Brain Damage Through Chronic Stress

Chronic stress has the ability to flip a switch in stem cells that turns them into a type of cell that inhibits connections to the prefrontal cortex, which would improve learning and memory, but lays down durable scaffolding linked to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. – Christopher Bergland, Psychology Today

The brain is fascinating. While I thought it was more like a muscle – the more practice the better – the brain is more like an adaptive machine that adapts itself to whatever situation you are met during your lifetime. In this case the more stress you have, the brain will adapt itself to become optimal to deal with fight or flight situations: learning and memory is not as important in this case.

That said, the structure of your brain is constantly undergoing changes through plasticity. Mindset, behavior, and chronic stress are never fixed. The power of neuroplasticity makes it possible to change brain structure and function throughout your lifespan. You can consciously make daily choices of mindset and behavior that will improve the structure and connectivity of your brain. – Christopher Bergland, Psychology Today

I have been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, but not much has been done to help me manage it. Instead I spent 5 years taking antidepressants on and off – it helps as an emergency tool to deal with your issues and continue to live the life you live. However, because doctors didn’t make sure I saw a psychologist or psychiatrist during this time, I continued developing this behaviour, habits and making poor unhealthy decisions which got me to burn out.

Now that I am forced to take a step back from society, spend my days contemplating and taking it easy, I do not understand how I managed to survive the stress I created to myself. I was adding more and more projects, extra classes, making myself responsible for my alcoholic mother’s wellbeing, trying to save the world from climate change, being an activist on human rights, and so forth. In the middle of all this a close family member passed unexpectedly, which triggered a whole set of other emotions. Apparently I have a harder time than others to deal with death.

I do not understand how I managed to survive all this stress. The truth is – I didn’t. My brain gave up. All this time my body was telling me over and over again to stop this nonsense. I had panic attacks, irregular heart beats, nausea, insomnia, indigestions and all other sorts of issues. I didn’t listen, so my brain gave up.

Was it all worth it? Yes.

I’ve had anxiety since I can remember. I have always been ambitions and wanting to prove others how amazing and smart I am (a terrible habit that still persists today). I have made many social projects, worked with different NGO’s, I am been in boards, I have been a volunteer in amazing actions… I have lived every day as if it was my last. That’s why it was worth it.

I was stupid and naive to not taking care of my body and mind, that is for sure. But thinking that none was it was worth it is an unhealthy state of mind. It is what it is, and here I am. With some sort of brain damage, trying to figure myself out, my new boundaries. Without this happening now, I would never have stopped to smell the roses. I would have continued on that super speed train, because I thought I was superman.

I have come the conclusion that if you do not have time to cook, sleep, work out and take a break, you are living beyond your capacities. Just like when we have no other planet to go to, when this planet is out of natural resources due to our irresponsible acts, we have no other brain to use. In fact, while any other organs and limbs can be substituted or reconstructed, our brain can’t.

As I walk down the streets and see people rushing back and forth, phone in their hands, shopping for Christmas presents, do they know the damage they are doing to their brain? Do they know what happens when you burn out? How useless you feel? How handicap you feel? It makes me wonder, how do people live mindfully, calmly, and in tune with themselves, in a world so hectic and stressful? How am I ever going to reach that point, when I have so well mastered the “normal” and “acceptable” way of living?

I have lived 25% of my life in stress and anxiety, if I do live to be 100 years old, then let the other 75% of my life be healthy and mindful.

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The Diagnosis

Nearly 2 years since my life changed, I finally got a diagnosis: brain fatigue, (in Swedish hjärntrötthet). People get this condition from stroke, concussion, long term stress, lack of oxygen in the brain, amongst others.

They are not sure if my condition was caused by the concussion that day – as I did not lose consciousness and there are no other visible physical brain damage – or long term stress, or a combination of both. It doesn’t matter anymore.

Doctors have listened and evaluated me. They tested my balance, strength cognitive abilities, logic, memory and listen while I tried to explain what I do on a day-to-day basis, what is difficult and what is easy. The team then discussed amongst themselves and gave me a report of their findings and recommendations. For the sake of helping others, my invisible condition leads to:

  • Lack of brain energy
  • Slow mental capacity
  • Low learning ability
  • Low working memory
  • Sound and light sensitivity
  • Headaches
  • Stress sensitivity

They have now sent their recommendations to the local health clinic so that I can meet an occupational therapist who will help me find ways to adapt my life to my new brain, a psychologist to help me understand and accept my new brain, and a doctor to help get the income I need from the social security by giving me 6 months or a year off for my rehabilitation.

The thing with invisible conditions like mine is that no one knows what you are going through unless they are going through it. I hear often “yes, but everyone forgets this and that”, “well, I also get overwhelmed when cooking”, as if undermining my difficulties. It gets to a point that I don’t talk about it anymore and just pretend that everything is easy and fine.

Then there are those that forget you have this condition. I am currently going through a tough time having an overview over my life, figuring out which inner jokes are connected to which people, past experiences and connecting them to people and situations. It would a lot easier to receive verification that what I did was correct or wrong.

I have been told that I fall in the autism spectrum, so what I do is mimic in social situations, learn what I should say and not say, understand social interaction and try to master it. Now, if I don’t remember, I say awkward things, create strange situations, which I later forget as well, and end up making it more awkward later in the future. In the end I just avoid people, because social situations are now extremely difficult and stressful.

Hopefully I will soon learn new strategies, learn to love my new brain, master the life of zen and mindfulness, and be happier than most people who are stressing themselves to death. You gotta make them lemonades, am I right?

The Evaluation Begins

I started this blog to write about my adventures with post-concussion syndrome. I haven’t written much because there is not much to say. It is soon two years since the concussion, and my battle for treatment has been pretty much uphill. This week – finally – I have started my head trauma evaluation, as to figure out the extent of the damage and what rehabilitation should help to get back to the real world.

It is amazing the feeling when a doctor telling you that yes, what you are experiencing is due to a concussion and not stress. That my symptoms coincide with what other people with concussions have experienced, and there is a way to live with it. Worst is that they told me that most people take 4 years of seeing different doctors and psychiatrists until receiving the right treatment.

It is strange to be here right now. I realised, as I met the psychologist this week, that I am living in an odd reality. As she read the notes from our previous meeting in April, I came to realise that a lot of my complains today, which I thought were new, are the same as my complains in April. It is scary when the doctor actually tells you on the spot that my memory capacity is in fact not good at all after doing some neuropsychological test. Or even more when another doctor tells me that she understood that I didn’t recognise her at first (having met her briefly 10 mins before). Worst is when the third doctor repeatedly tests my feelings on my left and right legs, arms and hands with feathers, pens and needles, and actually realising that I feel more on one side than the other.

I have another week of evaluation and then I will know how my rehabilitation will look like. I don’t want to be sent home and be told that it will pass in a few weeks, that my complains are because of stress, and that I am just need rest. It has been two years of living in the moment, reading books and series just to pass the time but not really following the story, waiting for something and yet nothing, a miracle of some sort, maybe waking up and continuing my life.

My life and ambitions are on stand-by. It sucks really.

On the Bright Side

This memory loss problem that I have can sometimes be quite advantageous. It forces you to live in the moment. If that moment was painful or uncomfortable, I can relax and wait until I forget. I know something happened, but I am not obsessing over it as I once did. It is basically easier to move on. Also I tend to trust my gut feeling a little more, and the gut feeling usually is right. This was profound while talking to my partner about football, and I am not a major football fanatic, though I know some stuff. She told me a player has been bought, and then she tested me: in what position does he play? My first thought was goalie. In a split second I doubted myself but it turned out to be correct. My memory is still there, it is simply harder to reach.

I find that memory is often based on associations. You know the oven gets hot because you associate it with “burn”. You know that if a plant pot is dry it needs water. You know that if it hurts just above your eyes, you are tired. Sometimes I miss the associations because my brain doesn’t make them. Take sleep for instance: I haven’t slept properly for days because of the heat wave in Europe. However, I forget. Usually when I sleep little my body is tired and I need to preserve energy a little better. But when I forget that I slept little, I do everything that I would normally do. This has led me to have heart palpitations, chest pressure, migraines and brain fatigue (ie. harder to write articles or make sense of what I read). I tend to over exceed, when I shouldn’t.

When something happens to you that changes everything, it is good to evaluate the damage and access how it affects you. I might not be able to do many things all at once, which was something I was good at, but at leas I am not constantly obsessing about certain things. If I remember this correctly, I asked my psychologist to teach me how to be and how to manage my behaviour. I do not know how to deal with stress because I can’t remember it. As I can’t remember what I learned from experience – like the little tricks or identifying triggers – I am unable to apply them now, which makes me more vulnerable to stress. She told me that because I have a burnout whatever “tricks” or whatever I knew before, wasn’t good enough in the first place. So, on the bright side, I get to create new behaviours.

Knowing your handicap and living with it is tough, but it will eventually happen. From this blog I can see that in the beginning of this year I was extremely upset, unable to grasp what just happened to me. Now I see a future but I am waiting until I was mentally healthy to pursue it. However, nothing is perfect, and there are still bad days. Either way, it is important to know that this whole experience is a roller coaster. Sometimes life happens, and you just have to go along with it.

Note that I am unable to read all this and make sense of it. This will therefore be published without proof reading.

Balance is Delicate

It has nearly passed 5 months since I decided to break myself from all work, volunteer commitments and studies. I realised what this is now – a sabbatical year. Good to have a name for it when new people ask “what do you do?” But how in the hell do you cure a burnout, especially when you have memory issues. It can be quite overwhelming to do it all by yourself, especially when you are incapable to organise stuff in your head. One day at a time.

Eventually I will have the support from a professional that can guide me through it.

One day at a time.

As I look back 5 months, I have no idea what has improved and what has not, because I can’t remember. We all take memory for granted.

One day at a time.

I have to stop thinking, and there is nothing wrong with that. The critique from my incompetent doctor really hit me hard. Her sickening, tired eyes still haunt me. The feeling of hate and anger, still haunts me. She made me question everything I say. And when you have bad memory, you have to trust yourself and the little fragment memories you have to be able to tell a story or relive a memory. She made me think that I was lying and that my problem is psychological. However, I keep here in record, that I have over and over again though that my memory was induced to stress, but even when I am happy and stress free, the memory is still weak. It get’s worse when I am overwhelmed, yes, but the problem is still there. She told me I did a mistake taking this sabbatical, that I should be working. I have to remember the feeling of frustration and the troubling thoughts that I was going to hit the wall, the physical pain, the bowel problems, the headaches, the confusing, the sadness that I experienced while studying, which made me take this decision.

She knows nothing.

She is incompetent.

I have to believe that, even though I do not remember, that the description of my symptoms and feelings that I tell people, is the truth. When you have a bad memory, it is easy for a doctor to drive you insane. You might feel that what you remember is made up and not the reality – and there is no way to know. I was aware of that since the beginning, which is why I trusted every fragment memory I had and have, and so far, they have been correct in other situations which can be proven.

This doctor took me off balance, and that is to show that even though I am trying to put the pieces of my life together, she managed to ruin it all. I need guidance and constant support from someone who know — and someone I can trust. I know I am not depression, I have a burnout, which is different. However, she now makes me question: am I depressed? No. I am not. I know depression, and this is not it. Let this be a reminder to myself in the future, when I question myself again.

If I sound incoherent, if I am repeating myself, it is too a symptom of what I am going through. My brain is tired.

One day at a time.

Incompetent Doctors

Depression. My general family doctor said that my problem is depression. She said that during that day in the concert, I was very sensitive and my memory problem is psychological. Needless to say, for someone who has had depression before, and the memory problem I have now has nothing to do with what you get during depression, I argued with her. And I lost, because she said that she would not help me unless I get this “concussion story” away and gone.

It has been 1 year and 4 months since I got elbowed in the head and head-banged. I have been going from doctor to doctor who has sent me home and saying that my complains will vanish eventually – and they haven’t. Earlier this year I met a neuropsychologist that evaluated me and concluded that 1) I do have problem with my working memory and 2) I have a burnout. This general family doctor ignored this diagnosis, and determined instead that it is depression. She then prescribed me anti-depressants, which, funny enough, causes memory loss as a side effect. FYI, when I got hit in the head, I was taking that same anti-depressants and got off it in September 2014. It did not help with my memory then, it will not help now.

When I got home I got this range I think I have never experienced before. Anger above anger due to the incompetence of this doctor that threatened and undermined me, diagnosed me based on three symptoms and not on the history of symptoms I had back then. Furthermore, treating me like a liar, and diagnosing me on the spot when she has no experience in psychology, assuming – not asking – what I am feeling or felt and what I do on my days. There is no way in medicine that you go to a concert, have extreme emotion of happiness and wake up the next day with a major headache, trouble speaking, memory loss, and concentration problems. Neither would it cause change in personality, tastes, and ideals. After those exhausting 30 minutes to 1 hours of shouting, swearing and leading me to have range induced anxiety attack, I went to bed.

The advantage of memory loss is that the incidents of the past are blurry. The conversation with my doctor is blurry, I don’t remember what exactly has been said, as well as my shouting and swearing at home with my wife. I don’t remember her face, but thinking “she is not happy to see me, and she looks like she has not slept”. I, however, felt a sense of calm and feeling free. Weird, I know. I have worked my ass off through doctors to doctors, just to realise today, that in the end I am better off by myself. I might not get financial help from the state, but my wife works, so that helps to pay the bills. The brain is a muscle, or rather, a very complex network of neurons. To rehabilitate your brain, may it be from whatever (I don’t care about my diagnosis anymore), it is about:

  • Nutrition, healthy food, no sugar, no alcohol, no smoking;
  • Exercise to bring oxygen and blood circulating around the body, and creating a good environment for new neuron connection;
  • Re-evaluation of your energy levels. As I get tired faster with activities I assume (I don’t remember) I used to have more energy doing. Thus determine what activities take up more energy and how to reload the energy between the activities. Basically, understanding your new limits. For instance, late night partying does not work for me anymore. Socialising with a huge group of overly enthusiastic talkers can be a bit hard for me.
  • Accepting the new reality of the situation.
  • Adapting to the current situation: how to live with a blurry memory?

I feel like I have been cheated, and yet I feel empowered. All this time I felt I need experts to tell me what to do. Don’t get me wrong, I got some great advice from those specialists that have evaluated my current condition, and I’ve got basic knowledge of human biology. In the end, all recovery success stories sound similar as my points of focus. Of course yoga, meditation, compassion and Nature should go into the mix. Nothing like trees swigging to the wind and birds singing to make your stress levels down.

And before I forget (I don’t think I have mentioned it before) I have been accepted to a head trauma rehabilitation program, but due to queues, I will only be able to start after the summer.

An Invisible Illness

Inactivity due to soul searching. I have done a neuropsychological examination, and got the results that my working memory is significantly worse compared with the rest of my intellectual capacity. I also have a burnout. Her recommendation is get into a post-concussion rehabilitation program and meet a neuropsychologist to help me deal with stress with cognitive behavioural therapy and learning to accept my situation. She highly recommended me to stop working and studying due to my inability to deal with stressors which has lead me to suffer chronic pain around my body.

The past three months have been spent with learning to accept my situation – by myself. I have been going to the gym 4-times a week, trying to eat well, getting my sleep pattern back in order, reading a lot of books like I have never before and watching a whole load of series. I do have a tendency to avoiding facing the truth, and the truth seems to be that I am screwed.

I have proof that I have a burnout and crappy working memory due to my concussion – yet, as I call my family doctor to explain the recommendations, she didn’t take it seriously. The unprofessionalism of these Swedish doctors is frustrating, and I do understand why Sweden has a high rate of suicide. Since my concussion I lost my job because I had excessive headaches, I therefore came back to studies but left it after months of physical pain due to stress, and in the end of the year, I have contemplated suicide because I had no help and no one took me seriously.

The problem with “invisible” illnesses like mine is that there is no proof. There is nothing to show in the MRI or x-ray, and therefore, it is not there. Only one doctor took me seriously but I had to pay 1000€ to get it, and that is the doctor that did my neuropsychological evaluation, the same that recommended me to stop working and studying and instead start focusing on myself, change my habits, and rehabilitate my working memory. And the problem with burnouts it that “stress” is not taken seriously either, because it has become the norm to feel stress, be stressed and have a stressful life.

Even though I have no official paper saying that I should not work or study, I stopped working and studying. I have no income. If I didn’t have a loving working wife and a father who at times offers a generous allowance, I would be like any other homeless person in the streets. This is because doctors have not taken me seriously, and therefore I cannot get the social funding to buy food and pay the rent. The system doesn’t work. The “progressive” Sweden does not exist anymore.

People with post-concussion syndromes are not taken seriously, especially those that got a mild head trauma, not bloody enough to be medically relevant. They are not taken care of, and they end up living their life like any other, ending up damaging themselves more. That is a problem and the medical community has to do something about it.