The Winter Months Warm-Me-Up

BY: JULIA RENAUD

It goes without saying, winter is here and so are the long nights that come with it.

As a post concussion syndrome (PCS) survivor, these long nights have special significance.

Back in the early months of my PCS, the sun setting earlier in the day was something I initially welcomed. I thought, ‘Great, now everyone else will enjoy very dim lighting as much as I do!’ But as the days dragged on, I realized this wasn’t necessarily the case.

Julia in her concussion glasses
The blog post author, Julia, rocks her concussion sun glasses.

People without brain injuries tend to turn on artificial lights sooner and brighter when the darkness comes, which is not great for anyone struggling with light sensitivity. In addition to extra artificial lighting, snow can be intensely bright during the daylight and the frozen ground only amplifies the already brain-shatteringly loud sounds of city life.

All of this left my head pounding, eyeballs bulging, morale crumbling and general hopes of feeling ‘normal’ again, fleeting.

Winter is beautiful, don’t get me wrong. I love embracing the quietness of the streets of Toronto during a powdery snowfall.

But my morale got pretty darn low that winter I was dealing with strong PCS symptoms. Through it all, I learned coping mechanisms which I hope may help others with their  brain injury winter woes.

Hopefully, this post will also put a smile on your face, and give you some extra courage to lace up your boots and settle in for Canada’s often-dreaded winter!

For this post, since I think these points should be read by everyone dealing with a brain injury, I’ve taken to point form for your quicker, less symptom-inducing reading pleasure!

Dog looking up while walking in the snow
Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

Laugh all you want, my concussion glasses helped me out a lot! People would tell me that I was making a fashion statement, and while they never mentioned whether it was a good or bad statement, the glasses helped my head so I decided to take it as a compliment. Win-Win!

Emotions 

If you were to take a general poll of what people want for their lives, the most common answer would most likely be, ‘happiness’. Happiness is something that can be easily taken for granted and, in its absence, can be extraordinarily missed. In addition to the physical symptoms that come with a brain injury, it’s important to remember there are also emotional symptoms that can accompany feeling as crummy as an over-baked batch of cookies. Here is a list of some tricky emotions I’ve experienced and ideas for how to combat them:

Loneliness and Isolation 

  1. The OBIA Peer Support Program connects a person living with brain injury (or a caregiver) with a trained peer support mentor. You then receive about an hour of peer support over the phone or email for a year. (Please expect about a two week response time when initially contacting the program.) Find your local contact for the program, HERE and if you’re in Toronto contact BIST at: 647-990-1484 or peersupport@bist.ca.

2. Monthly Brain Injury Support Groups at BIST:

3. Online Support Groups & Resources Outside Toronto

4. Other Options

  • Reach out to friends and family for support – whether it’s by telephone, email, video chat or visits – whatever you can handle.
  • Go for a walk, and have nice conversations with others who are out and about. Ask if you can pet a passerby’s dog.
  • Talk to animals – squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, cats, whatever tickles your fancy, it’s generally not seen as strange unless the animals talk back! (I love to compliment very robust squirrels on how amazingly prepared they look for winter.)
  • Make your home cozy and retreat-like (I have a string of warm yellow LED holiday lights that I lovingly refer to as my ‘snow lights’. They light up the corners of my apartment without providing too much light. Usually these are the only lights I have on in the evening and, who are we kidding, late afternoons too!)
Powder day! This snowboarder walks from the slopes to the bus stop
Photo by Jonny McNee on Unsplash

Ruminating?

  • Meditate (It can be tough at first but give it a go!)
  • Try out some yoga, chair yoga is always an option and BIST’s February Social Learning is about Chair Yoga!
  • Listen to a podcast or stand-up comedy.
  • Read or listen to a good book. The one that really got me through my toughest winter was, ‘Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home’ by Jessica Fechtor.
  • Want to read about someone else’s experience? Here are two brain injury book lists with plenty of reading options:
  • Author Shireen Jeejeebhoy has written ‘Concussion Is Brain Injury’ and also has a blog.
  • Prefer a book with pictures? ‘A Caged Mind’ by May Mutter is a coffee table book that beautifully combines photography, body painting, and writing to tell the stories of the PCS survivors within its pages.
  • Make crafts or artwork (watercolours, drawing, colouring, DIY projects, card making, etc.)
  • Make an indoor garden or add some potted plants to your space.
  • Start a gratitude journal, this is an amazing way to focus on the best parts of your day, even if your gratitude is as simple as having eaten a tasty bowl of cereal, embrace the good wherever you can!
  • Take a bath and do your best to relax.
  • Listen to music (something that makes you happy.)
Julia's drawing of a house plant
In my search for less adrenaline-producing hobbies, I took up drawing this year and I’m proud to say I’m improving! This is one of my house plants.

Bored?

  • Try cooking or baking something new (There are also tons of no-bake recipes out there and BIST’s Mind Yourself With Alison has some ideas of her own, HERE.)
  • Do a puzzle.
  • Learn something new – Guitar? Chess? Knitting? Sewing? Creative writing?
  • Play a board or video game (or part of one if necessary.)
  • Go outside and make snow angels.
  • Listen to Ted Talks.
  • Venture to your local library – the Toronto Public Library has tons of free programs which may peak your interest.
  • BIST’s Mind Yourself with Alison has more ideas how to relieve post-ABI boredom, HERE.

Afraid of slipping and falling outside?

  • Get some boots with a deep-treaded sole or use grip attachments to the soles of your existing shoes / boots. Shopping for something new or curious how well your current boots hold up? The University Health Network rates boots by slip resistance, HERE.
  • Use walking poles.
  • Check the weather and plan your outings accordingly.
  • Layer with hats, hood or a helmet. You can also try out a helmet hat – a special helmet that looks like a hat. You can find them by searching online for ‘helmet hat for brain injury’.
  • Walk with a buddy to help keep you on your feet (preferably someone without a brain injury.)

Worried about saying what you mean, and meaning what you say?

  • Try pausing to check in with how you feel before engaging in a new conversation.
  • If you’re feeling exhausted, it may unintentionally come across as anger or frustration in your voice. Take a deep breath, acknowledge how you’re feeling, and get yourself in a good frame of mind before answering someone.
  • Already said something you didn’t mean? It’s okay. Apologize and try again to say what you wanted, even if it takes a few attempts.
  • Can’t find the word you’re looking for? Try using a synonym or describe the word and ask if the person can help you pinpoint the word you’re looking for. If you can’t think of it, move on and try to carry on with the conversation anyway, odds are the word will pop into your head once you’re no longer putting pressure on yourself to find it.
The author Julia holding her chocolate mousse cake
Excited to taste my Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake! Since it’s made in three steps, you can do one step each day and make it in three days. Also, notice my snow lights in the background.  

Physical

Having a brain injury can be exhausting! Before my injury, I never truly appreciated the amount of energy the brain uses to process information and consequently react. During conversations, watching people gesture, processing their words, and attempting to come up with an appropriate and timely response (ha, yeah right!), seemed to drain all of my energy. Active listening became inactive listening even though I was trying my very best! Talking on the phone was a slight improvement but still very difficult. I felt isolated and alone.

When I could, I would get my partner to take me to the countryside where there was less city commotion going on and I could get some fresh air. Being a passenger in the car while the sun was low in the sky and the sunlight flickered through the trees was awful and triggered some seriously cruel headaches, dizziness and, worse, nausea. Even upon arrival to the middle of nowhere, the snow was mind numbingly bright, and I was afraid of slipping and falling (but at least this was less likely in the snow than on the water-covered ice that coats the city). The energy that it took to lift my feet just a few inches higher were monumentally exhausting. I was losing hope of ever feeling ‘normal’ again.

Accept that you might not be perfect and that’s ok

Because all of these tasks required extra processing and therefore a whole heck of a lot more energy, my personal hygiene suffered. The amount of energy it took to take a ‘simple’ shower required an hour long recovery. Shaving? I had poor balance and shaky hands, so forget that. Scrubbing my body? Not possible, no energy for that either. Closing my eyes? Sure, if I wanted to risk a tumble out of the shower (I can’t tell you how many times the shower curtain saved me from crashing onto the floor). Washing my hair into a lather? Only possible if all of the stars aligned.  Did I feel gross? Yes, but I felt gross all of the time from my symptoms so it didn’t make much of a difference to me.

Blinding snow?

  • Get a pair of sunglasses that make you feel wonderful. Quick tip: when buying sunglasses, try out different colours of lenses and styles of glasses, your brain may be more pleased with some than others. If you’re still having trouble finding a pair that both you and your brain like, see an optometrist, ideally one well versed with head injury.
  • Time when you go outside.
  • Utilize the natural light/darkness while you can.

Flying snow yet another thing to process?

  • Time your outings according to the weather.
  • Wear an eye mask or anything cover your eyes while being a passenger in the car.
  • Slow down so you can take time to process what you need to.

Taking more energy to walk around?

  • Take lots of breaks! (Ever wonder what the view is like from every bench on the block? Wonder no more! Sit down, relax, and enjoy the moment.)
  • Take public transit.
  • In Toronto, the underground PATH can be great for avoiding slippery winter conditions but comes with its own challenges such as fluorescent lighting, lots of people and the possibility of getting lost. For your information, here’s a map.
Picture of a small knitted snowperson

At least winter also brings some cheer and cuteness! If you’re feeling crafty, you could try making something like Frosty!

Notice how it’s louder outside once the ground is frozen?

  • Layer your ears like an onion (hair, hat, hood, another hood, and another hood – whatever helps.)
  • Wear earphones or earbuds with a visible cord. I wore ear buds with no sound coming through to block out some of the noise of the city. I did this instead of ear plugs so others could tell that I wasn’t purposely ignoring them.

Is shovelling snow stealing all of your energy?

  • The City of Toronto has a snow clearing service for people with disabilities and / or people who are older than 65. Find out more about the program, HERE. If you need help with the application, contact BIST at: 416-830-1485 or info@bist.ca.
  • Ask for help from friends, families or neighbours.
  • Hire a laneway clearing service.
  • Shovel a little bit at a time.

Weather patterns getting you down?

When I was in the thick of my head injury, the weather often dictated how my head felt. Any big pressure swings and it would be a tough week with migraines and fatigue. I know I’m not the only one out there who has felt this, so if you do too, here are my simple tips but sorry, unfortunately I can’t control the weather.

  • Check the weather days in advance.
  • Plan your schedule according to the weather.
  • Pace yourself extra diligently to get back to your baseline.
  • Be kind to yourself!

Thanks for Reading

I hope that you smiled at least once while reading this, even if it was just to laugh at how silly my concussion glasses look on me! I rocked that fashion statement for about a year and a half, so trust me when I say that it doesn’t bother me.

I look back at that picture now, a few years later and, I like to think a few years wiser, while I’m still learning from my PCS , I’m proud of myself and grateful for how far I’ve come and for how much I’ve learned along the way. I hope some of my experiences resonate with you and that some suggestions may help, even just the slightest bit.

Winter is just a season that comes every year. Sure it can be cold, darker and brighter, magical and miserable, but it’s really not so bad. It always helps me to remember, that it’s not what happens to you, but how you handle, learn, and grow from it that really counts.


Julia Renaud is a very talkative ABI survivor with a passion for learning new things, trying new activities, and meeting new people – all of which have led her to writing this column. When not chatting someone’s ear off, Julia can be found outside walking her dog while occasionally talking to him, of course!   

 

 

 

 

 

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Baby, it’s cold outside: how to dress for extreme weather

BY:  RICHARD HASKELL

I was hurrying along a busy underground concourse last week in an attempt to escape a particularly frigid day when I noticed a woman gazing into a large display window. She was looking at a poster depicting two people reclining on deck chairs on a beach, each with a cool drink at their sides. In the background, the bright blue sky and ultramarine sea couldn’t have looked more enticing on a cold January day in Toronto.

photo credit: mira mira on the wall via photopin cc
photo credit: mira mira on the wall via photopin cc

Unfortunately, we all can’t escape to warmer climates whenever the temperature dips below the comfort zone. Some people actually relish Canadian winters – they ski, skate, hike in the woods, or go tobogganing in a local park. For others who dread the onslaught of colder weather, it’s a time to hibernate by the fireside with a good book. Regardless of how we view the months between fall and spring, wearing clothing that protects us from the elements is crucial. But how do we properly dress for Canadian winters?

Here are some tried and true suggestions taken from eHow:

Dress in Layers

Our mothers were right: dressing in layers is definitely advantageous when dealing with sub-zero temperatures. We should always begin with a base layer in the form of long underwear, or something similar which provides an adequate level of protection next to the skin. While clothing made of merino wool products are generally recognized as among the best, synthetics will work as well. And ditch the cotton until the warmer temperatures come back, as cotton is not a good conserver of heat. Additional layers, such as sweaters, should ideally be made from a thick fleece or wool.

Wear a Good-Quality Coat

Choose a good-quality coat especially designed for cold temperatures, and one that’s water- repellent so the clothing underneath won’t become wet if it snows. A hood provides an extra layer of protection for your head. A down-filled coat is particularly recommended if you spend a lot of time outdoors and need extra protection. Despite their bulk, parkas are an excellent choice as they reach down to the knees or further and they usually come with a hood. Ski-jackets are shorter but usually have a waterproofed or water-resistant exterior. They tend to be thinner and lighter than parkas and in this way, a little more versatile. If your time out of doors is more along the lines of waiting for a bus or hurrying from a house into a car, any good quality coat – long or short – will suffice, as long it has the thickness to withstand a typical Canadian winter.

photo credit: iamshaheen via photopin cc
photo credit: iamshaheen via photopin cc

Wear a Hat 

We can’t afford to be fashionistas during the winter months, so keeping your head covered in cold temperatures is essential!  A hat with earflaps is preferable when it’s merely cold, but when the thermometer really dips down, stocking caps such as toques provide much better protection as they cover the entire head. Yes, head-hugging toques may look decidedly “Canuck” but they actually had their origin in Scandinavia during the Viking period. Yet because their design suits the Canadian winter climate so perfectly, toques have come to be regarded as a sort of national symbol. And to go with the hat, a scarf is an excellent idea for protecting the neck and shoulders from the wind. Besides, you probably do look good in a hat.

Hands and Feet

Like every other part of the body, hands and feet should be well covered. Gloves or mittens offer decent protection, but if you spend more than an average amount of time outdoors, layering is once again the way to go. A synthetic mitten underneath a thicker wool glove will provide much more protection than a single layer despite the possible decrease in dexterity. Similarly, for the feet, a thick wool or synthetic sock will work better when accompanied by a thinner layer underneath.  When choosing a good-quality boot, look for one that is well insulated, has soft sides, a good lining, and a thick but flexible sole. The farther your feet are away from the cold ground, the warmer they will feel.(High heel wearers: just because your heels are off the ground doesn’t mean those pumps are keeping you warm, save them for inside, ‘kay?)

Myths About Dressing for Winter

There are more than a few misconceptions that have been around for years, and don’t seem to be going away in a hurry.

Myth: By dressing warmly you can avoid colds, viruses, and the flu.

Colds and the flu are caused by viruses spread from one person to another and not by air temperature. It won’t make any difference how warmly you are dressed if you come into contact with someone who happens to be sick.

photo credit: ProdigyBoy via photopin cc
photo credit: ProdigyBoy via photopin cc

Myth: You lose the most body heat through your head.

This misconception has been around for years, but heat loss is not necessarily confined to the head,  a person will lose heat from any part of the body if it is exposed long enough. However, the case is different with infants because an infant’s head is proportionally larger, so he or she will lose more heat and over a shorter period. This is why it is so important to keep an infant’s head covered during cold weather.

Myth: Men and women feel cold at the same temperature.

The external temperature at which the body begins to conserve heat is known as the “set point temperature” and differs between the sexes. For women, the temperature is around 21 degrees Celcius, but men can contain heat at a slightly lower temperature, around 19 degrees. Hence, women begin to feel colder slightly sooner than men.

Myth: Cotton is a good insulator.

Soft cotton may feel nice, but it’s by no means the best insulator for cold Canadian winters. If cotton happens to get wet, it conducts heat away from the body at a much higher rate than other fabrics. A much better choice would be a synthetic such as polypropylene or Capilene, both of which pull water away from the skin.

Myth: Drinking alcohol will keep you warm.

Imbibing in some brandy may make you feel warmer for a short time because it causes the blood to rush to the skin’s surface. But in reality, alcohol causes the blood vessels to dilate and in the long run, and causes heat loss. It can also impede the shivering process which generates further body heat and worst of all, it can create havoc with judgment.

Myth: Fake fur is as warm as real fur.

 Does anyone wear real fur these days? If you are so inclined to wear fur, stick to the real thing, as it is a far superior insulator than the synthetic equivalent. Just as nature intended, real animal hairs keep heat from leaving the body.

photo credit:   Lori King via  Toledo Blade
photo credit: Lori King via Toledo Blade

Dress for the season, people! 

There you have it in a nutshell – dressing for another cold Canadian winter. Much of it is just good old-fashioned common sense, but I’m forever surprised to see someone out walking in shorts on one of those unseasonably mild days when the temperature rises to plus 7! No, no no! This is still winter and this is still Toronto, and nobody should be deluded into thinking we’re headed for an early spring with a day or two of melting ice. Real spring will be here soon enough, and in the meantime, dress for the season! Six months from now, during a blistering hot day in July, we may wish for a bit of that cold weather back again!

Sources: eHowUniversity of Rochester Medical Center

 

Seasonal Affective Disorder and ABIs – is there a connection?

BY: RICHARD HASKELL

Is the holiday season really over for another year? Whether or not you celebrate, the holidays are pretty difficult to ignore, beginning with the first  appearance of decorations in early November followed by Christmas music on the radio and just about everywhere else. But by early January, the garlands, the red ribbons, the Christmas trees and the festive lights have all but disappeared.

So what does that leave us with? Dark long days and cold temperatures, with very little to look forward to until the first days of spring three months away. Is it any wonder that with the post–holiday let-down, people are inclined to feel sluggish, depressed and irritable? Even though the days have just begun to lengthen, April still seems a long way off.

photo credit: Smaku via photopin cc
photo credit: Smaku via photopin cc

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) takes its toll on many of us. Celia Missios offered sage advice on how to combat the symptoms in December. But what about SAD and ABI survivors? Are survivors inclined to feel the effects of the dark, cold days to an even greater degree because of their brain injury?

There has been very little research undertaken on the correlation between brain injury survivors and the effects of SAD. Despite this, Dr. Celeste Campbell, a Washington-based neuropsychologist, suggests that since mood disorders are the most frequent psychiatric illnesses for patients with an ABI, SAD could be more prevalent for brain injury survivors.

Surprisingly, there has been no research specifically linking seasonal affective disorder to brain injury. Only one article, a case study, linked the two conditions. It involved  a 45-year-old female patient suffering from SAD who had also suffered a brain injury many years earlier. During the winter, she was affected by bouts of depression while her summers were marked by periods of hypomania (increased excitability.)

The patient’s ABI had come about as a result of an arterial bleed on the right side of her brain when she was 17, resulting in partial paralysis of the left side. Nevertheless, after the birth of her first child at the age of 31, she suffered a second arterial bleed that ultimately led to more periods of depression. Medication brought some degree of improvement, but over the next four years, her symptoms worsened, characterized by variations in mood, energy, socialization and sleep according to the season. In this particular study, doctors were convinced that her mood swings resulting from SAD – particularly during the winter months – were aggravated by structural brain damage she had suffered many years earlier.

photo credit: fishwasher via photopin cc
photo credit: fishwasher via photopin cc

It should seem only natural that because those who have suffered brain injuries are particularly prone to mood disorders, they would be more likely to feel the effects of seasonal change. Yet only when more research on the subject is undertaken will we be provided with more definitive answers.

Do you think there is there a connection between ABI and seasonal affective disorder? Email us at info@bist.ca or Tweet us @BraininjuryTO and tell us what you think!

7 Tips to help you beat the winter blues

BY: CELIA MISSIOS 

Winter may still be a few weeks away but many of us are already feeling the effect shorter exposure to daylight and the affect dipping temperatures have on our mood and desire to step outside our homes.

For some people “winter blues” are a minor inconvenience and they manage to make it through the cold days of winter without too much disruption in their daily life. For others this time of year can become a debilitating nightmare known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) affecting people in varying degrees. Though there doesn’t seem to be any studies indicating that persons with ABI are more susceptive to SAD, I started noticing after my accident something was happening and affecting me as soon as the cold, dark days of winter began to approach.

kicking the winter blues
Photo credit: HIGH HEELED LIFE

Once the time changed my downward spiral would start – gaining momentum and reaching a dangerous peak by mid-winter. Speaking with other ABI survivors I learned that this was a common occurrence for many of them around this time of year, which like me, had not been present in their pre-accident life. If as the weather changes you find that you are experiencing (or notice increase in) the following:

  • Withdrawing from being around people (an overwhelming feeling to hibernate).
  • Increase in anxiety and thoughts start to have a negative undertone.
  • Energy levels deplete with just thinking  about doing something.
  • Being uninterested in most activities that were fun and enjoyed.
  • Everything starts to bother you

I highly suggest speaking to your family doctor, therapist or other medical professional who will be able to guide you to getting the appropriate care.

woman looking depressedon sofa
Photo Credit: Google Image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having fought a great fight to live and get my life back I was not about to have a few months each year continue to be taken away from me, any more than they already had. I came up with a plan to help get me through my winter blues.

Celia’s seven tips on how to ease the intensity of weather change:

  • A spa outing (alone or with friends) – a massage, energy healing treatment can be most beneficial to mind, body, spirit.
  • Taking my two Yorkies – Dolce and Gabbana for morning and mid-day walk. A little exercise helps lower depression and improves your mood.
  • When I feel signals popping up, I refrain from a glass of wine with dinner or any other time for that matter. Alcohol can increase depression.
  • Take a technical break – from the Internet, blogging or other social media and get outside. As much as technology connects us it can also make us feel further isolated as we see all the photos, tweets of others having fun. Bundle up and go outside even for just 5-10 minutes.
  • Make plans to meet friend(s) for dinner, a stroll in the city – face to face interaction with others is priceless medicine.
  • Plan an escape to a warm climate location – even if for only a 3/4 day weekend.
  • Pay extra attention to eating healthy and drinking plenty of water. I also take a Vitamin D supplement; eat foods high in Omega 3s (salmon, nuts like walnuts, chia and hemp seeds, and spinach) both Vitamin D and Omega 3s have been linked to huge increases in immunity as well as lowered depressive symptoms.

If the cold, gloomy dark days of winter have you buried under your blankets, wishing you could stay there until April, I invite you to check out the segment Tackling Seasonal Affective Disorder on Huff Post Live, which I had the honour of being a guest on, last year.

Celia Missios
Celia Missios

Celia Missios is a brain injury survivor who has embraced her new found strengths and created a life that fits who she is today. She shares her journey in hopes that it will help others who are experiencing depression, anxiety, stress and facing transition in their life successfully move away from fear, pain, and deflated attitude about life – step into the life they want. Celia is the founder of the blog High Heeled Life – inspiration for living a luxurious and balanced life; featured author in Adventures in Manifesting – Soulful Relationships; a Peer Mentor with BIST; and a regular speaker for Canadian Blood Services – Speakers Bureau. Learn more about Celia and be inspired visit www.HighHeeledLife.com or www.CeliaMLifeCoach.com.