Practicing mindfulness after brain injury can help you reduce stress and improve several cognitive abilities.
In this article, you’ll learn the science behind mindfulness and meditation. Plus, we’ll show you how mindfulness can give your recovery a much-needed boost.
Let’s get started.
The Need for Mindfulness After Brain Injury
Mindfulness is simply the practice of staying present in the moment. It means keeping your attention on what is happening right now and not on the future or the past.
While this may sound simple, most of us don’t do so. During any given moment, we are thinking of our families, our bills, what we’ll have for lunch, and what plans we want to make for the future.
For individuals recovering from a brain injury, there are often even more pressing matters on their minds. For example, they may have regret over lost abilities and worries about what the future might bring.
Besides that, patients can experience increased sensitivity to sounds, lights, and touch after a brain injury. Coupled with limited attention span, this can easily lead to sensory overload.
All these emotions and anxieties put extreme stress on the brain which, for TBI survivors, can have severe consequences. In fact, studies have found that repeated stress after a brain injury can cause “memory impairment, neuronal and glial cell loss, and inflammation.” Basically, stress can cause actual physical changes in the body that are counterproductive to your recovery.
Therefore, finding ways to reduce stress is critical during brain injury recovery. That’s where mindfulness and meditation come in.
Benefits of Mindfulness and Meditation for the Brain
Mindfulness offers many benefits to brain injury survivors and has been backed by science. These benefits include:
Meditation can also grow the gray matter areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation. This makes your brain more efficient at those skills.
In addition, many brain injury survivors struggle with over-selectivity or “tunnel vision.” This causes a person to become hyper-focused on one item or activity to the exclusion of everything else. For example, they might be too focused on walking to pay attention to their surroundings.
As you can see, mindfulness can help you overcome some of the most difficult effects of brain injury. That’s why many therapists recommend adding it to your daily routine.
How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation After Brain Injury
The foundational principle of mindfulness is staying mentally present. While it may not be possible for you to do this all the time, try to spend at least five minutes a day practicing it. Even just a few minutes is enough to reap the benefits.
With enough practice, your brain will retrain itself to absorb more relevant information and tune out unnecessary distractions.
The following are a few quick ways to practice mindfulness after brain injury:
1. Focus on Your Breath
To stay mentally present, it helps to have a point of focus that pulls your attention to your body. For most people, this point of focus is their breath.
When your mind focuses on your breath, it’s much harder for thoughts and worries to break through. This gives you a chance to step back and observe what you feel with a clear mind.
To focus on your breath, close your eyes and slowly inhale and exhale. Imagine the air entering through your nose, filling your lungs, and expanding your chest.
Then, as you exhale, picture the air flowing out the same way.
Once you’ve done this a few times, you can begin expanding your awareness to take note of the sensations you feel.
What sounds do you hear? What is the temperature of the room? How do your feet feel on the ground? What emotions do you feel?
Try to keep yourself present like this for at least five minutes. Set an alarm on your phone to allow yourself to relax without worrying about the time.
2. Body Scanning
Cultivating awareness of the body is another technique that will assist you during brain injury recovery. You can do this through body scanning.
Body scanning can help you identify areas of tension by focusing on those areas. To perform a mindful body scan, simply focus on each body part for a few seconds.
Start with the top of your scalp, identify any tension or pain that might be there, and work your way down.
Sometimes it helps to imagine a warm stream of water pouring over the top of your head. Picture the water flowing down the rest of your body until it finally reaches your feet.
The goal of this exercise is to help you break free from repetitive thoughts and develop more awareness of your body. You can also use it to stay focused on the movements you practice during therapy. This helps boost neuroplasticity and may make those exercises more effective.
Noting is a technique that is hard to learn at first. But it is crucial for helping you break the vicious cycle of anxiety. It involves changing the way we react to our thoughts.
Our tendency is to believe that all our thoughts are true reflections of reality. For example, if we are scared, we believe that means there must be danger nearby, so we react accordingly.
The problem is, after a brain injury, this is no longer true. The thoughts and emotions of the injured brain are essentially “jumbled up” and do not always mean anything. Thus, even something simple like taking a walk can make you feel anxious.
The practice of noting your thoughts allows you to stop yourself from reacting before they suck you into their vortex of negativity. All you have to do is identify or “note” a thought when you feel it appear.
For example, if you have a sad thought, don’t dwell on it. Simply note the feeling, then let it go. You can even try writing down what you feel in a journal.
The key is not to identify with your thoughts or emotions. Rather, treat them as something external that you can observe.
TBI and Mindfulness
Cultivating mindfulness can give brain injury survivors a healthy boost to their cognitive recovery.
If you need help practicing mindfulness, there are several apps available that can help guide you through a meditation.
Cognitive-behavioral therapists are another great resource. They can teach you more about noting thoughts and how to avoid reacting to every emotion.
Mindfulness can be difficult at first because it involves breaking deep-seated habits. But with enough time, you can retrain yourself to be in control over how you react to the world again.