4 Ways I've Changed My Reactions to Negativity Since My Brain Injury
There is a lot of negativity surrounding brain injury and TBI, but today I want to focus on the gifts that were uncovered through my own experience.
Once my symptoms had peaked, I became about as functional as a toddler. Everything I had known days before was completely stripped away from me. My name, my memory, my ability to walk and do basic cognitive things became non-existent during the peak of the storm. I was too weak and remedial to know what popular shows were out, who won at the Grammy’s, or what was going to make the Denver Broncos Super bowl champions again. I couldn’t be a supportive friend to help my friends move if they changed their address, or listen to them if they had a bad day. I wasn’t physically able to focus on anything other than which hurdle was in front of me and how I was going to conquer it.
In the beginning, I longed for the days when I could get better and have a “normal” quality of life. My heart ached with guilt as I dwelled on my inefficiencies. Then one day, this perspective was squashed when I got to see parts of my old reality through a different lens. I felt stable enough to get out of the house and my mom and I went to the grocery store. I overheard people negatively talking about their coworkers and how terrible their day was. I saw a woman on her cell phone talking about all the daily stresses of life she had with a look of despair on her face. Finally, I saw two women getting all worked up about a fight they had on social media. I took a step back and saw how many people’s emotions and reactions were controlled by the things surrounding them. They were drowning in their emotions and stress. That’s when clarity slapped me against my face and showed me my journey was no longer about reaction, it was about action.
After I was sexually abused as a very young child, it took many years of therapy and programs to get myself to a functioning state. I eventually got very good grades, did well in sports, and had more confidence than I knew what to do with. After being dominated the way I was, I decided no one would break me down again. I would get fired up at times and pushed issues until I thought I was being heard.
I had been so used to reacting for so many years that it felt ingrained in my DNA. I knew breaking this cycle was going to be one of the biggest challenges I would face. Luckily, from getting a TBI, I was forced to become very aware of my energy levels and how much energy it really took to use my brain, which gave a bitter reminder when I pushed the limits. I could no longer focus my energies on things that didn’t serve my best interest, and had to let go of the little things that in the grand scheme of things weren’t that big of a deal.
The brain is constantly scanning and regulating sounds, colors, temperatures, emotions, systemic regulations etc. I found myself being triggered and angered by negative comments, filling out paperwork, or doing an extra task when I was exhausted. I began asking myself, if I react to this what will it achieve? Will it benefit the situation? Will it aid in my healing, or will it just distract me from healing and give me an out to repeat old patterns? If the trigger involves another person, will they benefit from it as well?
If I decided a reaction was beneficial, I began asking myself what is the best approach to allow positive action rather than reaction? With time, I found a few tools which simplified my life and brought me many gifts I had lost sight of. I found these to be helpful for me, and if they relate to you feel free to use them and tweak them to accommodate your own needs.
1. Wait 72 hours before reacting to something you are deeply emotional about.
After my brain injury, loved ones had a hard time understanding my journey or the person I was becoming. I remember getting heart-wrenching emails regarding my progress or symptoms of my brain injury that uninformed friends passed judgment on. I also had times when someone would post on a comment or picture on social media that seemed to be passive-aggressively about me. My first reaction was to be angry or hurt, but I would never let myself respond while my emotions were running wild. I began working through them and asking myself why are you so angry? Which part of me needs more work so I can accept their actions?
I worked through my emotions and would gain more perspective each day. Sometimes I would find that me responding wouldn’t even be necessary. If I did respond, I needed to be able to create a space where positive changes could be made. Once I was able to see when to speak and when not to speak, I was given the gift of tranquility.
2. Make neutrality a part of your life.
The deeper I went into the action/non-reaction mantra I started obtaining more and more neutrality. Every once in a while someone would slur out cruel comments, but their words no longer fueled me the way they used to. In fact, I started seeing every aspect of life as my teacher. The greatest leaders and teachers of the world are students first and continue to be students. They are always open and receptive to learning to further their expertise. You cannot be an expert if you don’t fully understand the opposing side. An impulsive reaction isn’t necessary to see a different perspective and see different angles.
Now I see anything thrown at me as an opportunity to see another angle, and embrace the chance to learn more about myself. Because of this neutrality I have been able to see clearly in life who I really am — my authentic self.
3. Enjoy the journey.
After I experienced weeks of waking up and not knowing who I was, I began embracing the smallest of things. I remember one instance waking up in the summer of 2013. I had been waking up on my own for about a month now and the amount of gratitude I was filled with was indescribable. I walked outside and felt the sun kiss my face. I could hear the birds chirping, and I didn’t hit the ground immediately from being overstimulated. I got to embrace the fact I was outside and was able to be present as a person, not consumed by my brain injury.
I started shifting my perspective and celebrating the simple things in life. The sound of laughter, warm water, nice weather. Before my injury, my life was so busy I became consumed with working, and school so much that I forgot how to enjoy life. I wasn’t living anymore. My TBI gave me a second chance to make every moment count, even if I was thrown a couple curve balls. I was given the gift of happiness, no matter what the circumstances were.
4. Be kind.
The more I have had the chance to connect with survivors and others, I have learned we all have something in common. We have all experienced some form of tragedy in our lives, and we all have struggles. Our old skeletons shape us, and walk with us and our pain shows in many forms. Deep down we all want love, success and connection. It may look different for everyone, but on some level it is in each and every one of us.
Pain and cruelty creates division. Kindness and understanding brings us together. I do not judge a person based on religion, politics, race, health condition or the journey they are on. I don’t see them with a lens that allows division. I see them for the kindness in their heart and I feel gratitude for the chance to connect with them. We support each other’s journey rather than trying to break it down. Through this lens, I have been gifted with friendships across the world.
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Thinkstock photo by Paul Sutherland.