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Brain Injuries

How to survive Christmas with Post-Concussion Syndrome

How to survive Christmas with Post-Concussion Syndrome

Christmas: the best time of the year?

Who doesn’t love the Christmas season with all the magic and wonder? Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, according to the well-known festive song. For many, it is, but if you’re struggling with symptoms of post-concussion syndrome, then this may not be the case. You may be dreading Christmas this year and wondering how you’re going to make it through, not just Christmas day but the whole of December. You may be feeling guilty because you want to enjoy the special season, but you don’t think you’ll be able to. If this is the case, then here are some suggestions for navigating the Christmas season with post-concussion syndrome and still enjoying yourself.

Lower Your Expectations

After your concussion, all the fun, exciting things about Christmas, such as socialising with friends and family, going Christmas shopping or seeing a concert, may seem completely overwhelming or even impossible. You may be struggling with feeling overloaded, especially in noisy situations; feeling challenged having conversations with more than one person; feeling sad about not having the energy to decorate your home and make it look as beautiful and Christmassy as you’d like, and you may not feel you’re able to cook a big Christmas meal for lots of people.

So, lower your expectations. You don't have to go all out. You don’t have to lay on a Christmas worthy of the Whos from Whoville in ‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas’. Ask yourself how to scale things back, make things manageable, and still enjoy it.  Question what absolutely needs to be done; what is essential? What is the barest minimum you can do and still feel happy? Brainstorm a list of things that would fit the bill of what is manageable for you. Maybe also make a list of definite no-nos.

Plan as much as you Can

Write everything down in lists or on a whiteboard if you’re able to so that you can see what you have to do and remember it. You can find useful printable Christmas planners online, either for free or for a small amount, from Etsy. These can be very helpful for planning grocery shopping, meals, budgeting, present lists, your monthly calendar and so on. Try to keep your notes all in one place. Don’t try to multi-task; just do one thing at a time. Remember that it’s OK to slow down: you can still get a surprising amount done.

Keep things simple

Pre-injury, I was super busy at Christmas, cramming as much into my December as possible and travelling all over the country, visiting friends and family. These days things are a lot gentler. My husband always takes a couple of weeks off over Christmas so that he can spend it with our three children and me. We have a lovely time: we watch our favourite Christmas movies, sometimes walk to a small church up the road on Christmas day or watch a service on Youtube; go to a Christmas show that our daughters take part in; meet up with a handful of good friends, either at our house or theirs; go for a few walks and things like that.

So, think about what you love doing and what stimulates, energises, or makes you feel calm and happy. What are you still able to do even if you have PCS symptoms? Think of the small things that bring you pleasure and that put you in the festive spirit. Think about what’s important to your Christmas. Do you celebrate certain traditions? Are there favourite films you love to watch? Is it about family or getting together with friends or neighbours to have a meal, chat and play games? Is it about snuggling up on the sofa, listening to carols or reading a good book? Is it about going for walks and then relaxing with a cup of hot chocolate and gingerbread biscuits in the warmth afterwards?  What does it mean to you? Write down a few ideas if you are able to.

Ask others to help you

Ask other people to help you. Could someone else help you with the grocery or present shopping, whether online or in-store? If you're normally the person who cooks the Christmas meal and you can't do it this year, don't worry about it. Could you cook together with somebody; your partner, family members or friends? Or could you just buy a ready-made meal?

If you’re able to put a Christmas tree up and decorate it, that’s great, but if not, can you enlist your family or friends? Or could you just display a mini-tree or just hang a few decorations or cards? Don't be too proud to ask other people for help.

Don't be critical of yourself or tell yourself you’re a failure. You’re doing an amazing job of recovering, and you must put your health and well-being first. Be compassionate towards yourself.

Get a balance and connect with others

Over this season, rest, sleep and take alone time out if you need it. It’s important to recharge, stay well-rested and get a good night’s sleep. However, try not to spend whole days in bed, under the covers, in a dark room. You may think that's what you need, and you may from time to time, but if you do it too much, it’s going to make you feel worse. We need different sensory experiences in order to stimulate our brains.  And it’s good to do exercise, so try to get out for some winter walks and move around whenever you can to get lots of oxygen to your brain to aid healing and give you energy.

As humans, we're designed to connect with others.  When it comes to socialising with others throughout December, ask yourself what’s doable for you? Could you just have a quiet time with your immediate family? If you have a partner and children, could you prioritise quality time with them? Could just one or two members of your wider family come around at a time? Could you see people separately instead of all at once? If a neighbour invites you over to their house or you’re invited out to a meal somewhere, could you put a time limit on it? For example, you could plan to go for half an hour or an hour and anything more is a bonus.

At social gatherings, tune into how you’re feeling and develop self-awareness about how you’re doing. For example, are you finding it overwhelming with all the noise and lots of people? If you start to feel like you’re entering ‘the danger zone' (you’ll know what I mean if you have PCS!)  and start to feel symptomatic, then excuse yourself from the gathering and go to a quieter room for a while. You may find that you can go back and join in later, or you may prefer to call it a day and go home. Don’t feel bad that you’re finding things hard. You may find that each time you push yourself out of your comfort zone, you can do a little bit more.

Communicate with others about how you’re feeling

Make it clear to the people around you and the people who care about you that this year you’re finding it hard. Just be completely honest and straightforward with them. You can tell them that you'd love to see them and you want to do your best, but it’s a struggle. The most important thing is that you look after yourself and protect your health so do what you are able to do but don’t push yourself too hard into situations that are too challenging so that you have setbacks.

So, you might have to say to people that you’re not able to have everybody round to your house this year and explain that you're struggling with fatigue and other symptoms such as noise overload or dizziness or headaches. Tell them how it affects you. You may not want to go into huge amounts of detail. It depends who the people are, how well you know them and how much they know about your injury.  These days, if I know someone quite well, in this kind of situation I might say something like, ‘It’s going to be tricky for me to do that because of my silly head.’

Or, if you’re going somewhere, you could say to the people when you arrive that you’re grateful they’ve invited you but you have certain health issues at the moment, and you’ll stay as long as you can but you may have to leave a bit early.

Nobody who genuinely cares about you is going to mind that. In fact, they'll likely be thankful that you’ve told them and that you’ve made the effort to try and attend their event. However, if you can’t attend any social events, that’s OK. You likely will be able to in the future.

If you're struggling with symptoms, including movement or speech challenges, the people who care about you do so deeply will accept you as you are. You may find that some people are very empathic and want to understand what is going on for you and are sympathetic to what you’re experiencing.

Unfortunately, some people may not understand, no matter how hard you try to tell them what you’re experiencing.  I know it’s hard but try not to worry about their responses; those are not your problems or burden to carry. It doesn’t matter what conclusions they draw about your situation. You know you're doing your best and that's the main thing. You know the reality of what you’re going through. Focus on yourself and having the best possible time you can within your limitations. If you are able to (and it’s not always possible), limit your time with those types of people.

Giving presents

The first Christmas after my injury, and in subsequent years, I struggled financially and physically to send presents to people. I’ve felt embarrassed about that in the past but each year I’ve done my best and more I cannot do.

If you can't afford presents this year or you can't get around to wrapping presents. It doesn't matter. Most people won’t mind and they just want to know that you're OK. Your wellbeing and presence is more important than things.

Final thoughts on Christmas with Post-Concussion Syndrome

I do find that Christmas is one of those bizarre seasons where you can sometimes feel extremely happy on the one hand because it can be such a joyful time, and yet it can also bring up some difficult emotions, and you may find yourself feeling sad. You may be frustrated or angry about your accident and injury or that you’re not healing as quickly as you’d like.  You may feel sad about not seeing certain people. Your injury may have created strain with others who don’t understand you. Or, like for so many people, you may have bittersweet memories of loved ones who are no longer here.

You’ve had an injury, so do please be very gentle and compassionate with yourself. Give yourself some grace. Make sure you have enough to eat and drink, get enough sleep and either take time to reflect, but try not to dwell, or do something that you know will be a pick-me-up.

If you’re finding things especially hard, call a caring friend or family member and just explain that you’re finding things tough and that it’s reassuring to speak to someone. Or reach out to someone who understands on social media, for example, in an online PCS support group. Alternatively, you could call a support helpline such as Headway UK on 0808 800 2244.

Remember that tomorrow is a new day, and you may see things in a different light after resting.

My hope for you is that you will still be able to enjoy this Christmas season. Don’t feel you have to live up to anyone else’s expectations of how things should be or the ideal image you see in adverts. It may not be the kind of Christmas you had pre-injury, but I hope you will still experience comfort, joy and wonder. Wishing you a peaceful Christmas.

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