After two years of visiting different doctor’s offices to no avail, I was finally diagnosed with late stage Lyme disease in the summer of 2017. Before and since my diagnosis, Lyme related anxiety has been my most difficult symptom. Though my anxiety has improved tremendously with treatment over the past three years, I still sometimes fall back on the brain retraining tools that got me through in the early years of my infection.
As with many anxiety disorders, Lyme anxiety comes and goes, arriving uninvited at inconvenient times, most often in the middle of the night. Why does 3 am call like a siren to fear and panic? I know I’m not alone in the experience of waking with a start in the dark of night, heart racing, an unnamed dread spreading tentacles from my gut throughout my body.
When I was really sick, every night was the same. I could expect to fall asleep pretty well, and the earlier the better, because at 3 am I would be awoken by an alarm bell going off inside my body. A seemingly timed signal went off for me almost every night in those early years; adrenaline coursing through me in waves. The bells would ring for about four hours, then finally fade, leaving me shaky and weak around 7 am.
Some theorize that Lyme (and other microbes) can be more active in the middle of the night, and perhaps this is true. Whether my nighttime anxiety attacks were an inflammatory response to pathogen party time I’m not sure. No matter the cause, I needed tools I could use, alone, in the middle of the night. We who suffer witching hour anxiety attacks (Lyme or no Lyme) just want relief. We want to relax into restorative, sweet dreams, the kind that allow us to rejoin normal life in the morning. We need tools that help in the moment, whenever anxiety strikes.
Amazingly, I found tools that helped me, even before I began to treat Lyme directly. I continue to use these tools now. Through them I’ve learned about the mysteries of the human brain: the complexity, the stubbornness, the miraculous plasticity. Proponents call the tools I learned “brain retraining”.
My first introduction to brain retraining was through the work of Annie Hopper. Hopper recovered from severe chemical sensitivities by creating her own brain retraining practice, and now teaches her program to others. I read about her work, and tried listening to a guided meditation that came along with her program materials.
I had always considered guided meditations kind of cheesy, and Hopper’s recording was no exception. What shocked me was that it worked extraordinarily well for me regardless. When I turned it on at 3 am and listened through my headphones, my nervous system relaxed. I knew this woman had suffered in her past as much as I was suffering presently, and that she had dedicated her life to helping others. I trusted her. Just hearing a loving voice talk me down at 3 am was unbelievably effective, and would sometimes even put me back to sleep.
I began reading about brain retraining more widely. Many people are studying and writing about brain plasticity now. I found work by neuroscientists, cell biologists, immunologists, psychiatrists…all exploring ways to harness the power of conscious thoughts and feelings to change the physical wiring of the brain, and to create healthier firing patterns. The more I learned, the more effective brain retraining became for me.
Hopper’s meditation worked for me because I didn’t have to come up with alternative thought patterns by myself at 3 am when I was already feeling horrible. Her words did it for me. I wondered, could I create guided meditations of my own that suited me even better? Why not?
I began to write meditations, recording them on my phone. I used my background in anatomy and physiology as a starting point. What systems felt like they were compromised in my body? What systems did I want to feel functioning smoothly again? I started with the limbic system – the emotional center of the brain that is in charge of kicking off anxiety and panic attacks; the part of the brain that Annie Hopper’s program seeks to retrain.
I wound up writing six different meditations for myself, focusing on six different systems, over the course of months. The creative process was an act of brain retraining in itself. Instead of obsessing about what was wrong with me (I still had no idea I had Lyme disease) I was obsessed with writing meditations that guided me toward feeling harmony and health.
I loved my own meditations. I loved the process of writing them, I loved recording them, and I loved listening to them through my earphones at 3 am. They didn’t contain any cheesy music, and the imagery – though sometimes metaphorical – was grounded in science. They worked for me on many levels, and my body responded. I began sleeping better, and beginning the process of healing. Eventually I recorded the meditations professionally, but that is another story.
Three years into Lyme treatment, my anxiety is much, much less. I almost never wake up in the middle of the night anymore. But my old brain patterns still creep in at times, especially if I have a Lyme flare up. When I catch myself caught up in anxiety and fear, I try to breathe, and give myself a break. I try to gently pull my brain back toward relaxation and peace.
I can choose to feel the sun on my skin, and hear the birds singing. I can even lie down and go through a whole meditation just listening to the sounds around me. I’m still alive, and therefore flowing and changing. For me, this is mental health. We aren’t built to last, after all. But we are built to celebrate while we’re here.