(Cue the Voice-over Guy) “Previously on Clear Reflection Yoga”:
- A mid-summer MS exacerbation was revealed to include not only my legs, but also some cognitive functions
- I shared previous experiences of MS-related cognitive impairment to provide perspective on what was different this time with yoga as part of my life
Now, back to the current/recent flare-up. As I mentioned two posts ago, it took a couple of weeks after the leg weakness set in to realize I was experiencing cognitive impairment (CI). My first reaction was, “Oh, so that’s why writing my blog was so difficult.” My second was to laugh at the universe’s sense of humor in taking me from researching yoga and MS-related cognition issues to experimenting with them. In all honesty, I don’t know if my reaction would have been the same if I’d still been in fund development or any other field that required the cognitive functions that were on the fritz. Since I can’t step into an alternate plane of existence (if I could I’d chose the one with cures to MS and fibromyalgia), I’ll share what I learned.
My experience mirrored the findings of the little research I found on yoga and MS-related cognitive impairment. Yoga isn’t going to make CI symptoms go away. It’s not going to make the exacerbation heal more quickly. But it definitely makes the whole thing easier to deal with.
The first thing I noticed was when I found myself having difficulty, I automatically went into Yoga Breathing. I teach that one of yoga’s goals is to learn to pause and respond from a place of thoughtfulness, rather than following a knee-jerk reaction. To help with anxiety and panic attacks, or the general need for calm, I teach Dirga Pranayama (3-Part Yoga Breath), encouraging students to practice when they are feeling calm so it “kicks in” when they aren’t. Pausing to breathe gave my brain a chance to try to process. When the processing didn’t happen, pausing to breathe gave me a chance to try another tactic.
For example, when the clerk asked, “Paper or plastic?”, what I wanted to say was, “Wet stuff (meaning lettuce and spinach) in plastic. The rest in paper.” But, when after a beat or two I could tell that wasn’t going to happen, I switched gears to “whatever is easiest for you.” During my previous experiences with CI, not being able to answer the question the way I wanted would have started a spiral of frustration that, in all likelihood, would have included tears. But this time, the simple act of pausing and breathing kept me from feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.
And when there didn’t seem to be another tactic that worked, breathing allowed me to find a place of acceptance, in that moment, rather than pushing/forcing. Because the only thing pushing or forcing would do is ramp up feelings of frustration.
A couple of days after I realized I was having CI problems I went back to writing my post. I changed the title to “Now – what was I going to say?” and changed my approach from analysis of the research and their applications, to a story about what was happening with my own cognition. In doing so, most of my writing difficulties vanished. This was true even though I included some of the same research information. I decided to try using storytelling as a way to communicate whenever possible. I think this noticing of “what was working,” was a direct result of practicing mindfulness and present-moment awareness. These practices teach us to look at the whole of our experience, not just the part that is squeaking the loudest. If I had keep my focus only on what was wrong, I would have missed out on something that turned out to be very helpful.
Staying in the present moment is helpful for everyone. But, I think it’s particularly helpful in the case of MS, or any other illness that takes a relapsing-remitting form. Exacerbations of any type can be upsetting, if not down right scary. It is so easy to slip into worrying about the future or ruminating on the past. I love the following quote by davidj, in “Freedom Resides in the Present,” Deepak Chopra Newsletter, July 2012.
“The past is the known and offers no opportunity for choice and possibility. And the future exists only in the imagination. Freedom lies in the present moment, the only place where we can choose from an infinite range of possibilities.”
It is so true. Focusing on what I used to be able to do is depressing and a waste of energy. Trying to imagine the future is impossible. Every person’s path with MS is different. The possibility lies in now, this moment.
This leads me to the concept of “impermanence,” which is really a whole post in and of itself. What I’ll say here, is that remembering the cognitive impairment wasn’t going to last forever was very helpful. Since being diagnosed with MS, I’ve become a big fan of neuroplasticity. In its simplest definition, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and regrow connections between neurons. This concept is tied to developing new habits and to learning. It’s also the reason those of us with relasping-remitting MS often recover abilities after an exacerbation. In many cases the brain grows a new neural pathway around the spot of the plaque. I know this is a very simplistic explanation, but its in the name of trying to keep a long post from getting longer.
To reduce frustration, I shared what was going on this those in my life. Letting people know I might not be able to answer a question quickly, reduced the pressure to do so. Less pressure = less frustration. And everyone’s reaction to my situation was great. No pity, just understanding and patience when needed.
While yoga did not improve the CI problems, I believe two acupuncture treatments I received during this time did. I get acupuncture from a neurologist a couple of times a month to help with fibromyalgia pain, spasticity and fatigue. It’s a nice complement to my yoga practice. The doctor is very much a Renaissance Man in his blending of Eastern and Western medicine, as well as traditional with “alternative.” I’ve had no trouble accepting the results of needles in my belly to help with fatigue or in the webbing between my thumb and index finger as one of the “main gates” to help with something else. But the fact that a needle in the area of the crown of my head actually improved my thinking is something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. That seems very “woo-woo” for lack of a better term. If I sit down and look at the various meridians used in acupuncture it might feel more concrete. Or maybe it won’t. And to be honest, right now I don’t know that I care. I’m okay with “woo-woo” since two treatments, two weeks apart definitely made a difference. So, if you are dealing with MS-related cognitive impairment,you might want to check out acupuncture.
The newest edition of Momentum (National MS Society magazine) arrived in the mail last week. One article noted on the cover deals with cognition impairment. They don’t mention yoga, mindfulness or acupuncture as coping tools. But, its still a good read.
Be good to yourself.