Setting goals following brain injury is an important part of moving forward, but it is also one of those things that can be much easier said than done. I mean there are so many new variables to consider and chances are, there will also be people around you providing opinions left and right in terms of "what they think you should do"...making the decision process all the more difficult.
In this blog, I'll relate some of the challenges that I have experienced when it came to setting up exercise goals following encephalitis and acquired brain injury. If you follow my blog, you may already know that exercise used to be a huge part of my life prior to the brain injury and that it was also an aspect that I was keen to re-introduce early in the piece. I believed that it could have huge benefits for me, but due to a lack of guidance as to how best to re-introduce it, it also lead to set-backs...sometimes small, sometimes pretty massive.
When there is a lack of guidance, you pretty much rely on what you know, on trial and error and on what you are being told. I knew lots about exercise, but not so much within a brain injury recovery context. Even my health specialists couldn't really offer much guidance when asked how best to approach exercise. My levels of energy were nowhere close to where they used to be, I had lots of limitations to factor in (e.g.: vision issues, sensory overload, balance and coordination and overall physical fitness) and any amount or type of exercise would tend to deplete my brain of its precious yet rare brain energy too. However, whether I had a "How to Guide" or not, giving up on exercising simply wasn't an option for me. So I launched myself into it anyway. It has been a long ,slow and at times painful process though.
While I was busy trying to re-introduce exercise into my life in any shape of form, I was told on several occasions by people in my entourage about how it might be too soon or perhaps the wrong type of activity. At times, I also felt like they were trying to keep me in a cosy bubble. Their intentions came from a good place I'm sure, but not challenging status quo wasn't something that sat right with me. That spirit of adventure, that desire to keep pushing myself and of wanting to live my life as best as I could were still very much parts of me. Having people sow seeds of doubt in my mind sometimes dampened my spirit. At times it would get me down, it would knock my confidence off, it would see me doubt my physical and mental abilities, and other times, it would fire me up to prove them wrong.
In my opinion, neither ways were helpful. One would draw me towards a dark place and the other would make me skip crucial steps that threw off aspects of my own recovery.
Deep down, I was very much aware of the task ahead. I was very much aware of needing to adjust my expectations and of the payback that would come in pair with getting things wrong or over-doing it, but I also felt like I couldn’t let encephalitis and acquired brain injury dictate all of my decisions and put limitations on what I could do or achieve. Along the way, I also had wonderful people supporting me through this journey and it has meant the world to me...more than they will ever know.
How did I get on with this one goal?
While trying to re-introduce exercise, I can say in all honesty that I’ve paid a hefty price time and time again...some might even say that I’ve harmed myself or even failed, but the good news is that there is always two sides to a story. Every time I had gone down, I had also managed to find a way to pick myself back up, learnt a great deal about myself, learnt about what I can do to avoid a similar pitfall, I had looked for research on the topic and I had learnt about how best to approach the next phase of my journey. It had got me exploring ways to get me closer to my exercising goals and I had found ways to move forward.
An enormous amount of progress was made in the last year or so. After a huge health set back following an adventure race in 2021, I took it upon myself to make a vision board. On my vision board there was a picture of me crossing the finish line being cheered by my kids after completing my first triathlon after encephalitis (2 1/2 years into recovery)…a triathlon which at the time seemed like an impossible task to complete given where I was sitting in terms of overall recovery. I was amongst the last lot of participants to cross the finish line (far from my usual rankings) and at that point in time, I honestly couldn’t care less. I had completed a triathlon. Nothing was missing from this milestone.
But in putting that picture up on my vision board, I knew that I now wanted to put in the effort to increase my physical and mental fitness when it came to exercise and I set out to do just that. I finally found great information online as to how best re-introduce exercise after brain injury, I started following a few great specialists on social media which role is to rehabilitate athletes following a brain injury and I decided to approach the physical component of exercise in the same manner that had proven successful for some of their patients. That meant that I had to be patient and review my ways. In order to get to my goal faster, it meant not pushing through passed a certain threshold, I had to listen to my body, I had to make decision about the type of exercise that I would undertake on any given day based on where my body and brain were capable of and I had to be consistent.
To maintain my mental health in a good space, it meant that I had to focus on each steps as they presented themselves, I had to avoid any sort of comparisons with my previous self or others, I had to stop being so hard on myself, I had to start celebrating little wins as they came along and I had to align myself with people who were supportive of my endeavors. I realised that I needed support and that although I wasn't given any guidance by health specialist up until now, it was within my control to do my research to work towards achieving my own goals.
Tips on goal setting after brain injury
Many of the principles stated above in the context of re-introducing exercise could apply to any goals that a person may have after brain injury. Start small, be consistent, set realistic timeframes and milestones along the way, re-adjust when necessary, find out tips about ways to best work towards your goal, surround yourself with people who will be supportive, accept that you may need to work really hard inside out and never give up!
The goal linked to that picture of me crossing the finish line on my vision board was that I wanted to increase my overall fitness to a level where I'd be able to compete in a sporting event and finish with a placing that I'd be proud of. The placing was going to depend on the type of sporting event that I'd be partaking into be so it ranged anywhere from top 20 to top 5. Another important component of that goal was for me to be able to keep my mental health in check following an event...even once a brain set back would kick in. I had given myself 2 years to accomplish this goal. I felt like it was a realistic goal and one that would potentially translate into a very positive effect on my overall wellbeing.
Well not quite one year into this goal of mine, I am very proud to say that I achieved this goal at my most recent adventure race that I participated into with three lovely teammates of mine. I knew my physical and mental fitness was in a much better place and I felt like our team had a lot of potential to place well and we did just that. In the open category, we crossed the finish line in 3rd position and our overall ranking was 5th which surpassed all my expectations. I've got quite a few more ambitious goals on my vision board, but nailing this one down has shown me that I can no doubt achieve the other ones too. Those other goals are not exercise related and they will challenge other aspects of my recovery, but I know that if I approach them with a similar attitude, that I'll be able to achieve them.
Gone are the days where I let others dictate what I should or shouldn’t attempt. Gone are the days where I make decisions based on what OTHERS believe I can or cannot do. My goals may completely differ from those that I had prior to brain injury, but I know what I am capable of, I know how hard I work when I set my eyes on something and with a bit of guidance it's only up to me to take the first step towards achieving these goals.
I was recently asked whether I thought I would ever make a full recovery. My answer was, I'm not sure, but whether I do or not is probably irrelevant now. I've grown so much as an individual since August 9th 2017. I've learnt so much, I've worked so hard on narrowing down my priorities and finding out my new purpose that I don't think that I could ever go back. Bad brain days still suck, but all my hard work is slowly starting to pay off in so many ways and I'm honestly really excited to discover where it might lead me.