Living with Brain Injury – The Holiday Season
This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Holiday Season Strategies

Halloween marks the beginning of a busy time of year which ends on the 12th day of Christmas on January 5th.

Even for those who are not living with the outcomes and effects of a brain injury, the need to be organised and to start thinking about who you are going to spend time with over the festive season can still be overwhelming.

That managing lots of cultural events over a short period of time adds to the amount any of us have to deal with tells us that the better prepared we are, the better we are likely to cope.

For all of us, there are lists to be drawn up, budgets to consider, and invitations to send out and now, of course, we also have to bear in mind the restrictions COVID-19 guidelines will have on us.

When you are living with a brain injury you can’t do all your thinking at once, or speedily. We need to give ourselves time to help our brain know more about what it can expect.

One of the biggest problems we face is becoming overwhelmed because there are so many extra problems we have to deal with when it happens.

Re-learning life skills isn’t easy and the fact that we have to put in the effort isn’t always obvious.

I know that for me, it was a long time before I gained the insights I needed to be able to manage my life better.

Pause and think: What is coming up?

Here in Britain, the 5th of November is when we celebrate the failure of Guy Fawkes to blow up the House of Lords and we usually do this at public gatherings around a bonfire with fireworks. While these public gatherings may or may not be allowed this year, and rules may vary from place to place, if you do organise anything within the ‘rule-of-six’/ ‘social bubble,’ you will need to think ahead.

The event meets a lot of controversy because of the number of pets who suffer from tremendous anxiety, but interestingly, I have never come across any accounts of anxiety in humans being of concern, although I know that it can be among those of us who have suffered a brain injury or PTSD, and struggle to cope with the noise.

While the Canadians have already celebrated Thanksgiving this year, in the USA it falls on Thursday, 26 November and celebrations can cross the whole weekend.

 I am often asked by friends in North America what I will be doing for Thanksgiving, and they often seem surprised when I say we don’t celebrate it here in the UK.

The only experience I have of Thanksgiving was being one of only a very few people in Chicago’s O’Hare airport many years ago. Everyone else had already traveled to be with their families and loved ones.

While Thanksgiving is a federal holiday and often includes parades over the weekend (COVID-19 allowing), the main event is the roast turkey dinner. Whether you are host or guest, there will be many logistics and preparations to consider, and, just as with other cultural events, things can easily become muddled, or go awry, if you are not well organised.

We then have Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Years Day, all running pretty much back-to-back!

What many of us don’t take into account, is that all the normal stuff of life continues during this period; babies are born, we have christenings and other religious events, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, birthdays, and our normal visits and get-togethers with family and loved ones.

The ‘other stuff’ doesn’t stop just because cultural celebrations are happening.

There is a huge amount to plan and prepare for and if we don’t think ahead, invites may not be sent out, shopping lists might be made too late to procure everything, without a budget we may overspend and end up in debt, and tickets for travel might not be available, and so on.

Get your calendar out and make sure it has every upcoming event on it. As my Granny used to say, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”

We will get to those details and practicalities in part two of this blog.

Thoughts for Managing the Festive Season

For those of us living with the everyday changes, challenges, and consequences of a brain injury, it is likely that either one of three things will be happening; we are either understood and supported by our families and friends, we are still struggling to educate them and possibly feel excluded, or we have been rejected and have become isolated.

Those with support will perceive things very differently to those who feel cut-off and alone, and I know this because I have been through each of the episodes described.

As well as considering the psychological and cognitive stress, and bearing in mind how executive impairment can undermine the very best of plans, we should never underestimate the emotional upheaval that many people struggle with at this time of year.

When we give ourselves time to pre-think the holidays we are also preparing ourselves, and where possible, we can mitigate some negative eventualities by avoiding them, being ready for them, or by including tactics that will help us overcome them.

While we are each unique, recall can be a problem for many of us, and so it isn’t always easy to remember what went wrong last year, or even the years before.  It is unlikely that we will learn from the past if we can’t remember it or don’t know all of the details.

Rather than stressing yourself by trying to remember, or thinking about bad experiences in the past, how about switching your focus to considering what you would like to happen this year and think about how you could make that happen.

Another thing that can be problematic is initiating the thought processes that will help us to pre-empt any likely problems. Writing a list of questions can help us with this, for example:

  • How much time can I spend in other people’s company before I become fatigued?
  • Am I able to manage a budget or do I need help with this?
  • Do I get migraines when I am stressed?
  • Can I teach myself mindfulness in time for festivities and see if this will help?
  • What other ideas could I try?
  • Are there other people I can ask?

If others are hosting, then perhaps think about what you can contribute in the days ahead so that you feel involved.

If you are hosting, then start making your plans as far ahead as possible and ask for help when you need it.

It is always a good idea to share information about brain injury outcomes and effects with family you don’t see very often. Being informed helps people to not only be tactful but to also be helpful. Let people know what you struggle with and what you need.

If you are in the early stages and know you still have issues with controlling your behaviour it might be better to decline an invitation to Aunt Mable if she is known for being abrasive or has problems with caring or being tactful. Don’t be afraid of sharing information about potential problems as other family members may be able to help or make suggestions.

Inevitably we have to go with whatever skills and viable limitations we have, and one of the most important things to bear in mind here, is to avoid beating ourselves up or any negativity. It is best to take a fresh approach and to always keep in mind that you are always doing your best and to shun any temptation to compare ourselves to how we were in the past.

This goes for skills that we once had, and also for our growing abilities. Everything we do is progression, whether we have made marked improvements or small ones. Self-judgement is not only unnecessary but can also lead to a slippery slope when we begin to undermine our self-esteem.

We need to be proactive when it comes to solving problems and to allow the past to be something that we can learn from.

For example, you may have spent one or more Thanksgiving or Christmas Day’s on your own, thinking that you can’t stand the noise, the lights, or more than one person speaking at once. If you don’t regularly test your ‘flood point,’ you may now be able to deal with more than you realise. Give it some thought before you make decisions.

You may have a family who doesn’t understand and moan at you for not getting involved or going to take a nap. Personally, I have always gone with listening to my body and also, importantly, I trust my own awareness of my intentions. When I know I had good intentions and have done my best, I don’t allow criticism to overcome me, but instead use it in a practical way to try and learn.

Take a fresh approach. Do what you can to avoid thinking about only having the option of repeating the same avoidance tactics you have relied on in the past,  or believing you have to spend these special times alone because everyone has moved on and left you behind. This year will be different from last year.

If you don’t feel up to joining in or venturing out then think about if smaller steps will help. Don’t let your fears allow you to cut people off and try to remain open to suggestions.

If we do choose to be alone or are estranged from family and friends, then we can still be proactive. Talk to people and find out if there is anyone else who prefers to be alone. You can always arrange to chat with them by video-call and even exchange small gifts or cards.

Finding someone to chat with at the last minute will never feel as rewarding as making an arrangement beforehand and, between now and the holidays, you can share your plans and help to make the day special for someone else.

Don’t forget! Over the last year, you will have made some improvements and progress. Be conscious of allowing for this, rather than assuming things will be the same. Every year gets better, and every year we can do more.

It is best to have a sit-down and to think about which limits we set on ourselves because of our emotions, feelings, and perspectives. Are past circumstances really still relevant today? If they are, ask yourself what you can do to make the day better for someone else because, as no doubt you know, a little kindness makes us feel good!

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Strategies for Managing the Holiday Season – Part 1 >>