Self-Care and Self-Compassion Following Concussion
The holidays are a time for love and care, but all too often we can find ourselves thrown into a spiral of comparison and self-doubt. Is my house clean enough? Are my decorations festive enough? Was the ham overcooked?
Self-care and self-compassion are important for everyone’s health and well-being, but most especially those recovering from concussion. It’s time to take the love and care you show others this time of year and turn it around on yourself.
If you’re new to the concepts of self-care and self-compassion, be sure to read this entire article to not only understand what these concepts mean, but how to begin practicing them in your own life.
Self-Care: What is it and Why is it Important When Recovering from a Concussion?
Self-care is the practice of taking care of your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. It’s really about prioritizing yourself and nurturing yourself so that you can be better equipped, more resilient, and more adaptive to life’s challenges.
The physical types of self-care include:
- Going to the doctor
- Supplementation (vitamins, minerals, etc.)
- Working with your physical therapists
When it comes to emotional self-care, you want to develop good habits that will help you take care of your emotional needs. This can include things like stress management, mindfulness, setting boundaries in relationships, particularly toxic relationships, making sure to play and have fun, and connecting with your sense of curiosity and creativity.
And finally, it’s important to foster the practice of spiritual self-care. And I use this term lightly because often times, when we hear the word spiritual, we’ll immediately think it has to do with religion. But it doesn’t.
Spirituality really describes the energy inside of you that drives you. It’s about the meaning and purpose we all look for. Spiritual self-care often requires contemplative practices like meditation and journaling. Sometimes people are spiritually uplifted when they’re in nature, walking through a forest path, or connecting with animals. You might find you are spiritually uplifted when you garden, play or listen to music, or are of service to others.
Why is Self-Care Important When Recovering from Concussion?
Self-care is a powerful recovery tool, because when you are taking care of your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, you are essentially reducing stress and anxiety, and creating an ideal space to heal. You’ll have a better mood, more energy, and more resilience.
Getting Started with Self-Care
Self-care is a very individual process, so you’ll want to start your journey by thinking about what’s important to you. What would nurture your mind, heart, and body and make you feel more whole?
Begin asking yourself some questions:
- Do I need to spend more time with others?
- Do I need to spend more time alone?
- Should I declutter and organize my space?
- Do I need to get more sleep?
- Do I need help with stress management?
- Am I taking the right supplements?
- Should I join a group?
- Should I learn something new or take up a new hobby?
- What’s my purpose?
- What makes me happy?
So your first step in your self-care journey is really to become more familiar with yourself and your individual needs. Make a list of things you feel would nurture your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Your second step (there are only two steps!) is to execute. You’ve got to commit to actually doing the work. You can’t put this off and say, “I’ll practice self-care when I have more time.” You’ll never have more time. You have got to make time for yourself, and this starts by making your own well-being a priority.
What is Self-Compassion?
Why are we so hard on ourselves? Why do we criticize ourselves so harshly? Why do we judge ourselves so unfairly? Why do we rate ourselves with such negativity? We would never treat other people the way we treat ourselves!
We all have an inner critic, and for many of us, this inner critic can seem more like an inner gremlin. It seems to lurk in the shadows, ready to pounce and sabotage us.
You may think that pointing out every single one of your flaws and imperfections is a way to destroy you. But in reality, your inner critic is really trying to protect you. Stay with me…
Your brain is constantly scanning, seeking, and noticing the negative. You most likely have had those days when everything basically goes right. It’s a really good day. Except for that one thing. That one negative comment from your boss. That one thing your coworker or significant other said that really irked you. That one not-so-nice interaction with someone at the grocery store.
Our brain will do this with our physical bodies as well. We can be thin and in shape, get compliments on our eyes and smile, all-in-all be considered an attractive, fit person. But we will find that one flaw. That skin tag on our neck. The couple of teeth that aren’t quite straight. The few-inches-too-short of being the “perfect” height.
Focusing on the negative is actually our brain’s way of keeping us alive. It’s an ancient survival technique that kept our ancestors safe from all of the harm in their environment. Okay, sure, your ancestor’s brain from hundreds of thousands of years ago may have scanned the environment to find a hungry sabre-tooth tiger that would eat your ancestor alive while your brain is scanning for pimples and sarcastic comments from the guy in the next cubicle, but the intention behind both is the same: keep you alive.
Anything that is perceived as a threat, even a human flaw, is something that needs to be eliminated so that we can be “safe.”
The problem is, in our modern world, this safety mechanism does us more harm than good. Will noticing our double chin or the fact that our partner was kind of annoying at breakfast really keep us alive?
No. Noticing every flaw and imperfection in ourselves will only cultivate a sense of low self-worth, while noticing flaws and imperfections in others will lead to faulty connections and relationships. And guess what? A low self-esteem and poor relationships make us feel UNSAFE!
When we feel unsafe, our nervous system is in a perpetual state of stress and anxiety. We’re in constant survival mode. So, when we constantly criticize ourselves and compare ourselves to others, we are keeping our nervous system in a perpetual state of “fight or flight,” and this is very bad for our overall health and well-being. Constant stress and anxiety leads to sleep disturbances, poor immune functions, digestive issues, and cognitive issues. It’s certainly not the optimal state for healing from a concussion!
And this is where self-compassion comes in.
You may not be aware, but self-compassion is a highly researched field of study. Many scientists, psychologists and researchers in the field of neuroscience are intrigued by the power of self-compassion.
One recent study on self-compassion found that it has a soothing effect on heart rate and potential stress reduction. Self-compassion is thought to have similar effects on us as those early attachment experiences from our caregivers that led to those awesome oxytocin bursts.
In other words, self-compassion tells our nervous system that we are safe and loved and everything is alright in our world. So therefore, self-compassion is likely to have a positive influence on the level of Heart Rate Variability (HRV), an index of psychological flexibility and physiological flexibility, defined as the variation and time intervals between subsequent heartbeats.
What Does Self-Compassion Entail?
Self-compassion has been described by many as essentially treating yourself like a good friend; giving yourself the same kindness, support, consideration, and love that you do to people you care about very deeply. Self-compassion means you thank your inner critic for trying to keep you safe, but you tell him or her their services are no longer needed. Self-compassion means replacing self-criticism and self-judgement with kindness. By doing so, we create safety in the body and allow healing to take place.
The following is a simple 3-step process for practicing Self-Compassion. This exercise was developed by Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in Self-Compassion research and Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas.
Step 1: Observe
The first step is you’re going to observe yourself in the moment. Simply have mindful awareness of what is going on.
As an example, let’s say at one of your work meetings, your suggestion was abruptly shut down by a colleague. It’s a very uncomfortable moment and you feel shame and embarrassment.
Later in the day, when you are home with your family, you just can’t shake those feelings. And before you know it, your inner critic starts to whisper in your ear, “Why did you raise your hand and offer that suggestion? That was so stupid. Next time just keep your mouth shut, you idiot.”
Whenever you hear that inner critic, stop and take a moment to simply observe what’s going on with you. What are you noticing? What are you feeling? In this scenario, you are feeling embarrassed. What connections are attached to that? Maybe shame, worry and guilt?
Keep going… what physical sensations are you observing when you feel these emotions? Maybe tension in your back or neck? Maybe an upset stomach?
Do not judge what you are observing. Simply observe your entire self in these moments as if you are a scientist.
Step 2: Find the Common Humanity
Now that you know exactly what you are feeling, it’s time to recognize that what you are feeling is part of what it means to be human. Everyone, at some point in their life, has felt shame and embarrassment. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone feels awkward, lonely, angry, scared, guilty. You name it. If there is an emotion you are feeling, you can be certain that pretty much every human being that has ever lived has felt that same emotion.
Why is this step important? Because it gives you perspective, and perspective has a way of neutralizing negative emotions. Once you know – or are reminded – that other human beings have felt the same pain as you are in that moment, it takes the sting away. You don’t feel so alone in your painful emotions.
Step 3: Love Yourself
It’s now time to practice self-kindness and self-love. You may want to begin by placing your hand over your heart. You can also hug yourself or gently stroke your face. Humans are wired for touch, so it’s very important not to skip this part. How would you lovingly touch a friend or relative in their time of need?
Next, you’ll want to say some kind words to yourself. What would it help you to hear in this moment? Everyone is an individual, so you’ll want to really think about what you need to hear.
Some people may need to hear an affirmation, such as “I am deserving of kindness and respect.” Some people may feel more comfortable talking with themselves as they would a friend. You could say something like, “I’m right here. You are awesome and everything is going to be fine.”
Whatever it is in that moment that will help your nervous system and help you recognize that you are safe. The more you practice self-compassion, the more you’ll learn what works for you.
This is a powerful 3-step process. Don’t let its simplicity fool you. And understand that self-compassion is a practice. You can’t do it once and think you are all better. Just like you can’t go to the gym once and expect to become fit and healthy.
Please commit to this practice and commit to your own self-care.
Healing from a concussion, or any illness, requires that our body be in a relaxed state. When our nervous system is activated and we are feeling chronic stress and anxiety, we not only cannot heal, we end up doing our bodies even more damage. Self-care and self-compassion are two effective ways we can ensure our physical, emotional and spiritual needs are being met, making us feel safe and loved so that we may heal.
If you or someone you know is recovering from a concussion, I encourage you to begin the practice of self-care and self-compassion. Experiment with it. Get to know yourself and your particular needs. Commit to making yourself and your well-being a priority this year.
Content provided by Louisa Mailis (MA, M.S.Ed, CPC) via The Concussion Fix program for patients experiencing Persistent Concussion Symptoms (PCS). Louisa is a Mind/Body Coach and Director of the Mindfulness Program at the Pain and Wellness Centre.
To find out more about Louisa, visit louisamailis.com
For more information on The Concussion Fix please visit concussiondoc.io
This information is designed to provide education and awareness. This article is not intended as a substitute for the medical advice of doctors and/or healthcare professionals. The reader should always consult their physician and/or healthcare providers in matters relating to their health, and in particular, with respect to any concussion and/or symptoms that may require diagnosis or medical attention.