Along the way in your concussion recovery adventure, you’ve probably heard that mindfulness might be something you want to try. Unfortunately, this statement is rarely followed up with any specifics. One thing I know for sure is that concussion recovery is rarely a linear process. After my first concussion in 2017, I recovered within the ‘normal’ 3 week range. After my most recent concussion in January of 2020 it’s been an entirely different story. As a mindfulness coach, I’d already helped clients use mindfulness to help them recover from their concussions, now it was time to put it to the test myself. I did…and I can report that it has made an enormous difference in my recovery and dealing with all its ups and downs.
So, here are the 3 key ways that mindfulness can help you in your recovery process, along with tips for how you can start integrating mindfulness into your daily life to help your healing!
Research shows that mindfulness helps people with concussions and other mild traumatic brain injuries in three main ways: it helps with pain management, decreases neuro-fatigue, and improves overall quality of life.
All three of these – pain, fatigue and increased depression and anxiety, are common post-concussion symptoms that can really affect your quality of life. Concussion recovery can be like trying to swim in a very unpredictable sea — one minute it’s calm and the next, bam, you’re knocked completely off balance by a big wave that seems to come out of nowhere. Mindfulness practice can help you learn to surf those waves.
- Pain Management
Mindfulness helps with pain management by helping us change our relationship to pain. Most of the time, we resist pain…we grit our teeth and brace our bodies against the pain. This is, of course, totally normal – nobody likes pain, whether it’s acute or chronic. The irony is that the more we resist the pain, the more the pain persists. Normally when we are in pain we are also not just being in pain, but we are resisting being in pain. This might even take the form of physical resisting – bracing ourselves against it, for example. At the beginning of my concussion recovery I would often wake up with my whole face clenched or scrunched up because of a headache like I was literally bracing myself against the pain. Pain is also often accompanied by thoughts like “Will I ever get better?” “Will the pain ever stop?” “Why does it hurt so much?” “I hate this.” These thoughts themselves, research shows, can actually make our pain worse.
Mindfulness helps us observe the pain without judgement – it helps us drop our resistance to it, which in turn allows us to separate ourselves from the pain. Research shows that with mindfulness practice, people’s subjective experience of pain decreases, in other words, with practice, they stop feeling the pain so acutely, it seems to lessen. So next time you have a headache or neck pain, for example — two of the most common pain complaints for us post-concussion folks — try seeing if you can relax around the pain. Even imagining softening the muscles around the area where you feel the pain can be effective. I do this before I get out of bed — I scan my body from head to toes and see if there’s anywhere I am holding tension or discomfort and see if I can encourage it to relax – you might even imagine a warm towel being placed on the area of discomfort. It might seem counterintuitive, but paying non-judgemental attention to our pain, instead of trying to push it away, actually helps us find relief.
Do you find yourself being totally exhausted by tasks that you used to be able to do without even thinking? Neuro fatigue is another common post-concussion complaint, and this can be particularly disheartening. We forget things, making a grocery list exhausts us, tasks we used to be able to do in 5 minutes now take 15 … even the things we used to love doing now seem like an effort, and by the end of the day — or sometimes even the middle of the day –it can seem like for no reason at all, we just shut down.
After a brain injury, our brains just need to use more energy for all of these tasks – our brains simply take longer to process things, even the simple things. Another suggestion is that post concussion, the ‘default mode network’ part of our brain never really quiets down – it’s always ‘on.’ Neuroscience suggests that this part of our brain is normally not very active if we are engaged in a task that requires our attention. Instead, it tends to be mostly active when we aren’t engaged in any particular thinking activity – so it comes online when we are doing things like daydreaming, scanning our environment, any time we aren’t focused on a particular task. However, there is some evidence that after a brain injury like a concussion, this part of our brain is always active, and so it’s not resting when we are paying attention. This might explain some of the neurofatigue (although it should be noted that this theory is not without controversy).
So, how does mindfulness help with fatigue? There is evidence that mindfulness helps reduce default mode network activity. In other words, mindfulness techniques help the brain to rest — it decreases mind wandering, decreases those ruminations about the past or the future, and keeps us focused on what’s happening right now. As a result, with your brain not pulled in a bajillion different directions all the time, your brain can rest and heal. So next time you find yourself exhausted, here’s a really easy way to start building your overall level of mindfulness: choose one of your senses and simply tune into it. Let’s take the sense of touch, for example — you might choose to place your hand on something that feels good – maybe a fluffy blanket, maybe a smooth stone, maybe even placing your hand on your heart. Take a few minutes to rest all of your attention on those sensations — warmth or coolness, smoothness or hardness, softness or roughness of whatever you are touching — each time your mind gets pulled away (because it will, and that’s okay -that’s just what minds do), just gently bring your awareness back to the sensations you are experiencing with your sense of touch right now.
3. Quality of life
Last, but certainly not least — mindfulness practice has also been shown to improve quality of life for people in concussion or mTBI recovery. First of all, mindfulness practice helps us stop living in the past or the future. It helps us keep from ruminating on what our lives were like before our injuries, and keeps us from racing ahead too far in the future. I don’t know about you, but over the course of my recovery, I’ve spent a fair amount of time wishing things were otherwise. Unfortunately this only increases our unhappiness! Don’t worry – I’m not suggesting that you become some sort of pollyanna and start seeing your injury as a gift, but as with pain, not resisting where are at right now, accepting things as they are in the present moment, can actually help us heal more quickly. Another reward of mindfulness practice is that by increasing our present moment awareness we become tuned into our own experience. First, we become more in touch with our limits so we don’t push past them anymore and end up with relapse or flare up of symptoms. Secondly, we become more aware of all the good things that are still happening even amidst the suffering — we begin to notice moments of pleasure or even joy — the beauty of the autumn leaves come into sharper focus; the smile of someone we love brings more joy and warmth into our hearts and we feel it more deeply. And yes, I’ve got a practice you can try for that: try bringing a smile to your face…yes, even if it feels fake…and then notice what you feel…you might notice your shoulders relaxing just a bit, you might notice some crinkly energy around your eyes, and you may even feel a warmth begin to spread through your chest. Rest your awareness on those pleasant sensations, and soak in the good!
If you want to learn more about how mindfulness can help you in your recovery, or explore working with Erin, click here ( you can also download your free Calm Concussion Recovery Tracker): www.erinmccarthymindfulness.com/calm-concussion-recovery
You can also reach Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author
Erin McCarthy, Ph.D. is a Mindfulness Coach and Professor of Philosophy. Her work with people in concussion recovery is informed by her own lived experience of having had two concussions herself. She brings a trauma informed approach to all of her work. An educator for over two decades, she uses evidence based techniques to work with children, youth and adults to help them find the inner space to live a life of flourishing and ease. A trained teacher of Mindful Self-Compassion, Mindfulness for Symptom Management, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction for Teens, an International Mindfulness Teachers Association Certified Mindfulness Teacher Professional level, and a certified Unified Mindfulness Level 2 Coach, Erin is continually inspired by the transformations that these mindfulness modalities afford their practitioners…herself included! For more on Dr. McCarthy’s offerings and approach, see www.erinmccarthymindfulness.com