I call this problem the "Meijers Effect." In Michigan, we have a chain of large stores called "Meijers". They have a hardware department, grocery department, clothes department, photo department, and so on--all in one giant building. When people with head injuries go into one, they often find they can't stay for more than 10 or 15 minutes. There's just too much information to process. The reason that I call it the "Meijers Effect" is that even people without a head injury will say "on a busy day, I find Meijers too much to handle." But when my head-injured patients go into a store like this, they tell me "I go into this place and I feel I'm going to jump out of my skin . . . I just can't handle all the noise . . . I JUST HAVE TO GET OUT." It doesn't happen only when going shopping, either. It can happen in noisy situations (playing loud music) or crowded settings (busy restaurants). I have many patients that say being around young children can also overwhelm them.
What is happening in the brain? Think of a tree with information flowing out to its branches. In the middle of the trunk (brain) is an area where information is sorted and sent to other areas. It is not by coincidence that the areas that process short-term memory and control sleep are in the same neighborhood. In previous sections of this book, I've talked about how these middle areas get squished or pressed on. In terms of getting overloaded, let's make another analogy. I want to drink out of a straw in a glass. I can get a drink because there is a small amount for water traveling at an even rate. If I try to drink from a fire hose going at full blast, I can't get a drink from it because there is too much water moving too fast. Think of information flowing like water in a pipe. If the brain can't handle the flow of information, it gets overloaded. People with head injuries frequently have to cope with situations where there is too much information. When overloaded, some people become irritable or develop headaches. In large groups, some people with head injuries can't filter out one conversation from the next and become overloaded (they can only handle one conversation at a time).
What to do about this problem? In the early stages of recovery, many people have to change their lifestyle. For example, many of my patients find themselves not going to bars or noisy restaurants anymore. Many people now go to quieter restaurants or choose activities that are not as noisy. The problem is, you can't always choose quiet situations. For example, New Year's Day or Thanksgiving is very stressful for people with head injuries. There may be many people in the house talking, the football game may be on the TV, and the kids may be running around. If you have to handle overload situations, TAKE BREAKS! Find a quiet place and take a nap for an hour. You may have to go out to your car or go for a long walk by yourself. Inform your family members about this problem; they can try to help you cope with this. Some people have resorted to wearing ear plugs (for a noisy work environment or going to a basketball games). If you can't use ear plugs, try limiting your exposure to overload situations.
It's not always overload from sound; some people have visual overload. Typically, very bright lights will cause overload. When you go from a dark building to the bright light outside; you may be briefly shocked. With a head injury, the shock is 10 times greater and you may not adjust. What to do? Buy the darkest sunglasses you can find. Most often, the cheapest sunglasses work the best. This will also help those who get headaches from bright lights.
Visual overload can also occur from having to process too much information. For some people, finding their favorite breakfast cereal in a grocery store lane that has over 50 different cereals can cause the same overload. One suggestion is to try shopping at a smaller store and stick with that store.
By Dr. Glen Johnson, Clinical Neuropsychologist
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