One of the ‘joys’ (she said sarcastically) of living with a brain injury is the unpredictability. As even the most well-crafted plans and schedules can go astray when your brain decides, for whatever reason, that it has had enough.
Sometimes it’s one tiny unexpected change that has you scrambling to keep up. For example, being in a room in which the sound echoes, new brighter light fixtures or a screaming child in the supermarket.
Or when you simply want to do something, even though you know it’s pushing your limits. And sometimes you just have a bad day. In any case, all these things can steer you straight into the red. The red being that state where you feel drained of energy, when you’re ability to function and cope with life feels like a herculean task and when you just need time to recharge you battery in order to face life again.
Often there are some warning signals to alert you that you are heading in the wrong direction. Signs from your body that tell you that you are approaching your limits and it’s time to change your plans and take a break. The problem however, is that these warning signs aren’t always clear nor do they have a clear label attached along the lines of “warning, your injured brain needs rest”. So even if you notice that you’re feeling off, it’s very easy to attribute that to something else. Maybe you had a deadline at work or are stressed about a family thing or it just isn’t your day. So there is always this temptation to just power through, while hoping that it’s not your brain that is to blame.
Sometimes other people notice these warning signs before I do. It can be helpful when they share their observation about my behaviour seeming off and to ask if I need a break. As this gives me a chance to check in with myself, to see if I might be heading to the red zone without noticing. And, maybe even more important, it tells me that they are aware and accepting of my limitations and want to take my needs into consideration.
Now every brain injury is different which means that warning signs also differ among people. So even if you don’t recognize any of these, maybe it still can serve as a conversation piece with the people in your life, to help create more awareness and understanding about your limits and warning signal.
Five signs that your brain is struggling
Diminished spatial awareness
When my brain gets tired, I get more clumsily. So depending on my surroundings this one results in walking into doors, chairs or tables. Or misjudging heights while trying to cross a street, walking up a set of stairs or getting on an escalator. In my case the bruises on my legs serve as a warning signal that I have been neglecting my limits.
When you are mentally exhausted interacting with people can simply be too much. Having a conversation, texting or interaction with people online is challenging your already limited supply of energy, which makes you to withdraw for those around you. To seek isolation until you feel able to interact with the world again.
Overblown emotional response
With a draining battery it gets more challenging to control your response to emotions and feeling. To make matters worse, when you feel more tired chances are you are also more easily angered or frustrated. It then takes next to nothing for you to to blow up in someone’s face as you simply lack the mental energy to control how you respond to these feelings. This one can cause a lot of pain and hurt in others and ourselves and can lead to a lot of misunderstanding.
Staying focussed and engaged requires mental effort. And when our battery is draining, maintaining focus becomes a real challenge. As a result you can easily get lost in your own thoughts, or simply lose your ability to focus and end up gazing in the distance.
When you do stay focussed and engaged, a tired brain can severely compromise your ability to communicate. As you struggle with finding the right words or with translating your thoughts and feelings into actual words and sentences. Or even lose the ability to verbalize what you want to say in a coherent manner. This one can get worse when the other persons reaction makes you feel more stressed, insecure and inadequate about yourself.
These changes in your behaviour can make interacting with others hard. People can easily jump to conclusions about you (e.g. you are emotional or easily distracted) or themselves (e.g. they aren’t interesting or make you feel uncomfortable). But when experience these warning signals, our brain is already struggling to keep up. So it’s not a reflection on character. It’s simply a sign that our brain needs a break. Recharging our battery will often change these behaviours. So hopefully, instead of simply assuming, we can try to have an honest conversation and try to understand each other a little bit better.