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The Role of Mindfulness, Meditation, and Prayer After Brain Injury

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Victoria Tilney McDonough, BrainLine

The Role of Mindfulness, Meditation, and Prayer After Brain Injury
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For almost six years after her car crash in 1993, Melissa Felteau expended much of her energy wanting things to be different from what they were. She’d dream about her “old” self, only to wake up a new, confused, and confusing version of that self.

Prior to her crash, when she sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI), she had been a master swimmer, a skier, and kayaker. She’d held a top job as director of public relations for Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital in Ontario, Canada, and she had a robust social life. Little seemed out of reach. But after her crash — at age 31 — she couldn’t read or write. She had a hard time following conversations, and she couldn’t get organized or remember anything. “It was a long, slow, painful, depressing recovery,” she said.

Worst of all, the mental chatter in her head wouldn’t quit. It was relentless — all the talking, criticizing, judging. “The injury was devastating to my self-image. I told myself over and over that I was no longer loveable, that I was no longer good enough,” says Melissa. “More than anything else, the brain injury left me with a residue of unworthiness — a deep soul wound. I was desperate to buoy myself back to myself, to find some kind of inspiration.”

When a friend invited her to a yoga class to help with her persistent physical pain, Melissa discovered meditation. She felt a change immediately.

Learning to let go

The role of non-traditional treatments to help in recovery after brain injury is finding a more formal place in hospitals and rehabilitation centers. These treatments can include meditation, mindfulness, acupuncture, energy balance, biodfeedback, and craniosacral therapy (basically, gentle manipulation of the skull and its cranial sutures to enhance the circulation of the cerebrospinal fluid, and release restrictions in the connective tissue that protects the brain.)

“People tend to look at the brain after TBI as a damaged or pulled muscle, and that’s not right. There is physical damage to the brain, yes, but there is also trauma to the brain that needs to be looked at neurologically and psychologically,” says Rick Leskowitz, M.D., director of the Integrative Medicine Project at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. “The use of integrative treatments is really interesting. Clearly, they have benefits for people. We don't know why or how they work, but we do know that they work and are therefore a very promising line of study.”

At Spaulding, clinicians who have traditional degrees in medicine or rehabilitation therapies use integrative methods to treat the body, mind, and spirit of their patients with TBI or chronic pain, in addition to using traditional treatments. “Craniosacral therapy has proved to have high potential especially with people with TBI. We need more research, but the experiential data is quite telling,” says Dr. Leskowitz. “After all, the skull moves. It is not a box. There is movement, pulsation along the sutures on the skull. When that pulsing is regular and steady, the brain is healthy. People trained in craniosacral therapy can loosen these restrictions to bring the pulsation back to normal.” Research studies conducted more than 100 years ago by Dr. William Sutherland — the father of osteopathy in the cranial field — proved that cranial sutures were, in fact, designed to express small degrees of motion.

Mindfulness meditation — or mentally focusing on being in the present moment — has also proven an effective tool to help people with cognitive and behavioral issues after TBI. With meditation of all kinds — from chanting to visual imagery — people can make peace with their new self and not get swept up in the constant maelstrom of mental obsessions. “If you are truly living in the present moment, you can let go of the past and the future; they no longer have a hold on you. That can be incredibly freeing,” says Dr. Leskowitz.

Transforming oneself

Within a few weeks of starting to meditate regularly, Melissa Felteau felt the benefits. It was as if a fog had started to lift, she says; as if once again she was the main character in her life, right there on stage. “My family noticed, too,” she says. “I didn’t have to withdraw as much; I could deal with more stimuli. I was less agitated, moody, and far less tired. That goes a long way with your mental outlook on life.”

Since that first yoga class where she was introduced to meditation, Melissa has transformed. Wanting to learn more about the power of meditation and mindfulness, especially as they relate to healing after TBI, she went to study at the Omega Institute with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., an internationally-known scientist, writer, and meditation teacher engaged in bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society. Currently, Melissa is close to earning her master’s degree in adult education and has collaborated on several studies looking at how mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can reduce symptoms of depression in people with TBI.

In a pilot study, Melissa and another facilitator worked with a group of almost twenty people of different ages, backgrounds, and brain injuries. “We taught mindfulness meditation, which, with practice, helps people learn to be present and aware of their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations,” she says. “People learn that by paying attention to their breathing, they can calm down their minds; and from there they can find a place to learn, to know that they have a choice to let judgments go, and to respond rather than react.” Findings from the study showed that meditation can be an alternative to drug therapy for some people with depression after TBI. “All three of our small studies in neurotrauma have shown that almost 60 percent of study participants recover from clinical depression,” she says. “In addition, their anxiety levels decrease and they report higher energy — all of which are significant findings for people who have suffered from the misery of depression.”

Other research on the subject has shown that meditation changes the brain physiologically by reducing cortisol levels, which are associated with stress and depression.

Recently, Melissa and her research colleagues were awarded a grant by the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation to conduct a larger multi-site randomized control study to look at meditation’s effect on depression and memory after TBI.

Connecting anew to the self and others

“During our research, we have learned that mindful-based cognitive therapy also helps people with TBI connect to others. Their sense of isolation decreases significantly,” Melissa says.

From his patients at Spaulding’s Integrative Medicine Project, Dr. Leskowitz often hears about the “gift of TBI.” “Some people say that they develop a new perspective on their life and their place in the world,” he says. A brain injury may alter a father’s life so he has more time to spend with his family and finds the simple joy in that. Or a type-A career woman, post-injury, discovers her artistic side and no longer misses the job she once thought was so crucial to her identity. “Like a blind person whose other senses become more acute, a person with TBI often develops a deeper intuition, a keener awareness about the world and the people around him,” he adds.

The power of prayer

Navy chaplain and former Marine James “Tim” Williams also believes strongly in the role of spirituality in recovery. “When a young Marine or Sailor comes in to talk, my job is to listen. I may also try to steer our discussion to the unity of the mind, body, and soul,” he says. Chaplain Williams works with the Wounded Warriors Battalion East (WWB-E) at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. “God gave us all of that. And as a chaplain, I represent the third leg of that stool. I try to share my belief that using and developing one’s faith can greatly enhance the recovery process.

“Many of these guys want to talk about their spirituality,” Chaplain Williams says. “Sure, they’re young, and maybe they never thought about their faith much before; but after being wounded or seeing their buddies killed, they look at life differently. How could they not? They realize they’re not invincible; they begin to ponder their mortality.” And Chaplain Williams has noticed that the more quiet time a Marine or Sailor spends meditating, praying, or being mindful, the more in tune he is with his recovery.

Chaplain Williams remembers one young corporal he visited at the burn center at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, part of WWB-E’s territory. Among other injuries, he had been severely burned in combat on more than 55 percent of his body. “We got to know each other, and he told me about his experiences overseas,” the chaplain says.

The corporal was facing the prospect of a series of plastic surgeries, which would be performed at the University of California Los Angeles. He wasn’t sure he wanted to go through with plastic surgery — not knowing if the outcome would be better or worse. “Although he kept saying how grateful he was to be alive and to be reunited with his wife and two kids, he was very anxious about the surgeries that loomed ahead,” Chaplain Williams says. “So we prayed about it. Within several days, he decided to go to UCLA for the surgeries. After his decision, he came to thank me, telling me that I had helped him find a peaceful place to slow down his mind and listen to what he knew in his heart was right for him. He said he realized that having the surgeries would be a good thing; they would help him feel better about going out in public and, ultimately, help him regain his self-confidence. That corporal was an amazing young man. His courage and resilience are beyond words.”

Breathe in, breathe out

Although to date no one has patented meditation in a bottle or the power of prayer or mindfulness in a daily pill, more and more, non-traditional treatments are being used in addition to or in lieu of traditional medicine. Nationally, more integrated medicine centers are opening in traditional hospitals and more research studies are being conducted. Scientists even meet with the Dalai Lama at the Mind Life Conference every two years to compare notes on how the mind works and to collaborate on testing insights gleaned from meditation.

And more people like Melissa Felteau are finding the effects of mindfulness and meditation the key to recovery — from TBI, chronic pain, and other conditions.

In 2008, Melissa was featured in a book called Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath by Michael Paul Mason. Since its publication, Melissa has received many letters from other people with TBI and their family members. “They write to me about their challenges and sorrows … as well as their forward steps,” she says. “I always write back and try to give them hope and validate their sorrows. I also tell them about the power of meditation and being fully present in their lives. Those first six years after my injury would have been a world different had I known about meditation back then. But I am so grateful for how mediation and being mindful in my life continue to help me be my best self.” Pondering this, she breathes in and out, then again, lengthening each breath as she does.

BrainLine

Comments [15]

It took well over a year after my accident to learn how crucial prayer & proper brain rest would be & was the key to my recovery from TBI. I can see how Yoga can also provide this type of brain rest. For over six months I had to give up stimulating activities to settle my brain & give it a chance to rest & heal. We introduced visionary exercises to strengthen my eye muscles to work in sync again & then cognitive treatments. After a couple of years I'm starting to function somewhat normal again. There's more work to be done but I'm glad I was persistent in my pursuit to get well again. I'm 85% recovered. I read, write, converse, work & feel somewhat normal again ..I thank God. T~

Apr 26th, 2014 7:54am

Could you send me some info on the mindfulness therapy you use

Apr 26th, 2014 3:33am

Looks like good and interesting therapy.  I wonder if it would work for me.

Apr 25th, 2014 11:20am

I have a friend whos husband has severe tbi after being hit by someone who was dui. She has spoken in schools. Ive heard some speak to sports groups ir churches depending on the nature of ur tbi

Apr 14th, 2014 9:57pm

I would love to speak on about my TBI (2010) and recovery.  It has been a journey for me......one well worth it because it was all about me.  Does anyone know anywhere I can speak about it?  Maybe my story can help someone who is not as far as I have come.

Mar 17th, 2014 7:23pm

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Mar 11th, 2014 2:14pm

I can not read all of this but i do know that  centering oneself help deeply.  I am trying so hard but each day it getrs worse .  The state is is sending out a out a social worker to see if I am a fit mother.  I am.  The Consolodated Healt care org. sent out a nurse who went through all of my husbands and and daughter meds as well as my own. She said I need adulut daily supervision which I do not.  My house is clean, my child is is well cared for and well dressed I am just in a battlel which I will win.  Because I am togh and strong and always win if I make up my mind.  like my daughter says "if mama makes up her mind it almost impossible tochange  it.  Damn Right.  Pardon my french.

Feb 15th, 2014 1:02am

8,500 centres of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University  are located in 110 countries. There is practise of meditation that relaxes the mind and nurtures a healthy balance between our inner and outer worlds.

Dec 8th, 2013 1:52am

Exercising,stretching,eating well,practicing yoga and meditation, breathing deeply,monitoring blood pressure and stress levels,and sleeping well seem to help the mind and body greatly! I highly encourage learning how simple changes to a lifestyle can benefit people and enhance lives. After suffering from various forms of trauma as well as numerous types of seizures-one of which resulted from excessive CSF overdrainage and VP Shunt movement, lasting too long for me to know and going untreated-I've found that meditation and mental stimulation are helpful as long as very little problems seem to be present such as pain, pressure,tingling, burning, or "crushing" feelings in my VP Shunt or head. When insomnia and exhaustion strike as a result of stress or pain, it's nice to know that I can have time to breathe. Personally, I have found that living a healthy lifestyle can help me to walk through trouble many times in life. Understanding how something as simple as meditation affects brain chemistry over time is relaxing. Practicing patience not only with other people but with yourself is great for understanding oneself and others. Of course, we must all remember to breathe. There is nothing better than breathing.

Nov 2nd, 2013 12:39pm

The "Miracle of Mindfulness" by Thich Nat Han, is an amazing book that changed my life and helped me deal with my TBI. Also, listening to your favorite music can be a kind of meditation, lose yourself in the song and you're only thinking of the present moment. I am definitely more in tune with my creative side now, I find myself in the garage creating custom kandy paint jobs for my motorcycle. I've been training martial arts for most my life, and I actually feel like my skills have improved after my TBI, I have more relaxed flow, techniques flow together like water.

Sep 13th, 2013 2:58pm

Regarding mindfulness, meditation, and prayer after a brain injury, there are many resources from the Psalms and Proverbs of the Old Testament to the 2006 movie - The Secret. Every prayer will find it's answer.

Aug 21st, 2013 12:52pm

My son had bone flap surgery. His two big frontal flaps were reinserted after a month in the fridge. They are now held in place by small titanium plates and screws. I can't imagine that craniosacral therapy would be of any use and would likely do much harm. There needs to be a "WARNING" footnote or something on articles about CST!

May 28th, 2012 12:33am

I guess I would consider myself to have a Mild TBI. I was always a self starter owned two businesses, always creating and developing products etc. I now have two TBI one in 2007 and yet another in November of this year. What I do for relaxation is work on my jewelry line...at age 64 I am still trying to be positive about my life. On top of it all I have ADHD which I see can be a benefit. I am a true optimist. Anyway the way my TBI has affected me is that I am so much more intuitive...more creative. Oh yes I am an inpulsive shopper and when a thought comes into my mind I'm doing whatever it is before my mind has time to think about it...which could be a good thing! I don't meditate I spend alot of time engrossed in what I'm doing it could be cooking or painting art on canvas or whatever. I've learned to say it is what it is. For twenty-four years I have had numerous health issues...cancer..brain tumor to name a few but it's onward and upward and no looking back.People ask me what's my secret is for looking so young I say I don't worry about a thing worring gets you no where. I'm an athiest and always have been..I believe in me very strongly. I don't pray for things I go after it or do what I need to do to improve my situation...I and only I have control over myself. Live life and be happy. P.S. My memory is extremly poor but I live for the moment knowing if I go to the movies I won't remember it next week...I say who cares!

Apr 7th, 2012 10:11am

I has a friend who was diagnosed for years with Bi-polar D/O. I work in mental health and really never thought he was Bi-polar. In the last couple of years I have had the opportunity to work with client's who are TBI and the symptoms, frustration, angry out-bursts, seizures..etc. I am now certain he had TBI. I wonder if this had happened to others with TBI, that they are misdiagnosed and not receiving the help that they need. I love that you are incorporating meditation into your tool box. I know that scientist along with the Dali Lama have been studying it's effects and I believe it has the possibility of really helping people with TBI. Loved reading your story. Thank you.

Mar 11th, 2012 5:11pm

Mindfulness Practice and TBI, The Gold Mind Meditation Project “Until you have the inner discipline that brings calmness of mind, external facilities and conditions will never bring the joy and happiness you seek. On the other hand, if you possess this inner quality, it will be possible to live a happy and joyful life.” Dalai Lama “Notes to our much loved son, Had - a time of agony, love, sense of loss and hope, encouragement and realization that you have been given life because of your unfulfilled destiny.” Starting lines from the Journal kept by my father, H.C. Walmer D.O. at UC Davis Hospital at time of my auto accident Dec. 31, 1977. This is the story of an auto accident resulting in my Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) all those years ago. Modern medicine has become very good at enabling us to survive a wide range of traumas that previously lead to death. We, as survivors of TBI, have had a world shattering experience. With Mindfulness practice that I will describe we can learn to befriend our new lives, join with others and find ease in the present moment. Healing is possible. Here’s my story. I was riding in a car with friends, returning to Oregon from California after my college’s winter break. Traveling north on the interstate we crashed into a car that had missed its exit and was backing up on the road. At 66 mph we impacted, crushing the right side of the car where I was seated. My head, with glasses slammed into the dashboard and Jaws-of-Life were required to free me from the vehicle. I was rushed to an Emergency Room in a coma. My brain swelled in my skull. This was before state seat-belt laws, as well as the current medical relief mitigating the critical intracranial pressure of brain swelling. In six days, with the powerful help of my parents and formal medical care, I regained consciousness. I had amnesia, diplopia (double-vision w/ anisocoria, maximally dilated pupils), and severe TBI. I walked with great difficulty. In the short instant of this accident I was not who I used to be. My life was dramatically and forever changed. I went home with my parents and slowly recuperated. Repeated Osteopathic treatments aided balance and motor coordination issues improved over time. Often I was in a foggy mental state, with occasional glimpses of clarity. Plans for my future existed only as fleeting positive images in my mind. That following fall I went back to college thinking my life would be just the same as my previous times there. Not so. It wasn’t. Those plans and images were now derailed, couldn’t get back on the tracks. I had great difficulty learning and people didn’t relate to me as they once did. I struggled with an array of unfamiliar cognitive deficits. I was back at the same place with a different me. This condition of TBI was only vaguely recognized. New frustrations arose to surprise me. My romantic relationship split up, as I would often rage out of control within, emotionally and couldn’t figure it out. Anger would grab my sensibilities. My ability to be a fast study was gone; I now had a memory that was effectively Teflon for new facts. Frustration was a persistent undercurrent of my entire life. Boundary issues and very slow mental processing made for a whole new mix in my social and personal world. Who was I now? In short I needed to learn to befriend a new me, a newcomer to the land of TBI. Fortunately in 1982 I met a wonderful and highly supportive woman. She encouraged me to complete my college degree, get work and we eventually married. She already had a wonderful son and we had two more incredible children and I cannot say enough about the treasure and contribution of our empowering and loving family relationship. As I lost one job after another I met and came to know more of my cognitive deficits. Many relationships break up with TBI. I was so fortunate in marrying this woman who has been strongly capable of holding all that occurred (super mother). As well and quite unbeknownst to me, she, with her character, was actually providing my missing executive functions. Ten years after the accident, a friend said, “I’m going out to Spirit Rock this evening to sit with Jack Kornfield in meditation. You might like it.” Curious, I went and followed the sitting meditation instructions. In a matter of weeks I had experiences of peace and energy. I was inspired. I knew I was capable of learning the beneficial qualities I heard spoken of in the Dharma Talks. I regularly went to the Monday evening meditation sits at Spirit Rock with Jack Kornfield and other dharma teachers. I find all of the “seven factors of awakening” coming into play now in this practice: investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, equanimity and mindfulness. This tangible result fuels my practice. I know that it makes a difference for me to do it. It’s self motivating: participate and learn this skill and get positive benefit. Meditation is a very forgiving practice. It’s ‘win win’, you practice skillfully or learn what’s needed. That’s the actual process. Losing track of being attentive with a meditation object and going off into worlds of thought is a natural phenomenon of the mind. That is exactly what minds do and as a person meditating we get to simply observe this as a regular process. Wise instruction here is noticing what the mind has done and bringing attention back to the chosen object, say breathing or the body. When the mind wanders into thinking you haven’t done something wrong, you are gently developing the practice of mindfulness as people have done for thousands of years. Now, I am fruitfully bringing this practice to bear on all my life experiences. I savor being mindfully present with various life experiences, pleasing and unpleasing – yes, both sides. This is not living in fantasy, rather being present with things as they are – feeling emotions and all else as that arises within us and communicating honestly. Regular meditation practice has brought deepened levels of clarity and awareness to how I relate to my self and world. I am more able to hold sustained attention to any chosen activity. I practice everyday either with time sitting or in being awake to the moments of my life experience. With this mindfulness I can accept and gently hold whatever states arise in my consciousness or know that if I’m overloaded, to back off. The mind can be a crazy beast. This training grounds me in a sense of dignified inner wellness and peace including the damages of TBI. Mindfulness practice isn’t about changing me into a better me, rather it’s about befriending who I am. Healing (neuroplasticity) is a long process. Mindfulness and meditation open me to energy and the choice I have in this moment to see clearly the effects arising from my TBI and then be more appropriate in my actions. Not throwing gas on the flames. TBI is still very much a part of my daily life. It hasn’t gone away or been miraculously cured. I have learned to live skillfully with poor short-term memory. Emotional outbursts pass more quickly as I can see them, know they will pass and stop denying them. I have continuing difficulty with interpersonal boundaries. Though I am bright and cheerful, good at getting jobs, I continue to lose them. I identify with all of this much less and that gives me much peace and ease. My wife and I are now ‘empty nesters.’ I savor the sweet memories of our children growing up as well as the amazing adults they now are. I’ve been practicing on this path for 23 years. Last year I had a ‘Bodhisattva insight’ (Buddhist noble goal, contributing to others) and with my dear wife’s encouragement I formulated this mindfulness meditation project. I intend to share and teach mindfulness to fellow survivors in my TBI community. Despite ongoing frustrations with the cognitive deficits, recurring fogginess and loss of jobs, mindfulness practice just works in creating peace of mind. It returns me to a joy and clarity in being with what I love. I am happier and more satisfied throughout my life. TBI has stricken millions. It has often been misdiagnosed and thus poorly treated. In top-of-the line and expensive rehabilitation programs I was taught 'compensatory coping strategies’ for the 'cognitive deficits' of my brain injury. These strategies were well intended, but may fall short of addressing our need for inner well being. I had to learn that necessary inner transformation for myself. I learned to sift gold from the gravel of my life experiences and found meaning and a purpose for myself. This is not formal rehabilitation; rather it is resting back into the present moment where neuroplasticity and our bodies’ innate healing systems can engage. Acceptance and making peace with this condition arises for me from doing the mindfulness practice. I recommend a variety of meditation techniques for different types of TBI. The first foundation of mindfulness is the body. Here we bring awareness to sensations that actually inform us that we have a body - pulsations, contact with clothing, feeling our weight, that which you directly sense, non-conceptual. Seated, standing, walking or lying down are all useful postures for your body in meditation. With awareness of the body in this way we can then return our attention to the chosen primary object of attention. I usually use the breath as this object, after all it’s everywhere I am and is always present to be observed. What I do is bring attention to breathing, changing it in no way. Watching the entire process: in and out and in and out, exactly as it is. We are developing a skill here, being present with the present moment, just as it is: patiently, attentively in a clear focus of attention. This is a starting point for our inner transformation, in being willing to have it be as it is. Head-injury is an invisible disability, not easily seen from the outside like a wheelchair or crutches. However, it’s still a disability known profoundly from inside, and of course to those close to us. It is very different for each person and family. We must each explore that which will work in your own situation. Gold Mind Meditation Project has the purpose and intended result of helping you transform your relationship with this persistent condition, not promising rehabilitation – choosing to do a practice intentionally that can have us be strong in the present moment, able to be with much that previously overwhelmed us. This is teaching a powerful skill of mind that can be learned with regular practice. It is with energy and joy I now work on actually teaching and using this extraordinary practice with survivor-lead brain injury support groups here in Portland, OR.

Aug 22nd, 2011 8:59pm


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