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To Bounce Back, Build Your Resilience

Every person reading this blog has a personal story of struggle that required resilience. And each one of these stories is unique. I’m not here writing this blog because my story stands out; all of our struggles are significant. I’m writing this blog to share the things I have learned, both from my own struggle and from my 35 years of experience helping people cope with acute and chronic illness such as brain injury, stroke, cancer, chronic pain, diabetes, and severe trauma.

A disability doesn’t have to be a handicap. You just have to build your resilience.

Once upon a time, you had a peaceful life. It may not have been perfect. You may have faced major challenges, but the one thing you could always count when things got rough was yourself. And then everything changed.

My own rebirth, as I think of it, happened more than 20 years ago. Before that, I was a very active person — a neuropsychologist, a speaker, a friend, a wife, a mother to three sons. I was happy with my life. I took my photographic memory for granted. In my 20 years of doing psychotherapy prior to my stroke and accident, I never took notes during a session. Hours later, I could still recall every detail of each session I’d had that day. I had three offices, a clerical staff of four and a clinical staff of seven therapists.

Then one day, everything was different. One moment I was alert, and then, because of a leak in my brain from a cerebral hemangioma, I blacked out while driving my car, causing a head-on auto collusion at 60 miles per hour. I found out months later that it had been leaking for more than 10 years.

The change in your life may have come from something similar, like a growth or a blood clot, or it may have come from an outside force such as a car or bicycle accident, a sports injury, oxygen deprivation, assault, abuse, or any other number of factors. You wake up one morning with symptoms you never had before. You look in the mirror and know that you’re not the person you used to be. You feel disconnected from your body.

The Struggle for Autonomy

After my car accident, I knew I had some physical injuries. But I thought I was fine other than that. In the months that followed, almost all of the symptoms of Post Concussive Syndrome appeared. The problem wasn’t just that I had to deal with these symptoms. The biggest problem was that I could no longer depend on myself. Because of the nature of these symptoms, I could no longer be an autonomous person. Instead, I was dependent on everyone else for my survival.

Having your independence abruptly taken away from you causes anger, depression and an intense sense of loss. It’s hard to know what to do about it. But there are services and people available to treat almost every symptom you may have as a result of your brain injury. Some practitioners are more difficult to find than others, but they are out there. That is why I wrote my book, Coping with Concussion and Mild Traumatic Brain injury, and why I developed this website, put together my integrative team, and provide Brain Health Consults.

And I have learned that to become an independent person again, you need to have resilience. 

So What Is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability to recover from adverse change.

Picture a container of Silly Putty. Remember how much fun it was to play with as a kid? You could stretch it out and break it, roll it into a ball and bounce it, then stretch it again. Silly Putty bounces and stretches because of its resilience. This same type of resilience helps us cope with adversity. We can’t bounce back without it. (For another source on information on resilience, check out my recent review of Restoring Resilience: Discovering Your Clients’ Capacity for Healing by Dr. Eileen Russel.)

The first step to regaining independence is acknowledging that a brain injury is a brain injury regardless of the cause, whether it comes from a trauma or from a stroke or brain tumor. No one type of brain injury is easier to cope with than any other. However, coping is always easier when there’s a definable problem, acknowledgment of injury, and medical and emotional support.

Recovering from any significant loss, be it of a loved one, a relationship, or a job, is challenging. But when the loss is of your own independence, you feel as though you’ve lost yourself. You’ve lost the person you once were, the only person you could always count on no matter what. This type of loss drains your resilience.

In Coping with Concussion and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, co-author Barbara Hill and I discuss many types of treatment programs. But we also discuss the importance of grieving and of humor. Both of these are essential to helping maintain resilience, allowing you to bounce back and cope with your disability. Grieving for what you have lost helps you to regain your resilience. Acknowledging what you no longer have is the first step.

For example, I wear glasses because I have a visual disability. If I don’t wear my glasses, I’m handicapped by my disability. I choose to wear my glasses so as not to be handicapped by it. In order to regain your resiliency, you must accept the disability first.

Does your depression and rage step from sadness, Post-Traumatic Stress, or nerve damage in your brain? Getting a good diagnosis isn’t easy. And even once you’ve gotten one, finding the right treatment can be difficult.

At times you feel bewildered and confused. Sometimes you’re entitled to a “pity party.” And sometimes you feel like throwing in the towel. I know I did. After my accident, I no longer had a practice. I was unable to be the mother I had once been. My sex life had come to a halt. I had poor judgment. My moods were erratic; I over-reacted to everything. I couldn’t write, I had problems walking, speaking, and remembering. I was in chronic pain. My resilience was at an all-time low. There was even a time I wished I never had come out of the car accident alive.

The Resilience of the Human Spirit

So what helped me regain my resiliency? What is the essential ingredient? Well, I dedicated Coping with Concussion and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury like this: “To all people who have experienced a brain injury: The human spirit is stronger than anything that can happen to it.”

You are not just a brain-injured person. You are a person with a brain injury. It is extremely important to differentiate between the innate spirit inside of you, and your own shifting perception of yourself. That spirit is your essence, your personal energy. It was formed when the ova and sperm created the first cell that was you. Your spirit is at the core of your resilience. It cannot be broken. Think of the Silly Putty. Even when you stretch it and break it, its resilience allows it to return to its original form.

I would like to take a moment to talk about your essence or energy. This energy can be measured on an EKG, EEG and a biofeedback machine. In each of these procedures, little electrodes are put in two or more places to measure the current of your electricity, of your energy. There are many expressions that tell us we have felt this energy, such as “You could cut the tension with a knife,” “she’s an energetic person,” or “he feels sad.” It can make you feel compelled to give someone a hug. You feel for that person. You respond to his or her energy.

Regaining Resilience

So, what can you do to regain your resiliency? How do you find that energy again? There are numerous ways of regaining your energy.

I find it useful to talk in terms of internals and externals. An external is something outside of yourself, such as medication, neurofeedback, massage, or Reiki, while internals include hypnosis, prayer, meditation, TFT, or relaxation techniques. Internals are the most powerful ways of restoring your energy. To do any one of them usually takes longer than 5 minutes. Recently, there has been extensive research showing the healing power of prayer for yourself or others. People who have been prayed for, even when they didn’t know it, recover faster than those no one has prayed for. And the act of praying is healing in and of itself.

So is meditation. In 1999, I spent two weeks in Bali being trained by Balinese healers. Meditation has been used as a means of healing and restoring energy for thousands of years. Relaxation Technique is another means of helping to rejuvenate your energy. This technique was introduced to this country by Dr. Herbert Benson in the late 1970’s. Since that time, extensive research has shown the effectiveness of learning how to use imagery for healing and restoring the flow of energy in the body. Benson’s work and that of others pioneered the mind/body movement in this country.

Another means of energizing your spirit is through dance, music and human touch. In many places of worship people hold hands and sing songs. When you go out dancing, you often embrace. This warm, loving contact of people sharing in a moment of song is a powerful means of healing and re-energizing the spirit, allowing you to regain the resilience to go on with life.

The Serenity Prayer says:

God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference

What I have presented today are ways of helping you to regain your resilience, so you can be your own advocate once again. So you can be an autonomous person who can choose to be independent. So you can accept yourself as a person with a disability, but not allow yourself to be handicapped by that disability.

There is a Way!™

-Dr. Diane


Dr. Diane® Roberts Stoler, Ed.D.
7 Hodges Street
N. Andover, MA 01845
Phone: (800) 500-9971
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Dr. Diane is a catalyst for change

Image Credit Elaine Boucher

Within each person shines an inner light that illuminates our path and is the source of hope. Illness, trauma, suffering and grief can diminish the light and shroud hope. I am a catalyst for hope and change, offering a way to rekindle this inner light.

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