Katia Kiefaber's Community Story - Mind Body Connection

I sat in the equestrian barn at my college, eager to try out a new sport, signing consent forms regarding health and safety. The instructor of my beginning riding class explained the precautions of horseback riding, noting off-hand that this could even mean death of paralyzation. A brief moment of worry crossed my mind as I remembered that horses were big animals that could seriously injure humans, but I quickly moved on, believing that only olympic level riders, not newbies like me, experienced such tragic injuries. Two years of riding later, I got my second concussion from the sport and though I didn’t realize it at the time, experienced a kind of death of the old me.

Despite the concussion, I managed to finish my senior year of college, graduate, and even secure a full-time job in the fall. Emotionally and physically, however, I was struggling. I dealt with (and still deal with) an ever-present headache, eye strain, electronic screen sensitivity, and relentlessly achey muscles, all of which made living a “normal” 22-year-old life feel impossible. I couldn’t go out with my friends to a bar because of the loud noise. I left work each day with a raging headache because of the screens. Worst of all, I couldn’t exercise, the thing that had always made me feel so alive and strong. All the things I couldn’t do weighed on my mental health. I have always struggled with depression but I started experiencing panic attacks that left me physically exhausted (along with all my other physical symptoms) and emotionally hopeless. I kept desperately wishing that one day I’d wake up and the concussion symptoms would be magically gone, me “healed”.

A huge mental shift ended up radically altering the course of my concussion recovery. I met with an acquaintance from college who had dealt with a similarly debilitating concussion. I assumed that her cheery demeanor meant that she had fully recovered. In actuality though, she explained that she still dealt with many symptoms but was focusing on the progress she had made, noting how important it was to mentally challenge herself. As silly as it sounds, it was revolutionary to me that someone could be both still recovering from a concussion and happy. It struck me that my ideology of waiting and wishing the concussion to be healed was mentally harming me, paralyzing me from accepting the concussion and working with it rather than against it.

From that point on, my recovery improved dramatically. I’ve learned to view my concussion as a form of chronic pain that I can manage with my lifestyle: something that might be ever-present but with both good and bad days, following a non-linear path. I’ve also learned to let go and accept that sometimes it’s more productive to breathe into the pain and be mindful of it rather than obsessing over possible strategies to magically take away the pain. I live my life at a much slower pace, taking breaks often, meditating, stretching, and doing art. I often laugh at myself about all the different public places I’ve laid down and rested. As my mind learned how to process the many layers of emotions related to my concussion, my brain too started recovering.

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Another huge game-changer for me was focusing on practicing gratitude. I started using sticky-notes to jot down little things that I was grateful my body could do or new things I was capable of doing that I once couldn’t do because of my concussion. I wrote down even the smallest things, like being able to stay 10 minutes later at a party with friends or being able to kiss my girlfriend without a neckache, and I began to be proud of these small achievements. Even little victories are still victories. I also created a mental health journal, writing down things to tell myself when I was having a rough day, breathing/mindfulness exercises, and most importantly, quotes that inspire me. I especially adore Rupi Kaur’s poetry. One of her poems always grounds me and reminds me to value my body for all that it has gone through and still continues to fight to be. It reads:

your body
is a museum
of natural disasters
can you grasp how 
stunning that is

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