Interview with Heather Van Tassel
Can you tell me a little bit about what happened? The nature of the injury you sustained and the beginning of your recovery process?
This is a long story, gosh. But I will try to shorten it. I gave myself a concussion in September of 2017. I was at a trampoline park with some friends and I decided to do a double front flip off a trampoline. I kneed myself in the temple, in the forehead, and landed on my lower back. I fell back on a compressible air mattress. Looking at the mattress, it looks completely soft and safe, but I didn’t account for the fact that I could knee myself in the head with my own body.
So the second it happened I sort of knew that it was a concussion. I was studying neuroscience at the time, and my friends had had concussions, so I had an idea of what they were. However, I had very little understanding of what they actually feel like. It's really hard to explain to someone who has never had a concussion, or a migraine, what a concussion actually feels like. I have never had a migraine, but from the descriptions I have heard, the symptoms are very similar.
So I just ended up sitting out for the next half hour that we were there. Afterwards, I went home and slept, and the next morning I visited the doctor. The doctor told me I had sustained a minor concussion and advised me to go home and rest. That's what I did, but the injury got worse. I took his advice very seriously. I put myself in a dark room with very little cell phone and light stimulation for about one week, and it wasn’t getting any better. I think after about one week, I decided I had to try and do something. So I went to watch a soccer game, sat on the sidelines, and watched. I tried to go back to work; I began staring at screens again.
Two weeks in, it got so bad. I was having pounding headaches and sensitivity to light & sound to the point where I couldn’t even go outside at night without sunglasses on because the street lights were too bright. In retrospect, I would not recommend resting as long as I did in low stimulation. The newer research has indicated no more than 48 hours of complete rest, otherwise you risk over sensitization when you go back outside. This is exactly what happened to me.
From there it became a struggle of managing symptoms and energy levels with trying to go to school. I was in my last semester of my undergraduate degree. I was trying to get really good grades because I wanted to do a PhD in Neuroscience, ironically. And I just found I wasn’t able to study for more than 30 minutes without getting a very painful headache. I began printing out my notes because paper was easier than bright screens. I began going to class with ear plugs and sun glasses and my teachers commented saying “you look really tired and sad and just out of it.” I responded saying “I am trying my best.”
I realized that this, school as it was right now, wasn’t going to work. I could have just passed and gone through, but felt that it defeated the purpose of why I was taking this extra semester. So I dropped all my courses except for one. It was with a neuroscience prof so she understood what I was going through.
I saw 11 different practitioners during my form of recovery and the things that helped the most were red light therapy, meditation and diet changes. And I was pretty intrigued by how hard it was for me to recover as a student studying neuroscience. So I imagine other people must be having a difficult time with this. About a year later, I started up my own coaching business to help other people recover from concussions. And so it has been very rewarding to work with people like myself, struggling with post concussion syndrome (anything longer than 6 weeks). I want to help them with holistic modalities as well as mindset which include positive affirmations, reflections, and meditations.
What type of symptoms did you feel and how did red light therapy, diet supplements, & meditation help control these symptoms? Did they eliminate them completely or only control them for a period of time? Did you find there to be any relapse?
It was definitely a one step forward, two steps back, staggered recovery. I tried different therapies in different orders. Initially I started off with diet and supplements. I eventually went to a sports medicine doctor three or four weeks in. He recommended creatine and omegas. I also emailed my university’s sports nutritionist. She sent me some articles about omegas and creatine. These supplements have been clinically proven with human trials to support concussion recovery. I noticed a difference with the creatine for sure because it was all of a sudden like BOOM energy. But with the omegas I didn't notice anything right away. I am sure it did eventually really boost my recovery process over the next few months though even though I didn’t feel its effects right away.
Looking for an omega that has a higher ratio of DHA to EPA is helpful for recovery. I switched to a very high protein, high fat, low carb diet. Obviously sugar is inflammatory, it is not going to help the clean up of any sort of cellular mess. So I cut out any processed or simple sugars. I think what also helped is just spending time with my family and friends. Because otherwise it is just me, alone in my room, can’t go do sports, can’t go to school, can’t work. Completely isolated and just feeling anxious. I was thinking thoughts like “am I ever going to get my brain back?” and “who am I without my brain function?”. I couldn’t even do things like 7 times 8 in my head because that's how bad the connections were. And it was terrifying because that's what made me question my identity; what purpose did I have in this world without a functioning brain? So ya there was definitely some anxiety and a tiny bit of depression around that. I have never had a history of depression or anxiety; I am generally a very happy person. I first noticed this negative, darker thought process, about five weeks in, when I was having setback after setback. The dark thought entered my brain suddenly and was: “Well why would I even call my parents right now? They don’t want to talk to me because I haven’t improved at all this week.” And when I heard that thought, I was like “Oh dear.” So then I started actively reaching out to family and friends for more social support. People don’t realize how bad it is; they think “Oh [the concussion] is just a bruise; it will heal. It will get better.” They keep going on with their lives, and I don’t blame them because it is difficult to empathize with an injury like this, unless you have experienced it first hand. So it was definitely a matter of me reaching out and asking for help. Saying “hey can you come over and make dinner with me”, “can you come over and we play a low-key card game that won't inflame my symptoms”, or “Can we just go for a walk?” Slow walks were really helpful. I remember the first time my headache really went away was when I spent the day with my friend. We spent the whole day just coloring, meditating, and even went on a walk. And I came out of that day with this realization that oh my gosh my headache is finally gone for the first time in two weeks. It was a beautiful realization that maybe I will get better. I just have to be patient.
Acceptance was a big one. Because for the first few weeks, even months, I kept telling myself “I will be fine in two weeks'' or “I’ll be better next week.” And every single time these things didn’t happen I got more and more disappointed to the point where I had to be real with myself and say “Look, you need to accept this injury in order for you to work with it and get better.” I needed to adopt this mentality for my recovery, instead of just pushing the injury away and not fully committing myself to a recovery process that included rest and therapy. I always say stage one is acceptance. I also have a blog post on this which goes into more detail.
Some therapies I tried included craniosacral therapy. I did five sessions. I believe they really did help. It was very subtle at first. However, the minor adjustments they do are quite powerful. You do have to believe in it for it to work. Maybe it is placebo, maybe it's not, but as long as it worked I was happy. Then I went to this chiropractor who does red light therapy. He used a red light laser and stuck it on the base of my skull. This was another big breakthrough where I noticed significant improvements in my headache and fatigue. Fatigue was also a huge symptom! I was so tired. I had half the energy I normally did. After this red light therapy I noticed about a five percent improvement in energy levels. He also signed me up for the complete concussion management system. It's a system where you can track your symptoms daily via an app. It was interesting, but also depressing because for like two weeks I was seeing the same exact numbers. Eventually, I gave up using the app because it was reinforcing the fact that I felt like I wasn’t improving. It was cool to know that my doctor could see my inputs live though.
Additionally, I think meditation was a really big part of my recovery process. I realized I was alive inside of this body and this brain; there was something greater. I don’t have a name for it. It's kind of like an out of body experience. I felt this glowing well of love shoot up inside of me. It was spectacular! From here I attended meditation classes frequently. I felt this grounded me and helped calm my brain waves. I recommend it to everybody. I know it can be hard for some people but if you can manage it then keep going because the rewards are bountiful.
Did you feel the glowing realization after the first meditation session or did it take more than one session?
I think it took about six, twenty minute sessions for me to have this awakening. I started off not really knowing what I was doing. I listened to apps and recordings and followed along to those in an attempt to quiet the monkey mind. I was able to quiet my mind with a little bit of practice.
At any point during the recovery process did you feel that you should be self-reliant in your recovery? If you did, how did you get past this mentality?
I think I did have that mentality: “I’m tough. I’m strong. I can do this myself.”
It was also a blessing because it really motivated me to become my own health advocate. I became the one who decided whether the treatments proposed by doctors were the route I wanted to take. I conducted my own research to see the recommended treatments in the field and also consulted multiple practitioners. So in a way, I have to say that mentality was also helpful for me.
But the slight variation of that mentality was the idea that I ignored some symptoms I was feeling. For example, I believed sore muscles are normal. I was a varsity track athlete, not at the time of the injury, but a few years before, and my identity at the time was still very much ‘athlete’. From growing up with sports, I had this mentality that muscles should be sore. “In fact, it's normal and they usually are sore” was how I thought about it. This thinking prolonged the time it took me to seek treatment for my sore neck muscles. It wasn’t until after reading multiple articles and seeking advice from my mum (she is a pilates instructor) that I decided to seek treatment for them.
Even though I knew I had tons of friends and family who loved me, I definitely felt very alone in parts of my recovery. I think this was in part due to the nature of the injury and the recovery. I was physically isolated in my room because I couldn't do all the activities I normally could do. I tried to make new friends that had schedules that matched mine. I tried to spend my time with friends as much as I could in low-key settings. I still couldn’t go to parties at the time, but I could go and spend Thanksgiving at a friend's house. Eventually I did go to physio and they used a metal tool to help massage my neck muscles. The tool allowed them to get into the deep tissue and massage the neck muscles. This helped relieve the tension I felt, which was important since tension in the neck muscles can translate to headaches in the brain. This is because your C1 and C2 vertebrae nerves converge in your head, and the body can’t make a distinction between head pain vs. neck pain. This was actually crazy for me to learn and made me realize “hey this is why I need to work on that soreness.” A lot of people don’t realize they might have migraines or headaches and if they just massage their neck muscles it goes away.
Did Covid-19 have any effect in your recovery process?
No, my injury happened before the pandemic. I am sure my recovery would have been way worse had it been during the pandemic. More isolation would not have helped.
For those who don’t know you are a brain coach. What led you to become one and does it entail?
There is a whole other life aspect of this story that I will share shortly. Before my concussion, I wanted to become a neuroscience professor, get my PhD, and cure Alzhiemers. Then when my concussion hit me in my final semester of undergrad, I was struck with the idea of “what should I really be doing with my life?” If it’s so precious that it can be taken away from me in an instant, I should be really mindful about what I chose to do with it. I think I had previously just been following the pre-destined path you kind of get conditioned to believe in when you first go to university. I started doing a lot of research and journaling about what it is I wanted to do and I stumbled across this website 80, 000 hours. It talks about all of the meaningful ways you can spend a career that address a lot of global issues. One of the topics they were talking about at the time was data science. So I started thinking, “Wow! There is so much data and I had heard a professor say ‘we have all this neuro-imaging data. Who is going to analyze it?” Ok well, if it is an in demand science, and I really appreciate the analysis part of science, and obviously the more data, the more truth, and statistical certainty you can have. So may as well learn these big data techniques. By the time I healed from my injury, I had missed all the application deadlines for the PhD programs that I wanted to do. Instead, I ended up applying for a data science masters program instead. So in a way it was a blessing in disguise because now I have this data science career that allows me to work from home and remotely. I always had a vision of being a remote, nomad traveler type person and this career sets me up for that. However, I am also a people person so when I realized my passion for health and nutrition and brain health was still existent, I decided a really fulfilling job for me would be a health coach. And when I thought about what I should coach people on it was kind of a no brainer for me to choose brain and concussion health. I started coaching people in 2019 and have been doing both data science and coaching since then.
If there was somebody who was going through the same experience you did for your TBI, what advice would you give them that you learned or discovered during your recovery process and found valuable?
There is definitely a lot. Hard to choose ‘the best’. I guess it would be: “Be patient and trust your body. Learn how to listen to yourself.” I think this would be the best advice I would give because practitioners will try to give you a pill or an exercise routine, but ultimately you are in charge of knowing where your energy thresholds are. It is important to be in tune enough with your body to slow down and speed up at a rate that fits with your recovery because otherwise you are just going to have the same never ending cycle of overdoing it, leading to no progress in recovery.
Was there anything else I didn’t touch on that you wanted to discuss?
Yes! One last thing I wanted to mention that I helped a few people navigate was the question people have about whether or not they should take drugs to support their recovery. Obviously, this is a very personal decision and is ultimately up to you. However, I would strongly caution against taking any sort of drugs, including antidepressants, or mood stabilizers. As someone who has studied neuroscience, I was aware that these medications would just flood my synapses with catecholamines, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters. These drugs would work to reduce my symptoms, like being unfocused or fatigued, to an extent. However, these drugs would definitely not solve the root cause. Drugs are more like a band aid approach. If you really want to do it, and your pros outweigh the cons- then go for it. But, I would strongly suggest trying to get through the injury without any drugs because they all have crazy amounts of side effects and could even prolong recovery. Again, of course, talk to your doctor but also be critical when they suggest treatments. My doctor prescribed me medication because that's what they are taught to do in medical school. So just be aware and know that this is something that doctors are trained to do and if you don’t feel like taking those medications, there are other options that you can explore. I go through these more holistic approaches in detail in my coaching program. You can find me on instagram @neurofitforlife.
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