What is stopping us? Sometimes habits and thinking can be hard for us to change and so creating a new routine can seem more of a burden than a joy.
For this reason, the best place to start when considering the kinds of changes we need to make to improve our recovery outcomes following a brain injury is, to begin with taking what we believe into account.
For example, does our understanding of the benefits of fresh air and exercise need updating? Are we good at discipline or putting mind before matter? Do we know we make excuses and can we give more consideration to the kinds of justifications we give for not doing something?
Sometimes tackling what and how we think by updating our knowledge can help us make a shift in our thinking which can benefit not only what we want to do, but also what we are doing already.
One of the greatest needs we have in life is to recognise our potential and to learn how to master living fully.
The mind is a fabulous companion when it is free-flowing and flexible, but sometimes our thoughts can bog us down because they have been there for so long that we don’t pause to consider them. Over time our thoughts can start to feel like a part of who we are, a bit like wearing a cosy pair of slippers until we realise how much they are holding back our potential.
While the cosy slippers may be comforting, they are never going to be the best footwear for exploring or adventure. To get the best out of life, we need variety.
A brain injury brings many changes, and these can be very overwhelming. Breaking things down to formulate a plan can help us to organise our time and focus on the things we can do for ourselves to benefit our recovery and healing.
How we tackle any new set of challenges can make a difference in how having a mind that is set in habitual thinking can be turned in a mind that is set on meeting new challenges.
Time to consider your thinking
Neuroplasticity gives us the opportunity to reprogram the mind while we are rewiring the brain. For example, we might think that we are born with a skill set or capabilities, and it would follow that we believe our potential is limited. However, when we pause and give this consideration, we realise that the only thing that limits what we can learn or achieve is the belief we are stuck with whatever was dished out to us. If you think about it you will find many, many experiential examples of times you have pushed the envelope and tried new things with success. This is evidential of your ability to achieve whatever you set your mind to.
Another thing we commonly do is to blame our personality for our shortcomings, and we can do this without ever realising the burden we are putting on ourselves. When we regularly repeat beliefs to ourselves, we are unconsciously creating a mindset – or set thoughts about ourselves and our abilities. For example, if we persistently tell ourselves that challenges are something to avoid or are worried they may reveal a lack of skills we tell ourselves this is the way we are and eventually we stop considering in terms of possibility or being excited about changes we can make to improve our lives. We can end up always choosing the options to stay in the doldrums rather than seeking a fresh, new wind to take us somewhere better than where we are when we feel we are stuck with the same things and experiences all the time.
There are no rules that say you have to accept your thoughts forever. Life is about growth and gratitude for our potential. When we think challenges are scary, we tend to give up easily and miss the chance to embrace change, inwardly grow from learning and become more resilient and persistent.
A comfort brain is a fear brain
What we think is a tool that ‘we’ use – it isn’t who we are, no matter how much we let it disguise itself this way. Without realising it, we can inadvertently allow the brain to become lazy because we haven’t yet worked out that we are the master.
The brain is reliant on how we use our mind, and this dictates how well the brain operates. When we become conscious of having the power to choose our thoughts, we can create conscious and healthy inner dialogue and massively improve the health and functionality of our brain environment.
You are not a slave to your brain, perceived personality or genetics – you are a slave to your habits and past choices that you have failed to update because of poor decisions about opportunities to learn.
If you have taught yourself to believe that you aren’t good enough, or allowed other people to instil this in you, you are more likely to struggle with a willingness to make an effort and will be more likely to convince yourself that change or opportunities to learn are unnecessary.
Without the intention to do so, it can be easy to create a lazy brain, and a lazy brain is always going to be more prone to degeneration than it is to health and creativity. People who battle to overcome lazy thinking also struggle with spontaneity and having a free spirit. Opportunites for potential growth or life improvement are often missed because the logical part of the brain takes hold. We feel better when we are balanced and being creative in our thinking is one way to achieve this.
By making an effort, we put ourselves on the path to self-development, awareness and mastery. We expand all that is possible and enjoy more fruitful lives.
A brain that is stuck in rigid patterns of thinking is a brain that is more likely to react fearfully to life events bringing more negative consequences exacerbating the wish to stay within self-made confines. Without knowing it we create a vicious circle than is enormously hard to break out of until the moment we are prepared to start telling ourselves the truth about who we are being.
Recognising the signs
How do you know if your mindset and attitudes are holding you back, and why should you care? We already mentioned that when we fail to use the brain to its full potential, we are at higher risk of neurological degeneration, but what about the impact this has on our lives and relationships?
When we fail to realise the enormous potential the brain has when we are mindful and aware of or conscious of our thinking to improve our lives, we also neglect the possibility of more significant achievement and better relationships.
If you struggle with regularly feeling defensive or over-sensitive and perhaps often take things personally, then these experiences are a sign that you need to oil your cogs. If you easily get discouraged or openly or secretly blame others when things go awry, you can use this recognition to shift your beliefs to an updated version that better suits who you are.
If what you want is to be seen as someone who is positive and empowered rather than negative and presumptuous or aloof then listening to yourself and allowing your mind to expand is the way to achieve this. You don’t have to listen to the feedback from other people to become a better version of you, you simply need to start having inner conversations with yourself about your actions and behaviour and start asking yourself if this is the best you can do.
The answer will always be that you can do better if the feedback you regularly receive doesn’t sit well with you. Try thinking of all feedback as having the potential of being useful to you and welcome it as a clue about the things you need to look at as new opportunities arise. This kind of openness helps us to see that we can use experiences to learn and be able to better identify areas we can improve.
Setbacks are an opportunity to work out how we can do better next time. When we give more time to consider events and look past our habitual mindset and attitudes, we get the chance to know ourselves better, and that is always a healthful and useful thing to do because we awaken our sense of purpose and drive to achieve.
Fresh air, diet, exercise, socialising and relationships all these things and more have a direct impact on how long your rehabilitation will take but first we need to be in the right or best mindset to increase our potentiality for recovery. We need to think about including everything we can in our personal care package to stand the best chance of rebuilding our lives.
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, you may be making unconscious excuses and blocking your ability to free up your mind and become aware of what you need to do.
People around you might express concerns about denial or inactivity, and it is important to try and recognise when you might be using the outcomes or symptoms of your brain injury to avoid facing your new realities.
A neuropsychologist or neuro occupational therapist will be able to help you realise how much you can do and to reawaken your appreciation of your ability to make choices. They will also guide you to make choices that are healthful and will support your recovery.
Interestingly the impact of a brain injury can affect our ability to question what is going on around and within us. People can lose the ability to challenge their inner dialogue, and without realising it, both accept and feel uncomfortable with their thoughts at the same time. Knowing this can help people to understand the kinds of effects their brain injury is having on their thinking.
Self-examination and learning to ask questions can be an important part of rehabilitation and again, can be helped by a professional. Please speak to your doctor about a referral to a neuropsychologist if you don’t have one.
Oxygen is also essential in maintaining healthy brain function, growth, and healing and because the brain uses about three times more oxygen for healthy neuron function as your muscles need the brain is extremely sensitive to decreases in oxygen levels. Taking a walk in the fresh air and getting outside improves brain function and also has positive impacts on the lungs and the whole body.
Scientists have also shown that spending time in nature reduces stress and can lower the heart rate. These studies show that people spend less time thinking about problems and insecurities and that taking a walk outside helps the brain produce endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that are also called the ‘happy chemical’ because they have been shown to be important in regulating mood. Together, being outside and walking help to create positive changes in the overall state of mind.
Among others, researchers at the University of Michigan have shown that being in nature can improve memory, focus, and attention. After just an hour of interacting with nature, memory and attention span improved by 20% indicating the beneficial effects of being outside in the fresh air.
While many of these studies are not directly focused on the effects of exercise following a brain injury it is known that exercise increases blood flow to the brain and in doing so increases the supply of micronutrients your brain needs to heal. Exercising also affects neurotransmitters and improves mood, memory and processing speeds so you can think quicker and feel better at the same time. Neurotransmitters also play a crucial role in plasticity and enhance rewiring.
While each of us has personal preferences and perhaps different physical ability, all forms of gentle exercise are believed to be of benefit to people living with a brain injury. One study also shows that exercise by virtual reality can be beneficial.
Tai Chi is a physical mind-body exercise that benefits the brain through deep concentration and meditation. Tai Chi encourages the brain and body to work together as participants focus on breathing and the fluid, gentle exercises at the same time. Besides its benefits on the body as a whole, Tai Chi improves mental activity and clarity and seems to have the potential to maximise and benefit memory function.
Studies indicate that Tai Chi may be effective in promoting neuroplasticity and may have a protective effect on the neurons. Tai Chi is well known to reduce stress, support heart health, and reduce depression and anxiety as well as improving brain function and cognition. Tai Chi practitioners have been shown to increase grey matter in the brain by as much as 40%.
A study on individuals with TBI by Massey University found, “Tai Chi was associated with significant improvement on all VAMS scores (except fatigue) with decreases in sadness, confusion, anger, tension, fear and increases in energy and happiness.”
Yoga is also a mind-body practice and has similar beneficial effects as Tai Chi. Yoga also improves memory, focus and cognition by protecting mental health, relieving stress, balancing body chemistry and by offering neuroprotection.
Studies have shown that Yoga serves as a complementary treatment for stress, anxiety and depression and people who practice yoga regularly experience positive changes in structure and function in specific brain areas involved in executive function and working memory compared to those who do not practice Yoga.
As with Tai Chi research suggests that long-term yoga practitioners tend to have improved structure and function of those brain areas that are necessary for better memory, concentration and thinking ability.
Yoga Journal – The Healing Power of Yoga for Brain Injuries includes a talk with Kevin Pearce and yoga poses for the brain
NCBI – The Influence of Diet and Physical Activity on Brain Repair and Neurosurgical Outcome
University of Michigan – Going outside—even in the cold—improves memory, attention
NCBI – The Influence of Exercise on Cognitive Abilities
NCBI – Improving cognitive function after brain injury: the use of exercise and virtual reality.
Sage Journals – Exercise intervention in brain injury: a pilot randomized study of Tai Chi Qigong
NCBI – A study investigating the effects of Tai Chi Chuan: Individuals with traumatic brain injury compared to controls
PNAS – Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation
NCBI – Yoga and Cognition: A Meta-Analysis of Chronic and Acute Effects
NCBI – Differences in Brain Structure and Function Among Yoga Practitioners and Controls
NCBI – Improvement in physiological and psychological parameters after 6 months of yoga practice
NCBI – Cognitive behavior evaluation based on physiological parameters among young healthy subjects with yoga as intervention