I’m happy to share that I’ve almost graduated from my various therapies/doctor appointments associated with the traumatic brain injury I sustained last December. Now that I am venturing more fully into the world of self care, I thought I’d post a review of some of the strategies I use for coping with lingering symptoms. Though this may be most helpful for other people who suffer from a TBI, specifically for those whose TBI was mild-moderate like mine, these tools can make any brain happy.
Pros: Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of meditation, and organizations like the Love Your Brain Foundation are making it even easier for brain injury survivors to begin/maintain a practice. For someone whose ability to concentrate has been compromised, a practice that helps you do just that seems like a “no brainer.” (Note: I wish I could blame my brain injury for my bad puns). For me, taking the time to breathe and sit still in a quiet environment can feel like a trip to the spa if I’m having a day where sensory stimulation is overwhelming.
Cons: I don’t know if other brain injury survivors have experienced this, (please leave your stories in the comments below!) but when I meditate it gives me a headache. When I drop down into that blissful state of deep awareness, a familiar sensation I had experienced before the injury, I can feel my brain straining. It feels like the morning after an all-nighter mixed with a mild migraine. Once, when I meditated long enough (longer than 15 minutes) the headache grew and grew until it finally released and my mind felt clear.
Conclusion: Meditation is most beneficial when I do it often and for long periods of time. When I drop in for only a few minutes at a time it’s difficult to get past the brain discomfort. My guess is that meditating often and building up to long periods of time is exactly what many meditation teachers would recommend.
Pros: Many people with TBI’s talk about how after their injury, loud sounds or noises actually hurt them. Just last week I was in a horse barn with small birds that had taken root in the rafters. The acoustics amplified the chirping birds and I had to stick my fingers in my ears like a child at a parade near a fire truck siren. When I left the house that morning I wouldn’t have thought I needed ear plugs for a few birds. Ear plugs are cheap and do wonders for limiting how much sound enters the brain.
Cons: Wearing earplugs for long periods of time may lead to missing other, less invasive sounds, or sounds that might be important. Also, my ears tend to itch if I wear them for too long. Prolonged wear can also lead to various ear problems.
Conclusion: I try to assume that any situation could require earplugs and keep a few pairs in my pocket/wallet/purse. I also try to wear the earplugs for as short a time as possible to avoid irritation/itching.
Pros: Who doesn’t want to look like a movie star? In all seriousness, I didn’t think much about how much light I was exposed to in an average day until my TBI. Carrying sunglasses everywhere (like earplugs) has made things like trips to the grocery store tolerable.
Cons: Since the injury I haven’t really been able to wear contact lenses (too uncomfortable), so I often find myself switching between glasses and sunglasses every time I enter a building. I suppose the practical thing would be to get a pair that changes color with my environment, but honestly, I don’t like the way those kinds of glasses look on me.
Conclusion: I embrace my inner movie star while practicing mindfulness as I take an extra thirty seconds to switch glasses in the lobby of every building I frequent. It gives me a minute to take a deep breath before I enter what is usually a stimulating and overwhelming environment.
Pros: It’s trendy, it’s fun, and it’s good for you. Like meditation, coloring can help with focus and concentration, and for the restless it can feel like you’re “doing” something. Coloring is also an activity that can be done with friends because the activity limits sensory overload and fatigue as opposed to other social activities like going out to eat.
Cons: For the TBI patient like myself who has difficulty with small motor movements, coloring can feel frustrating. Holding a pen and moving it back and forth in controlled strokes is hard. I’m not against doing things that are hard for the sake of building new neural pathways, in fact, I think it’s very important. But when everything feels hard, from sending an email to walking around without bumping into walls, something that is supposed to be fun that isn’t is just disappointing.
Conclusion: Coloring may be great for others but for me it reminds me that I have shortcomings, and I don’t want to be in that head space.
Pros: I loved taking naps before the TBI and now the relief I feel when sinking down into my memory foam mattress and pillow is never ending. Sleep is one of the most important things you can do to help your brain heal. If I have a “crash” day, when I’ve pushed too hard and everything shuts down from my speech to my ambulation, napping is just about the only thing that can make me function again.
Cons: Feeling like I need a nap in the middle of every afternoon limits my ability to schedule the few activities that I do engage in, not to mention things like having a full time job. Some of the bliss that accompanies napping has dissipated too, now that napping has become a priority instead of a treat.
Conclusion: They may be inconvenient at times but because of their importance naps are here to stay.
Pros: I used to be a fitness instructor so I am well aware of of the need for regular exercise and its benefits. After the injury my exercise routine shifted dramatically in that it is more frequent and much less intense. I practice 10-20 minutes of yoga in the morning and go for a 15 minute walk in the middle of the day and another 30-40 minute walk in the evening. Though there are times when I can feel my left side going numb or I start to stutter, both from fatigue, when I’m done exercising I can feel my mood has lifted.
Cons: Without the stamina to practice more intense forms of exercise (and I’m not talking long-distance running, I’m talking 20 minutes on a stationary bike more than one day a week), I feel like I have to spend a lot of time exercising to get minimal benefit.
Conclusion: I love the mood-lifting/head-clearing effect of long walks. Like meditation, I’ll have to work my way up in duration and intensity.
WINNER, BEST AT HOME REMEDY FOR A BRAIN INJURY: It’s a tie between exercise and naps.