Something I really struggled with, and continue to struggle with at times, is fatigue. It’s a side effect on it’s own of having a brain injury. But it’s also a side effect of all of the other various side effects of a brain injury (everything I experienced seemed to leave me exhausted)! So, it’s unavoidable really!
However, once I learned to manage my fatigue it had a hugely positive impact on my recovery. And the good news is, is that it wasn’t hard to learn to manage!
Fatigue Challenge 1: Insomnia
In the weeks after my accident I really struggled to sleep. I was absolutely exhausted all of the time, but as soon as I would lay down my brain would be wide-awake. I just couldn’t drift off to sleep. My brain just wouldn’t be able to switch off. What was going on with me?
I tried everything I could to get to sleep, but nothing worked for me. And anything I did try, usually ended in me just feeling more unwell. Reading didn’t work because the concentration required for that would just make me nauseous or confused. Counting sheep was the same thing! Different sleep positions didn’t work because I was restricted to sleeping on my right hand-side (I had banged the back left and any pressure on it would cause more pain)!
I also often experienced vertigo when I closed my eyes, which basically felt like I was really drunk: dizzy, nauseous, and a pounding pain in my head.
Fatigue Challenge 2: I Couldn't Sleep Enough
As the weeks went on and my insomnia improved and I began to experience pure and utter exhaustion. This was a particular problem when I initially returned to work and began to experience my ‘Episodes‘, and the other various side effects became more and more prominent in my day-to-day life. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and I couldn’t get home to bed quick enough. As soon as my head hit the pillow I was fast asleep.
In contrast to what I had been experiencing this was great, but soon my whole day was consumed by the need to sleep. I was exhausted when I woke up. I’d go to work for a few hours, come home and sleep for another few hours (forcing myself to get up by setting an alarm). Then I’d stay awake for an hour or two before going back to bed again for another 12 hours. All to get up the next day and do it all over again. Even when I wasn’t working I was still sleeping for hours throughout the day. Surely my life wasn’t going to become 75% sleep, 25% actual life?
How I Learned to Manage My Fatigue
Managing my fatigue and sleep pattern was a huge factor in my recovery. First, I had to manage my insomnia. Then, I had to manage my inability to get through the day without 18hours sleep! Here’s how I managed to find the right balance for me:
I started practicing mindfulness for 45 minutes every evening (around 7pm) to settle me for the night ahead. It didn’t work straight away, but after just a few days, I noticed a huge difference. So I kept at it and it worked! I found many benefits to Mindfulness but helping to overcome my Insomnia was the first one!
Mindfulness then helped me to manage my inability to stay awake for long periods of time. For the full range of benefits and for more information check out my post on Mindfulness!
Exercise had many benefits for me but one thing that it really helped me with was my fatigue. It started with short walks and over time progressed to running and the gym as I felt both my brain and body get stronger.
Firstly, it helped me to overcome my insomnia. It meant that not only was I mentally exhausted but also physically tired at the end of the day. And then, when I struggled to stay awake during the day I found that exercise helped my brain to relax and switch off without having to physically go to sleep. It gave my brain time to rest and recover from the day without having to take ANOTHER nap! The mental exhaustion would ease and my mental and physical fatigue would strike a balance. Of course sometimes naps are best though!
For the full range of benefits and for more information on how exercise helped me in my recovery check out my post on Exercise!
3.Cut Out Caffeine
I know this will be hard for some people to read, but I didn’t find this one too difficult. I was never a coffee drinker, but could easily drink 5 cups of tea a day. It’s true what they say though, caffeine does help you stay awake. So it should have been an obvious one for me! But it took me a while to get there. Eventually, I cut out caffeine and saw a huge difference in my sleep pattern. This includes green tea as well! (It took me a few months to realise that green tea actually contains as much, if not more, caffeine than a cup of coffee!!) Instead I drink peppermint tea during the day and camomile tea in the evenings before bed- it really make a huge difference to my nights sleep.
As an Irish person, drinking tea and coffee is a huge social thing, so instead I drink decaffeinated tea – which really isn’t any different! I have the occasional cup of ‘real’ tea, but all in all I really don’t miss it. The benefits of not drinking tea hugely outweigh the benefits of drinking it! However, if caffeine is something your really not sure that you can go without, at least try cutting it out for the later half of your day!
Note: This also includes any caffeinated soft drinks such as Red Bull and other fizzy drinks (diet and otherwise).
4.Naps: Little & Often
When I got to the stage of needing sleep ALL OF THE TIME, I found myself napping for hours on end. I could come home and sleep for 3 hours, no problem at all! If I didn’t set an alarm, I could probably have slept for 5 or 6 hours easily. I was advised to try napping for shorter periods of time, but more regularly. So as opposed to going to sleep for one big long nap, nap for half an hour, get up for a couple of hours and then nap again for half an hour. Yes, it meant I was sleeping less but because it was spread out it actually felt like I was sleeping more.
When I wasn’t working I could easily do this 3 or 4 times a day. On days when I was working I would come home and have my first nap. Then get up for a few hours before having another nap. Finally, I’d get up for another couple of hours before going back to bed for the night.
Note: When I returned to work I was initially only working a few hours a day so I had time to take multiple naps – but I really needed them!!
When I was sleeping for 75% of my day, I found I was eating very little. Instead of eating when I got home I would go straight to bed. I was too tired to eat, too tired to cook and to be quite honest too tired to even realise I was hungry. But the lack of food was just making me even more tired! My brain needed fuel to get through the day, and it wasn’t getting enough! Once I started to change my napping habits it meant I had more time to cook and eat. And the more I ate, the more it helped with my fatigue.
I was also discovering the benefits of eating the ‘right’ foods for brain recovery and I soon discovered a new found love for all things food.
As tired as you may be, you need to eat! Your body needs fuel, especially when your brain has to work harder than usual to process even the simplest of things. However, you also need to be eating the right foods – a bad diet isn’t going to help your recovery!