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You don’t need a ‘fancy’ diet for your TBI. You need this instead…

Read to me! (Press play button)

Since your brain injury, do you have issues with memory? Have you been able to keep a routine? Do you find that you’re often saying or thinking “I can’t because of my brain injury“?

I don’t talk about this often. But I don’t feel bad sharing this vulnerable piece of information with you. Even before my brain injury I struggled with some mental health issues. One of those being obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD.

And let me just clear one thing up here. The term “OCD” gets thrown around all the time, and is rarely used properly.

People use the term “OCD“ to describe their behaviour of being particular, picky, or perfectionistic. I hate to burst your bubble, but this is not OCD. If anything it dismisses the frustrating struggle those with OCD deal with on a daily basis.

I’m not a mental health expert so I won’t pretend to be able to give you an accurate description of the illness. But from my experience what I can say is this: OCD is about having very distressing and intrusive thoughts. So much so that they are very hard to cope with and can manifest in unpleasant ways.

White Wall

Somewhere along the way my mind made a connection that flicking a light switch on and off 10 times would alleviate the stress of those thoughts. Except it didn’t. And over time every time I had these very intrusive and distressing thoughts, my mind would tell me to flick that light switch. Except one set of 10 became not enough. It grew to become three or five sets or more… Whether it was light switches or some other maladaptive behaviour, these behaviours made it sometimes near impossible for me to get to bed or leave my home.

My TBI definitely made my OCD worse. Or maybe these two demons just played very well together? It took several years into my recovery for me to feel like I could face treating the OCD. And I started doing so just a year ago.

Why am I telling you this? Because the OCD treatment really highlighted something important to me that is valuable in TBI recovery in general, but I see specifically in nutrition.

Flat-lay Photography of Vegetable Salad on Plate

My earliest memory of my OCD’s were when I was a teen. So that’s at least two decades that I have been practising behaviours like flicking light switches, repeatedly checking the oven, meticulously placing objects on the counter in very specific ways, over and over and over again…

And so treating this will also take a lot of practicing a more useful behaviour. 

I’ve said it many times here that the TBI changes your life completely. It changes what you do from day-to-day. It changes what you might practice.

And what you practice, you get good at. And what you get good at becomes a habit.

So tell me, what are you practicing?

Yellow Daisies Laid on Yellow Surface

In brain injury recovery, it’s easy or also absolutely necessary to practice taking naps. Resting. Saying “no” to more activities when we’ve reached our edge.

I also found during my recovery that it sometimes got really easy to give in to that thought of “I can’t because of my brain injury.” And so, for a time, I practised avoidance.

I sometimes see elements of this when it comes to brain injury and food. There is no shortage of diets that are promoted for brain injury. But there is a serious shortage of evidence that any of them work.

Regardless of whether they work or not, on the whole these diets mostly tell people to practice eliminating a bunch of foods. To practice thinking about food more often than is needed. To practice fearing some foods. And over all to practice not eating.

Is that what you want to practice?

As a side effect of being stuck in this diet & restricted way of eating, I also find that this leads to the practice of continuous searching — a constant drive to look for MORE information without the practice of doing.

Photo of Woman Showing Frustrations on Her Face

These diets also seem to promote the practice of constantly looking externally for answers to problems. I believe there is a time and place for this. But when it comes to day-to-day eating, for many of us our bodies have a lot of wisdom and can tell us a lot of what we need, if we are able to tune in. 

All this to say that in my opinion, diets that are incredibly hard to follow, and have us focus on strict rules, stop us from practising what we really need.

Pink Daisy Flower Lot

Let’s do an analogy:

If you were learning to play the violin, what would you need to achieve playing well?

If someone came to you and said all you need is the most expensive and coveted violin in order to play well, and then you went out and bought a Stradivarius, would that be what you need to master the violin?

I think we all know that the answer is no.

File:PalacioReal Stradivarius1.jpg
Stradivarius. Image shared under the creative commons license Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

As great as a Stradivarius would be in the hands of an expert player, in the hands of a novice it would still sound bad, lol. What a new player needs is patient, repeated, and dedicated practice.

Diets to me are like the promise that a Stradivarius will make you the best player on earth. But what you actually need is to just start with what you have and build from there.

Wall of Pink Petaled Flowers

For the violin, maybe that’s first just listening to violin music! Maybe that’s first just learning how to read music. Maybe that’s first just learning how to hold a violin without even playing it. Maybe that’s first just learning how to take care of any violin so that it stays in good shape for a long time…

So then maybe with food what you need is to just look at all the ingredients you have in your home right now. Maybe with food you need to just eat what you have available to you on a regular basis. Maybe with food you need to start learning what cooking skills you can do with your brain injury.

Crop person cooking fried eggs

So when it comes to food, what do you want to practice?

I know the ol’ adage of “practice makes progress” isn’t a “sexy” message LOL. It’s so much more enticing to conjure up and dream of a big change with a ‘fancy’ diet. It’s so much more interesting to think about that Stradivarius, even if you’ve never played a violin in your life.

But what do you want? Just the image or illusion of doing well? The photo op? To be stuck in the dream? Or do you want to actually be doing well?

Elderly Woman in White Button Up Shirt Cooked a Delicious Meal

Your brain post trauma needs repetition of helpful behaviours to move forward. Post trauma some may not have the same access to explicit memory. You may become stuck more often than you’d like in your sympathetic (fight & flight), or dorsal vagal parasympathetic (freeze, faint, appease) nervous states! So how can you practice what serves you and leave what doesn’t?

Photo of Flowers

My OCD treatment was not fun at all LOL. Anyone who’s gone through it knows. And as much as I wish that there was just some shiny thing I could hold that would make me stop flicking the light switch, I know deep down that wouldn’t actually solve the problem — I wouldn’t be any mentally healthier.

The practice I have been doing over the last year, as repetitious and sometimes as frustrating as it’s been, I can say that my OCD has never been this well-managed — the most I ever flick a light switch now is only twice, and those compulsions are few and far between 🙂

So think about it. What do you need to practice in terms of food & nutrition? Eating three times a day? Making a grocery list? Breathing before a meal?

Green Vegetables on Brown Table

What practice is accessible to you right now? And helpful to you in the long run?

And can you dedicate yourself to that repetition?

Best in brain health,

Krystal Merrells, RD


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