COVID-19 & Brain Injury
In collaboration with Michelle Munt (#jumbledbrain)
Michelle Munt sustained a serious brain injury in a car accident back in December 2014. The journey to recovery has been a challenge and as a result she had to give up her career in recruitment. However, her confidence has grown and now she is able to run her own business as a coach, supporting others. She maintains a blog documenting her various struggles and offering advice to other brain injury survivors:
How the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting brain injury survivors
The coronavirus pandemic has affected us all and, in many cases, the changes to our lifestyles have taken a while to get used to. Yes, we were pretty good at being “stay at home heroes” when we were first asked to (especially since it was all pretty scary and it was the best way to stay safe) but as the lockdown in the UK is easing, we are having to adjust all over again. Being able to get out and escape the cabin fever is a welcome change, but with fears of a second outbreak, it’s still an apprehensive atmosphere.
While others complained about isolation, brain injury survivors faced more severe consequences of lockdown
For the brain injury survivor community this has been a particularly difficult period, and still is. On the one hand, where everyone else was having to acclimatise to the isolation it caused, we were already familiar with that. Unfortunately, invariably our social network seems to evaporate once we are home and out of the “danger zone”. Once people think we must be OK having been discharged from the hospital, they start checking in on us less and less, drifting away as they refocus on their own busy lives. However, more importantly, what the lockdown meant was vital rehabilitation services had to be paused. This included everything from appointments for physio therapy to support at home which was considered “non-essential”. Whilst we may be able to survive without the support workers assisting with tasks that might be considered simple to the rest of the world, it put many in a desperate situation where the confusion from cognitive difficulties ruled their days.
One of the most difficult changes lockdown caused, was the pause in support groups being able to meet up. These groups represent a lifeline for many brain injury survivors because they finally can feel understood and less alone. Whilst many groups have attempted to continue with virtual meetings, this is less than ideal. Video conference calls can bring on fatigue, something most survivors battle with already. I was brought up being told “Stop staring at the TV, you’ll end up with square eyes,” and whilst that isn’t exactly factual, the sentiment is still true. Too much screen time is bad for us for a number of reasons. Educational psychologist, Christine Fonseca, MS wrote in an article for Psychology Today: “While researchers are only just learning of the true impact of screen time on cognitive and emotional processes, the early findings are not great. As little as two hours a day of screen time has been demonstrated to negatively impact the brain, with reductions in grey matter and changes to white matter. Most researchers acknowledge the dopaminergic impact of screen time—screen time use leads to the release of dopamine similar to the way drugs like cocaine impact the brain. This has led to alarm regarding the long-term impact of increased screen time use (including time on phones, tablets, video games, and TV). These changes in the brain can result in reduced attention, memory difficulties and changes in our ability to think, read, and write at a deep level.” Whilst it’s commendable that facilitators are putting in the effort to try to continue holding these meetings so their members don’t feel forgotten about, it isn’t an equal substitution.
Is social anxiety going to increase?
I for one have gladly been wearing a mask when I go out, but am surprised by how few others seem to. Nevertheless, I need to remember to hold my judgement because a number of these people may have legitimate reasons that prevent them from being able to. One brain injury survivor pointed out to me the other day that the mask can cause dizziness for them when the air gets too hot. There are many different reasons why someone might not be in a position to wear a mask, but I do hope those who are able to, do. Having gone through and just about conquered the social anxiety that my brain injury caused, this pandemic is triggering it again a bit. Whilst before I just felt awkward and out of place because I constantly told myself my behaviour made me look weird, I’m now hypervigilant about the spread of this virus. And yes, you might not have any symptoms, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a carrier for it. I don’t think I could live with the guilt of passing on this awful virus to someone for it to then take their life. No, instead I’m still self-isolating as much as possible so I don’t have to worry about it. However, I do wonder if I will ever be fully comfortable with being sociable again.
The ups and down of working of home that shielding from COVID-19 has highlighted
The thing I find myself thinking about the most since this pandemic is the question “what will the future look like?” For the last few years, we have been watching our high streets change as society’s habits have changed. But this situation has accelerated that and forced many businesses to adapt. Most people are working from home now, but if that alters the workplace for the long-term, surely that will make it harder for people to build relationships? When I left my job because of my brain injury it highlighted how many of my friends were work colleagues and how much of our interactions where based on what we had in common: work. Plus, even when there were times that I wasn't relishing my work, the people made it worthwhile and so I enjoyed going in each day. As someone who works from home permanently, I do miss my work relationships and I have struggled to make new friends as I’m not meeting new people. Alright, I meet people in passing, but the work environment throws people together, forcing them to see each other regularly and learn more about one another. This has always been a strong motivator for people who have been out of work for health reasons to return to work. The independence, status and purpose it offers are still important and remain true however, which is good. Maybe for some who want to make a return to work, the new flexibility this creates will suit them better.
As with every situation in life there are downsides as well as opportunities. Whilst none of us would wish for this pandemic to have happened or so many lives to have been lost, I still hope that it will enable us to learn and build a better future for everyone.