The Scary Reality of a TBI

I was listening to a podcast recently (Tim Ferris interviews *Jane McGonigal) and nothing could have prepared me for one of the statistics that came out of it. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the podcast to even be about brain injuries, so I think it was fate that I even listened to it.

But this was what I learned…

1 in 3 people who suffer concussion or TBI have suicidal thoughts

How terrifying is that?

Dopamine Levels Post Brain Injury

From what I could gather, your dopamine levels are just so low as a result of your concussion / brain injury that your brain cannot possibly imagine any positive outcomes for the future. It can only think in a negative way, e.g.

“I’m never going to get any better”

“Every day is going to be this bad”

“I’m a burden to my family and friends”

So when you have these thoughts, through no fault of your own, it’s understandable to think that life would be easier and better for everyone if you weren’t around anymore. But that is absolutely NOT TRUE!

My Battle with Mental Health

I’ve written about my own struggles with depression in the past, which was mostly brought on by the guilt I felt throughout my recovery. Especially in the early days!

I felt guilty over so many things:

  • I had to rely on my parents for financial support: GUILT
  • I was ‘lazing’ about at home all day: GUILT
  • My colleagues had to cover my workload: GUILT
  • I was worrying my parents more and more with every day that passed without an improvement: GUILT
  • I’m taking up all of these professionals time over something that isn’t even serious (in reality it was serious, but I would work myself into such a frenzy and convince myself I was over-reacting to everything!): GUILT
  • I was cancelling on plans with friends more and more often becauseI couldn’t face the outside world and all the challenges it brought with it: Guilt

And all of this, of course, made me think everyone would just be better off if I wasn’t around to burden them anymore. And before hearing this stat, I never shared those thoughts with anyone. I was too afraid to admit, even to myself that, that was how I felt. I truly believed that my family and friends, colleagues, doctors and everyone I encountered would be better off without me. I was a burden.

Yes, I also entertained the “I’m never going to get any better” and the “Every day is going to be this bad” thoughts too. But they were never my motivating factor for wanting to ‘give up’. Mine was simply that everyone would be better off without me.

So to be honest, when I heard the ‘1 in 3 people who suffer concussion or TBI have suicidal thoughts’ stat, I felt relieved. Relieved to think that I wasn’t alone in these thoughts throughout my recovery and that it was ‘normal’. Even 4 years on, it helped me!

But secondary to that, I felt that I had to share this with people!

There are so many people out there now having these exact same thoughts and feelings, both as a result of TBI and for numerous other reasons. And I wanted to tell you that you that there is light at the end of the tunnel and you will get through it.

And most importantly… YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

Getting Your Dopamine Levels Back Up

I’d love to be able to tell you how to get through it, and how long it will take. But everyone is so different and everyone experiences these thoughts and feelings in different ways and to different levels. And, most importantly, I am not an expert.

However, what I can tell you is that you need to get your dopamine levels back up (as this is what is causing /contributing to the negative thoughts). And according to this podcast (and the studies they reference) you can get your dopamine levels back up by setting clear, achievable goals.

Setting a clear goal, or giving yourself a sense of purpose, and being able to anticipate succeeding in it is one of the quickest ways to get dopamine back cycling through your brain, and is key to reversing depression.

Setting Goals

After listening to the podcast, I realise that this had been a significant part of my recovery. I spoke before about celebrating the ‘small wins‘ and I realise now that this had a bigger impact on my mental health than I could have imagined.

Between Rehab, Noel and myself we always had little mini goals laid out for me to achieve and without realising it, my dopamine levels gradually began to increase as I achieved these goals.

For example:

  1. Returning to work for just 4 hours a day, 2 days a week and slowly building it up every month from there.
  2. Setting out exercise goals of running further, or faster or lifting heavier weights.
  3. Leaving one item of my shopping list to see if I could remember it when I got to the shop.
  4. Slowly reducing the amount of time I needed to nap for whilst still feeling the benefits.
  5. Increasing the amount of time I could get through my mindfulness practice without falling asleep.

These are just a few goals I set for myself that I can think of that definitely helped to increase my dopamine levels, throughout the first year of my recovery in particular. And these won’t all suit everyone, but hopefully you can take some ideas from them and tailor them for your own life and goals. But remember, start small and make them achievable.

Be Kind to Yourself

You can also get your dopamine levels back up just by being kind to yourself. When you’re feeling low, try to have a handful of positive things that make you feel happy and that only take 1 or 2 minutes for you to feel the benefit from.

These can be every day things that just put a smile on your face, or make you feel comfortable or safe. For example, cuddle your dog or make a cup of hot chocolate. I find that a hug form Noel fixes everything. Or, wrapping myself up in a blanket and drinking a cup of (decaf) tea is like a belly hug.

Looking After Your Mental Health

This podcast re-enforced, and amplified the importance of 2 things for me:

  1. Set achievable goals and celebrate when you achieve them! Celebrate the small wins!
  2. Be kind to yourself.

But I also think that the following are extremely important for your mental health:

  1. Never be afraid to tell someone how you are feeling. Even just writing it all down on a piece of paper as a first step can really help. Or tell a complete stranger – it doesn’t have to be a close friend or family member. Pieta House offer an amazing service should you wish to talk to someone.
  2. Write down 3 things every day that you are grateful for and you will realise you have so much to be happy about!
  3. Exercise – everything from walking, to weight lifting, to running, to yoga, to spinning helps to increase your dopamine levels.
  4. Practice Mindfulness (the benefits are endless!)
  5. Eat well – a healthy body is a happy body!
  6. Surround yourself with friends and family. Spending time with the people you love will remind you of all you have to be grateful for.

I truly hope that anyone reading this will realise that they are not alone in these feelings and that if they hang in there, it will get easier. The guilt will ease. The fear of never getting better will go away. You’ll see improvements. You’ll feel yourself healing. You’ll become more independent again. You’ll get back to living your life, they way you want to live it. Don’t give up! 

*Just to give you a bit of background: Jane McGonigal PhD, is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for the Future and the best selling Author. In July 2009 she suffered a concussion that resulted in TBI. She subsequently developed a game called ‘SuperBetter’ to help her recover and later went on to share this with the world. She then went on to write SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient, which was number 7 on the New York Times Best Seller: How-to and Miscellaneous list its debut week.