Fundamentals for Living Better After Brain Injury

Taryn Stejskal and Jeffrey Kreutzer, The National Resource Center for Traumatic Brain Injury, Virginia Commonwealth Model Systems of Care
Fundamentals for Living Better After Brain Injury

Survivors and family members often face a host of unfamiliar problems. In this uncharted territory, people have a hard time knowing how to manage new, everyday challenges. New challenges may include managing stress, judging success and failure, setting priorities, asking for help, being patient, learning from mistakes, and developing short-term goals. After brain injury, there is little doubt that emotional and physical healing can take a long time.

You may have heard about the importance of “attitude” when facing life challenges. Abraham Lincoln said, “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.” Carlos Casteneda said, “The trick is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.”

We have talked to a number of survivors and family members about success and failure. Our discussions have helped identify goals that can help people be more successful and feel better about themselves and their lives.

  • Learn to manage stress more effectively. Everyone faces stress at some point in their lives. Find and master stress management techniques that work best for you. Listen to music, take a walk, see a movie, exercise, talk with someone you like, read a book, or practice yoga and meditation. One of the keys to effective stress management is taking small breaks and finding enjoyment in your everyday life.
  • Define success in your own terms. Everyone has the right to decide how to be successful and whether or not they are meeting their standards. No matter what your present situation, you can be caring, enjoy relationships, learn new things, help others, improve yourself, explore new ideas or hobbies you never had time to pursue, and live a meaningful life. Often times, survivors and family members get stuck comparing their standards for success to the way they were before the injury. Changes in your life make it important that you also change your definition of success.
  • Set priorities and focus your energy to succeed. Often families get bogged down by trying to do too many tasks at once. Make a to-do list, number the items by priority, and work on the highest priorities first. Take time to recognize the difference between what you have to do and what you want to do. In addition, as other family members to do the same. Are there tasks that your family can work on together? Finally, take time to plan for the unexpected. Consider what sorts of unexpected events might keep you from achieving success.
  • Learn how and when to ask for help. Many survivors and family members do not want to ask others for help because they are afraid they will be seen as a burden or be turned down. It is important to recognize that everyone needs at least a little bit of help sometimes, and most people enjoy helping others. Do not let pride get in the way of asking for the help you need. Seek help early on, before your problem becomes a crisis. And do not forget about the importance of helping others as well. People you have helped in the past will probably want to return the favor. Do not forget to let the people who have helped you know that you are happy to return the favor in the future.
  • Learn the art of patience. Patience is a skill, not a type of personality with which you were born. If you are not already, you can learn to be a more patient person. Patience is important, but not always easy to muster. Patience is a much needed skill because the road to healing is long with many bumps and turns. Count to ten, take slow deep breaths, take a break, or focus on accomplishments or improvements. Happier endings come with patience and persistence over time.
  • Learn from your mistakes. If you learn from a mistake, it is not actually a mistake, it becomes a life lesson. No one can do everything perfectly, especially the first time. Life lessons were created to teach us about how to be a better person. Think of your mistakes as lessons that create the opportunity to learn and make your future brighter.


  • Avoid being hard on yourself. After injury, many family members and survivors are hard on themselves, especially if they are not able to do things the way they were able to before. An injury makes many aspects of your life harder. Healing both physically and emotionally is a big enough task. Why make it more difficult by being hard on yourself? Instead of getting angry with yourself, do your best to be kind and compassionate toward yourself. It will make things easier for everyone.
  • Be as concerned about yourself as you are about others. Be careful about spending your time worrying about and helping everyone else. Try to take care of yourself first. When you are on an airplane, do you know why you are supposed to put your oxygen mask on before you help others? The answer is that if you do not take care of yourself first, you will not be any good when it comes to helping someone else. Decide what your limits are. Once you have set your limits, say no to the things beyond your limitations. Try to take out time for yourself each day, even if it is just 15 minutes.
  • Create manageable short-term goals. Brain injury often requires that you put some of your goals on hold. To avoid being overwhelmed and afraid about all the things you have to do to get better, focus on the most important things you need to accomplish today and tomorrow. Often people do not want to set small goals because they think they are lowering their standards. You can still hold on to your long-term goals, but you are going to need to take smaller steps to get there. Smaller goals will allow you to measure your success and accomplishments each day. Finally, when you are healing after brain injury, making it through everyday is an accomplishment. In order to succeed, be sure to set reasonable expectations.
  • Develop and maintain support systems. Everyone does better when they are able to receive understanding and support from others. Maybe your old friends do not visit or call as much as they used to. Do not be afraid to call them or reach out to make new friends. Of the common challenges families face, most people report that feelings of loneliness and isolation are very upsetting. You and your family may be different from who you were before your injury. Caring, helping, and reaching out to other people is a good way to make progress and avoid feeling alone. If you feel like your old friends do not understand you, join a brain injury support group or seek out others that have had similar experiences who will better understand you now.

In summary, there are many aspects of brain injury that are not fully in your control. However, your attitude and approach to your life are still in your control. By following through with the ideas and suggestions offered by successful survivors and family members, you can improve your outlook, you mood, and heal more quickly. The famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Believing that your life can be better may not necessarily make it so, but it is most definitely the first step.” In addition, no matter what your present circumstance, you attitude will help carry you through even the tougher times you and your family will face ahead. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best when he said, “What lies behind us and lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.”

Posted on BrainLine June 19, 2009.

From the National Resource Center for Traumatic Brain Injury, Virginia Commonwealth Model Systems of Care. Reprinted with permission.

Comments (4)

Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

I had a left tentoral meningioma, 2 brain surgeries and spine damage which resulted in excruciating leg pain. It has been 10 years and my cognition has improved measurably within the last year. Never give up hope!!!

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I suffered a mild TBI a year and a half ago. Recovery has been slow, long, and incomplete despite excellent medical care and family support. This website is the most realistic and helpful I have found. My family and physicians have been great, but I don't know anyone in a similar situation. How about adding a chat room for those of us who are "in the trenches": those of us living with TBIs, our families and our caregivers?

Hope, please reach out to a support group for brain injury. You are not alone and do not need to go it alone. I know it seems this way, but there are those out there who understand and can help. Whether its specifically brain injury or post stroke, start some kind of connection. One thing can lead to another. Keep up the good work! You've been through so much. Be proud of yourself everyday and reach out! Explain to others how you are doing and why and how you feel. Your past friends may not understand by themselves. Talk to them and help them to understand.

Your website has meant the world to me. I didn't know, and still do not know, the extent of my injuries, and it has been 2 years. I do know that everyone from my former life has disappeared, the few I do have left are only immediate family by blood (I am literal in everyone left -including my last name) and those remaining are burdened by my existence. I feel like I annoy everyone. The few saving graces are things like your articles (which I read with one eye and I don't know why), the man at the gas station who understands that counting money is hard and helps count for me and has yet to throw it back at me, and the glimmer of hope when I finally did something I used to do like add in my head a simple math problem (subtract. Multiple and divide are especially foreign to me when I used to be able to do long division in my head and would no less think of using a calculator). Rather than complain, I am grateful that I can walk again, drive very short distances, loss of bladder control is not totally evident in a large bodies of water where I learned to walk and move again but I do wonder why all the people I once believed were friends, whom I thought I had helped, have all left? The last time I spoke to any of them was nearly 2 years ago at the funeral of an family member who was merely 6 weeks old. Why do so many people abandon others when they need a friend the most (these friendships spanned 20 plus years or most of my life through children). Second, why do I pace? Why do I rock? I saw it on a questionairre from some attorney and people have made fun of me for it that don't know me and I wonder why? Is it tied to medication? Thanks, Hope