Immediately following my husband’s TBI and for a long time after, I noticed that my ability to concentrate grew worse and worse. I couldn’t focus. I would start several things but didn’t finish them, and this resulted in loose ends hanging all over the place. I talked to Hugh’s occupational therapist but forgot to ask her the one question that was bothering me. I called the pharmacist but did not remember to ask about drug interactions with his new medicine. I put the girls’ school papers on the kitchen table but never signed them.
It’s well documented that stress affects our ability to concentrate, remember, and sleep, and I don’t think there are many stresses equal to the days and weeks immediately following a severe traumatic brain injury.
Managing our home, my job, and parenting got lost in a haze of Hugh’s medical needs until I felt like I was handling all of it poorly and making myself sick in the process.
After several weeks of chaos, I realized I had to figure out ways to stop operating in a fog, and that meant I had to create new habits. In hindsight, I realize I should have taken steps earlier, but I wasn’t prepared for how long-term and difficult Hugh’s rehabilitation would be; so I’m offering these five compensatory strategies that will help, especially if you make them habits.
Ask yourself, “What do I need?” every day. Avoid answering, “A miracle!”
When we ask this question, we are forced to name exactly what we need to get through the day.
- I need to talk to a counselor about Hugh’s lack of initiation.
- I need someone to help my kids get their school supplies because I won’t have time tomorrow.
- I need a big dark chocolate bar!
Tip: Simply naming something helps us find a way to make it happen. You can immediately start searching the Internet for information or put a call into a doctor’s office. You can call a friend to give you a break. This is the precursor to your TO DO list, because it goes beyond simple tasks and includes personal needs.
Bonus: By naming what we need, we respect and value our own time and health. This is also a great strategy to help us plan ahead. After my husband’s accident, I caused my children to miss out on a few important events because I was too stressed out to plan ahead. Using this strategy, I might have made arrangements for my children on the very day I heard there were sports tryouts or a special school program on the calendar.
TO DO - Write it down.
Each evening, write down what must get done the next day — not everything you want to get done, but what must get done (think April-15th-tax-deadline kind of list). This list can ease your mind for restful sleep and help you start each new day with clarity and focus. Example:
- Make appointment for counseling session
- Schedule a ride for Anna and Mary to dance team tryouts
- Call O.T. about shower safety
- Pick up Rx at pharmacy (and toilet paper!)
Tip: Keep the list simple and don’t write down more than is humanly possible!
Bonus: Checking these things off feels really great! You will sleep better if you are not worried about remembering something you must do tomorrow. Accomplishing something concrete relieves stress.
I worked on enlisting help where I could find it. Friends or my in-laws could provide rides for my two children. Neighbors could pick something up from the store. My children could keep an eye on their dad while I took a short walk around the block.
Tip: Look for easy-to-do things that take time away from more important work and see who is available to step in and help. Ask for help in a pleasant way, and you are more likely to get it!
Bonus: More time = Less stress = Better focus!
Use every shortcut available.
Do the sheets really need laundering every week? I hate to tell you how many weeks I’d go before changing bed sheets — and nobody noticed. Do you need a hot meal for dinner every night? When in crisis mode, forget perfectionism and learn to embrace messy living for a while.
Tip: Food is food. Sandwiches, soup, and bagged salads work in a pinch and can be healthy. Try “almost homemade” — using some store-bought staples with a few sides to cut down on cooking time.
Bonus: Less stress, more time, easy to prepare. And if your house is not as perfect as it once was, you can proudly say, “My priorities are in the right place.”
Ask doctors and therapists for handouts to explain deficits or symptoms.
Tip: There may not be a handout, but the therapist might try to make you one; or they may refer you to a reliable source online. Reading about the quirky deficits that TBI creates ensures that you will get the correct information and not miss any details in verbal explanations. Deficits in executive function or left neglect can be hard to understand.
Bonus: You will be better armed with information if you digest complex information when you are relaxed in your own home. At home, you can refer to notes and look up words you don’t understand.
Only when we pay attention to how we feel can we can recognize that we may need to make some changes to feel better. If we pay attention to our physical symptoms and our thoughts, we can make small shifts in how we do things that result in big changes.
If you find yourself stressing, rushing, and feeling like you can’t get it all done, take some time to assess your situation and find ways to make it better instead of powering through. You may be powering through to a serious health event of your own if you keep up an unsustainable pace.
As caregivers, paying attention to our own needs serves everyone — remember that our inner peace is a priority, and we will pass this peace along to our whole family. Everyone wins.