Did you ever hear the word flooding? Even if you haven’t, if you have a brain injury, you’ve probably felt it. Some call it sensory overload, panic, catastrophic response, or yes, even “fish-brain.”
“I’m so confused… I was happy my friends were coming – now I want them to go away. I can’t think, they see I’m stupid now. I can’t stand it (I CAN’T STAND ME). Gotta hide, cover my ears, my eyes, crawl in a corner until I can breathe, can think, until ‘I’ am back.“
That’s what I call flooding. It’s a paralyzing physical reaction – your brain’s way of protecting itself from “catastrophic” overload. The triggers can be sensory – bright lights, sirens, subways, or even walking down a city street. Or they can also be emotional or cognitive. You can’t think clearly if you’re overwhelmed by depression, grieving for all you’ve lost, or angry with someone or something. The same is true when you have too many thoughts racing through your head, struggling to make sense of a conversation, or even trouble tying your shoes. Whatever causes it, flooding knocks you out like a tidal wave. You can’t do anything, think, or even speak. No exaggeration.
Right now, Thanksgiving is putting me over the edge.
How big a turkey? What kind of pie? Eric’s allergic to nuts, Goldie doesn’t want to come, the twins might show up on their own and I’m not sleeping enough. I’m making lists, losing them, starting over again. The supermarket freaks me out, I can’t remember what I want and couldn’t find it anyway. On top of it all, I’m really stressed about the crazy family dramas that surface this time of year.
It’s not just Thanksgiving. Sometimes life is just one thing too many when you’re living with brain injury. But holidays are always particularly emotional. Surrounded by family and friends, I’d get embarrassed if I didn’t understand a question, and scared I’d look like a fool. Still devastated by my TBI, I didn’t know who I was anymore, and when asked (and someone always did) “What do you do?” well, my mind went blank.
The more I think about it, though, I am grateful for how much I’ve learned since my TBI. The good news is that I can see when I’m acting out (if I remember to look), what’s wrong, and how I can avoid my vulnerabilities.
I get flooded much less often now. It could a matter of time but probably is that I’ve managed to internalize strategies to use when I see the first signs of danger. I need to take breaks, to do just one thing at a time, and pre-plan. My day, my week, and the work I have to do. It’s like putting my finger in the hole in the dam before it breaks – before I start drowning, before my mind goes blank, before flooding.
I’ve leaned it doesn’t get better unless you catch it before it starts. Don’t wait until you’re gasping for air, because once you’re flooded, it’s too hard to get back to “calm.”
Stop. Breathe. Plan. Review. Repeat.
Now that’s talking turkey.
*satirical article in The Onion, 2015, Siblings Gather Around PowerPoint to Hash Out Off-Limits Topics for Thanksgiving
BIAA, The Challenge! Fall 2009, Coping with the Holiday Blues, p. 13
ABI Network of Pennsylvania, 2014, Your Brain Injury Handbook, Minimizing Catastrophic Stress Reactions, chap 9, p. 19
ABI Network of Pennsylvania, 2009, Building a New Life After Brain Injury – The Emotional Reactions of Survivors, p. 10
Schutz, 2008, Self-Therapy, Controlling Overstimulation, chap. 14, p.22