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Trust, Focus, and Balancing The Brain

Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst hosted their mudrun yesterday morning.  My brother and I were at the starting line behind a 10 man team of an infantry combat brigade.  The "48's" took off ahead of us and had one heck of a pace going.  We worked our way through the muck and mire of the Fort Dix swamps. Sometimes finding ourselves up to our neck in swamp water.   

We arrived at the military obstacle training course where I met my match and was reminded of a few things about PTSD.   We came up to the rolling log balance beams, which if you have served, probably know exactly what I'm talking about.   I looked at those logs and saw a quick flash image of myself slipping and falling backwards with the back of my head hitting the log.  I stepped up on the log and saw the flash image again.  I froze in place.  They kept telling me to keep my eyes on the red, but I kept seeing the image now flashing faster.  I was frozen by it and these logs were not that far off the ground.  The first sergeant told me to walk it, so I did.  I went around then came up to the next obstacle and it was the dreaded wall.  Jump. Grab. Pull your body over. 
I jumped.  I pulled.  I got my body to the top and you guessed it, flash image again.  Saw myself coming over the top, slipping, and hitting my head again.  The one image led to a slew of others.  I went around it, now getting agitated with myself.  We ran up a bit further and then I met the dreaded rolling logs again.  I thought to myself, "We meet again."   This time was different though.  The sergeant there saw my face and came right up to me.  I told him these were not my friend on the other side.  He said, "Well they are gonna be this time.  I'm gonna get you through it."  He talked me up there and stood directly at the end.  He said, "Your mind is what's getting in your way.  Not your body."   I knew in that moment he was right.  It was that panicked limbic system being hyper-vigilant.  He stayed with me though.  He stood at the end and said, "Pick your head up. I want your eyes right here."   Sure enough, he got me across those logs with momentary lapses in balance.  It was a good exercise in trust, focus, and balancing the brain, not the body.  Thank you, Sgt.  You kept me focused.

This brings me right to the constant balancing act that goes on within our brains between the limbic system and the frontal lobe, especially when you are someone who suffers from post-traumatic stress.  Images flash and some are in direct relation to the event that caused your stress and as we just read, some are not.  I didn't get a head injury slipping on a log, but the fear of the possibility of another head injury was enough to trigger the internal alert system in the limbic system.  Think about this in terms of your own trauma and post-traumatic stress.  How many times have you been in a position where something triggered you and you were confused by it because it appeared to have nothing to do with what caused your trauma and stress to begin with?  

It's amazing how the brain processes fear and danger.  One fearful thought attracts many other fearful thoughts, but the truly remarkable part about it, is that when you become aware of what's happening in the brain in the moment you are in, you have the power to change it through focus.  The process we use for meditation is much like what that sergeant did for me during that obstacle.  He talked me through putting my focus onto walking to him, rather than focusing on the fear.  It never meant that the fear didn't exist, it just meant that the mission was now the focus rather than the fear.  This helped to activate the part of my brain that felt safe, secure, and rational.

*image: Google images

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