The Gift of a Head Injury

Rachel Derrington, MSW, PMP
The Gift of Brain Injury

A brain injury can be a precious gift. The existential crisis that more than likely occurs when you have an injured brain is a catalyst that can change your life positively forever.

Many of us are conditioned through years of formal education to believe that processes occurring in the mind are the keys to everything. The truth is the mind can sometimes work against an individual’s greatest good; and in the case of someone with an injured brain, the mind can become a torturous prison. Many spiritual and psychological traditions agree that the essence of who we are is not found in our brains. In fact, most contend, the soul and all of its truth about us lies in the gut, while love, compassion, kindness, and courage are found in the heart. A traumatic brain injury forces us into this awareness, and practicing meditation or mindfulness can transform us from a prisoner of the mind into its master.

I was desperate for help after two major concussions within two months of each other. Dealing with the constant painful, buzzing sensation in my head and severe sensory issues plaguing every waking second for a year and a half was misery. I spent my time at home in a quiet, dark room or shuffling around the house like a zombie. My mind was full of anxiety; obsessing over all the things I couldn’t do anymore. The future with my new limitations was terrifying. I was self- conscious about having to wear earplugs and sunglasses wherever I went. I felt guilty and useless for having to rest the entire day if I ran one errand. I began to question my sanity. I wanted to escape the waking coma that I experienced, so I decided to try meditation. I needed something dramatic - I went on a silent meditation retreat that was suitable for beginners.

The silence was amazing. I realized how much talking irritated my head and caused my anxiety to worsen. The noises of cars, other people talking, the TV, cell phones, even doors shutting—all of it was gone, and my head was less irritated just by eliminating the extra stimuli. The lights were dim everywhere, and it was heaven. Incense burning, however, made me extremely nauseous, but I was able to tell the teacher of my condition, and she stopped burning it (you can speak for accommodations).

Then came the work of learning to meditate. I found that meditating with my eyes open worsened my visual processing issues, so I switched to eyes closed. And I learned that, like with anything new, you have to practice every day and create a routine. Such a commitment would have seemed more daunting and difficult to integrate into my life had I not been on medical leave. But what did I have to lose?

I put the routine in place when I got home. The meditation began to help me cope with the pain of the injuries as well as with the emotional and psychological issues. As my meditation practice progressed, I discovered a space in between thoughts that was very relieving to my symptoms. I began to accept the losses and let go of who I was before the injuries. I recognized that I must get out of my head and back into the rest of my body; in turn, I began to give my body what it really needed. I learned to treat my healing process with kindness and compassion. I found that being present, instead of trying to escape like I had originally planned to do with my meditation, was the key to my survival. I became aware of many skills, some abandoned after childhood and others brand new, that I now had time to try again. Further, I recognized that I am not my head. I have a heart and soul, and I can live life even better with those as my source. One day I wrote down 33 lessons I had learned from the brain injuries. And I was grateful.

 It is our choice to evolve from a head injury. We can choose to:

  1. Be isolated or be in a quiet place of solitude
  2. Resist or accept
  3. Be stagnant or go on an inner journey
  4. Disassociate from ourselves or embrace ourselves
  5. Be terrified in our heads or be courageous in our hearts
  6. Push ourselves through in futility or treat ourselves gently and kindly so we can heal
  7. Hate ourselves for our new limitations or treat ourselves with compassion
  8. Obsess over the future or be in the present
  9. Think about what we can not do or look within ourselves for new skills
  10. Hold on to the past or let it go

For centuries human beings have been trying to quiet the mind. There are many ancient and modern spiritual and psychological frameworks created for getting into the body, being present, feeling grateful, and acting from the soul and heart with kindness, compassion, truth, and courage. Teachers from various traditions agree that if you are open and start looking, the right meditation or mindfulness teacher will come along, whether online or in person.

Do you choose to be a prisoner or a master?

Note: if you have experienced any type of abuse, you may want to start with a mental health practitioner who uses mindfulness in their therapeutic practice or work in conjunction with a mental health practitioner.

Posted on BrainLine January 9, 2017.

About the Author

Rachel DerringtonRachel Derrington is an adjunct professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work where she currently teaches online. She is also a writer and photographer. Ms. Derrington has a Masters in Social Work and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Denver. She is the mother of twin boys.




Comments (21)

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.

Have you every tried Drinking ayahuasca , I have a brain injury to and i am very spiritual when in an altered state :)

Great article, really resonates, thank you!

By no accident, I came upon your website. Thank you for the information you offer. I have delved deeply into self education about the mind and how it functions. I have ptsd and mental challenges. I have also come from a family with a History of mental illness. Not all professionally diagnosed or properly intervened upon individuals & very high functioning in most cases. Myself included. I am so hungry to know more. Ty again.

Hi, I came across your article when I realized there were so few on TBIs and Spirituality. I suffered a TBI when I was 15 years old. 5 years later I found Spirituality and I am now a Spiritual Life Coach. Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope to do the same so we can capture the awareness of Spirituality and how it really can heal us! It was the most difficult thing I have ever been through in my life, but it opened up so many doors and opportunities for me and for that, yes, I truly believe my brain injury was a gift! Again, thank you!

Thank you. Recently I’ve learned, in my fifty one winters here on Earth, that being in the present is everything.

I have suffered through head trauma, adoption trauma, additional childhood trauma, and ultimate PTSD. The source of my challenges may be slightly different, but this all resonates very strongly with me on a very deep level.

Thank you for sharing your experiences.

I think darkness always contains the seed of positivity. I think the degree of challenge and pain is proportional to its potential for inspiration. But I also think every light creates a shadow.

I don’t think it’s about exterminating the negative, I think it’s about striving for balance. I think the potential between positive and negative is what creates motion and progress.

I have a spinal injury as well and experience severe pain and emotional flooding. I would like to know of name of the meditation retreat you went on for beginners? I'm in a severely desperate situation now and know I need to make change in both my environment and in my head.
Thank you!


I totally agree!!! Very insensitive; i was assaulted & left for dead TBI. Im still here!!

Your doing great!

Head injury is not a gift, and many people with head injuries suffer to a much greater extent and cannot "choose" to do many (or perhaps any) of the things suggested in this article.  Two concussions that were minor enough to still allow a person to drive and have independent functioning does NOT offer insights into those who are more moderately or severely injured.  It's wonderful for the author that she was not badly hurt and with a few modifications could get on with life.  This type of article can do far more harm than good, as this type of literature is used as 'proof positive' that those who are not getting better are choosing to be unwell.  Those with head injuries are often robbed of everything- their profession, their talents, their friends, the ability to enjoy anything at all, their independence, financial stability, relationships with family members, and even what is left of their life.  There is a high risk of suicide after a brain injury, and for those who survive that risk, a plethora of other complications that reduce life span.  It is not a "gift," and calling it that is extremely insensitive at best. 

At first I wanted to feel inspired by this article but then I saw this comment and I also saw what I was truly thinking. I suffered a TBI or traumatic brain injury about 7 months ago and it is so hard accepting brain loss as something you can live with. yes you are right in saying that we are more than our brains , that our hearts and soul exist with strength even though we lost what we thought was most of what we were. you get all this money from the insurance settlement but I would trade it all times 100 for my ability to remember what I was talking about back. it is important to know no matter how bad your coma was that you do get to keep your soul in there somewhere. Even when I didn't know the difference between a pencil and a chair I still felt life inside of me and thankfully it does get better especially with a little work for the first couple years so much brain power can be regained and if you remember that you are alive and also that you are hurt you can get back so much. I won't ever be the smartest guy in the room but I can still be the happiest and make things get better every chance I get . Good luck to any TBI survivor. it gets easier with time and this article still had a good point no matter how bad it was you are more than your brain your soul is still strong

Thank you, exactly what I was thinking…

One could also argue that your comment is insensitive and dangerous inasmuch as worsening despair and suicidal ideation by framing concussion in such a way as you did, even if the stats you quote are true.
What the author was trying to convey was a sense of seeing the cup half full and promoting hope.

By the same token I could say that if doctors are number 1 career for suicide followed by dentists at number 2 [which is actually true] and that a head injury may save them from despair in a world where truth and confusion are mixed.
Look at how we treat the earth, fellow animals and humans, its abhorrent. Getting off this bus anyway or how is usually a good thing.

God works in mysterious ways.

Thank you ♡

I completely agree- it is not always a gift, or a matter of perception. To say so is a bit insensitive and not entirely inspirational considering the challenges some others have been through. I know someone who was shot in the head in a drive by, and they don't' say the injury itself was the gift, but the strength she found within herself and from the natural world. Its a reframe, but an important one.

I can understand why you would feel this way- brain injury is a very unique to the individual experience and can completely change one's life. I think her point is that no matter the symptoms of your brain injury, it is an opportunity to decide how you are going to respond to what has happened to you. It might not seem like there's a choice with symptoms such as severe fatigue, vision loss, emotional/behavioral changes, etc. but there is still a part of you that can choose to accept what is happened or to spend all your energy on rejecting it. To choose to listen to your body and what it's telling you, or to spend your energy trying to avoid any pain. All life's experiences can be used as a learning experience if looked at from the lens of curiosity- what has this experience taught you? For example, were you a workaholic before your TBI and didn't spend any time with your family and now you are reliant on them? Were you terrified of asking for help, and now you're in a situation where you must?

This is not to diminish any of the horrible things that can go along with TBI and other chronic conditions; life is changed dramatically, no doubt. But you also have power in how you respond to whatever comes your way on an emotional and spiritual level. And that can have direct impact on your overall outlook on life as well as physical healing.

So inspiring!  Thank you!

Great article! Truly a privilege to know you. :) MChifalo

Thank you for this article- it truly resonates with all I have been feeling physically and emotionally for the past 4.5 yrs of my life with an ABI

I have realized that acceptance is a big part of brain injury, especially if you are an over achiever as I was, and still am to some degree.

I live my life more presently than not,as it is hard some days to process things, words, etc.. but also so that I can truly live my life, not obsess about the future, because it isn't here yet, and really to adapt to my new normal. It took me a long time , years in fact to be able to think, say and now write those feelings down.

Yes I agree, being a prisoner of the past will do no good, far better the words of Deepak Chopra, ' be a pioneer of the future, not a prisoner of the past.'

fantastic article

I totally understand the frustration that comes from seeing people talk about a TBI in a positive light when brain damage can be so bad and brutal that there are people whose lives have been so damaged that there is very little that you can find to be positive about but nonetheless I found this article very inspiring because for someone who has a very serious TBI and whose life is still livable i found it
very helpful what you said. mainly that we are not just a brain. We are also our hearts and guts and even though our favorite tool has been damaged we are also still living our lives and have other tools and skills to enjoy as best we can. Life is still beautiful even if we do forget what we were doing all of the time