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Knowing your Limits after Brain Injury

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

Knowing our limit after brain injury…well here is a million dollar question right? Although the threshold and some of the associated triggers are likely to vary for each individual, there are some common blocks we can build on when trying to answer this question. In this blog, I’ll try to explore some of the things we can do to identify and explore those limits.

It’s not a sprint it’s a marathon

I know the concept of OVER slowing down may be hard to grasp for many survivors, but you have to be patient when it comes to brain injury recovery. The brain injury has created many more detours for you to get from point A to point B so allowing yourself more time to complete a task or reach a goal can be really beneficial.

Breaking tasks or goals in smaller steps may also be very useful. Several reasons why this may be helpful:

  • More efficient and targeted use of your brain energy

  • It’s likely to be less overwhelming for the brain to process

  • Gives you lots of milestones to celebrate along the way

  • Can work wonders in keeping your motivation levels up

I used to be able to do it all and live life at 100mph, learning to slow down has been one of the hardest things to get my head around. I eventually grew to appreciate that slow and steady gets me places, but every now and again, I still need to remind myself of that.

Repetition is key

You may not be of the belief that repetition makes perfect, but it can sure lead to improvements. If you are trying to improve a skill following brain injury, let it be physical or cognitive, it can drain your precious brain energy really quickly at first and even lead to intense fatigue. It’s important to increase repetitive skills gradually. Thanks to neuroplasticity, you can form new pathways, but it also requires time and effort to do so.

I’d encourage you to prioritise and make a plan addressing the skills you would like to improve. If you have a rehab team, they can assist you and potentially draw a plan for you. If you don't have the support of a rehab team, talk to your GP, he is likely to be able to help, or at least point you in the right direction. Another suggestion is to keep a record of what you are doing everyday and track a few specific skills that you are working on. It doesn't have to be an exhaustive record, actually the simpler the better (e.g.: tracking minutes, number of reps, etc.). In addition to visually noticing improvements over a period of time, keeping a record has the added bonus of keeping you consistent, accountable and motivated.

Brain injury recovery isn't linear. I used to be really disheartened when I'd have a set back. It felt as though all progress had been lost. Keeping a record in my notebook has allowed me to keep my focus on the overall trend. It helped with my motivation levels but also in keeping my mental health in check.

Identify your triggers

In time, you will be able to identify a range of situations that typically increase the intensity of your symptoms and/or that drain your brain battery at a much quicker pace. Identifying those situations ahead of time might allow you to better prepare and manage those situations.

Discovering what doesn’t work and then what works best for you in certain situations takes time. Learn from each attempt, check in with peers or specialists to get ideas and guidance about what could be worth trying, adjust consequently and give things another go.

If a given situation remains challenging, it might be that you need to gradually build resistance to it. Remember, it’s a marathon not a sprint.

Noisy settings were really challenging for me and would tend to deplete my brain battery in a matter of minutes. I could take days to recover from grabbing a meal with friends at a restaurant. Using ear plugs has been really beneficial in lessening the draining effect that noise has on my brain. Something so simple has been a real game changer for me.

Managing your fatigue level

Here is a common rule for all…pushing through does not work. In fact, it might induce a setback and result in taking you longer to get back to your baseline.

It is easy to do too much on a good day, but the reality is that the boom and bust cycle is not a strategy worthwhile following. So how can we best manage our fatigue levels?

  • Stop before you get tired. By not dipping into the red zone, you can maintain a more even level of energy throughout the day.

  • Frequent brain breaks are a great strategy to start implementing early on in your recovery. For various brain breaks ideas, read another of my blog "Think Smart not Hard in Recovery"

  • Identify the activities in your daily routine that are the most draining for you and take them into consideration when planning your day. Make sure to leave yourself enough room to get through your entire day. If an activity is particularly draining, see if you can break in down in smaller pieces (e.g.: cleaning is a great example for this, instead of cleaning the whole house, do one room per day).

  • Be mindful of your symptoms, as they increase, your brain battery is most likely emptying rather quickly. Just as recovery doesn't follow a linear curve, you may notice your brain battery doing a steep dive too. The intensity of our symptoms have a way to let us know where things are heading. Don't ignore them and be mindful of what they are trying to tell you.

I don't know how many times I've hit the wall after pushing through. It could impair my overall functioning for days. It can feel quite rigid to follow a strict fatigue management plan at times, but once I realised it worked, I stopped viewing it so negatively. I still miss being spontaneous at times, but I know that some things are best not to be left to luck.

Final words on knowing our limits
Closed wooden gate with countryside in the background

One of the key points to remember is that there will be a trial and error period whilst trying to identify your limits. As I often tell my kids, it's better to give things a go and not to get it perfect at first than not to try at all. It's a learning process. It can feel disheartening to go through a set back if you gauged things wrong, but it also shows a lot of inner strength to adjust and give things another go.

The other point to always keep in mind is that those limits will change in time. So if some things don’t quite work for you now, it doesn’t mean that they won't forever. Limits change over time and sometimes within a same day too. Being aware of how certain

activities impact us and adjusting accordingly

can be helpful in extending those same limits over time.

If you had recited this quote to me a few years back "Go slow to go fast faster" I would have said...yeah whatever, I'll show you. However, many of my trials and errors have proved me otherwise. You can keep extending your limits, but a gradual approach is more likely to work with you instead of against you.

What other tips did you find helpful with your own recovery when exploring your limits?

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