Friday, December 24, 2010

Does Pain Change Your Brain?

Chronic stress can effect your brain. It affects the amygdala, which regulates fear and emotion. The cells actually grow larger. The opposite effect is in the hippocampus, which where the cells shrink. The hippocampus helps you remember where you were and what you were doing when something important happened. So with larger cells in the amygdala and smaller cells in the hippocampus, The result may be a generalized anxiety because you don’t have the hippocampus to help you connect it to where you were and what you were doing to make the fear specific. 1

But is pain is a catalyst for change? The human brain is adaptable. When a person is traumatized by an event in their life such as divorce, disease or death, it may move them to make a change in their life. In the face of overwhelming, paralyzing grief, the mind seeks to make something positive out of it in order to relieve the pain. Maybe it’s trying to correct the mismatch of brain cells.

I have found that I had to change the way I viewed the world in order to survive divorce. I was married for 32 years and I was complacent emotionally and financially. I assumed that my husband would be around forever and that he would never cheat or lie. I ignored the frequent trips, the credit card bills that mysteriously grew, and the growing distance between us. I wasn’t happy in my career, but I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t work on my friendships because I had a built in friend, or I thought I did. I had my own interests, but they never seemed to intersect with my husband’s interests.

When my husband dumped me, it was like the earth I was standing on crumbled. The brain cells were really mismatched. I was free-falling with no ground underneath me. I couldn’t eat, sleep or otherwise function. I gradually learned to function on my own, but I had to learn to think differently. Insidiously, through the years of marriage, I equated my spouse’s opinion that I was worthless into my opinion of myself. I couldn’t function thinking that I was worthless, so I had to discard that old notion and form a new opinion of myself.

In order to form a new opinion of myself, I had to do new things, talk or listen to new people and think different thoughts. It’s a long, fumbling process. I would get sucked into the blackness of despair and I would have to pull myself out again. I would feel great one moment, then a negative thought would creep into my mind and I would feel the heavy weight of depression that I would have to fight off again. I guess the brain cells don’t balance out very quickly.

Then there’s the ever present fear. Fear that I couldn’t make on my own, fear that I would will never be happy again, fear that my ex would give me grief, fear that I would never have another deep relationship. The fear can grind you down and make the simplest tasks seem like a big effort. I now have to do everything myself and I don’t always do it well. After a while I began to accept the fact that I just had to do the best I could, even if I sucked at it. I still have to fight my safe keeping side, that doesn’t want me to take any risks or try anything new.

In order to get through all the fear, depression and despair, I learned not to get through it alone. I took support from whomever and whatever I could, whether it was other people, a higher power or books. I now accept that some people lie and cheat and I try to avoid them. I had to toss the thoughts of my inadequacy out of my mind when they come sneaking in. When I thought about how my ex would have thought contemptuously about me, I told him to get out of my head. I have gradually made some peace with my life, even though I am not entirely happy with it. I try seek out opportunity to expand my world physically, mentally and spiritually because I am tired of having a narrow, closed life..
Through the process, my entire perspective has changed. The jolt out of complacency has changed my thought processes somehow. Ever a pessimist, I had to turn into an optimist to a certain extent, so that I wouldn’t lose my mind. Hope keeps you going, despair does not. Pain forced me to be a different person. I don’t know if my brain has different neural pathways now, but my thoughts had better behave themselves, or I will beat them into submission.
. 1. Stress Changes Your Brain, Karen Lurie,

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why I Hate Christmas

I have a bad attitude about Christmas. I hate to shop for presents, I don't feel especially cheery and I decorate only with reluctance. It seems like an intolerable burden. Jingle Bells sounds like a fingernail on a chalk board. I want to run from the room when I hear it. I am not religious, so the spiritual aspect seems to be drowned in commericialism. Endless ads for jewelry and clothes and cars. Who the hell buys a car for Christmas?

It wasn't always this way for me. When I was a kid, it would seem like magic. Santa would land on the snowy roof of our house and come down the chimney and leave presents. Sometimes, I imagined that I could hear him in the frosty, cold night air, where the snowflakes would glisten in the moonlight. I grew up in the midwest, where the winter weather would actually be wintery.

But then adulthood sets in and Christmas loses its magic. You may not have enough money to buy presents. You rack your brain trying to figure out what your mother would want for a present, when she doesn't want anything from you. You feel enormous pressure to do a thousand things in a limited amount of time. You have cookies to bake, presents to buy and wrap, a tree to buy and decorate and cards to mail. On top of it all, you eat too much, don't exercise enough and the days are short. If you live in a crappy climate with daylight savings time, it gets dark at 4:30 and the sun doesn't shine for days.

The Norman Rockwell Christmas doesn't exist. I resent the illusion of happiness and perfection. Sometimes life gives you a wallop and it doesn't care if you were supposed to have the perfect holiday. My father got cancer one year. He lingered long enough to get through Christmas, but he was weak and getting weaker. He never got to wear the flannel shirt I got. He died three days after Christmas. It was sunny, snowy, cold day and the birds were singing. My relatives came, not to celebrate the holiday, but to attend his funeral. It was a shock to me. I knew he was seriously ill and likely to die, but the actual death was an emotional blow. He was a college professor and only 60 and looking forward to retirement. His death seemed wrong somehow.

Then, the joyous holiday family gatherings may not exist. Your family life may not be perfect. You may have a disfunctional family that hates each other's guts. You may have a husband who left you for someone else, making you wonder where your wonderful life went to. Everyone else seems to be happy and having fun but you. You are in a black hole of depression looking out at the world and wondering if the weight of sadness is ever going to go away.

Christmas isn't all bad. If you have a young child, it's like the magic is back again. It's fun to see their wonder at all the sparkley stuff. You watch them try to decorate the tree, but only hang ornaments two feet off the ground. Of course, you have to get your tired body up in the middle of the night to create the illusion of Santa delivering presents. Once they don't believe in Santa, however, the holiday seems more ordinary.

Yet somehow a vestige of the cheer remains. It's fun looking at other people's lights when you don't have to do the work putting them up or pay the electric bill. You get cards from people you haven't contacted all year. You get to go to parties and eat food that other people made. Sometimes you get a present of two. Your memories through the years give you a connection to long gone people that you celebrated the holiday with. When I was a child, I had some aunts visit at Christmas that were a time warp from the forties. I thought that they were eccentric, but now I would give anything to be able to see them again.

So this year I decided that for once, I am going to try not to get depressed about Christmas. I am not quite sure how I will do this, but so far I am doing O.K. You can control your response to a situation to a certain extent. I am not buying into the illusion of perfection anymore and I have accepted that no one is going to make me happy but me. I am alone except for my daughter, but that is my life now. I may or may not put lights up outside or bake cookies. I will not put up inflatable Christmas figures that collapse in the daytime and look like dead soldiers a battlefield.. I will not feel bad that my experience of Christmas is not living up to the hype.

Christmas will not defeat me.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Fiesta Bowl Half Marathon

This half marathon was a test to see if could break a 2003 half marathon time of 2:19. That half marathon was my first. Since then subsequent half marathons I slogged through either because they were at the end of a 56 mile bike ride hurtfest in a half ironman or because I didn't have the mental or physical conditioning to go any faster. That was before I became friends with my old friend Pain.

I was pretty sure I could bet the 2:19 time, but I wasn't sure by how much. The plan was to run at a level three, which was I'm uncomfortable, but I can stand it. The question was how long I can stand it and if I can keep my pace at that level, which was about 9:30 minutes per mile for me. I had done it in training, but not for thirteen miles. It was new territory for me. I had never gone that fast for that long before.

My long runs in training had sucked for the most part. Long runs are supposed to be run slower, but I couldn't even make the minimum heart rate I was supposed to be at, which was 137. A two hour run in Phoenix in August just plain sucks. At this time of the year, I would have to get up at dawn, which was fivish, just to make it bearable. It was still 85-90 degrees out. I just don't run that well at dawn. My body just doesn't want to move. I am tired and hot. On one run, I saw bats flying around, which confirmed to me that I was up way too early.

As the fall wore on, the weather got better, but not the runs. Out of six two hour runs, only two were decent. One time I was sore from a race and it hurt to even move. Another time I was sick and had no stamina. Finally by November, I knew I had to push in order to get to the level that I wanted to be. I finally got up to the heart rate level I was supposed to be at, but the pace was only eleven minute miles for two hours.

So this race was a great unknown. The conditions were great. The course is flat and it was cool, but not cold. My plan was to run at level three, which was about a 146-153 heart rate for me.

First mile was 9:45. That was not great, but acceptable. My heart rate monitor read 207. Damn! It was obviously not accurate. I tried putting spit on the chest reader to fix it, but it didn't work very well.

Miles two-five were a 9:30 minute per mile pace. At this point, I could still do math in my head. There was mile markers for every mile, so I could figure out what pace I was going at. I don't have one of those fancy GPS watches, so I have to go low tech.

By the 10k mark, I was down to 9:34 minutes per mile. This was getting tedious. But it was going well and I was actually doing this. I was excited and bored. My body felt O.K. at this point. I was eating gels which taste like flavored phlegm to keep my energy up. I only use them when I am running, because it is hard to eat anything else.

By mile seven, my ability to multiple 9:30 minutes by seven was wavering. I was passing my the mile markers and thinking I was still losing time. It was more confusing because the time on the clocks was race time and not the actual time that I went over the start line. This must be the black hole of half marathons, like mile four of a 10k. You are far enough to feel crappy, but it isn't close enough to the finish that you feel encouraged.

By mile ten, I was at 1:35. That was easy to multiply. It was awesome because I had never run ten miles that fast. I braced myself mentally, because now it was time to speed up and meet my friend Pain. Of course my heart rate monitor was reading 88. I had to go on how bad I felt to gauge my effort. At least I was closer to the end.

It really hurt to speed up, but I was actually able to. If you pace a race right, you should be able to speed up at the end, but usually it takes a lot of focus and pain tolerance. I just wanted to be done at this point. The path went under a road, then up and did it again. These were the only real "hills" in the course, but I hated it. These last 3.1 miles were really seemed to go on forever. I passed people just for the distraction. It's fun to pick off people in a race.

My multiplication skills had failed at this point, so I just kept running hard. It wasn't 5k hard which is "I wish I was dead" heart rate zone, but my heart rate was in the 160's-170's, which is my "I just want to stop" heart rate zone.

I finally hit the finish line at 2:04:09. The last 3.1 miles I averaged 9:12 minute miles. I felt like I had been hit by a bus and couldn't breathe, but otherwise I felt wonderful. It wasn't even fast enough to place in my age group, but I didn't really care. I had done what I wasn't sure I would be able to do and it was an exhilarating high. I felt happy, something I haven't felt in a while. My life may be falling down a black hole, but for the moment I could forget about fear and doubt and depression and just bask in the moment. It's a high that probably a lot of racers seek, but you don't always get it with every race or even with more than a few races over your lifetime.

The high will probably be over in a few days and I will be sore as hell tomorrow, but right now I don't care. Everything went right for a change. I broke a barrier, and maybe someday I can do even better. I'll have bad training days and races that go miserably wrong. But it's still fun to chase the high.