Memory and concentration

This is a list of common memory and concentration complaints after mild head injury. Many may be everyday experiences that are experienced more often than usual.

  • ‘I went upstairs /to the next room and couldn’t remember why I was there’
  • ‘I keep losing my wallet / keys’
  • ‘I lost track of the conversation’
  • ‘I couldn’t recall the entire car journey home’
  • ‘I pick up a book and I can’t remember the bit I read before’
  • ‘I forgot my pin number / the name of a close friend.’
  • ‘My boss asked me to talk about the accounts – my mind went blank!’
  • ‘I need to get to an appointment at the other side of town and I feel like I can’t do it – I can’t remember how to get there.’
  • ‘I completely forgot to go to a meeting / send someone a birthday card’

Often, these kinds of symptoms do not indicate a memory problem at all. They can mostly be explained as a consequence of poor concentration or absentmindedness. If you are not concentrating to begin with, perhaps because you are tired, or distracted, or in pain, then you are not going to remember things.

So whilst you used to be able to walk upstairs and ‘keep in mind’ the reason for it, you now don’t because your headache or fatigue is getting in the way of your concentration.

People who notice these kinds of symptoms have often had above average ability to remember things in the first place. People who have always been a bit absentminded tend to notice them less.

Concentration symptoms are a very common symptom of anxiety and depression so its easy to see how a vicious circle of symptoms can start to develop in this situation.

Longer Periods of Amnesia Dissociative Amnesia

It can be normal to forget periods of time when you are running on ‘autopilot’. For example, you might not remember eating breakfast this morning, or you might have no recollection of your drive to work. This is part of normal experience and is can be quite helpful. It demonstrates that the ‘doing’ part of your brain is getting on with things without needing to create new memories.

Sometimes patients with a mild head injury report quite dramatic periods of amnesia, for example, for a whole afternoon or day. Sometimes people who have dissociative seizures have amnesia for the time before or after an attack.

More about Dissociation

What Can I Do to Help Myself Get Better?

Keep in Mind that Memory Lapses and Forgetting are a Part of Normal Experience.

It is important not to set abnormally high standards for your memory. Lapses in memory, short gaps where we have been on ‘autopilot’, and forgetting names or unimportant details about past events are all entirely normal experiences. People who are used to relying on their memory and concentration to function at a very high level may be more likely to notice or feel worried about small lapses. If you experience these symptoms, remind yourself that these types of memory lapses, although perhaps unusual for you, are normal even in people who have not had a head injury.

It may be helpful to find out how common memory symptoms are in the population:

Keeping Mentally Active

Sometimes after a mild head injury a person will take time out from their usual activities. Family and friends may even want to look after them by taking on some of their usual duties and responsibilities.

However, if you take a long break from your usual activities it can feel strange when the time comes to get back to them. You may feel out-of-practice, anxious, and find that you have forgotten how to do things that you used to do regularly on ‘autopilot’.  These feelings can lead to worry that there has been damage to your memory. But remember, feeling out-of-practice and forgetting things can be expected for anyone taking time away from their normal activities. In fact we believe that you will make a faster recovery if you take as little time away from your usual activities as is safely possible.

If you do have to take time off work, or away from your usual activities, keeping your mind active. Tasks which require you to concentrate or focus your mind, such as reading or simple mental puzzles, may help to avoid loss of confidence in your memory and concentration. And if you return after a long break, don’t be too hard on yourself – it can take a while to get back into the swing of things.

Treatment of Depression and Anxiety

If you have had a mild head injury and are also depressed, or very anxious, getting treatment for the depression or anxiety may help with any memory and concentration symptoms you are having.

Read more about Depression

Read more about Anxiety

Alcohol and Other Drugs

Even small amounts of alcohol can interfere with learning new information and cause poor quality sleep. Drinking more heavily can also lead to ‘gaps’ in memory, which can be especially worrying for people who have also recently had a head injury. For these reasons it may be best to avoid alcohol in the days and weeks after a mild head injury.

Read more about Alcohol Use

Some medications can make it more difficult to focus the mind and so cause or worsen memory and concentration symptoms. These medications include, benzodiazepines (for example, diazepam (‘valium’), temazepam, or lorazepam), other types of sleeping tablets (zopiclone, zolpidem, and many others) and certain types of painkillers (such as those containing codeine.) It may be best to avoid taking these types of medications regularly in the days and weeks after a mild head injury if you have memory and concentration symptoms. However, if you have already been taking these medications regularly it is important to speak to a doctor about whether it is safe to reduce or stop taking them.  

Read more about Medication Management

Click here to read more specific Tips for Managing common Memory and Concentration Problems