After my husband’s severe TBI, my social life came to a grinding halt. What social life I had came in the form of friends stopping by with baskets of food and notes of comfort. These gestures of support were well received, but this was not the “social” life I once treasured.
The Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation recently reported five areas that caregivers find particularly difficult after a loved one’s TBI. They are:
- General strain – practical problems, feeling tired and worn out
- Isolation – avoiding and diminished social contact due to caregiving
- Disappointment – feelings of unfairness, isolation, and economic sacrifice
- Emotional involvement – feeling ashamed, angry, or embarrassed by person with TBI
- Environment – problems with physical environment that affect ability to care of patient.
The report went on to state: “Feelings of loneliness and decreased contact with close friends were significant factors for increased caregiver burden in this study. Both the quality and the quantity of the social network were independent explanatory factors of increased caregiver burden.” The key words here are loneliness and isolation.
There’s no doubt that after Hugh’s injury, I felt isolated from my social network — physically, emotionally, and mentally. I rarely had the time, energy, or desire to go out, and had no words to describe the emotional pain I felt. And yet, I did have a great deal of family support and help from close friends near and far. I have always believed that this support is what kept me from completely sinking into depression, although I came close many times.
Depression is a serious risk for people who suffer a TBI and also for their family caregivers. Depression can stall or halt progress after TBI, and lead to a series of relationship, work, or financial problems. When Hugh lost his job five months after his injury, he fell into a slump and our whole family struggled through it. Our natural tendency was to turn inward, to stay inside and avoid our friends as we licked our wounds. We might have felt better sooner if we had taken another approach.
According to a recent article, “The New Group Therapy,” published in Scientific American Mind, that approach might have been as simple as joining a group and feeling connected to it — instead of isolating ourselves.
While the article explains that the first two types of treatments for depression are usually antidepressant medications and psychotherapy, the authors go on to consider that sometimes these approaches are not available to people because some may not be able to afford medications or they may not have access to facilities and doctors. What this article does say, however, loud and clear, is that: “Our data and those of others show that joining a group, or several groups, can both prevent and cure depression. The type of group is irrelevant as long as it matters to you. It must become an integral part of who you are.”
A huge smile crossed my face as I read this because I immediately understood. Many of my happiest times occurred when I connected with writing friends (writing is my passion), or when I stayed up late with a tight knit group of friends sharing stories, tears, and laughter. It’s during these times when feelings are discussed in both casual and deep ways and connections feel solid and reassuring.
There’s great hope here. The New Group Therapy article states that any group to which a person belongs and to which he or she feels a sense of connection can help depression. It could be a knitting group, a church group, or a genealogy group. Why does this protect against depression? Because groups “provide a sense of belonging. They also can give life meaning, something that is lost in depression — in part because we are better able to achieve goals when we work with others.”
There’s no doubt that it’s hard to get up and get out when you are feeling low and vulnerable, but this research is revealing. Perhaps this is exactly the time we need to force ourselves to rejoin a once loved group for a few hours, to bask in the glow of connectivity, and to rekindle a spark of joy.
Is there a group you’d like to join? This is preventive medicine at its best.
Marsh, Nigel V., et al. “Caregiver Burden at 1 Year Following Severe Traumatic Brain Injury.” , vol. 12, no. 12, 1998, pp. 1045–1059., doi:10.1080/026990598121954.