A Stroke Survivor’s Advice for Coping with the COVID-19 Crisis

When I was in the prime of my career as a global financial controller, I had a massive stroke. I worked for a premier investment hedge firm, traveling frequently, at the top of my game. When the stroke hit, it stopped everything — and I mean everything. There were no warning signs. Everything I had taken for granted was gone. Now the world is trying to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic — and most of us had no idea what was coming. Our lives, much of our work, our social interactions, and the economy itself have basically stopped, with few exceptions.

Just coping with this terrifying reality is a challenge. But some of the same tools I used to face my stroke and to begin the long process of recovery hold just as true for facing the trauma of this global pandemic. These coping mechanisms can help you manage painful events or difficult emotions and better support your own emotional well-being. And they help no matter what they are: stress, crisis, or trauma. They can help you take a breather, decompress, unwind, loosen up your feelings, and change your emotions into positive energy:

Commit to Optimism

You can control your worries and acknowledge your problems related to the current health crisis: resolve to accept the situation and then move on. In order for me to create some semblance of a life, post-stroke, I had to commit to the hard work of recovering first. It would take me many years of tireless work and speech as well as physical therapy to rebuild my body and my brain. To get started I had to choose to have a positive perspective. That gave me the resilience and tenacity to deal with the peaks and valleys along the journey. I treated failure as a chance to get better, believing at some point I would be successful. And that went for anything from saying a full sentence to putting a basketball in a hoop. Believe the future will get better, learn from the unpleasant experiences, and keep going.

Focus on What’s Important

I focused on opportunities and what lay ahead instead of worrying about the past. At first I needed some time to understand what had happened to me, how bad it was and what the concept of recovery meant. I have always relied on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which says you need to make sure your basic physiological and safety needs are met before you do anything else. That meant shelter, security, food, water, rest, warmth, and my wife. These were the first things that came to mind as I lay on my couch in a severely compromised condition, having just endured a stroke of horrible intensity.

During the first weeks in the hospital, that was my focus: making sure my loved ones, family, friends and co-workers were all right, and making sure I had great neurologists, doctors and nurses. Then I focused on one single thing — my physical mobility. I worked to get myself out of the bed just to take a walk down the corridor. Step by step, slowly but surely, I made progress — just by focusing on what really needed to be done.

Seek Support and Ask for Help

You don’t have to face a crisis alone, and you shouldn’t. Consult and coordinate with a professional or mentor or simply a friend. The medical and support system I had in place included neurologists and general practice doctors who could answer my questions about the stroke. My wife was in charge of what happened and what needed to happen at each stage, from treatment to surgical procedures. She coordinated with the hospitals, doctors and nurses, and was there every day. We also involved my family, my closer friends, and colleagues. Every week, my brothers and sister checked on my condition. Their calls and encouragement were so important.

Educate Yourself

Knowledge — real knowledge — is power. I took it upon myself to learn and read everything I could about strokes and aphasia. I went to university lectures, which were very educational but also challenged my brain to increase its ability to immerse and focus. I needed to know everything about having a stroke so I could start to beat the odds, and growth along with challenges were just what my doctor ordered.

As I kept improving, I could use the medical, physical, speech techniques I learned to help myself recover further. Make sure to keep up with the current research and resources into crisis management or trauma, which will also help you maintain a larger perspective about what you’re going through.

Develop a Plan

Whatever setbacks you’ve faced during this health crisis, the best way to overcome them is to create a plan of action. The day after I was discharged from the hospital, I started making a plan. I clarified my objectives, stated my intentions, and mapped out the results I wanted to have. I also made sure all of my decisions were fully evaluated. Designate trustworthy people you can share your ideas with, and get their feedback before you move forward. And do your research: effective solutions are not those hastily put together.  

Stay Active

Our bodies respond to stress and anxiety with a survival fight or flight response. Moving our bodies can help us clear our mind and eliminate frenetic energy or tension. You don’t want to shut down or get sleepy. Alternating active moments with some downtime can help regulate our bodies and keep our anxiety in check. Try a combination of stretches, crunches, and aerobic activity. For me, what worked the best was a mixture of stretching, cardio, and working out. I did this everyday — and it was critical in helping me feel normal, have some structure, and forget about my stroke and aphasia.  

Keep your mind active as well. Right now, as you’re stuck at home, get busy with puzzles, word games, writing a journal, and reading a whole range of books and magazines. To spark new ideas, read magazines you wouldn’t have picked before. And connect with your animals: play with your pets to keep them active. Try teaching your pet tricks — there are lots of great online videos. By teaching them something new, you learn as well.  

While there are countless uncertainties and “what-ifs” right now, coping with the COVID-19 crisis — and really, every crisis — means taking care of yourself, and controlling only what you can actually control. The rest, leave alone. Even the act of declaring something out of your control will help you detach from it and help build your resilience. So do what makes you comfortable, avoid turmoil, and work to reduce the anxiety around you. Create a structure to keep you feeling sane, but build in flexibility. Mix business with pleasure, and build in choices and variety. And stay safe.

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