*Bringing back pause before speech
*Re-engaging with conscious interruption
*Improving insight and self-awareness
*Increasing attention and processing speeds
*Re-finding the familiar self
It is often said that the answers to our dilemmas lay inside of us. When it comes to fixing your brain, the most vital tool you have is your own mind. Learning how to use the mind to take charge of the brain again takes practise and patience – it takes time. That you can fix your brain to be able to regain a sense of self is not only feasible – it is possible!
We can use reflective methods to help us think about experiences, actions, and communications in order to begin to re-engage with proactive learning. We need to become aware of the paradigms that shape and contribute to our thinking and actions so that we can improve insight and self-awareness.
These paradigms create the ‘form’ of our thinking and breaking this down so that we can understand the root of assumptions, judgements, and the basic framework around and under our thoughts can help us make choices that reflect personal preferences and personality.
In effect, we are reintroducing the ‘self’ and reducing the space that the automatic brain has to respond.
Reflective techniques can be used to develop mindfulness and cognitive skills. Using and practising reflection will also improve social interactions, self-awareness, and observation skills.
Using our imagination
For example, ‘Would you like ice cream?’ for the first time after a brain injury might produce a long pause while we consider if we even like ice cream, who is paying, what flavours do we like, will it spoil my dinner, and so on. All of these questions occur because we no longer have the memories that allow us to fire a response automatically. The loss of memories slows down the reaction of the subconscious because it is unable to find the information we need to give a yes or no answer.
If we can make a note of this experience and revisit it later when we have quiet time, we can begin to notice some of the things we need to consider and replace. It can take time for the information to assimilate back into place, but, the more we practice, the faster we will create new pathways.
Motivation and discipline
Even the act of writing the journal is adding an opportunity to ‘practice’ our brain training as each time we repeat anything, be it a thought or a process, we are adding to the myelin sheath around the neuronal pathway.
Using a reflective journal that is created specifically to record notes to revisit later and the outcomes of our exercises helps us to develop attention and conceptual skills among many other executive and cognitive competencies.
Using a ‘reflective journal’
It doesn’t matter whether you use a notebook and journal by hand, or whether you use electronic tools – both are beneficial. Reading our records out-loud to ourselves also reinforces all the things we have learned.
Write a list of your aims on the front page of your journal which may include:
- Understanding my intentions
- Understanding my values
- Recognising my insights
- Improving my processing speed
- Getting to know me again
Use your imagination to add as many aims to this list as you can. Think about your intentions – what do you want to achieve?
Using a journal and reflective techniques also helps us to monitor our emotions better and:
- focus on and understand our thoughts
- understand our responses
- experiment with ideas and develop them one step at a time
- rein in our thinking so that it becomes more organised
- reflect on processes behind our experiences and note causes of outcomes in greater detail to increase understanding
- reinstate previous thought processes so that our thinking feels familiar again
- express our feelings and emotions and notice where we need to make amends
- reflect on experiences to make sense of them
- encourage remembering, encourage repetition and maximise our chances of forming new habits
- allows us to ask ourselves questions and to investigate and challenge our answers
- allows us to notice and challenge our assumptions or automatic unconscious responses
- allows us to report our realisations back to others developing understanding and encouraging feedback and support
- increases propensity for self-responsibility
- widens perspectives and views and helps us form new ones
- analyse and make more sense of events
- building a range of possible conclusions allowing us to explore each in more depth
- form data for exploration by investigating our understanding of basic facts rather than assuming we fully understand already
- increases insight
- gives us a basis for comprehension other experiences
- helps us understand alternatives
- develops our ability to be mindful and to pay attention
- helps us evaluate what was good and what was bad and needs improving which increases our awareness and chances of improving responses
Using reflective techniques is a dynamic process, so the more we do, the better we get. The more we practise this, the more significant the improvements in our executive function, cognitive skills and self-awareness and ability to self-monitor and pre-empt possible pitfalls.
Make an action plan. When something doesn’t go as expected, pause, write it down, and relax knowing you will investigate this later.
Another thing that helps is giving the brain verbal or physical cues that it has done well, for example, reach your hand over your shoulder and pat yourself on the back and say, ‘well done brain, well done, you have noticed that you didn’t know how to answer the ice cream question.’
Every tiny accomplishment needs to be congratulated so that you are teaching the brain what you are choosing to be good and at the same time you are letting it know what you want it to learn and repeat.
The brain itself can feel relieved because it will recognise that you are using the mind to give direction and take back control. Your brain will be very pleased with you!
The space probe
You do all the work yourself with this exercise, so you are empowered and in control of regaining your functionality and awareness.
This exercise helps you to observe your brain injury – not you, and not other people; it is about observation only.
Lay quietly in a quiet darkened room, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Be mindful of your diaphragm rising, your ribs expanding, and let breaths out slowly. Try to release tension. Take a minute or two just to centre yourself.
Start to think in pictures. It doesn’t matter if you are any good at this or not, or if you can actually visualise anything. What you are trying to achieve is the sense of being detached and outside of yourself. If it helps you can pretend you are looking in a mirror. It doesn’t matter if you can see details or features.
Try to imagine that you have climbed into a little space ship and it is hovering above your body and you the spaceman is looking back down at you. You understand that the brain is injured – not the person, and this is what you are focused on observing – where did the brain ‘fail?’
Don’t worry if you find this difficult at first, just keep putting your mind ‘above’ or away from your ‘body-self’ so that you have a different ‘outside’ perspective of you. You might find it easier to imagine looking at yourself in front of a mirror – try to visualise a full-length reflection rather than just your face. You might imagine that you are a visitor sitting next to your bed looking at you.
Doing this helps us to be less emotional and self-judgmental – it helps us to be more objective and focused on what we are trying to achieve. You are the scientist observing a subject. We aren’t doing this to try and work out who was ‘right,’ and who was ‘wrong.’ The point of the exercise is to improve our observational skills and self-awareness.
Think back to your day and any notes you may have taken about an interaction that you didn’t understand or didn’t go well.
Let your mind wander through the day starting with the first thing you remember. As your mind walks through the day pause at the first thing that you struggled with. Try to focus on one thing rather than trying to remember as many things as possible – this isn’t the objective. It doesn’t matter if several things went wrong in the day that you want to address – it is better to practice the technique so that you get used to doing it. Breaking things down is more important by far than ‘catching’ and deliberating over every scenario that happened during the day.
Be objective. Try and think back and remember all the details you can. It doesn’t matter what you remember, or how much, it matters that you have an event to investigate mindfully.
Let’s use an example. Someone was trying to help you understand that using the lawnmower isn’t a good idea.
Take your mind back there and try to slow things down. Start ‘mind-stepping’ through the few minutes before the event. What were you doing, what were you thinking, what were your intentions?
If you can, break down what happened. Were you already distracted when someone approached you? Did you find it difficult leaving the task you were doing to focus on them? Were you confused when the person approached you?
Perhaps you were distracted by your own thought? Say you were thinking, ‘I have always cut the grass, so why shouldn’t I now?’
Here we pause and slow things down some more – what happened next, frame by frame? What can you ‘see’ from your outside perspective?
Think about whether or not this reactionary thought, ‘I have always done this,’ interfered with your ability to listen to what was being said to you. Maybe you can picture yourself upset and stomping off before you were able to listen. Remember – any emotion belongs to the ‘body-self’ you are observing. You are trying to learn what your broken brain did – this has nothing to do with ‘you’ the person.
Without realising it at that moment, you may now understand that the time it took you to have this thought distracted you from listening. Maybe you didn’t hear the first part of what you were being told and so misunderstood the rest.
When you were pondering the thought, ‘I have always cut the grass,’ you may now observe that it was this thought itself that may have fired off an automatic response from you, which was possibly also emotional before you could pause and think.
Look at the you who is lying on the bed and think about what that person could have done differently. Could they have paused to listen? Could they have asked the other person to pause for a moment so that you could gather your thoughts? Could you have made a mental note about what you were doing so that you could have switched your focus to the person approaching you?
What things could your brain have done better? What have you learned from rewinding the memory and watching it back? What can you change now or for the next time?
While you are focused open your eyes and write all your thoughts down in your reflective journal. Make points about practical brain tasking flaws that you noticed and if you have the energy now try to relate these outcomes and insights to other things that happened during the day.
It doesn’t matter if you are too tired to continue. The more you practice this, the more energy you will have, and the longer you will be able to stay focused.
You should find that you have moments of exhilaration as you notice the things that your brain wasn’t doing well. Reflect back on the list above about all the things we wanted to monitor. You can use the notes you made to continue this exercise another day or when you have more energy.
Remember don’t take anything personally – you are observing the capabilities of your brain – not trying to make judgements about you or anyone else.
You may observe ways that you could have been better helped. You can feed these back to the people around you and let them know that you have discovered ways they can better assist you.
When you take time to practice this daily, you will find that it becomes easier and easier and that you notice more and more. The benefits will be noticeable, and you will also see improvements in what you are doing and how you are doing it.
Don’t feel afraid to talk out loud to yourself. Give your brain clear instructions. For example, ‘brain I want you to pause, take a moment and breath each time I feel an emotional response coming.’
Take charge! Tell your brain what you want it to do. You will find that it begins to respond in the ways you have told it to do. Think of your brain as a child you are teaching. Take it by the hand; give it clear instructions and clear feedback about how well it did.
You are not your brain injury. You are the captain of the ship!