The Mighty Logo

How Interruptions and Distractions Affect Me as Someone With a Brain Injury

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

How do I define interruption following encephalitis and acquired brain injury? For me, the words interruption and distraction are pretty much a synonym of the word ending — the beginning of the end. When your working memory is faulty, your attention, concentration and short-term memory can only rely on the now. If you interrupt the flow of a conversation, it is pretty much guaranteed that confusion will set in. The course you were heading on is long forgotten the second the interruption occurs and recalling your recent thoughts can be quite a challenge.

Feeling utterly confused can be quite distressing, and from that point on a myriad of feelings can get into the mix, from anger at having been interrupted to sadness at not being able to retrace your thoughts. The best way to understand the effects of interruptions and distractions on an injured brain is to imagine that you are waking up in an unfamiliar place, not knowing how you got there, and not knowing how to get back to your safe place. Then, on top of that, imagine you are also struggling to communicate to find the missing pieces of information. You’d feel uneasy and probably scared too, right?

Handling interruptions

My weird wonderful brain puts so much effort into organizing my thoughts in a way that makes sense, spitting the words out, adding intonation in the right places, remembering to look at people when I’m talking to them, taking in their facial expressions and so on, that an interruption or distraction scrambles everything up.

It’s as if someone comes along and messes up your 1000-piece puzzle when you only have 10 pieces left to complete it. You’d be pretty annoyed and frustrated too, wouldn’t you? An interruption becomes the equivalent to losing the spark that starts your engine. An interruption can sometimes result in losing your one and only opportunity to contribute to a discussion during an evening.

Of course, most people don’t interrupt intentionally, and it may be for a very legitimate reason too. However, I’d love for people to be conscious of the fact that an interruption can run deep on an injured brain. It can generate a lot of frustration, anger and sadness too. I’m not sure many people realize the impact of an interruption or unnecessary distraction on a weird, wonderful brain. After all, how could they truly understand and relate to the extent of your additional challenges when most haven’t experienced such a thing?

They may notice that you speak slowly, but do they realize the amount of concentration required to sustain a dialogue? Do they realize that an interruption disrupts the course of your thought process and a faulty short-term memory means that finding your way back may become a living nightmare? And then, the more you think, the more you try to find your way back, the more the anxiety sets in and further freezes your brain, halting your thinking process altogether. Sometimes, if you try really really hard, you might be lucky enough to remember, but by then the conversation has long moved on from the subject. What do you do then?

Then, there is the flip side where I may become the person interrupting the flow of a conversation as I suddenly recall a thought. I call them my brain waves. In order to share my brain wave, I may lose restraint and interrupt the course of a conversation. It might come across as rude or impolite, but I think it’s important for me to take the time to explain this type of behavior.

When a brain wave occurs, it’s often the result of a previously lost opportunity that resurfaces and I’ll often feel like I need to share it now or forever hold it in peace. If I don’t say it now, that thought will all too soon sink into the abyss once again. My interrupting requires a certain level of understanding from the people I converse with, that’s for sure. From experience, they will either understand and go with the flow or be quite prompt in letting me know that it was not “my turn” to speak. It can be tricky as I am very aware of conversation etiquette. I am aware that I’m breaking the rule, that I may be interrupting their own train of thought, but at that particular moment, holding on wasn’t an option. Therefore, I become the very same interruption that can frustrate the heck out of me. I try not to be so hard on myself, but it can be easier said than done, particularly if I feel I have annoyed or upset the other person.

What are your options then?

Well, there are not really any options as you generally have no control over an interruption. However, there are a few things that can help you limit the chance an interruption will occur. I try to limit the number of people in a room. I don’t put on music and keep the TV volume on low. Kids are sent to play outside as any additional movement is a stimulus the brain has to process and therefore a potential for distraction. I raise my index finger at the kids to flag to them that they need to wait one minute so I can conclude first.

I have a note pad and write things down to avoid becoming the “interrupter.” I often close my eyes when I talk so I can concentrate extra hard and avoid getting distracted by what’s going on around me. I often wear earplugs to filter unnecessary noises. I’ll nap prior to attending an event to recharge my brain and ensure it is in as sharp of a state as possible. These are examples of things I can control, but it’s obviously not bulletproof. Those things lie with me, but there are also simple things others can do. Some examples are:

  • Allow me sufficient time to put my thoughts across.
  • Don’t rush me. Trying to “hurry up” my thought process is likely to be counter-productive.
  • Please ask me if I want you to help me retrace my steps. Most people do it thinking they are being helpful (and on most occasions it is), but sometimes if I’ve already started recalling my thoughts, it becomes a second interruption and it is likely to lead me astray once again.
  • If I’m looking for a word, please help.
  • If you have something important to tell me, please make sure the setting and time is right.
  • Follow an important conversation with a text message. If I forget, I’ll have something to fall back on. This helps me avoid feeling embarrassed about having to ask again.

They are all pretty simple things, but once you combine them, they soon add up and make a huge difference.

How minimizing interruptions has changed me…

I have grown fond of writing because it gives me the freedom to share my thoughts without having anyone interrupt the direction in which I want to steer the conversation. I am free to write about whatever I want, I can go back and edit until I am pleased with the content and I can publish when it suits me. It is then up to the reader to read my blog in their own time, to read it partially or in its entirety, to decide whether they have learned something without being worried about offending me and so on.

It’s probably more of a monologue than a conversation, I’ll give you that, but since I’ve been sick I’ve found that writing has been my one opportunity to “eloquently” share my thoughts, to share a piece of my heart, and provide an insight in the life of the “new me” without feeling distressed or like a broken record. It works for me, anyway. It helps me rebuild my confidence and although it often makes me quite vulnerable, I don’t feel judged as can be the case when I am talking. I don’t see the puzzled faces in front of me as I try to recall my train of thought. I don’t have to hold my head between my hands as if doing so will glue my thoughts back together, and there is an absence of pressure to perform. If I’m tired, I can simply stop writing, come back to it later and share with an audience on my own terms.

Interruptions will never disappear so I’m 100% conscious of the fact that my weird wonderful brain simply has to adapt to this new reality. An injured brain comes with many additional challenges — hidden challenges. We tend to forget they are there because on the outside, everything looks perfectly fine. If we see someone with a cane or a wheelchair, we may be inclined to offer assistance — I think we have to try to do the same for those, like me, who have hidden challenges. Every little bit helps.

People can’t guess what’s going on in our weird wonderful brains so I hope reading this has allowed you to gain somewhat of an understanding of how interruptions and unnecessary distractions can greatly affect our cognitive abilities.

This story originally appeared on Weird Wonderful Brain.

Getty image by Fizskes.

Originally published: September 15, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home