Thursday, June 18, 2015

Can Illness Affect Personality?

When I was eleven, I fell off a horse and got a bad concussion. I missed a week of school, and it was a month before I could do sports or get on a horse again. At the time I just thought it was part of being a horsewoman. You fall off, you might get injured, you get better and you get back on. But looking back, I can see how that injury significantly affected my physical health and my personality as well. 

A brain injury like a concussion can cause various physical health problems. But today I want to talk about how injury or illness can affect our personalities. 

Before the concussion, I was an energetic and imaginative little girl. After the concussion, my brain started doing something that I only recognized in hindsight. It started "budgeting" my mental energy. Instead of having extra brain power for fun things or learning stuff outside of school, my brain basically "conserved" its energy for classes and things that were absolutely necessary. 

I can see now how all through school, though I had plenty of intelligence, it seemed like I always had to push my brain to focus and complete tasks. And at times I'd get really frustrated because I didn't have the mental energy I needed.

When I see people who've learned 5 or 6 languages or who keep acquiring new skills, I marvel at their mental energy. How is it possible? Then I remember that since childhood my brain has been "protecting" itself by rationing my mental energy instead of overflowing with it. There are probably a lot of kids with similar experiences. It's not that they aren't smart. It's that their brain isn't letting them work to their potential. 

Sometimes I wonder what things I would have learned or skills I'd have mastered if I hadn't had that concussion.... Having a brain that rations energy affects the way you see the world and the way you see yourself. It leads to thoughts like, "That's too hard, I can't do that, why try?..." Instead of being outgoing and adventurous, the personality can change to timid or resistant to change and challenges.  

In 2012 I did the DNRS brain retraining program, which helps to heal brain injuries. I was amazed at the results! Suddenly I could memorize the Bible easily; the words just stuck in my brain! I enjoyed learning again! I felt excited about life, like when I was a little girl bubbling over with energy and enthusiasm. Healing the brain injury changed so much about me! 

Living with chronic illness also affects personality. After college I was the healthiest I'd been in a long time. I spent two years in Mexico as a missionary. I was on a grand adventure and I loved it! Only months after I left Mexico, my health crashed, and the spirit of adventure was quickly gone. I didn't want to make phone calls or decisions. It was an accomplishment just to get out of bed each day. Every little thing became an arduous task. I couldn't think clearly and had trouble expressing myself. I missed the "old me." 

Many things can affect or change personality (work, stress, friends, etc.). But I think sometimes people don't realize how much injury and illness are a factor. What I've shared are just two examples from my own experience. If you know someone who used to be outgoing, optimistic and energetic, and after months or years of illness they're depressed, exhausted and withdrawn, then you've seen firsthand what I'm talking about. Illness does affect personality because we are whole beings - you can't separate the physical from the emotional, mental and spiritual. 

The good news in all of this is that God is still good. As He has brought physical healing for me, He has also healed and restored much of my personality. In fact, I believe He has developed in my personality even stronger qualities than I had naturally, because now they come from His power and His life in me. 

For those of you who feel like you just want the "old you" back, please take heart. You are not the symptoms of your illness. You are more than how you feel right now. And I believe God will use your trials to transform you into an even more amazing person than you were before the injury/illness.

I hope that understanding how illness/injury can affect personality will make us all more patient and gracious with each other. In reality we're all still "in process." Let's keep encouraging each other in the journey.

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