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Nicola McDowell’s Blog (24) Fight or flight

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.

Conquering the fight or flight

Before I knew that I had CVI and understood the complexities of my visual difficulties, I lived in an almost constant state of high anxiety. Everywhere I turned my physical safety seemed under threat. People and objects would suddenly loom out of nowhere, the ground would become undulating, even though I was sure it was flat and I could never find anything I was looking for, even when it was right in front of me. So my primitive brain responded in the most appropriate way - it put me into fight or flight, so that I had a chance of keeping myself safe. And I used to think constantly being in fight or flight was a good thing, as I was always on alert, always ready to protect myself and reduce the chance of physical and emotional harm.

Unfortunately however, living in this constant state of high anxiety actually had a significant impact on not only my physical health but also my vision. You see, unbeknown to me, in order to be able to use my remaining visual functions, I needed to be relaxed. So by being on high alert and dividing my attention to search for any unseen threat, I was reducing my visual functioning even more. As explained in Gordon Dutton's blog 27, for people with a dorsal stream dysfunction like myself, it is much harder to find things in a cluttered environment and move through the environment safely when you are distracted by too much to see, too much to hear and too much to think about. And trust me, when you are feeling anxious, all you can think about is how anxious you are feeling!

Once I realised it was not useful to always be in a high state of anxiety, I started to think about how to conquer the near constant feeling of fight or flight and the solution was actually quite simple. In my home environment and other environments that are very familiar to me, I can see really well. In fact, I sometimes forget that I have a vision impairment at all. But why? It is because I am relaxed and when I am relaxed I can access my visual memories much easier. So in a sense, I can move around home easily without really having to think about it and the only time this is not the case, is when something in my safe environment is changed or moved - if this happens, look out! That fight or flight response can rear its ugly head quicker than you can say "who put this damn thing here!"

But to be able to replicate that calm, relaxed feeling in an unfamiliar environment is not as easy as it may seem and it took some time. In reality, I had almost 20 years of high anxiety brain patterning to change, and trust me, these anxiety pathways were very embedded. I had to launch a two prong attack in order to disrupt the pathways and lay down some new ones. The first prong was around my heightened emotional responses. For this, I used daily guided mindfulness practice which taught me strategies such as mindful breathing that I could use whenever I felt the fight or flight response start to kick in. The second prong was developing strategies to help my visual functioning, similar to what Gordon has recommended in his blog.

And Gordon is right, practice does make perfect! It didn't happen overnight, but with patience and a constant drive to make things better, I kept working at it. And now I am happy to report that I have significantly reduced the episodes of fight or flight, I can keep myself calm and relaxed most of the time (even in challenging environments) and my overall visual functioning has greatly improved. So what is my take home message from my own experience - helping a child with CVI to conquer their fight or flight may help them access their visual memories easier and therefore, improve their overall visual functioning. And this can all be achieved by simply teaching them strategies to keep themselves calm whenever they start to feel overwhelmed. It's as easy as 3 deep breaths in and 3 deep breaths out.


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