It may be hard for a person experiencing post brain trauma symptoms to make anything of their symptoms at all. Being overwhelmed and confused makes it hard to “see the forest through the trees.” When a person’s brain is effected, their new normal often seems normal for them and they don’t notice that it isn’t. This is where it helps for us to have a friend or family member observing from the outside. For example after going to a crowded christmas lights event with my husband, I mentioned to him how people always “run into me” to which he replied, “I’ve noticed you walk sideways a lot.” My first reaction was thinking I most certainly do not! It wasn’t until he mentioned it and I studied my walking for a few days that I realized he was right. My handwriting was a symptom that was overlooked when I was a child. I didn’t notice it myself until I became an adult and found it nearly impossible to write on a greeting card without switching letters or writing the wrong words. Sometimes I needed to go through 5 cards just to send a decent thank you note that didn’t look like a 2 year old wrote it. I was looking in my college papers one day and noticed that I did it back then as well, which led me to search through grade school papers that my mom had saved. Sure enough, in 1996, which also happened to be the year when I started competing gymnastics and fell on my head while learning a back tuck, my handwriting went from nearly perfect to extremely messy with multiple mistakes on every page.
Often our brains are too busy trying to make sense out of the new world around us that it’s hard to notice patterns in our own symptoms. We may have a symptom like sharp pains, dizziness or nausea that seems to come from nowhere, but then it leaves just as mysteriously and we forget that it ever happened until it comes back. If you ask us about our symptoms at a specific time when it isn’t bothering us, we may not mention it at all. If you ask us when it happened last, we may not be able to tell you whether it happened yesterday or last week. The environment also plays a large role. There are many things that I can easily do in the comfort of my own home, but seem nearly impossible when I am overwhelmed in a crowded place. For instance, my husband knows that he can ask me at home what we need from the store and get a fairly clear answer, but if he were to ask the same question at the grocery store he will get only a wide eyed stare from me.
Keep in mind many of these symptoms are things that a normal child or adult might go through for other reasons but don’t simply write them off for that reason either. Also some days will be better or worse than others so don’t judge anything by one day, rather look at changes in patterns over the course of many weeks or months. Try keeping a log to help you or your loved one notice patterns, for example, their stomach hurts at school or in public, but not at home, or a headache becomes normal after shopping or going out to eat in restaurants.
Things to look out for in loved ones after a known or possible brain trauma including but not limited to, vehicle accidents, sporting accidents, any type of fall or hit to the head, stroke, lack of oxygen, anesthesia and other drugs, etc.
- Digestive problems, nausea, cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation
- Changes in sleep, trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping longer, trouble waking up in the morning or taking more naps.
- Getting sleepy when they are trying to concentrate on homework or do things that require visual stress like watching an action movie, riding in a car, being in a crowded place, working on a computer.
- Becoming exhausted after every meal or after doing simple tasks like taking a shower.
- Changes in vision: Needing glasses for the first time or large jumps in prescription. Excessive squinting, blinking, rolling of eyes, or putting their face up really close to what they are reading or writing. Dilated pupils expecially when stressed or tired.
- Headaches or Complaints of weird pains that come and go. Shooting pains, stabbing pains, a hurting joint with no known cause that only lasts a short time.
- Swallowing difficulties like choking on drinks, choking randomly on their own saliva
- Complaints of heart beating faster or harder when doing normal activities.
- Running into things or people / walking sideways especially when tired or in a busy environment
- Starting to act either overly “giddy” “tipsy” or “sleepy” in an exciting environment such as a wedding, business meeting, party, theme park, shopping mall, etc.
- Changes in posture, slouching, not being able to stand in line for things, leans on something, sits or lays down whenever possible. Complains of or looks like their muscles feel weak or floppy.
- Being distracted or reacting to every noise that happens around them. Covering their ears when they hear certain noises.
- Being overly hyper one minute and extremely tired the next, followed by a burst of energy and then another tired spell.
- Changes in handwriting (becoming sloppy) and when writing or typing, making more mistakes ie. skipping letters/ switching letters/ writing the wrong word.
- Shorter attention span, Losing things, forgetting things, not paying attention, “acting ditsy,” having trouble “getting their ducks in a row” (most children and adults will play this off as if they are not trying hard or doing it on purpose. It’s as if they would rather be labeled as not caring than admit they are struggling.)
- “Refusing” to answer simple questions especially in a stimulating environment or trying to answer but having a hard time “getting the words out”
- Slower/or much faster reaction time physically or verbally
- Daydreaming, staring off to the side, or looking like they are in a daze more often especially when someone else in talking.
- Decreased ability in following multiple steps of a process. (Being okay with 1 or 2 steps but 3 or more they forget what the steps were or what order or start to look like a deer in headlights) Taking a long time or noticeably having a hard time doing normal processes like getting ready for school.
- Changes in personality such as becoming more extroverted or introverted, losing interest in fun things, or becoming defiant and having outbursts of anger or sadness.
- Changes in mood, being overly and irrationally upset about something like their socks not fitting properly, their hair being out of place, or a slight change in plans.
- Getting overly frustrated with themselves when they make a mistake and then not being able to recover from it.
- Crying or anger spells that seem to come out of nowhere.
- Excessive fear of something bad happening to them or their family.
When they make mistakes or complain about symptoms try not to say or do things that will encourage them to cover up their symptoms for fear that they will be “in trouble” or “feel stupid.” Like for instance, yelling at them for forgetting things, or rolling your eyes and scolding them when they bump into someone because “they weren’t paying attention,” putting a guilt trip on them for forgetting an important event, or making fun of them for being “slow”.
If they do open up to you about how they feel that something is a struggle lately, try to avoid belittling them, saying they are fine, or acting like they are doing these things on purpose for attention. Instead ask them questions about how they feel and why. Then ask them what they think makes it better or worse. This will validate to them that you are not judging them but care about helping and they may open up to you instead of hiding their struggles for fear of disappointing you.