Positive Strokes: A Story of Post-traumatic Growth


It may be easier to advocate for positive psychology when life is on an upward slope, but for me, it has been the tough times that have truly shown me the value of the science. In July less than 24 hours after facilitating the Penn Resilience Program I got a phone call which would plunge me into a test of my own resilience.

Robert Wilkinson QuotationRobert Wilkinson Quotation

Robert Wilkinson Quotation: Though sometimes it’s more challenging than others, our ability to live in a state of loving kindness despite worldly problems is one of the few refuges we humans have.

I was at the ENPP 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 rehabilitation unit. 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.

The Plastic Brain: Cultivate a Growth Mindset

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 what Carol Dweck calls 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 to 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.

Interventions that Address Depression

Up to 50% of stroke patients experience depression and/or anxiety while in a rehab setting. Since my specialty is positive psychology interventions (PPIs) for depression, I was curious to discover which PPIs could help my own stroke patient recover her well-being.

The answer came in a moment of synchronicity from clinical psychology trainee Isla McMakin, one of the first participants of the Happiness Habits course. Isla had delivered a pilot positive intervention for stroke inpatients in Wales using Martin Seligman’s Flourish and my own book Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression. Life after Stroke is a weekly group programme with 5 sessions covering

  1. Happiness
  2. Positive emotions
  3. PPIs for gratitude and savoring
  4. Resilience
  5. Optimism

The results of her pioneering study show a significant reduction in depression and anxiety and improvement in well-being. So PPIs have a role to play in stroke recovery.

Watching by a critical illnessWatching by a critical illness

Watching by a critical illness

What about Post-traumatic Growth?

I was curious to read that Isla’s study doesn’t show a significant change in post-traumatic growth (PTG), 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, heading for neutral on the health/disease continuum rather than into the plus scale of well-being.

Possibly they are still adapting to the new reality.

Like many family members who witness a loved one go through critical illness, this has been a trauma for me too.

Dimensions of Post-traumatic Growth

My own personal growth has occurred across all 5 dimensions of the model of PTG proposed by Tedeschi and Calhoun.

My own personal growth has occurred across all 5 dimensions of the model of PTG proposed by Tedeschi and Calhoun.

  1. 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.
  2. New possibilities (new roles and people): 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 I’ve bonded with relatives of other stroke patients.
  3.    Pilates instructor   Pilates instructor

       Pilates instructor

    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.

  4. 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.
  5. Deepened appreciation for life: I am positively savoring every precious moment with my mother in the last days of summer.

My resilience may have been tested over the last few months but being a positive psychology practitioner has enabled me to cope positively. I have developed psychological buns of steel.



Akhtar, M. (2012). Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression: Self-Help Strategies for Happiness, Inner Strength and Well-Being. London: Watkins.

Calhoun, L. Tedeschi, R. (2012). Posttraumatic Growth in Clinical Practice. Routledge Press.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

McMakin, I. (In press). Finding Happiness: A Positive Psychology Group for Stroke Inpatients. Contact Isla Mcmakin (Cardiff and Vale UHB – Psychology Training);

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

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. Abstract.

Tedeschi, R.G., Calhoun, L.G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Robert Wilkinson quotation courtesy of be_your_guru
Pilates instructor courtesy of heraldpost


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