Finding happiness after brain injury

BY: SOPHIA VOUMVAKIS

How can we survive, and perhaps even find happiness after experiencing loss or trauma ?This is a question that has fascinated me ever since surviving my traumatic brain injury almost four years ago.

woman doing yoga
photo credit: via photopin (license)

I reviewed the writings of Martin Seligman, the leading authority in the fields of positive psychology, the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. [We also talked about positive psychology at our August community meeting.]  It is a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as it is with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.

Seligman identifies three types of happiness: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life. The pleasant life is amassing as many pleasurable experiences as you can and learning to savour those moments by practicing mindfulness techniques. The way psychologists help people experience the pleasant life is to have them create their perfect day, and using the techniques of mindfulness, savour those activities.

What would your perfect day look like? Mine would include an early morning yoga session, followed by a breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, and granola, and a latte (prepared by someone else, of course!); an ocean, a beach, and a good book; a lunch of fresh fish and greens by the seaside; my requisite afternoon nap; followed by a hike; and, getting all dressed up for a dinner of pasta and a glass of red wine.

The good life is experienced when we experience flow, when we are fully engaged in some activity that so engrosses us that time stops. The way we can increase flow, or the good life, is to identify our signature strengths (you can take the test on at www.authentichappiness.org) and re-craft our life in the arenas of work, love, family, friends, and fun to make use of those signature strengths.

pasta and red wine
photo credit: Wine Spaghetti and Shrimps via photopin (license)

Prior to my TBI, I had managed to craft a professional life as a researcher where I made good use of one of my signature strengthes – the love of learning. Often, when I was in the midst of analyzing the data, time literally stood still for me, I would look up from my screen and the hours had flown by.

My second signature strength is a deep appreciation of beauty. When I look around at my home, in my closet, at my dinner table when I’m entertaining, that signature strength is in full display. When I reflect back on how I raised my two daughters I now see how I incorporated these two signature strengths in their upbringing, we were always discussing new ideas, new research, traveling, and visiting art galleries and museums. I derived great happiness from these activities and I think, in some small way, I cultivated those strengths in my children.

The meaningful life is achieved when we identify our signature strengths and use them for the betterment of others. When I’m reading books on psychology, neuroscience, and happiness, time literally stops for me – I’m so engaged in the activity. I have been extremely fortunate to have found a way to take this signature strength to increase the good life and hopefully to some small degree, the meaningful life post TBI. By sharing my learnings about TBI and how the advances in neuroscience may offer hope to survivors of TBI, I have found some meaning from my TBI, and this increases my happiness. For this I thank the Brain Injury Blog Toronto and its readers!

Other TBI survivors have used their signature strengths to become peer mentors, run workshops, organize social activities, volunteer on the Board of Directors, and so much more.

woman at sunset who is happy
PHOTO: HUFFINGTON POST

Do we achieve the same life satisfaction from all three happy lives? Martin Seligman and his team have conducted research in 15 replications involving thousands of people — to determine to what extent the pursuit of pleasure, the pursuit of positive emotion, the pleasant life, the pursuit of engagement, time stopping for you, and the pursuit of meaning contribute to life satisfaction.

It turns out the pursuit of pleasure on its own, has almost no contribution to life satisfaction. The pursuit of meaning has the strongest impact on life satisfaction, and the pursuit of engagement is also very strong. The pursuit of pleasure positively impacts life satisfaction when you have both engagement and you have meaning.

Which is to say, the full life is one in which we have all three. So, identify your signature strengths and then use them to enhance the engaged life and the meaningful life, and don’t forget a dose of pleasure! Wishing you much happiness!


 

Since her TBI in 2011, Sophia has educated herself about TBI. She is interested in making research into TBI accessible to other survivors.

My TBI journey – from denial to acceptance

BY: SOPHIA VOUMVAKIS

I’ve been thinking lately about the grieving process I went through after I sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in May 2011. It was a long and difficult journey.

Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first introduced her five stages of grief in 1969. Although the theory was developed as a result of her work with patients who were dying, the theory has been used to describe the grieving process people typically go through when they sustain other types of losses. The Kübler-Ross stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

From my own experience grieving my TBI, I would add two more stages prior to acceptance: awareness and adjustment.

photo credit: Into the deep via photopin (license)
photo credit: Into the deep via photopin (license)

In sharing my journey through the stages of grief, perhaps other TBI survivors, their families and caregivers will better understand the emotions and behaviours that TBI survivors exhibit as they move from denial to, hopefully, acceptance.

I did not experience the stages of grief linearly, I did, and still do, almost four years later, float between the different stages. It is also possible that an individual may not experience all the stages.

Denial

The first thing I did when I awoke in the hospital was to call the office to let them know I’d be a little late coming in that morning. There was nothing wrong with me even though I had been unconscious for over an hour, my body was badly banged up, and as we were to discover later that morning, I had a brain hemorrhage.

My denial continued for months – I returned to work within two days of being released from the hospital and struggled.

Anger

I wasn’t coping well with my return to work. My bread and butter had been research – numbers and statistics. I quickly discovered that I could no longer make sense of numbers charts, graphs, and statistical analysis.They were incomprehensible to me. Panic and then anger overwhelmed me.

photo via
photo credit: ancientchristianwisdom.com

Bargaining

My family doctor recommended three months off work. I bargained with her and myself and agreed to three weeks. I then attempted another return to work. Again, I couldn’t cope. So I struck another bargain with myself and my doctor, to work half-days. When that didn’t work, anger reappeared.

Depression

Realizing that I wasn’t coping in my professional and personal life lead to depression. What was the matter with me? On some level, I understood that the physical exhaustion, loss of my ability to make sense of numbers, and mental fatigue was somehow related to my injury, but I was determined that this injury was not going to impact my life – denial once again!

Awareness

In August 2011, my neurologist referred me to an occupational therapist for an assessment. Again, denial reared her head – there was nothing wrong with me and I didn’t need an assessment. Luckily, my family who had noticed the myriad of physical, cognitive, and emotional difficulties I was experiencing, but denying to myself, encouraged me to go for the assessment. It was during my assessments and subsequent treatments that I began to accept that my injury had left me with physical, cognitive, and emotional deficits. Anger, followed by depression resurfaced.

Adjustment

This phase started in September 2011 and continued for almost two years. During this time I worked with my occupational therapist, and together we developed strategies to deal with the physical, cognitive, and emotional impacts of my TBI. These strategies included: physical exercise, cognitive training, and the adjustment of my environment.

photo credit: Dead flowers still on stems via photopin (license)
photo credit: Dead flowers still on stems via photopin (license)

Acceptance

It took me a long time to accept the new me and my new reality. When I am diligent about employing the strategies I developed with my occupational therapist to cope with my deficits I have a good day. When I forget, and slip into denial again, my days are not so good. This is once again followed by anger and bouts of depression. Luckily, these don’t last too long; because I am now aware of the impacts of my TBI, and I go back to diligently employing my coping strategies.

I found that having a framework by which to make sense of my emotions and behaviours as I went through my grieving process helped me to understand that what I was experiencing, and the decisions I was making were not at all unusual for a person grieving a loss.

Since her TBI in 2011, Sophia has educated herself about TBI. She is interested in making research into TBI accessible to other survivors.