Concentrating With a TBI
Concentration, in this context, doesn’t necessarily relate to my ability to sit down and concentrate on one piece of work for hours on end. It relates to my ability to concentrate on much simpler tasks like watching TV, holding a conversation or making a cup of tea.
Before my TBI I could concentrate on anything if I put my mind to it. I could sit and read a book all day in a room full of people, or just as easily I could work on 2 or 3 tasks at a time in the office. I could chat with my friends whilst watching tv, scrolling through social media and having a text converstaion all at the same time. I was the ultimate multitasker!
But with my TBI, my ability to concentrate and multitask was reduced significantly. If I was reading something I couldn’t consume the information if there was any other noise around me. If someone was talking directly to me I couldn’t comprehend what he or she was saying if there was another conversation going on near by. Or any other distractions like traffic, television or boiling kettles.
How Does Concentration Normally Work?
I’m not sure how it usually works, but I guess our brains just know how to filter out the ‘noise’ around us and concentrate on what is relevant. But with my TBI, it was as though I couldn’t filter out the ‘noise’ and process what was relevant to me. Instead, my brain was processing every single thing going on around me and couldn’t filter through what was directed at me and what I needed to concentrate on. Be it that conversation with a friend or colleague, or the words on the page in front of me.
I could usually remain in the conversation but my brain had to work overtime to accommodate this. It required a lot of effort and would often result in pain, nausea and fatigue. That was one of the many reasons that I needed naps all of the time. My brain needed time to recover after all of it’s hard work trying to concentrate.
It felt like I had lost my ability to multitask. Not only could my brain not work quickly enough to filter out the ‘noise’ but I also lost my ability to have a conversation on the phone whilst writing something else down. Or watch TV and hold a conversation with a friend. It was quite simply one or the other, if either, for me.
Over time, as I learned to manage all of my other symptoms, my brain would start to recover. My ability to concentrate would improve and my multitasking skills would come back. But in the mean time I needed to learn how to manage this ‘noise’ around me and put practices in place to help me to concentrate both at home and in work.
Learning To Concentrate With TBI
Below I’ve outlined the various activities I introduced into my life to help improve my concentration and get back to being the organised, multitasker that I was before my accident.
I ensured my brain was getting sufficient rest.
- I practiced mindfulness on a daily basis.
- I took at least 2 naps every day.
- I slept for a minimum of 8 hours every night.
I wore headphones to block out additional noise.
- At the gym, including gym classes, to block out any distracting ‘noise’.
- On public transport, or walking busy streets.
- At work, to help block out phones ringing, conversations happening around me and street noise.
I cooked simple meals to avoid having to concentrate on multiple ingredients and timings at once.
- I bulk cooked simple foods like chicken breasts, rice and eggs. Foods that could be added easily to salads & veggies, as and when required.
- Smoothies & porridge were also staples. They are healthy and nutritious meals that could be made in minutes.
- I discovered ‘One-Pot-Wonders’ i.e. throw everything into an oven safe dish and let it to cook slowly. (Setting an alarm to remind me to take it out when done!)
I made lots of lists.
- So that I could concentrate easier on what I needed to do e.g. what food I needed to buy in a supermarket.
- I would write out what I had on every day, ensuring I made enough time for mindfulness, exercise, naps, doctors appointments, physiotherapy and eating.
- When I returned to work I made a list of tasks I needed to complete that day. This helped me to concentrate on one task at a time throughout the day. [This wasn’t always possible as I worked in a busy marketing agency. A list of tasks changed 100 times a day. But where possible I tried to separate my tasks out and follow that plan.]
I reduced any distractions in my home.
- If someone was visiting the TV was switched off, or turned down low so I could focus on the conversation with my friends.
- I didn’t use my phone while watching TV. (One or the other – and neither for at least an hour before bed to help me switch off!)
- I planned my cooking to avoid others using the kitchen at the same time as me. This helped avoid any noise and additional concentration required.
I adapted my work environment.
- I took short breaks (away from my desk) between tasks to ensure my brain had time to process that I was moving on from one task to the next.
- I avoided attending meetings until I was ready which meant I didn’t have to concentrate on multiple voices at once.
- I set up a process whereby if people wanted to speak to me they would email me and then when I took my break between tasks we could discuss it in person if required – no more desk dropping!
My ability to concentrate and multitask improved over time. And I’m sure yours will too! How quickly this happens will depend a lot on both your home and work environments. So it’s important that you identify ways to help yourself manage the ‘noise’ around you. I didn’t come up with all of the above immediately. It took time to realise what I was really struggling with and identify ways to manage them. And I didn’t come up with all of the above on my own. Others helped. But they could only help when I spoke to them about the problems I was experiencing. People can only support you and help you if you tell them about your problems.
Over time I began to see improvements in all aspects of my recovery, which ultimately helped me to concentrate better and re-discover my ability to multitask! But it wasn’t a smooth path to get there. I experienced a lot of bad days along the way, but you just have to put those days behind you and move on. You have to remember all of the improvements you have made along the way. Stay positive. Remain patient. And keep talking to friends and family. One day you’ll surprise yourself with how far you have come!