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Two steps forward, one step back. Recovery is not linear - Concussion recovery setbacks

Updated: Jan 10

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Healing from a concussion isn’t just a straight process, there can be many setbacks. We all have made this experience. It’s always one step back and two steps forward. When you’re at the point of one step back, it’s really hard to stay positive and to believe it’s part of the concussion recovery process – on the contrary IT DOESN’T FEEL LIKE IT AT ALL.


For me it was really discouraging, and I guess a lot of people can relate to this. But that’s just how the brain works. On your good days it feels like you will never do a step back ever again but on the bad days the step back feels like you will never get out of that miserable state

Concussion recovery setbacks

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Concussion Recovery setbacks were always waiting around the corner

For me, in the first year, it felt like whenever I had a step forward, a step backwards was already waiting around the corner. Those step backwards also took such a long time! A step forward was mostly just one good day followed up by 6 bad days. It was such a rollercoaster and I didn’t know how to get out of it. After the first year, the backwards steps were still there but as bad as in the first year.


Exercising was hell during the first year. Before, I was always very active and went to the gym 4 times a week but after my accident, I couldn't do that anymore. I knew when I would exercise I would go from the step forward immediately into a step backward. So, choosing to exercise meant always taking a risk of getting some bad days afterward. You start to ask yourself why you’re trying to exercise if it makes you feel worse.


A step back can also mean you're recovering

A voice deep inside me told me that I shouldn’t give up even if it meant having to take a step back. A step back can also mean you’re recovering and your body is preparing you for the two steps forward that are around the corner. Thinking in this way helped me a lot and it was easier to accept the bad days as well. Even though the day was bad, I still got one day closer in my recovery journey.


concussion recovery setbacks

Not knowing the cause of a setback

But what if you’re doing everything you can, take enough rest, follow all the advice and still get bad days? I feel you… Sometimes I did everything that my doctor said, took enough rest and even after 4 days a bad day occurred, WHY? It can feel so unfair and frustrating because you don’t know what the cause of this step back is and you don’t know how to prevent it.


I always started thinking: “Have I done too much? If so, what did I do wrong? What can I do better next time? Rest? Continue? Cancel some appointments? There was always that question: How can this be happening again? Why do I always want to do so much? I didn’t do much, I can do so little. Will I ever be able to do more than this? Bad days became more difficult to put into perspective. The only thing I knew was that if there was a bad day some things wouldn’t help.


Like social situations, especially with strangers who ask you a lot of questions you don’t want to answer at that moment, computer screens or tasks that ask for too much cognitive action. On bad days, I avoided those things and started feeling better. That usually means that I am alone at home a lot of this time.


Interval training helped me to get out of that setback

What really helped me keep my brain active was interval training. I learned all the benefits of interval training from my doctor who is specialized in concussions. Most importantly, it helps your body regulate your fight or flight response and it will improve your cognitivity. I did 5 intervals in a row at least 3 times a week.


>> Curious how I do the intervals? Take a look at this 7-day interval course.


From the moment I started doing interval training 3 times or more in a week, I started seeing some improvements. Even if I didn’t feel very well all the time, I pushed myself to do at least 3 intervals which takes just 10 minutes. Sometimes I felt worse and it made me nauseous, I started to question what I was doing.


But I stayed strong, kept going and after about a month, the intervals got easier and most of the time I felt better after doing them. My fight or flight response also improved. Getting there wasn’t easy, I had to take some steps backwards (feeling nauseous etc.) before I could take the two steps forward. My body needed this to learn how to manage these setbacks.

Try to stay positive even on the bad days

I know it’s hard, but the bad days won’t last forever, there are always better days around the corner. I repeated this to myself on the bad days, which helped me. But it isn’t just that easy… symptoms of a concussion have overlap with the symptoms associated with depression.


Add to this to the fact that that whole situation can make you feel left out sometimes, make you feel lonely and there it is, all the ingredients for depressive thoughts. 42% of people with brain injuries also have several symptoms for major depression and 50% of people with brain injury have to deal with it at some point. So, it’s “normal” to feel like that and you are never alone in this.

Stay out of the negative spiral

There are a lot of things you can do to prevent you from ending up in negative thoughts. What helped me was:

  • Being in nature as much as possible

  • Talking to a psychologist

  • Writing in a gratitude journal. I wrote down 5 things every evening before I went to bed about what I am grateful for. (Tip: read this on the bad days)

  • Exercising. If you don’t feel good enough, go for a short walk outside.

  • Getting support from others in the same situation

  • Yoga and meditation

  • Eating healthy (no sugar)


Try not to be so hard on yourself and give yourself permission to rest during those concussion recovery setbacks. For me this was really hard because I always feel guilty when I am doing “nothing”. I know it’s not nothing, it’s taking care of myself and instead of calling in sick for work I say to myself: I am calling in sick today. This feels like I give myself permission to rest.

We all have our own way of finding motivation on those days. I am really curious about the ones you have and would love you to share it in The Concussion Community.



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concussion recovery setbacks

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