Positive Strokes – A Story of Post-traumatic Growth
It may be easier to back positive psychology when life is on the up but for me it has been the tough times that have truly shown me the value of the science of happiness. In July less than 24 hours after facilitating the Penn Resilience Programme I got a phone call which would plunge me into a test of my own resilience. I was at a conference in Amsterdam delivering some research on bibliotherapy, when I heard that my mother had collapsed. The ensuing weeks are a blur of stress and distress; I went from a bedside vigil in intensive care to unofficial therapist in a stroke rehab. Now I have entered into a ‘new normal’, one of role reversal, which finds me tending to my mother at the end of her life just as she tended to me at the start of mine. What has surprised and impressed me is the growth that has occurred in the wake of this trauma, both for my mother and myself.
Neuroscience has shown us that the brain is plastic and that we can develop new neural pathways throughout life. After suffering a brain injury people are going through more than just recovery, they are often having to learn a new way of living. I have witnessed this growth firsthand, observing my mother go from being unable to walk, talk, read, write or recall to recovering most of her verbal abilities and filling in the gaps by learning new strategies. Adopting a growth mindset has been a key part in the recovery, putting in effort rather than relying on previous ability and aiming for progress rather than perfection. One of the optimistic things about the growth mindset is that simply knowing about its existence helps to develop a growth mindset. So I’m delivering a positive education in the subject (much to my mother’s annoyance at being lectured by her daughter!) Give a brain enough practice, rest and hydration (as brain cells require more water than other cells for optimal functioning) and it is remarkable to see what is possible in terms of learning and relearning.
Up to 50% of stroke patients experience depression and/or anxiety whilst in a rehab setting and as my speciality is in positive psychology interventions (PPIs) for depression I was curious to discover how they could be used to help my own stroke patient recover her well-being. The answer came in a flash of synchronicity from clinical psychology trainee Isla McMakin, one of the first participants of the Happiness Habits course. Isla had delivered a pilot for stroke inpatients in Wales using the PERMA model from Martin Seligman’s Flourish and the evidence-based tools from my own book Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression. Life after Stroke is a weekly group programme with 5 sessions covering happiness, positive emotions with the tools of gratitude and savouring, resilience and optimism. The results of her pioneering study show a significant reduction in depression and anxiety and improvement in well-being. So positive psychology has a role to play in stroke recovery.
Isla’s study of stroke patients doesn’t show a significant change in post-traumatic growth, the positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. Maybe it is too early in the process when stroke inpatients are still in recovery. Possibly they are still adapting to the new reality. I, on the other hand, have definitely experienced post-traumatic growth. Like many family members who witness a loved one go through critical illness, this has been a trauma for me too.
The Dimensions of Post-traumatic Growth
My post-traumatic growth has occurred across all 5 dimensions of the model of PTG proposed by Tedeschi and Calhoun.
Relating to others: The relationship between mothers and daughters can be fraught, but I have experienced a softening and a greater intimacy in our relationship.
New possibilities (new roles and people): Well I seem to have spent the summer in a new role as an amateur rehab therapist! Joking aside I do think it is a good idea for the professionals to train family members to support the work they do. I have met some great therapists who’ve cared for my mother and bonded with relatives of other stroke patients.
Personal strength: I now consider positive psychology to be the pilates of the well-being world as I have found that I have more core strength than I ever knew possible.
Spiritual change: There has been a deepening in my spirituality. This crisis has lifted me out of the minutiae of everyday life into contemplation of what life is about and its meaning and purpose. The fellowship of the gospel choir I sing in has, in particular, sustained me.
Deepened appreciation for life: I am positively savouring every precious moment with my mother in the last days of summer.
My resilience may have been severely tested over the last few months but being a practitioner of positive psychology has helped me cope positively – I seem to have developed psychological buns of steel!
Akhtar, M. (2012). Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression. UK; Watkins Publishing
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
McMakin, I. (In press). Finding Happiness: A Positive Psychology Group for Stroke Inpatients. Contact Isla Mcmakin (Cardiff and Vale UHB – Psychology Training) <Isla.Mcmakin@wales.nhs.uk>;
Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being – and How To Achieve Them. USA; Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Teasell R.W., McRae, M.P. and Finestone, H.M. (2000). Social issues in the rehabilitation of younger stroke patients. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 81(2), 205-209.
Tedeschi, R.G., & Calhoun, L.G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychological Inquiry,15(1), 1-18.