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The Brain Science Says: Your Brain Only Changes When You Really Challenge It

Constant Therapy | Traumatic brain injury, Stroke

Some days putting in the hard work for brain injury or stroke recovery can be… well, frankly, hard. Here’s why that’s normal and how to get through it.

After brain injury or stroke, you’re faced with new physical & cognitive-linguistic challenges

You may find yourself in speech-language, occupational, and physical therapies, working hard towards your goals. If you’ve worked with a rehabilitation therapist, you’ve likely heard them emphasize the value of homework or “carryover” exercises in between sessions, and the importance of quality, consistent, focused practice at home once therapy is finished.

Those days when it’s hard to get motivated, brain science tells us that it’s worth it

We know the positive role that practice plays in brain recovery. But sometimes, it can be easier said than done. There may be days when you feel exhausted, stressed, or sad, and it can be hard to motivate yourself during your exercises. What if you just repeat that language task you know you’re already good at just one more time? Ok, you may have been going through the motions, but at least you did it, right? Here’s the thing – the brain science tells us it’s not worth it if it’s not challenging.

Brain science says “a quality challenge is key”

Thomas Edison said, “there is no substitute for hard work.” And he was right. To really make those big improvements, your brain needs to work for them. Brain science says your brain only changes when you really challenge it – and this is the important part.

Studies sponsored by the National Institutes of Health suggest that doing cognitive tasks that feel difficult, like problem solving, learning something new, reading a newspaper article and discussing it with a friend, truly challenge the brain – but note that these activities are more than simply playing games – your brain needs to learn something to have an impact.

So yes, challenging your brain is an important part of practice. But quality practice can only be achieved when given the right amount of challenge.

Quality practice is only achieved by doing the right amount of challenge

Apps like Constant Therapy can provide an excellent platform for a quality challenge in cognitive and language areas.

In a recent study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, patients made fantastic improvement in their cognitive and language skills using Constant Therapy. Findings showed that Constant Therapy provided the right amount of challenge for the participants’ individualized therapy program. We know this because participants did not score 0% (too difficult!), nor did they score 100% on tasks (too easy!). Instead, participants’ scores ranged from 40% to 80% accuracy. In other words, Constant Therapy’s smart technology adapts to each person’s unique performance in order to deliver the right challenge for improving cognitive and language skills.

Feeling the “emotional discomfort” of exertion is normal and necessary

When faced with a cognitive or language challenge, you may feel the “emotional discomfort ” of exertion. A recent New York Times article put it this way: ”…but if you consistently sidestep the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion, this restraint can be detrimental to the brain.”

However, there is a difference between emotional discomfort and becoming symptomatic

Quality practice also means listening to your body and your symptoms. If you’re finding tasks cause an increase in symptoms like headaches or dizziness, you might discuss with your speech-language, occupational, or physical therapist about strategies for symptom management.

So what to do when you just want to “go through the motions?”

It’s okay to feel this way. But how do we overcome it? Here are some strategies to try:

  • Revamp your goals. Have you been working on the same goal for a long time? Are you unsure what your goal should be? Try breaking your big goals into smaller, weekly SMART goals. If you haven’t set your goals, or need a refresh on your current goals, read our blog post about goal setting.
  • Keep a daily planner. Every week, schedule time to complete your cognitive or language exercises. Keep record of your progress to stay motivated to ensure QUALITY practice
  • Incorporate practice time into your regular routine. Building a routine around your practice can help with initiation maintain quality.
  • Keep a journal. “Free writing” in a journal can decrease stress and worry, increase motivation, and also provide a record where you can reflect on and measure your progress and improvement.
  • Reach out to your support systems. Talk openly with family or friends about your dedication to your recovery, how far you’ve come, and what your goals are
  • Find a “brain training” partner. Just like having an “exercise buddy” can keep you going to the gym on the days you don’t want to, a brain training partner can keep you on track with your cognitive and language goals.
  • Remember that recovery does not occur in a straight line. There will be days where you may not feel your best, but recovery can occur years after an injury. See our blog post if you feel like you’ve hit a plateau.
  • Seek out new ways to challenge yourself. Check out a support group, join a new study, learn something new, download a new app. Actually go and order that cup of coffee for yourself
  • On those difficult days, REWARD Yourself. What do you enjoy? Watching a show, reading, sleeping, going for a walk? It was difficult today to do a quality practice session, but you did it. Be sure to give yourself the credit you deserve.

Nothing worth having comes easy. But you deserve the best – so strive to meet that new challenge – just take it one day at a time.

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