As I near the three-year anniversary of my traumatic brain injury (TBI), I am once again reminded of how fragile I still am.
My TBI was the result of a slip and fall on an icy driveway in February of 2014. I had zero warning as my feet slipped out from under me and my skull took the full impact of my fall. I can still hear the god-awful sound of my skull hitting the pavement.
About nine months after my fall, I suffered an extreme panic attack. I had never suffered from any form of anxiety before my accident, other than the occasional butterflies before a big presentation, etc. I honestly thought I was having a heart attack because as my heart was racing so fast—and I couldn’t get it under control with breathing techniques.Later my Chiropractic Neurologist referred me to a therapist who specializes in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and chronic pain. He quickly pieced together that my panic attack stemmed from the fact that we had just received our first snow and ice of the new winter season, and my body/brain was reacting to the emotional trauma now stored inside me from my fall on the ice.
Later, my Chiropractic Neurologist referred me to a therapist who specializes in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and chronic pain. He quickly pieced together that my panic attack stemmed from the fact that we had just received our first snow and ice of the new winter season, and my body/brain was reacting to the emotional trauma now stored inside me from my fall on the ice.
What a relief to know there was a “reason” I was experiencing such extreme anxiety and distress, and thus it became easier to get it under control when I knew what was causing it.
I would eventually work with a physical therapist who specializes in cranial sacral therapy. During one of our sessions, he explained how our bodies store the emotional trauma of whatever we have been through—even if our minds don’t remember the event. Like for me, I couldn’t actually remember the fall and hitting my head, only the sound it made.
The therapist explained how PTSD is common with any form of assault, and essentially I had been assaulted by the pavement. When he worded it like that, it was like a light bulb went on! That was exactly how I felt, but hadn’t been able to pinpoint it.
Recently I found a Functional Neurologist who has helped me tremendously with many of my symptoms, including my PTSD and anxiety. One of the techniques he used was to put me on a tilt table, and move me into almost the exact position of where I was when my feet first went out from under me. I started crying the first time he positioned me there. He would then put me into this position again, and draw letters on the bottom of my feet and ask me to name the letter, while at the same time using an electric stimulator on my ankle. It was amazing how the anxiety melted away.
I have been fortunate to find professionals who truly understand PTSD, anxiety, and brain injury. Many survivors struggle to find anyone who will actually listen, and who do not rule them out as faking or malingering.
According to Wikipedia:
PTSD was originally classified as a mental disorder, but has recently been reclassified as a “trauma- and stressor-related disorder.” The characteristic symptoms were not present before exposure to the traumatic event, and while it is common to have symptoms after any traumatic event, these must persist to a certain degree for longer than one month after the trauma to be classified as PTSD. Causes of the symptoms of PTSD are the experiencing or witnessing of a stressor event involving death, serious injury or such threat to the self or others in a situation in which the individual felt intense fear, horror, or powerlessness.
Sad but true, friends and family don’t understand brain injury, and then if you combine that with PTSD and anxiety, it’s a recipe for extreme stress. I get it, if you have never experienced anxiety or trauma to your body, it is hard to understand. But … it is NOT hard to offer compassion and a shoulder to cry on for support. The last thing we need is someone judging us for something that is very real and terrifying. We are doing the best we can to survive day-to-day tasks, and could really use all the support we can get.
While I am not a therapist, I have found five common symptoms that I—and my fellow TBI survivors— have experienced.
(1) Anxiety at the scene of the initial accident.
I am almost three years out from my accident and I still have a hard time walking down that same driveway, even on a dry, sunny summer day. Once snow and ice cover it, I actually cry when I have to walk down it and I become paralyzed with fear.
(2) Fear of hurting oneself again.
I go through periods of time where I have an irrational fear of accidentally hurting myself again (not just from a fall in the driveway). These thoughts usually creep in as our temperatures start to drop and the threat of snow and ice comes into the forecast. I worry about hitting my head on the cupboard, or of being in a car accident, or any other scenario my brain works up.
(3) Flashbacks or nightmares.
In the beginning, I regularly had flashbacks of my fall. They have subsided, but still surface when we start to get ice and snow. I notice I also have more nightmares during this time of year, and they mostly involve getting hurt. I occasionally startle myself awake when I hear my skull impacting with the pavement.
(4) Difficulty talking about the traumatic event.
Early on I had a very hard time opening up about my accident, but have since found it quite therapeutic to write and speak about it—and I know that I am helping others through my work. Many survivors find that those who have not experienced a brain injury or any form of anxiety just simply can’t understand what we are dealing with, and will often dismiss our feelings, which certainly causes even more anxiety.
Because many survivors feel misunderstood, we choose not to attend social gatherings. I also find I don’t want to leave the comfort of my home when there is ice and snow covering the sidewalks and roads. It is as if we go into self-protection mode…and hibernate.
I am enveloped in fear and anxiety when I walk on snow and ice, and whether it’s an intersection where you had your car accident, or the hospital where you had brain surgery, the scene of your accident can be a constant trigger for anxiety.I am beyond lucky to have found medical professionals who have helped me understand my PTSD and keep it in check. I strongly urge you to seek a therapist who specializes in PTSD and/or brain injury. Seeing a therapist does NOT make you “weak” or mean that you have “mental problems.”
I am beyond lucky to have found medical professionals who have helped me understand my PTSD and keep it in check. I strongly urge you to seek a therapist who specializes in PTSD and/or brain injury. Seeing a therapist does NOT make you “weak” or mean that you have “mental problems.”
Not all therapists are created equally, and if at first you don’t find one you like, keep searching until you find the right fit. I was lucky and found a great one right away with the help of my doctor.
There is nothing more reassuring and validating than to have someone tell you that you are indeed “normal” for experiencing the anxiety, fear, and thoughts that you have after a traumatic brain injury. It is part of the healing process.
While I am always caught off guard by the fact that my PTSD still exists, as I reminded each winter when the weather changes to arctic, it is a reminder of how fragile we truly are. We are human, and we are survivors!
A version of this post was originally published on Huffington Post and is republished here with permission from the author.
Photo credit: Pixabay