We all know that Multiple Sclerosis (MS) tries to take things away from us and so many of our goals involve trying to not lose those things (or trying to get them back). While there are many different exercises and therapies that aim to accomplish these goals, I am well aware of the fact that I have lost certain abilities that I may never fully get back. While I always try to exercise them, it would be unrealistic of me to think that I could make it through the day without using some sort of adaptation technique to compensate for my loss of ability be it physical or mental/cognitive. That is what I want to talk about today; how I compensate for my cognitive impairments in order to reduce my daily levels of fatigue. Thinking uses energy so overthinking can be much like performing a physical activity that just wears you out. The solution? Simple, find ways to complete tasks without having to think too much. Here are just a few of my personal tips for adapting to some of the cognitive impairments that MS can cause.
A creature of habit
One of the most important strategies I have for keeping my day flowing is to try to keep everything as routine as I can; I have undoubtedly become a creature of habit. My goal here is to make many of the tasks that I have to complete so routine that I could do them with my eyes closed. I was always a little OCD but as my MS progressed that OCD has actually become a pretty good ally in implementing this strategy. For example; I always put everything back in its designated spot and position so that I always know exactly where it is. I want to be able to just reach for it and grab it without looking for it. It doesn’t matter if it is my phone, my keys, my pen, the shampoo, a pot, the coffee creamer, or the kitchen sponge. If I reach for it and it isn’t there then I quickly become stressed out as I try to locate it with my poor vision while my brain works at 110% to try to decide if I misplaced it or if someone moved it. Every day I try to do everything in the same exact way that I did it the day before so that everything is always just how it was. This way I never have to think too hard about where something is, where something goes, or what steps are required to complete any given task because I have tried to make keeping a routine so habitual that I can essentially make it through my day on auto-pilot.
Now, this next bit is a combination of cognitive and visual impairment. I have really poor sight thanks to optic neuritis and nystagmus/oscillopsia (everything is blurry and constantly appears to be moving). So it takes me a little more time to physically identify what something is and mentally decide if it’s what I’m looking for or not. I used to label everything to stay organized but now trying to quickly read something at a glance is not so easy and requires a good amount of cognitive energy to accomplish. The obvious solution for me was to start labeling everything with colors and easily identifiable pictures instead of text. I find using sticky notes to be a great way to remember things and I now have an assortment of different colored pads for different categories of notes so that if I walk into my room looking for a particular piece of information I know that “it’s going to be on an orange note for health-related subjects”. All my calendar events (on my computer, Google, and my phone) are carefully labeled with specific colors as well. Paper files containing documents? Same thing. Oh yeah, this is 2017 so I have so many different chargers for all my devices that all have wires that all look exactly the same. My solution? Pieces of different colored electrical tape wrapped around the ends of my cables so that I can quickly find the one I need by looking for its color. I do A LOT of computer work and I organize all of my stuff in a pretty deep library of folders which I have made all different colors (according to subject) and (for some) labeled with easily identifiable images relating to what is inside them. But outside of my computer, if I can put a colored piece of tape, paper or sticker on it? I do. That way I never need to spend too much time looking for something because I know that I just have to find “the color BLUE”.
Value of technology
Since I just mentioned technology I have to talk about my phone because I would be lost without that thing. Not only do I have very specific notifications for different things but I also use the alarm clock for everything so that I never have to worry too much about remembering to do something. I might have an alarm set for a certain time to remind me to do something on certain days or I’ll set a timer to remind me that my laundry is done so that I don’t forget to take it out. If I am out and about and I realize that I need to do something when I get home, I just set an alarm with a note of it to go off at about the time that I think I will be home. Google also has some pretty awesome technological features that greatly help in this area as well; you can tell Google (for example) to remind you to pick up milk the next time you are by the store and when your phone’s GPS notices that you are near that specific store it will play a notification with your reminder attached to it. I am sure this is not exclusively a feature of Google so maybe look up how to do that on your preferred device? I also heavily rely on my phone’s calendar which is synced to both my computer and my tablet so that no matter where I am I can quickly and easily see important dates and reminders. With all the different apps out there, technology can definitely help make life a little easier for people with MS as well as other disabilities.
Think smart, not hard
Everything I do I try to accomplish using the least amount of thinking and decision making I can. My daily routines, all my colored labels, my alarms, and all the technology available to me makes it a little easier to pull this off. While the brain is definitely like a muscle (if you don’t use it you lose it) that you should be doing everything you can to exercise, you probably won’t improve much if you are constantly stressed out and fatigued. So I think it is important to find a good balance of techniques that make your daily life more simple (less thinking) and exercises that will help improve your cognitive skills. Think smart, not hard. When I was in physical and occupational therapy they always focused on “energy conservation”. Overthinking things can waste a lot of the scarce energy that someone with MS probably has, so when you can, try to not think too hard.