Article written by Ed Weaver
Hope is a powerful force for people adjusting to living with a brain injury
In the many conversations I’ve had with people living with ABI and their families, the word “hope” comes up regularly. People tell me that having hope for a better future can make a very difficult situation a bit more bearable, and how it can act like fuel, providing them with the energy to keep going. Most people intuitively know that hope is crucial for progress.
Now, empirical research is shedding light on exactly why hope matters so much, by revealing how it works wonders for the brain, mind and body.
Research shows that hope can:
- Alter depression pathways in the brain, improving mood
- Reduce cortisol levels and pro-inflammatory cytokines (small secreted proteins released by specific cells of the immune system), reducing associated health risks
- Assist with wound repair, and increase the potential for survival in critically ill people
- Change the expression of genes (epigenetic changes)
- Aid learning and neuroplasticity
So, how do we at Brain Injury SA promote hope in the people we work with?
A main way is by supporting people to achieve their dreams, rather than squashing them.
From time to time I hear someone say that people must only pursue realistic goals, and that they must first come to fully accept their brain injury and all its negative impacts, before they can move forward with their life. As renowned psychologist and researcher Dr Tim Feeney points out (often quite passionately!), this is the wrong approach.
Why? There are some key reasons:
- Recommending that people should achieve full acceptance of such a life changing event as a first objective is not only fanciful (because this process generally takes a long time), it places the person’s focus squarely on all the extremely difficult, negative changes resulting from the brain injury. This can quickly lead to a ‘downward spiral’ into depression, which in turn makes everything harder.
- A person’s goals are their own and we have no right to tell them what they should want from their lives.
- We often don’t know for sure whether a goal truly is realistic or not. This is especially true given technological advancements – take the efforts of biomedical engineer Dr Jordan Nguyen, who designed a car that could be driven by eye movements, enabling a teenage boy with cerebral palsy to achieve his dream of driving.
- Even when we know a person’s goals are extremely ambitious and unlikely to be achieved, there are almost always significant benefits to that person working towards them (even if they ultimately don’t achieve them).
To flesh out the final point further, a person with a clear goal that they are committed to – even if it is extremely ambitious and probably unrealistic – is going to be more motivated and purposeful in their life than someone who doesn’t have such a goal. Motivation promotes an ‘upward spiral’ that increases wellbeing and quality of life. Further, pursuing goals that seem unrealistic will often provide learning opportunities and stimulate the brain, and many will deliver social benefits, too.
Finally, people with ABI surprise us all the time with what they achieve! From starting a new business from scratch, to finishing a PhD, to becoming a motivational speaker, to winning awards for volunteering efforts in the community, I know of dozens of examples where people went far beyond what was initially thought to be possible. Some of these people have become employees or mentors with Brain Injury SA, and so are invaluable living, breathing examples for others who access our services.
It really is incredible what can be achieved with a positive attitude, and a good dose of hope.