thoughts and allow different thoughts in. Think about the simplicity, but powerful truth of that statement. And think how many changes could happen by merely challenging our thoughts with a simple, “Says who?”—and then being open to whatever direction that answer leads us to explore.

What’s the Downside of Neuroplasticity?

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Changes are happening in our brain all the time—whether we’re aware of it or not. And so, there’s a good chance we’ve created (what we refer to at Brain Highways) some automated, unproductive highways—without even realizing it.

When understanding neuroplasticity, we can create a positive--rather than negative--brain.

That’s because our brain wires both helpful and unhelpful automated responses in the very same way. Simply, if we do a behavior, again and again and again, it becomes automated.

Now, for the most part, automation is a great feature of the brain. Can you imagine if we had to do everything as though it was the first time? That would be mentally exhausting.

But here’s the problem. Our brain doesn’t have a special edit mechanism where it goes, “Hmmm . . . I see you’re doing that unproductive behavior again. But since that’s NOT helpful to you—I won’t make it automatic.”

No, whenever we do a behavior, again and again— it’s as though we’re texting our brain, “Hey, make this highway automatic”—and so our brain merely complies.

Now, unfortunately, there’s another reason we end up with automated, unproductive highways. First, we have to understand that the brain is always going to make survival its number one priority. So, as soon as our brain even thinks it’s being threatened, it sends out a survival stress alarm. Once in survival mode, we now have just three ways to respond—fight, flight, or freeze. That’s how our brain is designed to work.

In times of real danger, that’s exactly what we want to happen. If our survival is truly being threatened, we don’t have time to analyze, ponder, and contemplate information.

However, our brain has no clue as to what’s a true or imagined threat. In other words, something such as a parent saying, “It’s time to do homework,” may be all that it takes to trigger a child’s stress response.

In such case, that child might now react by screaming or throwing a textbook—which would be examples of fight responses—or hide under the table or say he first has to go do something—which would be examples of flight responses —or doesn’t budge or only stares at the assignment in front of him–which would be examples of freeze responses.

But here’s where those initial survival responses may then start a long-term automated, unproductive highway. It’s very possible that the child’s brain processes that initial survival response . . . as helpful. After all, the response got him out of doing homework, at least for a while.

And that’s when the brain goes, “Ah . . . well, then let’s repeat that behavior—and maybe not just for homework. Let’s do that behavior any time something seems threatening.” And so begins the making of an automated, unwelcome highway.

Now it’s important to note: We all have automated, unproductive highways, although sometimes these responses aren’t so obvious. For example, perfectionism (where we need everything to be just right or in place) and negative self-talk (where we think pessimistic thoughts) may also be viewed as automated, unproductive flight responses. After all, the end result is no different than the child who hides under a      table—since those subtle automated responses still delay us from moving forward.

So, if we truly want to create a positive brain, we also have to learn how to disable our automated, unproductive reactions. That’s because how we integrate retained primitive reflexes and complete pons and midbrain development is very different than how we immobilize automated, unwelcome reactions.

Of course, when we do both—complete our lower brain development and disable our automated, unproductive reactions—it’s like wining the “neuroplasticity sweepstakes.” That’s because we now have a brain that works for us, where it’s incredibly easy to share our unique gifts, creative ideas, and kind heart with the rest of the world.

Are You Resigned to Stress?

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Imagine living on the top of a mountain with a really sharp drop-off. Well, we’d definitely want to spend our days far from that edge—since we already know . . . it’s more than possible to get “bumped” in life.

Are you far from the edge, barely hanging on, or spiraling downward?

For example, suppose on Friday, our boss says everyone has to work the entire weekend. Okay, that’s definitely a bump. Then on Tuesday, we learn a family member has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Wow. So, that’s two bumps. And then on Thursday, the water pipe in our home breaks, flooding everything. Three bumps–right in a row—not to mention all these new stresses are in addition to everything else we’re responsible for every day.

But guess what? If we were originally positioned far, far away from that hazardous cliff, we’re going to be just fine. That’s because we had plenty of room to be “bumped”—again and again–without ever being in danger of falling off the edge.

However, most parents who are about to start Brain Highways do not see themselves with such leeway. We say that because we now ask parents to initially rate their stress level over the past few months.

On a 1-5 scale, about 95% rank themselves as follows: a 3 (they’re right at the edge) or a 4 (they’ve already fallen—but are barely hanging on) or a 5 (they’ve already fallen and are quickly spiraling downward). Note that it doesn’t seem to matter where any of these parents live in the world.  Almost all of all participants say they’re right at the edge—or have already fallen—when we first meet them.

Of course, we never judge how parents rate themselves. In fact, we appreciate their raw honesty, and such information helps us know who would initially benefit from extra support at the start of the course.

But most of all, we’re eager to prove that it’s more than possible to climb back onto the ridge (if we’ve already fallen) and how to live a life far, far from the edge of that cliff. And again, we say that with confidence because those very same parents then rate themselves a 1 or a 2 once they’ve learned about the brain–and most importantly, how to apply that information to truly change their lives.

Note that such change isn’t going to happen by reading a few blog posts on ways to relieve stress or hearing some words of encouragement. Yet, that kind of change is possible when we’re finally taught how our brain actually works. (For whatever reason, that information seems to be sorely missing from our general education.)

Best of all, anyone can learn about the brain!  Such knowledge includes, but is not limited to, concrete ways to ensure we’re never near our brain’s threshold, how to complete our lower brain development (if that’s not yet finished) since such underdevelopment, in itself, often causes so much stress, how we “catch” the brain’s attention—rather than demand we “pay” attention, how we really don’t have to feel anxious all the time, and much, much more.

Yet, here’s a troubling question. What happens to the kids of parents living at the edge or who have already fallen? Wouldn’t we expect those kids—even if they’re not experiencing their own daily challenges—to now also be thrown off balance?

That scenario may also explain why many kids are resistant and non-compliant. On a subconscious level, none of us want to follow those who may inadvertently pull us over the cliff as they fall.

In truth, an entire family may be presently living on the edge or have already fallen of the cliff.

So, that’s why we strongly believe that in order to help kids, we must also support their parents. That’s why Brain Highways parents learn how to change their own brain, right alongside their child. By doing so, their brain also becomes one that’s positive, efficient, calm, and energized. Such a brain greatly contrasts with one that had previously been in survival mode—most or all of the time.

Now, the airlines already “get” that parents must be equipped to lead, which is why flight attendants instruct them to put on their oxygen mask before helping their child. But when we learn about the brain, it doesn’t even have to be a “parents first” approach.

In fact, the more family members who change their brain at the same time, the more quickly a family starts living very far from that edge. And once that happens, everyone now experiences a life where stress and fear no longer dominate.

Yet, many people may not even believe that kind of life is possible. After all, the masses seem resigned that being stressed and overwhelmed—all the time—is just today’s new normal.

But if the brain could talk, it would tell us that being stressed-out-to-the-max and feeling overwhelmed was never intended to be its default mode. Our brain would also want us to know that it’s more than possible to change a brain from a surviving one to a thriving one—and that our kids will most certainly thank us when we make that shift.

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