A Mindful Approach to Reclaiming Your Identity

A Mindful Approach to Reclaiming Your Identity

The following article was originally published by American Stroke Association on May 8, 2024, on their website.

After my stroke in 2017, it felt like a tornado had gone through my mind, leaving in its wake so many thoughts, questions and feelings:

  • What just happened and how and why?
  • Will I regain my speech?
  • Will this happen again?
  • Am I still me?
  • Can I still …
    • be the wife and friend I want to be,
    • work,
    • drive,
    • hike or
    • ride my bike?

Over the days, weeks and months that followed, I settled into my new sense of self, my new me, but continued to have emotion-filled periods when my mind wouldn’t stop racing. A fellow survivor was the first to inspire me with the value of mindfulness in recovery. They recommended a simple practice of focusing on how I was feeling in the moment and learning how to check in with that first before thinking about the past or trying to script the future.

Just what is mindfulness?

While writing this column, I learned that the word “mindfulness” is one that many people don’t use or may not know. Mindfulness is building the muscle of awareness within our current thoughts, feelings and sensations around us. The primary goal of this awareness is to nurture acceptance of our thoughts and feelings without any judgment attached. The practice of mindfulness helps us stay focused on the present moment instead of reliving our past or fretting about the future. This can be helpful as we work to rebuild our identities after stroke. The tradition of mindfulness is derived from Buddhism, but the common practices used in the U.S. today are non-religious and many come from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his model of mindfulness-based stress reduction. One of my favorite techniques of his is the body scan meditation.

The best part of focusing on awareness of the present is that it can help your emotional AND physical recovery. A study of the health benefits of mindfulness programs among stroke survivors found that people experienced positive benefits to their anxiety, depression, mental fatigue, blood pressure, perceived health and quality of life. Other research has shown that it can help with pain, reduce inflammation, help improve sleep and much more.

Some of the most common exercises and practices include meditation, breathing exercises, thoughtful movement, such as yoga or walking meditation, and affirmations.

One of the first practices that I turned to was yoga. In the years before my stroke, I had practiced various types of yoga, from strenuous power yoga classes to more meditative yin or restorative sessions. A typical yoga session in the U.S. contains three elements: physical postures, breathing exercises and a closing meditation. I began with short online videos from the comfort of my living room and later progressed to sessions at my local gym and yoga studio. Yoga brought me peace and time to think about my identity, reflecting on what had changed since my stroke but also how I am still me.

Dr. Christine Cosby-Gaither in rehab after her stroke.

“Be Strong, Be Brave, Take One Day at a Time”

Dr. Christine Cosby-Gaither’s massive stroke in 2019 initially left her paralyzed and struggling with both her vision and her speech. Stuck in her hospital bed and worried about caring for her children and what her life would be like post-stroke, she had her first glimpse of the importance of affirmations. Affirmations are simple statements used to help you stay focused on the present moment. Her father came to her bedside and encouraged her with “be strong, be brave, take one day at a time.” This became her recovery mantra, urging her on during the weeks and months that followed. It became especially valuable on the days when she didn’t feel like going to rehab or completing her speech therapy tasks. And, slowly but surely, she improved. She is now a leader in her community, having founded A Stroke of Grace to foster education and a supportive space for the Black community.

Try it for yourself

The beauty of mindfulness is that there are ways to introduce simple, short practices into your everyday life. Countless resources, practices and practitioners can be easily accessed through the internet. While there are paid programs, books and other resources to cultivate awareness and explore it more deeply, there are many free ways to get started.

  • Affirmations: Try out Christine’s affirmation of “be strong, be brave, take one day at a time” or come up with one of your own. Think about what positivity you want to invite into your life and start by saying it aloud or writing it down several times a day.
  • Breathing exercises: An easy exercise to start with is box breathing. Inhale through the nose for four counts, hold your breath for four more, exhale through your mouth for four, then hold for four. Explore other types of breathing exercises in this American Heart Association article.
  • Loving-kindness meditation: This is a way to practice feeling unconditional compassion for ourselves and all beings. Start by sitting quietly and directing kindness and love to yourself, then expand in circles of compassion outward to others. Learn more about loving-kindness meditation in this infographic from the American Heart Association.
  • Yoga: Look up videos suited to your abilities on your favorite video platform. Yin or restorative yoga is a great place to start. It features slow, restful postures. Your local community center, gym or yoga studio are all great places for in-person sessions.

A big part of my pre-stroke identity was focused on doing. My stroke was a powerful reminder that I needed to learn how to rest and just be. Incorporating awareness tools and practices has been instrumental in the ongoing rebuilding of my identity in my recovery. If you have not tried it before, I encourage you to try one of the exercises shared above. If none of those spark your interest, seek other options on the internet or in your local community. If you already use mindfulness techniques, consider how you might deepen your practice through a new type of exercise or participating in a structured program.

May you find peace in taking a moment to breathe and rest as you work to rebuild your identity in recovery.

We’d love to hear from you. If you have thoughts about this column, experiences you’d like to share, ideas for us to explore further or input of any kind, please email us at connect@strokeonward.org.

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