In my last blog, How To Develop Greater Self-Awareness After A Concussion, I wrote about how to develop greater self-awareness after a concussion, and some of my own experiences with finding self-awareness. Today, I want to share with you a few techniques and strategies you can try out for yourself that I’ve found extremely useful.
Three effective practices that I’ve found helpful for developing greater self-awareness are:
I’ve found journaling beneficial because it helps me to get my thoughts, emotions and feelings out of myself and onto paper. This allows me to reflect and look at things more objectively and it also helps me to find more creative solutions to challenges.
There are a number of different ways you can journal – just do whatever works best for you. The artist and writer, Julia Cameron, author of ‘The Artist’s Way’, recommends writing ‘The Morning Pages’ – 3 pages of stream of consciousness writing of whatever comes into your head so that this frees your mind up as you start the day. Sometimes I do this and other times I just write a page or two about how I’m feeling or about what’s going on in my life. Some people keep a gratitude journal, of things they’re thankful for each day - I do this from time to time although now I usually just make a mental note of things. I generally don't go back and read what I've written in my journal, though sometimes much later I will flick through what I’ve written and glance back over it. But I just find that the process of writing and being in the flow helps me to identify where I might be stuck emotionally or where I need to do some inner work or I can think about what's going well in life and what isn't. Journaling has helped me to focus on the steps I’ve needed to take for my recovery and it has helped me to think about, plan and create my future.
If you don’t already journal, then it can be hard to get going in the beginning. I really struggled when I first started, firstly because I was in pain and my arm and shoulder hurt and also because I found it hard to express my emotions on paper and I didn’t know what to write about and it felt very stilted. But when I started to do it regularly about 3 years ago, I found it really helpful. I was consistent for quite some time, but more recently I’ve found it harder to make the time for it, but I still do write every now and again and I plan to do it more regularly again soon. If you miss a day or stop for any reason, that’s fine, don’t be hard on yourself and just start again when you can. It doesn’t have to be perfect, the main thing is to just do it.
Mindfulness and meditation
I’ve also found mindfulness and meditation very helpful practices for becoming more reflective, aware of my emotional state, noticing how my symptoms are affecting me and helping me to feel calmer. Anxiety has been one of the main symptoms since my concussion and I’ve found these both great ways to reduce that anxiety. They’re effective even in just a few minutes a day or several times throughout the day or just a few times a week. It depends on how much time you have to give to them and how much you feel like doing them. You can spend as much or as little time on them as you want. Both practices can help you to refocus on the present, notice yourself in relation to your surroundings and get out of your head - with all the thoughts that can feel so all-consuming and intense - and into your present reality. Being in the present and learning not to let our minds wander back to the past or forwards to the future too much, even just for a short space of time, can be very helpful.
I think generally in the West we tend to live in our heads a lot, and this can be even more so with a brain injury. After my injury, I found that I was frequently thinking about how bad I was feeling and how unpleasant my symptoms were and about how it was affecting my life and my relationships, especially my relationship with my husband and children. I often found myself detaching from the here and now and I spent a lot of time worrying and focusing on the negatives. I just felt so awful a lot of the time - I was in pain and my numerous symptoms were overwhelming and life-sapping at times.
Around that time, I kept hearing and reading about mindfulness and meditation. I was in a few Facebook groups for people with concussion/post-concussion syndrome and a number of people wrote about how they found these practices helpful. I was really sceptical at first and didn’t want to do it, thinking it was a bit weird and wouldn’t work Eventually, out of desperation, I put my reservations aside and thought, “Right, I'll try anything, I'm prepared to give this a go.” I’m so glad I did. I still use them today, almost 5 years later, and now I can’t imagine life without them.
I’ve written about mindfulness and meditation in some of my other blog posts – they’re a bit of a recurring theme for me! – but I’ll briefly expand on them here again. A simple meditation exercise can just be to sit quietly and comfortably in a chair, with your eyes open or closed, for anywhere from about 5 minutes to half an hour (or however long you want). I usually aim for about 15 minutes. Focus on your breathing, and then start to notice what comes up for you, not judging anything, but just observing your thoughts as they pop into your head without getting caught up in them. Let them pass.
This helps to calm down your nervous system, your body and your mind. It shouldn't be hard but it’s OK if you find it a bit of a struggle at first. It can take a little time to get used to. It doesn't matter if you think it's a good meditation session or a bad meditation session, the point is you’ve done it. Sometimes I feel a bit tired afterwards but other times I feel energised and inevitably I feel more refreshed and clear-headed. Other times I don't feel particularly different at all but it's surprising how overtime spending just a bit of time meditating can create a difference in your life. It gives you space on a busy day when maybe you're tired from trying to do lots of things and having an over-active brain. If anything significant comes up, then you know you can address that and give it some thought later on. You can start to think, “What do I need to do next?” or “What can I do about this?” or “Is this helping me or not?”, “Do I need to do some work on this or do I need to talk to somebody?”.
Another thing that is really helpful is mindfulness, where you essentially ground yourself and bring yourself into the present. And you can do that by just sitting quietly in a chair or lying down or going for a walk in the countryside and then noticing what's around you. You start to become more aware of your surroundings. You start noticing the sounds and the sights around you. You start to feel more connected to the here and now and less caught up in day-to-day life, thinking about the past and the future.
You might want to bring awareness to different parts of your body, say to where you feel physical pain and then contrasting that to a part of your body where you don’t feel pain. You might also start to get curious about your emotions and how you feel. If this feels uncomfortable you can put your hand on your chest or your stomach and say something like, “Everything is going to be OK”.
Essentially, you’re bringing attention to your current state and your connection to your environment. Over time, you will notice that this carries over more and more into your everyday life and activities, and you can practice it at any time.
There are meditation and mindfulness apps like Calm and Headspace and lots of free resources on YouTube to help you.
Don't make the mistake – as I did initially – of underestimating how powerful these seemingly simple techniques can be. I encourage you to give them a go, if you haven’t already, and to use them as part of your concussion recovery strategy.
The more self-aware you become, the more you will learn about yourself and notice signals from your brain, mind and body that will in turn help you figure out what you need to do next for your recovery and make changes for the better. Developing self-awareness doesn’t happen overnight – it takes time and practice to develop - but the effort you put in will be so worthwhile.