There are a lot of things that have helped me during my recovery, but if I had to pick three then it would be these:
Learn to plan
You have a head injury now which means you will almost definitely find it more difficult to concentrate and will experience difficulty with your memory. If you don’t think you do, then you may well be in denial (bear in mind that I was in denial for over five years and probably still am a bit). I can never remember what I’ve done the day/morning before or what I am going to do this weekend. Time seems to pass so quickly or to put it another way I waste a lot of time! I often lose my train of thought and forget what I’m doing which makes completing any task without a plan highly unlikely! The solution is to give myself a plan to follow. I need to plan everything now if I am never going to get anything done.
Set aside half an hour and make it a routine each week (e.g. 10-10:30 on a Sunday) and make it a routine to do your planning then (the morning because you will be fresh and because Sunday night is too late to plan for Monday morning if something comes up. If you stay up late Saturday and will be tired on Sunday morning, then do it on Saturday morning). Use a weekly planner so that you can see the week as a whole. Don’t plan anything mentally taxing immediately after something physical (i.e. don’t go for a 5k run Tuesday morning if you have an appointment with your neuro-psychologist Tuesday afternoon). Spread any mentally or physically taxing activities out through the week and be sure to plan in rest days.
Stop relying on your memory for everything and get used to writing things down to remember what has happened and get used to planning what will happen. Keep a diary to keep track of past events and use a calendar to plan anything in the future. Your memory is not reliable, but a pen and paper or a smartphone are!
This weekend I went for a really good hike in the Peak District, and it has really lifted my spirits. Last summer I was running a lot in training for a run in October and I felt great. After the run I no longer had that goal, I lost my focus and became quite unhealthy. Time just seems to go so quick doesn’t it and I really haven’t had a regular exercise pattern for five months now.
If you are not a person that exercises regularly then walking is a great place to start, you don’t have to go too far or too fast. Choose a short flat route at first, no longer than a mile, and you will feel better for it. As you improve, you will want to go further. This is when you should stop doing it alone and go with a friend or walking group as it is safer and much more enjoyable to share your experiences.
I found walking in the hills to be satisfying but challenging! Now, this might sound a bit boring, but if you really don’t want to get lost, especially if you’re as easily confused as me, plan your route first and never go alone. Always go with an experienced hiker or in a group and remember to take a bag with some water, food and a warm lightweight top. I am almost rolling my eyes as I write this because it sounds patronising but having seen how fast weather conditions can change from bright and sunny on the ground to overcast, dark and windy at the top of a hill it is pretty essential. When I am challenged physically, I cannot think straight; this makes getting lost a real possibility and having company a necessity. Before my TBI I would have shrugged my shoulders and not cared about such a thing but these days with fatigue and how easy it is to get confused getting lost is much more serious.
People with TBI are often physically inactive which leads to reduced fitness and secondary health conditions. I have always found that when my body is stronger, my thinking is much sharper, and life just becomes better. I get into a pattern where I exercise in the day which pumps oxygenated blood around my brain making me more alert during the day and more tired at night, improving my sleep. This is coupled with a good diet where I eat protein to nourish my muscles and carbohydrate to replenish my energy stores.
Studies suggest that exercisers with TBI were less depressed and reported a better quality of life than those who did not exercise. I feel so much better when I am fitter that it makes me wonder why I ever get out of that lifestyle. However, becoming lazy is easily done. I easily pick up bad habits that break my healthy patterns. When I feel bad, I look back in my diary to when I was fitter and happier. Without a doubt, regular exercise makes your recovery better.
Not drinking regularly
Alcohol is a prime example of what can break your healthy lifestyle pattern. After the run in October, I allowed myself a few drinks as a way of celebration. The day after I told myself it was a big achievement, so I was allowed another, the next night the same. Then I told myself that I didn’t have to start exercising right away and just to have a week off. Before I knew it, a month had gone by. Bad habits are so easy to slip into, and before you know it that pattern of regular exercise, good sleep and clear thinking can be a thing of the past.
The way a person experiences alcohol can change after a TBI. Their tolerance can go down, making it seem like they have drunk much more than they have. A doctor will advise against drinking alcohol altogether which I remember finding frustrating, I was a university student with a great social life at the time of my injury and going out drinking was a huge part of that life. I took this as him telling me to stop having any fun.
You should be careful around alcohol though; it is after all a depressant and people can become very vulnerable to depression after brain injury. It will have a different effect on you now, and you may not want to drink anything. I stayed away from it completely for almost four years. You don’t have to stop drinking completely, but you should definitely limit your intake if you are serious about making a good recovery. If I want to be able to sleep at night, I limit myself to two drinks and aim to be in bed by midnight.
If you are out with friends you are no longer limited to sugary soft drinks, you can look at non-alcoholic alternatives which are becoming more common now. Non-alcoholic beers and non-alcoholic wines are available in most bars today. If not then you could have tonic water with lemon, ginger ale or most mixers alone make good things to drink and are good for that alcohol placebo effect.
So, in a nutshell; if you plan what you are going to do, frequently move your body and live as healthily as you can then you will get much more out of life!