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Interviews

The neuropsychologist teaching tai chi

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When lockdown began, many people with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) were faced with their treatment and support being paused, or having their face-to-face services moved online.

Giles Yeates, consultant clinical neuropsychologist and tai chi instructor, spoke to NR Times about how he’s wasted no time in moving his classes online.

Yeates hosts online tai chi classes, which are streamed live on the charity Different Strokes’ Facebook page and YouTube channel. The classes are moderated by Alison Smith, who had a stroke last year.

Tai chi involves physical routines to strengthen the body and improve flexibility, achieve regulated breathing and focus on the body to improve inner energy, which in turn, is believed to improve circulation. It’s based on attaining a flow state of mind, which is said to be achieved when people become fully immersed in what they’re doing.

“When you speak to monks in China, they describe it as a very esoteric language. It transforms different types of energies in the body, where something unique happens in the mind,” Yeates says. “The idea of flow comes close to it, where you forget who you are and you’re in the rhythm of that act. This state of mind has a lot of physical benefits.”

When it comes to adapting classes for people with brain injuries, Yeates says this can require a lot of cognitive adjustments, for example, doing movements that mitigate memory problems, such as teaching backwards, or structuring the class for attention difficulties.

“Tai chi comes in many different forms,” Yeates says. “It can contain some complex movements, or be quite simple. It’s about finding which movements help people relax their body, slow their mind and get into flow. It involves moving from your core, rather than thinking about moving your limbs.

“In any given group of long-term survivors of brain injury, each person has a unique constellation of needs,” he says.

Yeates didn’t know the needs of those who would watch his classes, so he decided to cast his net wide.

“We start the class seated and do one side of movement using peoples’ preferred arm,” he says. “Then, they’re given the option of bilateral movement. Even when they’re doing both arms, I’m focusing on telling people to move from their body, not their arms.”

“Then there’s the option to stand and walk, to coordinating arms and legs, and doing positions in different ways to get into a flow state of mind. The idea is to do it the way that’s right for the individual.”

Yeates has done eight classes so far and has found it to be very different from the face-to-face classes he taught before lockdown.

“It’s difficult because doing stuff on screen can be more tiring and draining. It can be more demanding than face-to-face, so I’m trying to keep the movement simple and give a range of options for people. It’s about the state of mind when they’re doing it, rather than doing the actions properly,” he says.

Yeates’ main goal is getting people out of their heads and into their bodies. In the classes he’s taught in the general population in Oxford, he’s found this to be a particular issue.

“Oxford is an intellectual place, and people here are in their heads all the time and neglecting their bodies. When we teach them, they want to understand it intellectually, but they need to switch off their minds and let the body lead.”

Yeates hopes to continue doing the online classes long-term and plans to evaluate it for one year. Participants are encouraged to fill out a survey before they start the group and afterwards, so Yeates can track any improvements as they continue attending classes. He’ll be looking at people’s mobility, balance, anxiety, fatigue and mood, using scales of smiley and sad faces.

He then intends to compare his online group to his face-to-face group, looking at the benefits versus the limitations of online classes, which have more limitations of delivery but are generally more accessible.

“It seems to be reaching a lot of isolated people, which is one of the main aims,” Yeates says.

Yeates trained in martial arts with monks and nuns in the mountains in China and then trained to teach tai chi and kung fu in the general population. Naturally, given his 17 years’ experience of being a neuropsychologist, Yeates has been tracking the scientific evidence of tai chi on the brain.

But while he found some studies on the psychological benefits for people with neurological conditions who practice Tai Chi, there were gaps in the research, which tended to be focused on physical intervention.

“Tai chi can get you into a particular state of mind, where anxiety and depression go down, but these studies were focused on physical interventions,” he says.

This prompted Yeates to deliver tai chi himself among people with neurological conditions, and carry out his own research.

“The elephant in the room in the literature is that no one is talking about it in this way, so we wanted to say that this is what needs to happen to make it valuable for people.”

He is collaborating with the Centre for Rehabilitation/Department of Movement Science at Oxford Brookes University to develop a pilot tai chi for people with TBI, and will evaluate the effects it has on participants’ physical and mental wellbeing.

However, when the pandemic came, Yeates had to hold off incorporating tai chi as part of his one-to-one clinical work.

“Covid-19 arrived so now more people will be acquiring brain injuries through the virus, but can’t get to places to help manage their fatigue or anxiety,” he says.

Yeates found that, during the pilot, some people struggled to get to a fixed location.

While research on the impacts of tai chi on the brain is limited, some studies have shown that tai chi can help alleviate fatigue; a common symptom following a TBI.

“Fatigue hasn’t been studied as a direct outcome, but when it’s measured you can see that tai chi, along with mindfulness meditation and yoga, has benefits for sleep quality, improves energy and reduces fatigue,” Yeates says.

“In Chinese practice, they say doing tai chi improves vitality and energy, whereas in the west, our approach is that if you have a depleted supply of energy you need to manage it wisely.

“Another option is increasing your energy in a holistic way without side effects. Evidence suggests these practices might be deemed to be doing that,” he says.

Benefits for fatigue come from approaches that involve regulated breathing, stretching and attentional focus, Yeates says, which tai chi, yoga and mindfulness all encourage.

“It’s the idea that the circulation of vital energy for many people is less than optimal, it doesn’t get circulated around the body and used to its best advantage. In China, there’s a concept of stagnant energy, the idea of a blocked pool where water doesn’t flow through it.

“Brain injury survivors are fatigued and irritable, they have a lot of movement and agitation and fatigue at the same time, the energy isn’t going where it needs to be.

“It’s early days, but there’s something about breathing, focusing attention and using body through relaxing and stretching that seems to have an impact on whatever energy is available to the person.”

Yeates eventually wants to train rehab processionals to incorporate tai chi movements, and train yoga and tai chi instructors on how to adapt their classes, learning how to use cognitive strategies to make practices more accessible

Interviews

The couples therapist who rehabilitates love after brain injury

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Trained couple’s therapist and neuropsychologist Giles Yeates helps support couples and families and their connection and intimacy after a brain injury. He talks to NR Times about how couples can resume their sex lives after brain injury.

“It’s about reconnecting that sense of closeness and connection, I’m trying to rehabilitate love,” he says.

“After a brain injury, the focus is on the injury and regaining independence, rather than interdependence, but many families ask for this.

“When people talk about personality changes, saying the person is different and the connection feels damaged or wrong, couples therapy is way to help them find their way back to each other.”

But it isn’t the standard to offer couples therapy in the care pathway following a brain injury, Yeates says.

Many couple’s therapists who don’t work with neurological conditions don’t have the skills or understanding of the impact of a brain injury on a couple’s relationship and the heartbreak, he says. This is why Yeates focuses on a specific type of therapy that prioritises emotion.

“Emotionally focused couple’s therapy ticks the boxes straight away. It works on slowing people down. It’s about what happens in the sessions between couples.

“It’s neuro-friendly from the beginning, getting people out of their heads, to notice and communicate their emotional needs of each other that doesn’t engender further conflict, in a way that supports connection. It’s not a panacea, but it’s given as an option for couples to try,” he says.

Research, Yeates says, shows that the mental health of the brain injury survivor and their partner, and the strains on their relationship, all worsens from two to five years after the injury.

“Someone had a life-changing event and is in hospital, they lived, and they start to make improvements. Then, it’s only when they’re back home and the dust is settled do couples realise it doesn’t feel the same anymore.

“Or maybe the partner has to do a lot of physical care that has challenged the intimacy between them, that shows the emotional connection isn’t the same.”

It’s at this point, Yeates says, couples often decide they need help. But services may have fallen away by the time they reach this point.

“Often, services have fallen away by the time these needs show themselves. It depends on the availability of the community team or third sector organisation as to what support they can offer, which varies on the postcode lottery.”

Some people might reach out to a general couple’s therapist, Yeates says, who has no experience of working with people with neurological conditions, or a neuropsychologist who isn’t trained as a couple’s therapist.

“There are unique challenges here to consider, but accessing the right type of support is difficult.”

Yeates has found, from general feedback, that people would like to be asked more often by clinicals about their sex and intimate live.

“In the services I work in, I always ask people, and most people are relieved to be asked about their sexuality after a brain injury. For a survivor, sex after a stroke can be affected in so many different ways, in the same way people’s memories can be affected.

“People describe the experience of their sexual identity changing, of what turns them on being different, now, a sense of what feels possible to express themselves sexually is different now.

Perhaps they have cognitive difficulties that mean sex can’t be spontaneous anymore, for example, Yeates adds.

“From a couple’s point of view, it’s complicated, because a breakdown in sexuality can often be reflective of an emotional breakdown between them.

“Having therapy on how to do things differently in the bedroom might not be a priority for them, they might not feel emotionally safe or supported with their partner right now, and maybe this needs addressing first.”

When the emotional side of the relationship is good, Yeates says, couples should find ways to be supported to resume intimacy together.

“If someone is paralysed on one side, it’s about finding new ways to explore different positions, for example, or using physical aids, discussing ideas of how to express themselves and enjoy sexual contact in different ways.”

Yeates is happy to have noticed the uprising of a disabled sexuality movement outside of the brain injury area.

“The movement is saying that people with disabilities have the right to an exciting sex life, as much as anyone else.”

But this conversation is important for brain injury survivors, too, he says, as it’s important to think creatively and challenging norms to think outside the box of what sex is, Yeates says.

“This part of life after a brain injury gets overlooked and doesn’t get the attention it deserves. But for a survivor or a couple, it has loads of payoffs with mental health, wellbeing and connection.”

Yeates says there isn’t enough awareness among doctors, either. For example, he says, a person with a brain injury might experience side-effects of medication including loss of libido or erectile dysfunction, which can then lead to depression or low mood, but they often can get passed from a neurologist to a urologist, and no one speaks about things from the perspective of the person’s sexuality.

Yeates also works with brain injury survivors who aren’t in relationships, who want to develop the sexual component in their lives.

“I support people to use escorts a lot in my work, which is a contentious issue. There’s a lot of discomfort on the part of professionals, which is leaving service users high and dry to that dimension of their lives.”

But for those going to see escorts, the pandemic, particularly the lockdown, made it more difficult.

“In the lockdown, people can’t access sexual services in the same way. One client was able to resume going to a massage parlour and get intimate care, but the massage therapist was wearing a facemask and nothing else – if it wasn’t complicated enough already, this has added to it.”

Yeates has co-written a series of leaflets with Headway on relationships and sexuality, and a series of videos for Different Strokes on sex after a stroke, which can be viewed here.

 

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Interviews

The light and shade of brain injury recovery

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When comic artist Wallis Eates saw an ad from Headway East London looking for an artist in residence for the charity’s art studio, she knew she had to apply…

Headway’s East London studio provides a place for members, who all have acquired brain injuries, to create artwork.

Eates’ own line of work leading up to this included autobiographical comics, and digital storytelling with prisoners.

“I’d been looking for ways to help others share their stories or collaborate on story-sharing,” she tells NR Times.

Eates applied for the artist in residency, outlining in her application that she’d like to do comics of Headway members and incorporate their work into them. Eates’s application was successful, and she spent six weeks going into the studio three times a week.

“I was allowed to mill about, sit at the desk and ask what they were up to. They’d share their work with me, and I’d tell them about my project,” she says.

“They’d share experiences with me that I’d remember when I was looking at their work online, later, to see how I could combine it all.”

Eates says the experience made her feel inspired, and she came away with a strong feeling of the sense of community she saw in the studio.

“It was such a vibrant atmosphere,” she says. “I knew everyone was managing all kinds of stuff in their lives, stuff connected with their brain injury, and they were coming to the studio and creating incredible pieces of artwork.

“It reminded me of when I was in school when we did art and I wasn’t precious with it, I was doing it for the love of it. That’s what they were doing in the studio.”

The experience made Eates think about the individual and the collective, and she wanted to explore the dynamic between the two via shared experience.

Eates was taken up by Unbound, a publishing platform that supports people to crowdfund the funds to publish books. She’s currently halfway through her crowdfunding, before her finished book, Like an Orange, is published.

She says the name of the book came from several inspirations.

“One of the members I spoke with, who’d fallen down the stairs, said the brain surgeon he worked with said that the head is like an orange. That’s all he told me, but I assume he meant the elasticity, the texture.

“I later spoke to someone else who said the surgeon told her her brain was growing tumours like Saville grows oranges.”

 

Eates didn’t know anything about brain injuries before going into the project – and she’s learnt several lessons she hopes to pass on to readers of Like an Orange.

“I kind of knew brain injuries would affect everyone differently, and I went in with that agenda, ensuring the uniqueness of each member comes through.

“The biggest lesson I learnt was when we went on a daytrip to the Tate museum and I saw how invisible disabilities can be. Some of the members had nothing visible about them that suggested they were having a challenge walking down the road, but I knew they were,” she said.

“That really brought home to me how, when we go out onto the streets, we don’t know who we’ll be sharing that space with, we don’t know what’s going on with anyone who’s around us.”

“One chap kept going in front of the road or walking in front of people. At any time, we could be walking down the street and passing someone with a brain injury.”

Eates was also surprised to see such a positive atmosphere in Headway’s studio.

“Two members said they wouldn’t go back to life before their bran injuries,” she says, “because the lessons they’ve learnt have been more valuable since before then. It was extraordinary – I want to share these things in the book.”

Eates is looking forward to the members seeing their work in the final book.

“Most of them didn’t work autobiographically, they did artwork for the pleasure it, for escapism, focused concentration, and the joy of applying colour,” she says.

“It will be interesting for them to see how their artwork and their stories have inspired others.”

 

 

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Interviews

Scottish MP talks rehab, criminal justice and out-of-work assessments

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Interior of Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh

NR Times speaks with SNP MP, Lisa Cameron, about her background as a clinical psychologist and how long-term issues related to brain injuries are often overlooked.

Lisa Cameron’s attention is on countless important issues in her role as SNP MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow in Scotland, but she tells NR Times why she is particularly interested in policies relating to brain injuries. Before becoming an MP, she previously worked as a consultant clinical psychologist and is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Disability.

“When I was working as a psychologist, I was undertaking assessments of people with brain injury in relation to memory, executive function and language,” she tells NR Times.

“I’d routinely do assessments in practice, working with people on the front-line with brain injuries.”

Cameron also has second-hand experience, as her husband acquired a brain injury when he was serving in the Armed Forces. Thankfully, he received fast rehab, but the experience only highlighted to Cameron the importance of rehab and ongoing support for brain injury patients.

“I became aware from a personal point of view that these issues are often overlooked,” she says.

“Although someone might have treatment initially, often there are long-term consequences that go unnoticed, or support isn’t there over the long term and I feel it should be, particularly for veterans.”

Cameron often hears about the same pattern unfolding among her constituents, as well as problems accessing financial state support.

She has previously raised the issue of ‘inadequate’ personal independent payments (PIP) and employment and support allowance (ESA) assessments for people with brain injuries in the House of Commons.

“Someone with a physical disability has assessments with the Department for Work and Pensions to be assessed for financial support, where there’s often an underlying brain injury that may be historic on their medical records.

“But assessors don’t realise or understand that their functioning may not return to pre-morbid levels, and that there will be a residual impact on the person’s memory, potentially their language, their ability to plan and their executive functioning, and often these things aren’t picked up with benefits assessments.”

Unless someone has a really traumatic brain injury, Cameron says, they’re often not tested, despite the fact that much less severe brain injuries can often still have a massive impact on someone.

The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating these issues, says Cameron, who is seeing diagnosis and assessments being delayed even more than usual in her constituency.

“That’s having an impact on constituents in terms of the support they have, and their access to appropriate welfare support,” she says.

Cameron has seen that, unless someone is admitted to hospital at the time of their brain injury, and undergoes extensive testing, there can be years of delay before the person is referred for assessments.

In Cameron’s constituency, there has been such a delay that a specialist service has been running outside of the NHS to alleviate pressure on the NHS for a number of years. She sees the positive and negative impacts this is having on the community.

“It’s preferable if services are conducted within the NHS, but the practicalities of things being the way they are currently mean that’s not happened, the NHS isn’t really able to manage this within the timeframe.

“For people who have been able to access it, it’s had positive benefits for them in terms of getting diagnoses, but the specialist service creates barriers where people can’t afford it, which creates inequality in the system.”

However, the service does get some referrals from the NHS to reduce patients’ waiting times.

“It’s good if people can access it from all backgrounds and it doesn’t undermine services the NHS is providing,” she says.

Away from her constituency and in Westminster, Cameron has found that, in her role as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Disability, there’s also a lack of understanding of brain injuries.

“People get confused between brain injuries and developmental disorders, spectrum disorders and mental health issues in parliament,” she says.

But Cameron has found this isn’t unique to parliament.

“When I worked in the prison service and going in to do assessments on people, there was a lot of underlying brain injuries that were unassessed. They were demonstrated in terms of impulsivity, lack of planning and poor executive functioning.

“This is a huge issue that needs to be addressed within criminal justice.”

Cameron says there should be basic training for prison officers around spotting brain injuries, and routine testing and assessments for brain injury when people are placed on remand.

When Cameron visited prisoners, she’d hear about prisoners who’d had three or four brain injuries, but no one linked it to difficulties they were having until she asked about their memory or executive functioning.

“Awareness training for prison officers and police officers would be helpful, and assessments for people on remand or in the system already, to ensure they get adequate support and any particular issues linked to their medical condition can be flagged up. This would definitely help recidivism rates.”

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