How it Feels Inside My Brain

By Tami Green


If you conduct a Google search right now, you will see plenty of studies that show that our brains, physically speaking, are different. This knowledge will hopefully bring some relief, especially if you have experienced the self-doubt that we've felt when those around you expect you to act "normal" when our brains rally aren't functioning well. I am presently participating in a study of my own brain because I believe current research is a part of the reason for our hopeful future!

Here are two examples I just pulled from a quick search (Note: I have not thoroughly researched these particular studies and am not endorsing them, I am merely citing them as some of the many that are out there):

 "The patients with BPD had nearly 16% smaller volumes of the hippocampus (P<.001) and 8% smaller volumes of the amygdala (P<.05) than the healthy controls."

"Subjects with BPD had a significantly smaller frontal lobe compared to comparison subjects."

There is a ton of research that shows our brains really are different than "normal" people, and that helps explain things like our lack of impulse control, why we feel pain so deeply and why pleasure is often hard to feel.

I have a friend who has great compassion for his mentally retarded sister but refused to extend grace to his daughter with Borderline Personality Disorder. The reason, he explained, was that he believed his daughter was just being willful and lazy, while his sister obviously had a disability! Ahhhhhhhh!!! Can you see how we might get a little (OK, a lot) worked up sometimes? Yes, we may appear to be some of the brightest and most talented people out there, but on various levels, we don't THINK very well at times and suffer from degrees of impairment, when all the while, people around us expect WAY more from us than we are capable of!

And when those we care about express disappointment or frustration about our "failures," this causes us great (di)stress and then our brains function even more poorly. The other biggest stressors include: heavy performance demands (such as tough love, lay offs) and relationship difficulties (such as perceived or real abandonment). These stressors may cause us to be "triggered" or highly aroused. I'd like to offer a note of great encouragement here: you learn early in recovery what are your biggest "triggers" so you can start to avoid those situations. This often brings some degree of immediate relief. Eventually, you actually learn how to tolerate things that upset you greatly in the past.

What it feels like in my head at that point is that I can NOT think clearly, except to defend myself, run or die

Because our emotions spike quicker, higher, and last longer than "normal" people, once we get triggered, we quickly go into a fight or flight response. Our internal response is more intense and lasts longer than most people. It feels like your adrenaline is coursing through your body, your heart is rapidly pounding and your thought processes are focused only on defending yourself, running or on dying. You can not think logically at this time because your emotions over-ride cognitive ability. On top of all that, it takes a very, very long time to calm down (up to three days for me), which is one of the reasons why many with our diagnosis self-harm or turn to drugs or alcohol--to try to stop feeling that way.

What it feels like in my head at that point is that I can NOT think clearly, except to defend myself, run or die. Fight or flight. Multiplied.

I hope that helps explain a little. One of the many reasons DBT training (see my links page) is so helpful is that it teaches us how to

  • 1. become aware (mindful) of what exactly is going on in our brains and get control of our thoughts instead of them controlling us
  • 2. how not to get triggered in the first place, and
  • 3. how to calm ourselves down.

  • It works! There are also medications that help with a lot of this and can offer enormous relief while the skills are being learned.

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