You’ve probably heard the platitude “you’re lucky to be alive” more often than you care to count. And while it might be true, there is no denying that recovering from a stroke is probably one of the most challenging feats you’ll ever have to brave. Striving to overcome your disabilities takes courage and strength, and if you can acknowledge that and say, “Okay, I’m ready to fight like hell,” you will come out in a much happier and more capable place.
Be the Goalkeeper
While not denying the challenges that you face, you need to understand that more is possible than you might think, advises Joel Stein, MD, of Columbia University’s Department of Rehabilitation and chief of rehabilitation at New York Presbyterian Hospital. His advice: Set lofty goals. “If you don’t try,” Dr. Stein says, “if you just sort of accept your limitations, then that’s where you’ll be.” To reach the heights you are capable of, follow these principles:
- Let love rule. Maybe you can’t do the activities you used to enjoy right now, but that doesn’t mean you never will. Working toward something that you love is just as important as relearning daily functions, explains Peter G. Levine, codirector of the Drake Center’s Neuromotor Recovery and Rehabilitation Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati Academic Medical Center and author of Stronger After Stroke: Your Roadmap to Recovery. “Passion drives recovery,” he says.
- Pace yourself. Identify the activities and events that you enjoy, and design a plan to make them a part of your life again. Your end goal, explains Pamela Mitchell, PhD, RN, of the University of Washington School of Nursing, needs to be broken into very small and manageable steps, so that you’re continually seeing progress.
- Focus on the achievable. If an activity is completely out of the question, find substitutes. Obstacles, Mitchell advises, need to be reframed into manageable problems that can be solved.
Beat the Blues
One of the greatest obstacles stroke survivors face is depression, with 40 to 50 percent of patients suffering from it in the first year after their episode. And low mood can lead to lowered recovery — it saps your motivation for rehab, prevents you from appreciating and celebrating your achievements, and can lead to isolation from friends and activities that would keep you engaged and working toward your goals.
While there are many understandable factors — including grieving lost abilities or a lost sense of self — post-stroke depression has physical as well as emotional causes. Stroke patients should understand that “it’s damage to the brain that results in clinical depression,” says Irene Katzan, MD, MS, director of the Neurological Institute Center for Outcome, Research and Evaluation at the Cleveland Clinic. And, she emphasizes, it can be managed with medication — studies show that antidepressants can help up to 75 percent of depressed stroke patients.
Seek out Support
In addition to medication, Dr. Katzan encourages stroke survivors to actively seek out support groups. In addition to helping you cope with depression and isolation, hearing from others in the same boat allows you to share tips on how to deal with particular situations — or just find comfort in the fact someone else went to the store, fell in front of the checkout… and stood up again. You can find a support group in your area on the National Stroke Association’s website.