March 2019 Community Meeting Recap: Transforming Your Stress with Michelle Jacob

BY: JULIA RENAUD

BIST’s March Community Meeting featured occupational therapist Michelle Jacob who discussed managing emotions and demonstrated HeartMath technology to our members.

Michelle Jacob
Michelle Jacob

About Michelle Jacob:

Michelle has been an occupational therapist for ten years. She is also currently following her passion as a therapeutic coach, speaker, and author. You can find out more about her on her website, rewiringminds.com, YouTube Channel and Instagram feeds.

The Nervous System & Brain under Stress:

The autonomic nervous system is comprised of two branches that ideally remain balanced:

  • The sympathetic system causes the flight/fight/freeze response.
  • The parasympathetic system permits body restoration and digestion.

When under stress, brain signals travel to the midbrain (the site of emotional processing) instead of to the frontal cortex (the site of decision making).

Why do we respond to stress in this way?

Back when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, there were many threats they had to be prepared to encounter. If they were being chased by a tiger, it was helpful to have the fight or flight instinct. While we rarely have to outrun tigers these days, the stress we experience still causes the autonomic nervous system to react in a similar way, preparing our bodies to fight, run away (flight) or freeze.

What about the heart?

The heart responds directly to stress. Have you ever noticed your heart beating faster when you’re feeling nervous or concerned? During times of stress, the heart tends to have a variable/chaotic rhythm. When relaxed, it beats in a more consistent and smooth pattern. It’s all about balance!

Managing Stress

Several factors that can help manage stress are:

  • Breath
  • Emotions
  • Thoughts
  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • Physical activity

We will explore the first three factors in more detail below.

Breath

Breath is affected by awareness, so paying attention can help you recognize how you are breathing (i.e. fast, slow, irregular). Having this awareness can help you to modify your breath to gain a sense of calm.

Here are three different methods of conscious breathing that you can try:

Abdominal Breathing

Abdominal breathing is a technique that brings attention to your abdomen by contracting the diaphragm.

  • Breathe in while pushing your belly out; breathe out while pulling your belly in.
  • Place a hand on your stomach to feel the rise and fall with the breath.
  • Sit tall and pay attention to your posture;  this is so the diaphragm doesn’t get compressed.

Heart-Focused Breathing

Brings attention to the area of your heart as a stress reduction technique.

  • Breathe in carrying the breath through the heart area, to the stomach.
  • Breathe out from the stomach, through the area of the heart, and out your nose or mouth.

Rhythmic Breathing

Involves breathing to a count, or setting a rhythm to your own breath.

  • Breathe in to the count of four, and out to the count of six.
  • Alternatively, breathe in to the count of four, hold for four, and out to six.
  • If you would like, pick your own numbers. The out breath is generally slightly longer than the in breath.
  • Do what feels right to you!

Emotions

Emotions are central to the experience of stress, they are a reaction to something we perceive.

When under stress the body releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol regulates a   body functions such as: metabolism, immune response, memory and sleep. Having a cortisol level that is too high can be bad for the body.

Here are some different methods of to help ease stress:

Notice and Ease

  • Close your eyes and think of a situation that you would consider to be 5 / 10 on the stress scale.
  • Notice what is happening in your body and the emotion that is tied to it. Name the emotion (i.e., frustration, anger, resentment).
  • Imagine the emotion in the area of your heart; breathe into your heart, into your stomach, and out of your heart.
  • With each exhale, think of the word ‘ease’ and feel the emotion melting away.
  • Breathe until the emotion has been neutralized and you no longer feel it. When ready, open your eyes.

Quick Coherence Technique

Quick coherence technique is a combination of heart-focused and rhythmic breathing, while including a lovely memory.

  • With your focus on your heart, breathe through your heart, into your stomach, and out through your heart.
  • Breathe in for a count of five, and out for a count of five.
  • Bring to mind a memory that you cherish (this can be of a person, place, or thing) and hold it in your heart.
  • Stay with the positive feelings in your heart. When ready, open your eyes.

Taking It All In

Hopefully, you are now feeling re-energized and ready to tackle the world; but you may be wondering, how often should these exercises be done? Michelle recommends doing one exercise three times a day; morning, afternoon, and night. Using these techniques can help form new neural pathways to keep you cool under stress, but that doesn’t mean that you need to feel stressed to do them!

In case breathing exercises aren’t yet your thing, consider starting a Gratitude Journal: Write and/or draw the things that are going well for you in your life while focusing on feeling grateful.

With the weather warming up, I feel as though it’s even more fitting to sign off by saying, breathe deep and keep cool everyone! – J


Julia Renaud is a very talkative ABI survivor with a passion for learning new things, trying new activities, and meeting new people – all of which have led her to writing this column. When not chatting someone’s ear off, Julia can be found outside walking her dog while occasionally talking to him, of course!   

Next Community Meeting:

Osteopathy with Osteopathic Manual Practitioner Riki Richter

Wednesday May 29, 6-8 pm

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November community meeting: managing emotions

The emotional aspects of living with a brain injury often get lost in all the other challenges, which occur following an ABI. Which is why Melissa Cutler, neurorehabilitation social worker at Bridgepoint Active Healthcare came to our November community meeting to talk about managing emotions after brain injury.

Melissa Cutler
Melissa Cutler poses with BIST member Neil after her talk

Melissa began her talk by acknowledging that everyone has a different story, and that we are all the experts of our own situation. As such, much of Melissa’s discussion involved input from BIST members.

Since the emotional aspects and challenges of living with brain injury can so often be neglected, we began with a discussion about why we should talk about our emotions after brain injury in the first place. Here are some of the things BIST members discussed:

  • Talking leads to accceptance, and acknowledging how I’m different post-ABI
  • Sometimes I get agitated, and I want to leave the situation
  • My emotions are more on the surface after a brain injury
  • There’s less patience, more frustration post-ABI

Eat well, sleep well, feel better

We all have a certain amount of energy. When we are tired, we don’t have the same cognitive abilities as when we are energized. Our ‘filter’ – what keeps us from bluring out anything and everything that’s on our mind- isn’t there to the same extent, and our compulsiveness increases.

All of these traits can be related to brain injury, but factors such as being hungry or being in physical pain can also effect our emotions. When we’re well slept and well nourished it’s easier to manage our emotions. This is something to be mindful of.

BIST members make cards
BIST members make coping cards at our community meeting

What do emotions feel like after an ABI?

BIST members shared their physical and mental feelings associated with emotions:

  • Tension builds up, and it’s visible on my face
  • My veins pop out
  • I begin asking people to repeat themselves
  • I get a buzzing feeling in my head
  • Dizzy
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Foggy
  • Can’t find my ‘stop’ button
  • Fear – you don’t know what to do or how to deal with it

Members also discussed that brain injury can lead to a lack of emotion. Some emotions, such as sadness, can be particularly hard to feel. Knowing you ‘should’ feel a certain emotion during a specific situation, but that you’re unable to, can be very frustrating.

This is similar to being stuck in a certain emotional space – whether it’s negative or postive. Melissa discussed the need for balance. Negative emotions, she said, are a part of life, but they need to be balanced with positive feelings as well.

BIST members shared that they tend to struggle with the following emotions:

  • Discouragement
  • Feeling withdrawn
  • Feeling a range of emotions, and not being stuck is difficult

What works?

We discussed the following tips to help manage emotions after brain injury:

  • Talking about our emotions can get them out of our system
  • Try not to let negative comments from others get you down
  • Avoid ‘energy pirates’ who rob us of our energy
  • Activities such as yoga, meditation, playing cards, bingo, curling, computer games etc. can give us pleasure and lead to a sense of accomplishment
  • Sticking to a routine
  • Asking for and receiving help
  • Getting out and socializing
  • Not being alone, not dwelling on the brain injury
  • Exercising mind and body
  • Helping others can also make you feel good
  • Playing and listening to music
BIST members at our managing emotions community meeting
BIST members make coping cards

Time management and emotions

Many ABI survivors can have a lot of time on their hands, which is something to get used to. Too much time can be a bad thing, and as such, it’s important to keep track of your time and not let it slip away. Members shared that they can feel nervous when they wake up in the morning, not knowing how they’re going to spend their day. Incoporating structure into your daily routine, can not only help you get stuff done, but can also help you emotionally. Knowing what’s expected of you each day can also help with initiation problems which many people living with ABI experience. Here are some tips:

  • Mark down your activities for the day, week or month ahead
  • Find activities that are meaningful to you (art, exercise, being with an animal)
  • It can be help to make an activity list with someone else
  • Your list should be specific, for example if you write ‘clean room’ write which room you are cleaning

Importantly, the way you coped before the brain injury may not be accessible or possible right now.

You may have read for hours to escape into a book, or jogged everyday to work out your stress, which are activities that can be impacted by ABI. When brain injury takes away our previous coping mechanisms, it’s important to find new and healthy ones to replace them.

Build our tool box ‘coping cards’

Melissa showed us one way to deal with our emotions, through coping cards. These are simple, portable and personalized to your situation. They are a toolkit to remind ourselves ways to cope when we experience challenging situations and emotions. You can download a sample card HERE, and also see the examples below so you can create your own.

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Next community meeting: January 25th, 2016
Topic: Art Therapy and ABI