“All passengers with disabilities are welcome to pre-board,” the TSA officer announces over the intercom system.
I smile to myself as I gaze out the magnificent windows in Jacksonville International Airport, watching the sun climb higher and higher in the spring morning sky.
Up until now, I gladly accepted the offer to pre-board. Besides, I was quite used to life with Postular Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), an autonomic nervous system disorder with symptoms ranging from pre-fainting spells to extreme dizziness and fatigue. Symptoms could be triggered by the simplest activities — like standing in line or even sitting under fluorescent lights — and I diligently worked to minimize them at all costs.
But today, I joyfully remain seated. I am healthy, unfazed by the fluorescent lights and airport hustle and bustle that used to drain my energy in no time. I know I will be fine standing in line, just as I know I will be full of energy when I arrive back in my apartment at Rutgers University. After four long years of struggling with POTS — conventionally considered a chronic illness with no cure — I am completely free.
How is this possible? What changed?
Let me tell you.
I rewired my brain.
I was blessed to stumble across the Dynamic Neural Retraining System. DNRS is a fascinating cognitive rehabilitation program that views POTS and a host of other conditions — from chronic pain and fibromyalgia to anxiety and OCD — as manifestations of an overreactive threat response in our brain.
The impairment is thought to reside in the limbic system, which is tasked with filtering all sensory and emotional input and sounding alarm bells at any perceived threat. Obviously, this is a very important job! Problems can arise, however, if the limbic system becomes stuck in a chronic alarm state and shouts, “DANGER! DANGER!” in response to innocent stimuli. Repercussions echo throughout the entire body as the limbic system plays a key role in regulating hormones, immunity and — most crucial for me — the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls essentially everything our bodies do without us thinking about it: heart rate, breathing, digestion, body temperature…you name it. If its function is impaired by a maladaptive limbic system, the results can clearly be far-reaching.
Slowly, everything started to make sense. My brain had associated a whole realm of stimuli with feeling sick: excessive lights, noise, activity level…the list goes on. I naturally tried to avoid these triggers, but in doing so, I was unconsciously reinforcing the hypersensitive threat response in my brain, which in turn was drastically impairing my nervous system. I had to break the cycle. I had to rewire my brain.
DNRS uses the principles of neuroplasticity to teach participants how to build healthier neural networks by consciously redirecting thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It combines a range of techniques, from cognitive behavioral therapy to neural linguistic programming to incremental training. I was captivated by the simple yet innovative exercises that incorporate movement, speech, visualization and other strategies to help break the chronic stress cycle.
In short, it’s physical therapy for the brain — and let me tell you, it is hard work! As DNRS creator Annie Hopper puts it, “You must think greater than you feel.” I had to convince my brain that I was not in danger, re-associating stimuli one-by-one as I physically rewired my neural circuitry (and as strange as it sounds, I could feel a changing sensation in my brain!)
Then it hit me: Was this all in my head the whole time?! Did I needlessly struggle through four years of sickness? The program provides a clear answer: NO. Limbic system impairment is not a psychological illness. Hopper — who recovered from complete disability herself — terms it an “acquired brain injury” and assures participants that their symptoms are not their fault. An initial series of traumas (physical, environmental and/or emotional) impaired limbic system function, setting off the chronic alarm state that resulted in very real symptoms. Our job is to break ourselves out of it.
I am still blown away by the fact that we have the power to change our physiology by changing our neurology. Our brains are capable of mind-blowing transformation (no pun intended), and we can learn to take the reigns. It is such a beautiful and empowering concept, one that has implications far beyond health and disease. When we take back control of our minds, we take back control of our lives.
So here I am, gazing out the airplane window at the endless blue sky and enormous white clouds. I almost can’t believe the miraculous journey I was blessed with these past four years. I am sitting here healthy and balanced and full of life — cured from a supposedly incurable condition.
What’s even more remarkable is that the power was within me all along.