by Julie Francis, GCFP
It seems you can’t pick up a health-related magazine these days without someone talking about concussions. They’re everywhere – on the playing field, in nursing homes, at amusement parks. You might get the impression that every thing you do is putting your noggin at undo risk. That’s hardly the case as your brain has a very sturdy piece of luggage – your skull – keeping it safe and sound from most unfortunate events. But as anyone who travels knows – contents inside your luggage may shift. That’s what happened to me as the result of a car accident.
As my neurologist explained it, the jolt of the rear-end collision subjected my brain to shearing forces that caused the nerves to lose their protective coatings. This left the nerve fibers in my brain exposed to one another causing the signals to get crossed. Put more simply, think of your nerves as electric cords. Strip away the insulation and let the wires inside touch one another and things begin to short circuit.
And short circuit they do. The result is a muffling of the ability to think and process and even to perceive. In my case, this meant I had trouble with balance, memory, word recall, orientation, focus, and a host of mundane skills like identifying objects out of context and recognizing my clients. The short circuit also produces a form of migraines. For me, that meant a near-constant throb of varying intensity in my right temple and behind my right eye often including the entire right side of my face and neck.
Discomfort aside, the first order of business in treating a concussion is to lessen the migraines. As my neurologist put it, “Your brain is a learning machine. We need to stop the migraines so your brain doesn’t get the idea that they are normal.” We did that with a cornucopia of drugs. The result was far from complete but medication did render the pain manageable. Time, sleep and Feldenkrais Method® principles, along with other modalities like acupuncture, helped the recovery process.
One thing to know about brains is that they heal VERY slowly. Three years post-accident I still have issues. AND I continue to heal. Aside from medications, physical therapy and other tricks of the medical trade, here are a few Feldenkrais Method approaches I found especially helpful to my healing journey.
- Do LESS than you know you can do. I learned very quickly that trying to push myself, or even trying to keep up my “normal” pace resulted in increased headaches, loss of focus and mental fatigue. That was perhaps the biggest learning for someone who generally subscribed to the “too much is just enough” philosophy of life. Now I do less, way less. My brain is much the happier.
- Go SLOW. Brains, as I noted heal very slowly. Trying to speed that process by taking on too many therapies, approaches, etc. doesn’t work. Trust me, I tried. Having difficulty tracking my right eye to the right, I started a vision-training program that backfired. My brain wasn’t ready. Time is your friend and greatest ally. Concussion recovery is about retraining your brain, not beating it into submission. Give it a chance to learn. It might just surprise you.
- Observe. The more you notice, the more likely you are to discover what works for you. No two people are identical. Neither are any two concussions. So pay attention. Make note of what happens when. How do you feel before you do or take something? What happens after? Check in along the way. As you do that lesson or therapy, as you work at your computer or interact with other electronic devices, as you exercise or whatever – take time to evaluate your symptoms. Are you feeling well? Maybe do a little more. Feel pressure starting to build? Quitting is a useful though undervalued option. Having memory issues, I found it especially helpful to share my insights with a friend who served as a back up for my circuits when my own memory escaped me.
- Play. I define play as doing something simply for the pleasure of doing it without intending a specific outcome. By making everything I was doing to help myself into a game rather than a goal, it took the pressure off and allowed me to stay with what was showing up right now. It also gave me permission to stop things that didn’t seem to be helping. How do you shift into play mode when your head is pounding and you don’t feel you could find your way out of a paper bag? Simply ask, “What if?” What if I do this? What happens when? Explore. There is much to discover.
- Imagine. When actually doing something feels like “too much,” remember it’s okay to do things in your imagination. There, you can let go of muscle tension and performance anxiety and pretend that what you are attempting is not only possible but easy. Go with it. This strategy proved especially helpful as I was relearning how to stand on one leg. Actually doing so made me tense. That, in turn, resulted in increased head pain as well as decreased balance. So, I simply imagined until I felt safe trying just a little. Then I would observe what happens and either try a LITTLE more, retreat back into imagination or simply rested.
- Rest OFTEN. Sleep is perhaps the single best thing you can do to heal your brain. Good quality sleep. Resting between and during activities also makes a difference. Along with doing less, I found taking breaks to be invaluable. My life doesn’t support taking vacations but when I treated myself to long breaks, I discovered significant boosts in memory. I am now conscientious about booking downtime into my work schedule. Overload and overwhelm may be the American way but if you’re dealing with brain injury learning to chill has a much bigger payoff. Sadly, it took me having a concussion to discover that.
As a Feldenkrais® practitioner, I have at my disposal hundreds of lessons and more than a few willing hands. As with everything else I undertook, I discovered that less really is more when it comes to healing from a brain injury. When I stopped trying to do full lessons and gave myself permission to do a few movements, rest, play in my imagination, rest, zone out, etc. as I felt capable with ease, I found not only more pleasure in doing Awareness Through Movement® (ATM®) lessons but also greater results and improved retention. I let my breathing be my guide. If I can do something without interfering with my breath, I allow myself to continue. If there’s a hiccup or catch in my breathing, it’s time to back off.
The same is true for hands-on, Functional Integration® lessons. The Feldenkrais Method is about learning, not achieving. Put into that context it was easier to let go of the expectation that lessons had to achieve something or be a certain length. Instead, I found that short, specific hands-on lessons, as well as those that helped to calm my nervous system, gave my brain a boost. Sometimes there is a bit of pushback in the form of a headache but I put it down to my circuits rewiring.
As I continue to heal, I find the headaches receding and my abilities improving. This is now my life and on this journey, who knows where I’ll end up. There’s a saying about the Feldenkrais Method – “Make the impossible possible, the possible easy and the easy elegant.” I’m setting my course for elegant.
Julie Francis, GCFP, has been practicing the Feldenkrais Method for more than twenty years. She has a special fondness for applying Feldenkrais principles to all areas of life.