(Editor’s note: BEST is delighted to welcome guest blogger, Marc Macialek of recoveringfromtbi.com, to the BEST website blog! Marc gives us some excellent insight, advice and information about neuroplasticity and brain injury awareness in his first article. Thank you, Marc! KT)
After my traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the spring of 2012, I learned how traumatic brain injuries and concussions affect the brain’s circuitry. After a concussion or traumatic brain injury, it can take a while for the brain to figure everything out again.
Our neural pathways vary in size and complexity like roads. Some are as complex and well-traveled as the large Los Angeles freeways where I live. Other less used pathways are like small dirt roads.
Brain injuries don’t discriminate. They can damage all those neural pathways making it difficult for our brain waves to navigate to the right sections of our brains.
In my senior year of high school, a freak, powerful tornado tore through my small, rural Pennsylvania community. The main road that cut through the hills and connected the small towns was impassable for several weeks due to fallen trees and power lines. Everyone in our town, and the towns around us, had to be patient and flexible. Commuters and 18-wheelers diverted from their normal routes and clogged smaller roads meant only for local traffic.
After some time, things were sorted out, and traffic could proceed as usual.
Something similar happens to our brains when the roads (neural pathways) are damaged.
This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity. It’s the equivalent of traffic being diverted around a natural disaster, while the damage is repaired. In effect, this means that our brains can rewire themselves to some types of damage. That’s very good news for us in the long term. In the short term, though, it can be very frustrating, because it can take a while.
I found three things during my early recovery that helped facilitate neuroplasticity: curiosity, creativity, and tenacity.
Curiosity: Try to divert the frustration of the injury into a genuine curiosity of what does and what does not work. Each list is vitally important. Some questions to ask yourself are:
- How much rest do I really need? If the answer is 18-20 hours, that’s fine. Giving your brain the resources it needs will pay dividends later.
- What are the symptoms of my brain injury? Common answers might include poor memory, poor self-regulation (over doing it), emotional challenges (unexplained anger or other mood swings), etc.
- What areas of my brain still work? List areas here that you and others observe to be working at or near pre-injury levels (this is important for the next step).
Creativity: When our brain is damaged after a TBI, the solutions we would normally use for problems often aren’t available to us. That’s true of cognitive and physical setbacks.
Review the list of what does work and what doesn’t. How can you use the areas that do work to resolve the areas that don’t? This can require us to be incredibly creative and look for solutions we might not have used before our injuries.
Here’s an example: one of the strongest effects of my injury was anger and a short temper. It took some experimenting with different things to find ways to control it. I eventually found that exercise, meditation, and a low dose of a mood stabilizer prescribed by my neurologist helped me get a handle on it. I’m now six years post injury, and still use this regiment to stay on an even keel.
Tenacity: If you have experienced a TBI, you have this quality by default. I don’t care how beat up and worn down you feel. You are TENACIOUS! Please recognize that about yourself, and give yourself some grace on the bad days. On the good days, be grateful and continue to walk the path of recovery. You can do it! Seek the help and support you need.
I’m aware that the 3 tips I offered are high-level cognitive functions. In order to make them work, your brain needs the proper resources. One of the biggest ones is rest. And lots of it!
After my injury, I went back to work almost immediately, since no one told me otherwise. I was only able to work 4-5 hours a day and would become exhausted. Sleeping for 12-14 hours per day was commonplace. It was incredibly frustrating, because I couldn’t think of why I would be so tired.
Remember that it takes lots of energy for our brains to rewire themselves. A human brain can generate 12-25 watts of electrical energy, which is enough to power a small light bulb. An injured brain is usually on the higher side of that range because of all the extra work is must do for day-to-day functions, and heal itself AND find its way around the damaged neural pathways.
As a result, our bodies divert more energy resources to the brain. Unless we are aware of what’s going on behind the scenes, it can be tempting to get frustrated. We might even feel lazy, because all we want to do is sleep.
I know. I’ve been there.
Getting lots of rest is a very important (maybe the most important) part of facilitating neuroplasticity. If you need 12-14 hours of sleep (or more), so be it.
Give your body and brain what they ask for, so they can do the work of repairing themselves.
Marc Macialek survived a traumatic brain injury in spring 2012. After struggling to find good resources to help with his recovery, he was able to connect with a doctor who gave him tools to make the most of his recovery. Now he works to help survivors and caregivers find the resources to make the most to survive and thrive through the recovery journey. You can find more of his writings at his site recoveringfromtbi.com.