I didn’t set out to make modifications to mindfulness practices.
Ever the keen student, I was intent on taking it all in as best I could. As I explain in this video, it was my propensity to go into overwhelm that made it impossible at times, especially in the early days, for me to practice being present.
In the early months it felt overwhelming to even try to be mindful; the chaos in my mind and body was just so great that even the effort of paying attention to the present moment was too much stimulation! On meditation retreats I refused at times to follow the lead of the teachers:
Name my feelings? That’s too much effort, too much cognitive activity. No, I’m not doing that, it’s too exhausting.
Feel my body? Are you kidding me? My body is a mess. I’m not doing that right now, it’s too overwhelming.
In the previous post I explained that when I began to allow difficult emotions and sensations to be there, I often experienced a lifting, a dissipation. Letting go of resistance makes the feelings themselves manageable; fear of my feelings is often worse than the feelings themselves.
But sometimes this is not what happens. Instead, when I lean into my feelings I experience an intensification of difficulties. With every moment I pay deep attention to my concussion symptoms, I feel as though I can actually feel stress hormones (such as cortisol) being released. By the end of a period of meditation I feel as though my whole body has been flooded with cortisol; I can feel it coursing through my veins.
The truth is, it is difficult for people with relatively healthy nervous systems to truly understand the experience of those of us who have messed up nervous systems. Of course concussion and trauma survivors are not the only ones who tend to get easily overwhelmed, but still, when many people first give mindfulness a go, they can lean into difficult emotions and painful physical sensations more easily than we can. It can be intense and hard to do, but most of the time they don’t go into overwhelm.
Paying deep attention to our symptoms can be terrifying
When we concussion and/or trauma survivors are invited to pay intimate attention to very intense sensations and emotions, we sometimes get totally overwhelmed – sometimes to the point of a panic attack. Other people usually only experience that level of overwhelm when they are actually under threat in real life.
As explained in this video, we concussion and trauma survivors go to the Red Zone of Overwhelm when we don’t need to. Our injured brain doesn’t function properly, and our traumatized body acts as though we are still in grave danger. So we go out of our Window of Tolerance (where we are responsive, regulated, and resilient – and able to tolerate what life throws us). We go out often and quickly. We sink in deeply. We stay too long. We find it hard to get back into our Window of Tolerance.
In this sense, inviting us to lean heavily into our concussion symptoms is sometimes like handing us a syringe full of stress hormones and asking us to go back to our cushions and inject it. It can send us to the freak out zone of hypo-arousal, or the numbed out foggy-brain zone of hypo-arousal.
This can leave us feeling ashamed. Why is it that everyone else seems to be able to sit with the difficult and not fall apart? What’s wrong with me? I don’t want you to ever feel that way!
It is not about what’s wrong with you or me, it’s about what has happened to us. We have a brain injury and very often that comes with trauma. As a result, our nervous systems just don’t act the same way as they used to, so we become easily overwhelmed. It’s not our fault.
How did I know I could modify?
David Treleavan (author of the brilliant book Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness) asked me during one of his zoom ‘Meet-Ups’ how I knew I should/could modify practice, when so many others either just walk away because it is too overwhelming, or they white-knuckle their way through intense periods of overwhelm. I answered that the reason I knew I could modify my practice was that I had already been doing extensive modifications during my weekly yin yoga class for four years prior to my car accident. When I started going to yoga my body was a mess. The teachers at Unity Yoga held space for me so beautifully. I was constantly encouraged to listen to what my body needed, and modify poses accordingly.
So, when it came to mindfulness and meditation, I was already good at bucking the trend and modifying as need be. Still, it took guts to do what my body needed, not what the teacher said to do. It still does. Putting this website out in the world is nerve-wracking as some may not understand my approach – but I have come to see that this way of practicing mindfulness supports the unique needs of the brain-injured population.
As you begin to explore mindfulness and concussion, please be gentle with yourself. If at any time you feel overwhelmed as you practice mindfulness, please stop. Choose a different activity that is more settling to your mind and body. Go for a walk, take a bath, take three deep breaths, talk to a friend….
While it is true that meditation teaches us to just be with whatever arises, we can choose a path that is less likely to lead to overwhelm. Through trial and error I have learned to attune to my body and listen intently for the early warning signs of intense stress reactivity during meditation practice. If I pay close attention, I can catch it before these warning signs become alarm bells. From there I use what I call Jessie’s three Ps: I Pop myself out of practice, Pivot, and Proceed with a different type of mindfulness practice or activity that is more settling. The next blog post on How to Modify Mindfulness goes into this in more detail.