It happens so fast; One minute, you’re a competent, active person expertly juggling the demands of work and home life while squeezing in time for favorite activities and friends.Then life socks you in the head—literally. Maybe you got your concussion, or MTBI (mild traumatic brain injury) from a sport; Maybe from a car accident; Or you slipped on the ice or tripped over your child’s toy truck. There are a million ways to hit your head, and while some lucky folks heal quickly, for many others, the road to recovery is long.The symptoms are brutal–dizziness, nausea, extreme fatigue, headaches, noise and light sensitivity, lapses in cognitive function, anxiety to the point of paranoia, insomnia, and depression, among others. It feels as though your brain has suddenly walked off the job of thinking, sensory processing, and emotional regulation. Just helping your body with its basic functions is what your brain can handle right now–nothing more.
Unfortunately, as you may already have figured out, current treatment for concussion amounts to waiting it out while your brain heals itself–which it will do. New research in neuroplasticity has shown that adult brains are capable of regeneration, essentially building new neural pathways after injury or age-related damage. (Check out Norman Doidge’s excellent The Brain’s Way of Healing for more on the emerging good news on neuroplasticity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2c5aTlq3nYI)
Getting out of your brain’s way and not worrying about its ability to get better is the true challenge of the concussion survivor. Not providing it with the conditions it needs to heal can stall or even reverse the healing trajectory.Here are some of the empowering things I did for myself during my own concussion recovery. Please note that they are intended not as a substitute for medical advice, but as a complement to it:
Sensory overload via light and noise sensitivity is one of the hallmarks of the post-concussion period. Invest in a pair of dark glasses that block bright light from the front and sides, along with a pair of earplugs to tone down the noise. Doing this will allow you to engage with the world at a level your brain will be comfortable with, instead of not going out at all, an isolating move that can bring on depression. Don’t be afraid to look weird: I once attended a loud and brightly-lit YukYuk’s comedy show with dark glasses and earplugs—that dose of laughter was therapeutic and worth the modification.
Find a Health Care Provider Who Will Make an ImPACT
Many sports medicine doctors are now using a computerized brain function test called ImPACT which allows them to pinpoint the area of your brain affected by concussion. This will allow them to determine the best course of treatment for you; some of these health care professionals work in tandem with physiotherapists and OT’s with specialization in post-concussion treatments like vestibular rehabilitation. My own ImPACT test was not covered by my health plan, but at $100, I considered it well worth the cost and the connection with a concussion clinic where I received excellent personalized care and support in the nine months following my injury.
Do something relaxing and/or nurturing for yourself every day. These don’t have to cost money. Some suggestions: I wrote down and taped positive words around my house that reflected the qualities I wanted in my life: “healing,” “perspective,” “rest,” and “calm.” If massage isn’t covered by your health plan, try to find a massage training program; the one in my city offered $20 student sessions. Or ask a loved one to rub your back or feet.
Reach Out to Sources of Help
Many friends and family members are concerned about you, but may not know what to do to help. Figuring out what we can manage and knowing when we are becoming overwhelmed is one of the valuable lessons of a concussion. If cooking and housework are taxing you right now, ask your friends for help, perhaps via a free online scheduling tool like Take Them A Meal (https://www.takethemameal.com) to make sure you’re getting fed. Child care and grocery shopping can also be triggers for the noise and light sensitive: set up a schedule of respite care for yourself and dedicate more quiet healing time to your hurting brain.
Keep Track Of Symptoms Using A Spreadsheet
A simple, cost-free move that allows you to be your own health coach, a daily five-minute routine of tallying up the number and type of symptoms you experienced that day will illustrate the trajectory of your healing, plotting it on a graph. If you’re not familiar with programs like Microsoft Excel, now’s the time to ask a tech-savvy friend or neighbour to set you up, or opt for an app like Symple that converts your phone into a health tracking device. However you choose to keep track of symptoms, it’s a good idea to note the sources of stress in your life that can precipitate bad moments— keep a journal of experiences in tandem with the symptom chart, giving a complete picture of your recovery. As you pursue your charting, you will notice that while the symptom trend is usually downward (yay!), there will be days and weeks when symptoms increase before declining again. Keeping an eye on the big picture is an affirming practice on days when you feel you’ve slipped backward.
Find Your Groove Again With NIA
NIA (short for neuromuscular integrative action) is a magical hybrid of dance, contemplation, and martial arts. Borrowing from a broad cross-section of disciplines, from yoga to Aikido to Latin dance, NIA nourishes the body and mind with gentle, restorative movement at all stages of the life cycle. Recently, NIA has used as a therapeutic modality for Parkinson’s patients, who exhibit many of the same symptoms as concussion sufferers. (see http://journals.lww.com/neurologynow/Fulltext/2013/09020/This_Way_In__Nia_for_Parkinson_s_Disease.21.aspx) The aerobic component of NIA—the part that gets you to break a sweat—also helps curb anxiety and depression.
Ban the Screen
This is a tough one for inhabitants of a wired world, but dramatically reducing or eliminating all screen time during the acute phase of recovery is essential to recovery. In my own case, scrolling through emails brought on nausea and dizziness so severe I had to stop and lie down after 20 minutes, while watching TV shows and movies that featured quick action sequences, or any kind of violence was emotionally overwhelming. In the weeks and months following your injury, you can gradually reintroduce screen time, setting a limit of 15 or 20 minutes per day (use the timer function on your phone to keep yourself honest). Binging on the screen can set back your recovery. Tell friends that you’re not going to be messaging for a while; use your phone for real chatting rather than the virtual kind.
The same text that gave you headaches on a screen may be doing the same thing to you on the printed page. Book lovers need not despair, though. Ask for audiobooks at your local library—I found the kind folks at the information desk were more than happy to make suggestions when I asked for something light and funny that would distract me from aggravating symptoms. If you’re not and about yet, try YouTube for your favorite books read aloud. Or put out a call on Facebook for your friends’ favorite podcasts. Let someone else do the reading for you—you’ll still be getting your word fix, just in a different format, for now.
Listen to your body when it asks for rest; it’s responding to the brain’s cues for what it needs. Be aware that it may do this many times a day. Even 10-15 minutes of lying down will help the feelings of extreme fatigue that come along with concussion recovery.
Live in the Moment
Leaves waving on the tree outside your window and the birds that visit; the sound of your child laughing; the smell of soup warming on the stove. Those with a meditation practice will be good at this. The power of living in the moment can be healing.
Steal Your Kid’s Wii
The Wii balance board accessory can be used as a therapy tool for those with vestibular issues. Playing some of Wii’s balance games as part of my treatment was a heck of a lot more fun than just walking a taped-on straight line week after week at the clinic. Focusing on the game actually can help your brain strengthen its vestibular function. You’ll likely feel tired afterward so be sure to allow time for rest.
Stop Giving a F**k about Everything
High-powered individuals, those multitasking wizards who are used to doing lots are often the ones with the longest recovery times, according to the wise physio who ran the concussion clinic I attended. We are the ones who seem unable to go easy on ourselves, even when we’re sick, and push ourselves to keep going. We’ve done this our whole lives, so it feels natural and part of who we are. Unfortunately, this pushing slows down our healing. Remember that concussion is unlike all other injuries; a hurt brain is not a head cold we’re going to work through in a few days. In this regard, Type A’s have something to learn from couch potatoes. We need to care less, allow more to slide by, and delegate more to others. My own concussion taught me that we deceive ourselves in thinking that our world won’t function without us. Learning to not give a f**k as part of one’s medical treatment can be amazingly liberating! For suggestions on how to get started, get someone to read you selections from Mark Manson’s excellent The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*ck. You’ll be glad you did.
Having a concussion can be a life-changing experience. The good news? Many of the changes you make to accommodate your brain in its recovery are also great life tools that once mastered, will improve your post-recovery in the long run. Giving yourself permission to heal may be the most powerful tool of all.
Bio: Elizabeth Peirce writes books about how busy people can grow, prepare and preserve their own food. Exhausted parents get extra empathy at her blog, C.O.O.K. (https://creativeorganiconlinekitchen.com) along with recipes, how-to’s, and book links.
Featured photo credit: Eflon via imcreator.com