The Healing Power of Habits
Please read with caution if conversations about life-threatening injuries or strokes are a trigger for you. But if you are someone who believes there is no such thing as a coincidence then this story is for you.
I have not talked about this publicly but I want to share a recent story of how The Habitized Life came even closer to home in a tragic way this year.
One of my family members was alone when she had a stroke. It was hours before anyone knew why we could not get her on the phone. When we finally found her, the damage from the stroke was extensive.
She survived but the repercussions on her mind, body, and spirit have forever altered her. Yes, she has made remarkable improvements in her ability to talk, move, comprehend, smile, and even hug us. However, we had to make peace with the new version of a person we have decades of history with.
After she was transferred to rehab, I met with the core therapy team. They told me we have to start working on her habits immediately. NO JOKE! Her habits.
When I told them about co-founding The Habitized Life, along with my educational background in early childhood education, they told me to approach this work as if my loved one was a toddler in one of my classrooms - go back to the basics and teach her like you'd teach one of your kids.
If you're not familiar with neuroplasticity, and I was not, it is the mechanism your brain uses to rewire itself and create new neural pathways after a stroke. You want to get the neurons firing together so they can "rewire" together as soon as possible. By focusing on daily habits the brain can begin to heal by:
Starting with the smallest step and adding only one more step each time
Doing the same tasks in the same order every time
Using the same words to describe the same tasks every time
Sounds familiar right? Just like how we talk about teaching our littles new habits. Now, I'm just applying it to an adult relearning every toddler-like basic skill after a stroke. My first action was to meet with her head nurse, lead occupational therapist, lead speech therapist, and lead physical therapist. I needed to know what daily habits they would be reteaching her - in their words, in their order, and in each of their sessions. It was like walking through step 4 of the habit roadmap - time to prioritize.
I repurposed the daily habit cards I originally made for kids in the "50 Ways to Boost Your Child's Habits" guide and stripped down the design so she could quickly connect the word with the icon. I then laminated cards so they could be wiped off easily and put them on a hook so they could either hang in her room or take them on her wheelchair to therapy.
Within the first week, we noticed progress. She was starting to repeat words we would say on the cards and the icons were actually helping her connect words to the actions she was supposed to do next!
The staff was amazed. They had not tried cards like these with patients before.
IT WAS WORKING! She went from not being able to communicate at all to at least attempting to move her tongue and speak even if the words were mixed up or soft-spoken. As she began to gain confidence with talking, and we could figure out what she was asking for, we continues to create new cards.
Doing the same tasks, in the same order, at the same time was helping her brain "fire together and wire together". It was incredible to watch right before my eyes. This experience has lit a spark in me to talk about habits in ways we had not fully considered prior to this. We are diving into questions such as:
How do habits influence recovery and healing?
Which nutrition habits should you prioritize during recovery and healing?
How do trauma and crisis impact caregiver habits?
How do daily habits avoid learned "nonuse" or "helplessness" in kids and adults?
If you've been through a similar situation or are the primary caregiver for a loved one during recovery - I can empathize with the incredible emotional and physical rollercoaster you've been experiencing. But remember, don't let your own habits go at the risk of helping a loved one getting their habits back. Because if you do, you'll need your own recovery plan. And if you have a friend or family member is taking on a caregiver role like this, try to help them maintain their healthy habits by just showing up. Drop off a goodie bag of healthy snacks. Do their dishing while listening to their stories. Pick up their kids for a play date.
2021 taught me that habits don't just make us happier and healthier - habits actually have healing power. Woah. I sat back in awe after that typing that. I felt those words.
More on the healing journey in the upcoming months.