Have you ever said these things or had them said to you?
“Did you hear what I just said?”
“I told you that yesterday.”
“I’m tired of repeating myself!”
When Hugh first woke up from his coma, and for many weeks after, his attention span was severely impaired. He could not read more than a few words at a time because he could not attend to the task that long. At mealtime, he wheeled around the dining room of the rehab center … the nurses removed the foot rests so he could scoot himself. Agitated, he wheeled in circles or up and down the hall. He’d always come to a dramatic skid or stop by sticking his foot up on the wall with a fleeting look of surprise and satisfaction. I’m still not sure where he thought he was going, but he was determined to get there.
Deficits involving attention are common after brain injury. “At the most basic level, attention refers to the ability to select, focus, and concentrate on certain things as well as the ability to ignore, filter out, and inhibit other things.”1
Hugh’s injury happened eleven years ago. Since then, he’s made an extraordinary recovery with the help of more than a year of cognitive rehabilitation and a ton of hard work that he initiated himself. We are thankful every day that he is working and participating in sports again. Oddly, I sometimes feel as if my own attention span is less impressive than his these days, so I looked into attention problems for caregivers.
What affects our ability to pay attention? What sharpens or dulls it? I found that stress, especially prolonged stress without a break "like the kind of stress TBI caregivers experience" has the potential to seriously impair our ability to pay attention and concentrate.
“Caregiver stress appears to affect women more than men. About 75 percent of caregivers who report feeling very strained emotionally, physically, or financially are women. Research shows that caregivers:
- are more likely to have symptoms of depression or anxiety;
- have higher levels of stress hormones; and
- may be at higher risk for mental decline, including problems with memory and paying attention.”2
Scientific American Mind states that “Chronic psychological stress, suffered by millions, may be built on a mind consumed by rumination, worry, or fear about many topics. This type of diffused and unstable focus impairs performance, too. In moments that demand quick decision and action, the consequences of diverted attention and perception could be deadly.”
This is not good news, but wait …
Author Amishi P. Jha says, “The opposite of a wandering mind is a mindful one.” In fact, her article is about mindfulness and learning to live in the NOW. “A focus on the present, dubbed mindfulness, can make you happier and healthier. Training to deepen your immersion in the moment works by improving attention.”
Mindfulness improves attention. This could be the answer I’m looking for.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy has proven to be an effective way to help people avoid relapses into depression. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has also been shown to help people with anxiety, panic disorders, phobias, depression, and even chronic pain. This is great news for people with TBI and their families.
Mindfulness is no longer a new age concept but a validated therapy. I believe it’s what many of us need to finally put to bed the monsters we have created in our own minds — the monsters we never slayed in the past, and those that keep us awake all night as we fearfully await what tomorrow may bring.
- 6 Mindfulness Exercises That Each Take Less Than 1 Minute (Psychology Today)
- Video: Learn to Live in the Now (Scientific America)