I am working on an essay entitled: The cognitive and emotional burden of disability. It is a reflection on the additional demands on our attention that can be imposed by simply living with a disability. Of course, this is very different for everyone – in terms of the degree of cognitive and emotional demand, and how we respond.
What triggered this essay was a conversation with a person who observed that sometimes they are not cheery and bright because of pain and other discomforts – and this is taken to be an expression of their character and general mood – and in an unkind way.
Last Friday the Neuroleadership Institute had a webinar promoting their services on the theme Outsmart your brain with the healthy mind platter. There were some powerful clues about how to manage your cognitive and emotional demands that apply as much to living with a disability as to working.
The need for cognitive effort is not just about work
Living with a disability can mean that a lot of effort is required to stay focused on personal tasks as well as work-related demands. This is true in general because our Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the part of the brain we use when we engage in intentional conscious effort, is energy hungry. It deals with one thing at a time and gets easily distracted. The great insight is that not only is multi-tasking simply not possible (we just jump from one thing to another) attempting it degrades the quality of our focus.
In effect, the PFC really isn’t very good at doing what we want – but it’s all we have. By that I mean it is the most recently evolved part of our brain, so we are taxing its capacity to deliver what we want. We may want to be great at multitasking – but that’s not going to happen. It is “an area vitally involved in executive functions such as concentration, organization, judgement, reasoning, decision-making, creativity, emotional regulation, social–relational abilities, and abstract thinking—in other words, all the functionality we rely on for healthy relationships with ourselves and others”. You can learn more here.
We must acknowledge and embrace the limitations of our PFC and be kind to ourselves in a smart way.
We can deal better with the challenges of living with a disability if we remember that we have multiple other needs that, if met, give us the physical, cognitive, and emotional wherewithal we need to focus effectively.
These other needs are for sleep, relationships, time to chill and relax and have fun, time for self-reflection and, where possible, time for physical activity. Each is important, but the first two seem to me to be fundamental to our psychological survival. The others may sweeten our disposition toward the world – and of course, enhance our ability to focus.
As those needs are met to the best of our ability to focus on navigating our way in the world (getting to and from work, for example) and performing tasks, improves markedly.
Remember that disability is ‘normal’ plus
When it comes to responding to the demands of being in the world – on a personal as well as a work-related level – disability can add additional cognitive and emotional demands that must be factored in. This ‘plus factor’ that can add significant additional effort must not be forgotten. In fact, we must factor it in as we think about how we manage our needs.
I would not be happy if I was given gratuitous advice about how to manage living with my disability. I struggle at times to cover all the key needs and keep a balanced suite of options. But I do okay.
What I liked about the NLI webinar was that it was a reminder in principle that there is an array of needs to be mindful of – and meeting as many of them as possible, as often as we can, is an optimal choice.
We can all get infected with the hero bug at times and grimly push on – as if that is the best, and often see as the only, choice. It may not be.
It will be harder for those experiencing exclusion, discrimination, or bullying because such experiences can collapse of one’s sense of being in the world down to a grim core. Enduring is what we do well – but it cannot be the thing we do most of the time. A balance of needs met is always the better place to get to.
It is important to be aware that what can push us into unhealthy stress levels comes not from the demands of living with disability, but from experiencing exclusion, discrimination, and bullying. We can’t get rid of disability caused demands, but we can work to eliminate the other stressors. And we can do so in a balanced and self-supporting way. We can be kind to ourselves, and to others, as we do so.