Learning Accommodations After a Brain Injury

Join me, Donna O’Donnell Figurskifrom Another Fork in the Road, and Juliet Madsen, a military veteran who sustained a traumatic brain injury in 2004 when her convoy was hit by a roadside bomb, on the brain injury radio network this Sunday August 2nd at 830 pm Eastern Standard Time. Many survivors of a brain injury struggle with cognitive decline. We will discuss the various learning accommodations available after a TBI. Feel free to call in during the show with comments and questions at: (424) 243-9540.

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Mindfulness Meditation for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries


Do you have post-traumatic stress disorder? A traumatic brain injury? Both? If so, and you can’t seem to rein in the scattered thoughts that disrupt your day-to-day life, you might want to try meditating. Mindfulness meditation – mentally focusing on the present moment – helps alleviate PTSD, and TBI, symptoms. In a study conducted with a large group of marines, researchers had them participate in mindfulness meditation training while monitoring their blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. Stress-related neuro-chemicals were also measured. Not only did researchers find that the marines were calmer during and after meditating, but they were able to react faster when faced with threats. In other, smaller studies, civilians with TBIs were trained in mindfulness meditation, and the findings showed that nearly sixty-percent recovered from depression. Participants also reported less anxiety and more energy.

Researchers don’t know exactly how mediation alleviates PTSD and TBI symptoms, but they’ve noted that it helps to reduce cortisol levels, a hormone associated with stress and depression. Meditation has also been shown to change the structure of the brain. Harvard researchers followed sixteen people in the general population who participated in an eight-week meditation program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. After completing the sessions, the researchers looked at magnetic resonance imaging studies of the participants, and found an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, as well in the other structures linked to self-awareness. Since 1979, more than twenty thousand people have completed the program. 

A few years after being diagnosed with PTSD and a TBI, I tried meditating, with the hope of slowing down the mental chatter, and getting rid of the self-critical voice that said, “You’re incapable.” But I gave up after the first day – a cascade of unfocused thoughts kept colliding with the other, more steady voice in my head that said, Breath, breath in and out. I told myself I had failed at meditating. The irony is that, with practice, meditation helps you to accept your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Also, meditation is not some kind of futuristic, Brave New World model designed to erase all thoughts – that’s expecting the impossible. Meditation helps you to view your thoughts from a distance, as if you were standing outside of yourself, watching your thoughts pass by like clouds.

Two months ago, a friend told me she had started meditating five months earlier because she could not live with being self-critical at work and at home. “It’s changed my life,” she said. Her exuberance was powerful, powerful enough to convince me to try meditating again. My friend told me about Headspace, an accessible, user-friendly app for Apple iOS and Android devices. Andy Puddicome, trained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, is the founder of Headspace, and is the soothing voice that guides users through each session. You can try it for ten days at no cost. After that, there’s a $12 monthly fee. The caveat: you need to pay for the entire year upfront. But Headspace is always coming up with offers: two months free, for instance. Once you complete the thirty-session foundation packet, you can choose from various themed packets: creativity, relationships, performance, sleep. And you can meditate anywhere – I recently meditated in an airport while waiting for a flight. It’s been two months since I started using Headspace, and it works. Though I still experience moments riddled with “I should” or “I can do better,” by focusing on my breath, or on the sounds and smells around me, I’ve learned to halt any out-of-the-moment thoughts before they completely unravel. Headspace has made me feel a bit lighter, as if a whole lot of mud has been dumped out of me.

Meditation takes ten, fifteen, twenty minutes at the most out of the day. Most likely you not notice a difference right away; the transformation is subtle. So give it time. After all, time flows, and it always flows forward, toward change.



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Need Inspiration to Play the Fiddle?


Do you need inspiration to play the fiddle (or any instrument)? I’ve been playing the fiddle off-and-on for more than ten years. I used to practice every day, for an hour, sometimes longer. I was obsessed with learning new tunes. But, because of other commitments, that changed. I’m embarrassed to admit how little I’ve practiced over the past few years. Okay, I’ll admit it: once a week, for thirty minutes. Playing the fiddle is not how I earn my living; it’s how I escape everyday stressors. I play because I enjoy it, and do perform in local coffee shops and for residents of assisted living facilities once in awhile. If you’re are interested in expertise then you might consider following the “10,000 hour rule,” that is if you believe in it. Similarly, if you’re a music student, or a performer, practicing once a week is not enough for the brain to learn new concepts, or to form muscle memory. If you play the fiddle for pure enjoyment, then in may not matter to you how often, and for how long, you practice. Some say that practicing for brief periods several days each week is better than practicing for long periods less frequently. Sessions may be as short as twenty minutes for children and as long as an hour for adults. Studies have shown that gains begin to decline after two hours of practice.

If you’re looking for inspiration to pick up your fiddle more often, here are some tips:

  • Leave your fiddle where you can see it
  • Listen to music you enjoy and are interested in learning to play
  • Join a music group, or attend sessions
  • Take lessons on a routine basis
  • Attend music camps
  • Set up a date with a friend who also plays an instrument and practice together – do this once a week, or every other week, as much as your schedule allows
  • Write down a reminder to practice in your date book
  • Set goals: “I’m going to learn tune X by the New Year”
  • Follow other musicians on social media for support and inspiration
  • Practice during a time of day when you are most alert and motivated

If you have other suggestions, please share!


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Vitamin D Deficiency and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder


Are you getting enough vitamin D? Low levels have been linked to depression, but researchers are now finding that vitamin D deficiency is also linked to psychiatric illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Vitamin D is formed from ultraviolet light and regulates calcium and phosphorus in the blood. Both of these minerals are essential for bone growth, and may help protect against cancer and diabetes. We need about fifteen minutes of sunlight a day to get an adequate dose of vitamin D, but wearing sunscreen (which is a good thing) blocks Vitamin D absorption. If you live in a state like Vermont, where the sun shines, on average, one hundred fifty seven days out of the year, you’re likely not getting enough vitamin D. You might want to try eating more foods with Vitamin D like cereals, milk, salmon and tuna. But food sources are usually not enough to provide the amount of Vitamin D we need per day. To see recommended doses by age click here. Though the upper safe limit of vitamin D is set at 800 IU per day, some sources advise we take as much as 1,000 IU a day if we are not getting enough sun exposure. But, as I mentioned in an early post about taking omega 3 supplements to treat a traumatic brain injury, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor first. The only way to really know if you are low in Vitamin D is through a blood test.

A 2008 study of fifty-three psychiatric patients revealed low levels of vitamin D. Though this is a small sample, it adds to the research showing an association between vitamin D deficiency and psychiatric illnesses like PTSD.

Hopefully, these studies come as a relief to those of you with PTSD – now you have another option, other than taking anti-depressants, to treat your symptoms.






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I Have Nothing to Write About


When people learn that I am a writer, they say, “I could never write, I have nothing to write about.” But that’s not true. Stories and narratives are everywhere, even in the narrowest cracks and folds of one’s life. If you can listen, you can write.

When I worked as a wellness nurse, I visited with more than a dozen residents, eighty or older, at independent living facilities. After checking their vital signs, I asked them if there had been any changes in their medications and health I should know about. Mostly, I listened to them share stories about their grandchildren and great grandchildren. Of course, I also listened to their woes. On my pad, I scribbled phrases such as “I wish God would take me already” or “Oh my achin’ legs. I got no legs anymore.” Those captured words were as essential to my work as the blood pressure cuff and stethoscope I used to check the residents’ vital signs, because behind those woes were hidden gems. For example, I remember the day eighty-seven-year-old *Sharon said, “The leaves are quiet.” Sadness oozed its way into my limbs, turning them limp, for what I heard Sharon saying was, “I long for my younger years.” I heard that longing when the lilt in her voice fell on the word “quiet.”

Virginia Woolf said, “Behind the cotton wool is a hidden pattern; that we—I mean that all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art.” In other words, the stories the residents shared made up the hidden pattern behind Woolf’s “cotton wool.” Their stories were an integral part of my writing, thus my own work of art. Their words were an art in and of themselves; they were metaphors for, say, loneliness, hope, fear, all the stuff that comes with aging, and dying.

Let’s take a look at ninety-six-year-old *Martha. During one of my visits with her, she told me she had written her own obituary.“I want to make sure I have as much set before I go so my family isn’t burdened with too much. Would you like to read it?” She pushed it across the table toward me. I couldn’t say no.

I don’t recall the details of what she wrote, other than her list of achievements: a college graduate, a teacher and volunteer, and an active member of her church. Martha told me she knew her time would end soon, that she was ready and had no complaints about the life she had lived. Understandably, talk of death isn’t easy; most people avoid it as if it were a highly contagious virus. But I made a point to listen to her because she needed listening to. What I heard behind the “cotton wool” of Martha’s words was a woman who not only pined to share her acceptance of death, but her anxieties, fears, and curiosities about death itself.

If we allow ourselves to hear the real story behind the “cotton wool,” surely we can weave a tapestry together.

I’ll end this post with a writing exercise for you (not mandatory, but highly recommended). While in a café or restaurant, or in any public venue, listen closely to the conversations taking place nearby. Note what is being said. Think about it for a while and see what kind of tapestry you come up with.

Good luck!



 *To protect privacy, all names are false.

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