“My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery-always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud”, Virginia Woolf
To live a life in a state of high anxiety, boarding on panic, is common among those of us with fibromyalgia. We anticipate pain, fatigue, muddled thoughts, and a myriad of other symptoms almost every waking (and sleeping!) hour. It has become a habit that often seems unable to be broken and depression and fear set in. Often accompanying this is the brain fog, the confusion that often does not allow us to focus or to think clearly. Some describe the sensation as “fuzzy brain”, “spaced out”, “dreamy”, “brain farts” or just plain forgetfulness.Whatever the label those of us with the condition know it is often accelerated by over stimulation, lack of sleep, pain, stress and anxiety. The new medical term is now “dyscognition“. It would seem that the brain has difficulty in responding to stimuli because of a hyper-aroused central nervous system, a phrase I keep repeating over and over again in my many blogs. These habits of the brain are strong and require discipline that is challenging to break free from since they have accumulated over many years. Stress and all that it encompasses is, in my view, a main culprit.
The statistics regarding the self-described symptoms of fibromyalgia are staggering. They range from 10% to 15% of the population, while it is suspected that the numbers are even higher of unreported cases, particularly in regard to cultural, racial and gender differences. It is likely that numbers will soar as more veterans of war are open to discussing the frustrating and often agonizing syndrome. When I often read the symptoms reported by veterans most of whom are diagnosed with PTSD, I immediately recognize what we have described as fibromyalgia. Somehow though the label of PTSD seems to be more acceptable to the experts than fibromyalgia. Nevertheless, in my view they are identical twins and changing the names and labels is not particularly useful. Certainly, however, dyscognition is common among those of us with PTSD and fibromyalgia, particularly when over-stimulated.
Many of us report pain as the most debilitating of symptoms while others suffer worse from confusion, lack of clear thinking or fatigue. Most would agree that whatever is the most challenging it leaves one with a sense of despair and anxiety. While we have been told, for example, that pain does not mean damage, we nevertheless find ourselves in a state of high anxiety, wondering what this new type of pain might possibly be. If we have overwhelming chronic fatigue the same questions arise. The struggles with every day living result in extreme discouragement. It would seem that this entire multiplicity of symptoms can in and of themselves bring about more stress and confusion regarding our state of being.
While brain research is advancing greater knowledge than ever before, there is still much to be learned. However, it is known that chronic stress triggers changes in the structure of the brain as well as elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). This in turn causes fewer neurons than normal. A cycle is created whereby the brain is in a state of “fight-or-flight” as the pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala are not functioning normally. The struggle becomes that between the gray matter and white matter of the brain. Gray matter ( packed with nerve cells) is responsible for thinking, computing and other such functions. White matter is composed of axons in a communication system between brain regions. It has a white fatty myelin sheath and speeds the flow between the neurons of the brain. It is thought by some researchers that prolonged stress results in too much white matter. (You can read more about this in D. Kaufer et al in February 11,2014 issue of the journal Molecular Psychiatry). Kaufer writes: ” You’re creating a brain that’s either resilient or very vulnerable to mental disease, based on the patterning of white matter you get early in life”.
While these ideas are somewhat discouraging there are several ways of lowering the cortisol level: movement and mindfulness meditation, the most commonly cited and the old mantra I have been writing about for several years. We can only work with what is now commonplace knowledge among brain experts, that is, the brain is akin to plastic so it can be changed. By using techniques of daily practice of mindfulness meditation we can learn to live in the present, not anticipate the future or dwell on the past. We can stop, breathe and think, live in the moment. We can refocus.
When we reach the depths of our despair believing that there is no hope WE can change our approach to our challenges. It does require effort, but we can do it, there seems to be little others can do for us; it is up to us.
Along with the disciplined practice of MM is that of movement, whether it be just walking, or QiGong, yoga, or Tai Chi, the brain will respond in a positive way. After all only we have control over of our own brains. We can change those neural pathways.
I have, of late, discovered another strategy that reduces stress and that is, adult colouring books. It is indeed a mindful practice. In particular I have enjoyed colouring a mandala. Having seen one being built and then torn down in Arizona many years ago I became intrigued with the concept that a mandala is to be destroyed after being completed as a way to show the impermanence of life…everything changes. Colouring, that is the somewhat making of one, reminds me that change is possible and the intensity of focussing on the diagram has been very soothing to my aroused nervous system.