All of us with chronic pain know that, in addition to causing physical discomfort, pain affects our memory and ability to concentrate. Memory problems can also be exacerbated by our medications. For example, not long ago, when I was put on Topiramate to prevent migraines, I noticed a greater than usual memory loss right away, but didn’t think much of it at first. But, six weeks after taking this drug, I got into my car, drove two blocks, stopped at a stop sign, and completely forgot where I was going or why. That was the last straw! The memory impairment became too profound to ignore or laugh off. I was taken off the medication, but ever since then, I’ve made a concerted effort to remember things, and I have been building up a bank of memory tricks.
For me, basic tricks are things like making a list or writing a note to myself. For a list or a note to be effective, it has to be some place where I will see it. For instance, if I have a morning appointment, the night before I will put a post-it note on the bathroom mirror with the appointment information written out so that I will see it shortly after I wake up. Another thing I do is to try to combine errands with appointments, so I make a list of the stops (in the right order) and put it in the cupholder of my car. In addition to my low-tech handwritten notes, I also use my smartphone for things such as shopping lists. I’ve gotten into the habit of keeping a list going all of the time. Like most people, my smartphone is always with me, so I’m sure to have it when I get to the store. An additional bonus is that the shopping list is easy to update as I think of things to add to the list.
Ever have the “now why did I come into this room” problem? This phenomenon tends to be exponentially worse for me when my pain levels increase. Sometimes I can write a note and take it with me. Sometimes I can make a memo on my phone to refer to if I need it. If neither of those things are possible, I’ve discovered that I can grab something to take with me as a reminder. For instance, if I’m going from my bedroom to the living room to living room to get my book, I will grab another book and take it with me as a reminder.
One challenge of living with chronic pain is that all of the days run together. It makes it extremely difficult to keep track of dates, appointments, and days of the week. The low tech method I used to use was to record all appointments and conference calls on a paper calendar.
Initially, I would check the calendar first thing every morning. After a few missed early morning conference calls I began to review the calendar the night before, which would also clue me in if I needed to go to bed and wake up earlier than usual. A few years ago I made the transition to recording everything on the calendar on my smartphone. I still review it the night before, but also check it a few days earlier, in case there is prep work that I will need to do for the meeting.
This way I am able to schedule the prep work and maybe even set an event alarm to make sure I get it done. I often get crazed when I need to get a bunch of stuff done just to make it through the day. I realized this morning that the way I get through this is to leave clues for myself all over the place. When I woke up this morning, for example, there was an envelope to be mailed sitting on my sunglasses, so that I would remember to take it with me on the dog walk and drop it into the mailbox. Then, while eating lunch, I saw that at some point yesterday, I’d left a can of chickpeas and a lemon on my counter to remind myself to make hummus for a healthy afternoon snack. The empty laundry basket sitting outside of the laundry room door was a reminder that I had a load of laundry in the dryer that needed to be folded and put away. As I write this, I see the empty garbage bag hanging over a dining room chair to remind me that it’s garbage day.
Below is a quick summary of my memory tricks and tips and some others gathered from online sources.
- Write down tasks, appointments, and other events in a notebook, calendar, or electronic device. The physical act of rewriting can help imprint facts into your memory. Repeat each entry out loud as you jot it down. This will help cement the information into your brain.
- Keep your to-do lists up to date and check off items when you complete them.
- Have certain places assigned for your wallet, keys, phone, and other essentials.
- Focus on the information that you’re trying to remember and limit distractions. Don’t try to do too many things at once.
- Clean up your living and/or work space. You’re more likely to forget things if you’re surrounded by clutter.
- Take your vitamins and eat foods that are good for your brain. Nutrients such as vitamins B, C, and E can nurture brain function. Dietary sources of B include spinach and other dark leafy greens, strawberries, melons, and black beans. Vitamins C and E improve the flow of oxygen through the brain. Good natural sources are berries, sweet potatoes, red tomatoes, green tea, nuts, citrus fruits, and liver. Omega-3 fatty acids—found in cold-water fish such as salmon and tuna—are also associated with improved cognitive function.
- Challenge your brain. Play games, do crossword puzzles, try to learn something new each day.
- Surprise your brain! Try doing things you normally do in a different or novel way. For example, try brushing your teeth with the hand you don’t normally use. Or try “neurobic” exercise, which forces you to use your faculties in unusual ways—say, getting dressed with your eyes closed, taking a course in a subject you know nothing about, or cooking a recipe in an unfamiliar cuisine.
- And, try to get a good night’s sleep.
How do you keep track of everything and make up for lapses in memory? I look forward to reading your tips and tricks in the Discussion Forum at PainCommunity.org.