This summer was a challenging one for me. I got a virus at the end of June that caused me to pass out and hit my head on the bathroom floor – and in addition to a big bump over my right eye – that fall also gave me a concussion. Unfortunately, I was not one of the “lucky” ones to heal from this type of brain injury in just a week or two. I have been dealing with fatigue, dizziness, and other common concussion symptoms for over two months. I spent much of my summer consulting with a variety of doctors who often provided conflicting advice. It is amazing to me how much we still don’t know about the human brain and how it heals. However, one recommendation from a physical therapist who specializes in brain recovery resonated with me and reminded me of advice we give regularly to students, parents, and educators who partner with Challenge Success. I am not sharing this recommendation as professional medical advice to follow (please consult your doctor if you have a concussion!), but as a helpful reminder for all of us as we strive for healthy, balanced bodies, spirits, and brains.
My physical therapist used the acronym SEEDS to represent five vital elements for good health: Sleep, healthy Eating, regular Exercise, Drinking water, and Stress management. He recommended that I follow the SEEDS plan every day to speed up the healing process. Since these are all topics that we discuss in our Challenge Success presentations about “The Well-Balanced Student,” I was already bought in and had a pretty good head start for following his advice. I review the five SEEDS elements below to encourage you to buy in as well and to strive for your entire family to follow the plan.
Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night, and adolescents need 8-10. It is absolutely critical to try to meet this goal each night and to remember to get off of all devices (phones, computers, televisions) at least one hour before bedtime in order to get better sleep. We know that the blue glow from technology can affect our melatonin and disrupt our sleep and that the content we view on the screens can cause stress or heightened emotions that may make it difficult to fall asleep and stay sleeping through the night. Even though I regularly preach this in my presentations to schools, and had all my devices set to dim their bright lights at nighttime, I would typically do a quick email check before bed. Not anymore. I am now religious about non-screen time at night in order to improve the sleep my healing brain so desperately needs.
My physical therapist encouraged me to eat more fruits, vegetables, healthy proteins, and fewer fried foods and sugary snacks. I ate a pretty healthy diet pre-concussion, but, in my injured state, I would often find that I would wake up really hungry in the morning and had trouble stabilizing my blood sugar throughout the day. I didn’t realize how much our brains require a steady supply of healthy food to function – and healing brains seem to require even more. A good reminder for students (or any of us) who tend to skip breakfast: we need to feed the brain before we can do any good thinking and learning.
I walk and hike regularly, but, in my new state, I found that even 10 to 15 minutes of getting my heart rate up could make me feel better during one of my brain fog moments. Many studies show a strong connection between brain functioning and exercise which is why most educators try to incorporate physical movement into students’ daily routine. Recess, mid-class stretches, movement breaks, and PE periods help students focus and prepare to learn. Parents can support this by encouraging kids to walk or bike to and from school, if safe and feasible, and to get physical exercise each day.
I was told to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages and to drink a minimum of 64 ounces of water every day to prevent dehydration. This is well-known advice for anyone (with or without a concussion). Schools and families can support students by encouraging them to bring water bottles to school and to refill them regularly throughout the day.
I often talk about mindfulness and meditation as great stress-reduction strategies in my school presentations, but I will now admit that I never regularly incorporated these into my daily life. I had tried a few times, but my mind wandered, and if it wasn’t scheduled on my to-do list for that day, it wouldn’t get done. My physical therapist told me not to worry about losing focus during meditation. He wanted me to set a timer for five minutes, sit in a comfortable chair with my feet flat on the ground, and try to concentrate on my breathing. If my mind wandered, simply try to bring it back to focus. At first, it was really hard for me to keep my eyes closed and focus for the full five minutes, but with practice, it got easier. Now I meditate two or three times a day for five minutes, and I have found this to be one of the very best ways for me to calm my brain and handle the dizziness and nausea. I plan to add these daily “brain breaks” to my calendar to ensure that I consistently make time for them in my regular routine.
Another important recommendation was for me to do one thing at a time and not try to multitask. I used to regularly talk on the phone (hands-free) while driving, or check emails while eating lunch, but my injured brain wasn’t able to handle more than one task at a time. When I was finally cleared to drive, I was shocked at how much brainpower and focus it took for me to drive 20 minutes around my neighborhood. I had to come home and take a nap right after the trip – and that was without the radio on or attempting to make a call. Imagine how much brainpower our new 16-year-old drivers are using and how important it is for them – and all of us – not to be distracted on the road. Now I try to focus just on driving, just on eating, or just on listening to work calls, instead of attempting to do multiple tasks at once.
When I speak to students at school assemblies, I always tell them that they have one body that has to last for their entire life. What they do in terms of health (sleeping, exercise, stress management, eating, and drinking) will affect them for years and years to come. This line has a whole new meaning to me now. We all need to be kind to our bodies, including our brains. We need to feed our brain, water it, and give it a break when necessary so it will indeed last a lifetime.
Denise Pope, Ph.D., is a Co-Founder of Challenge Success and a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, where she specializes in student engagement, curriculum studies, qualitative research methods, and service learning. She is the author of, “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, and co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. Dr. Pope lectures nationally on parenting techniques and pedagogical strategies to increase student health, engagement with learning, and integrity. She is a 3-time recipient of the Stanford University School of Education Outstanding Teacher and Mentor Award and was honored with the 2012 Education Professor of the Year “Educators’ Voice Award” from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences.