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Gratitude is an Emotion: Lessons from a Stroke Survivor

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Gratitude is an Emotion: Lessons from a Stroke Survivor

In the new normal of life today, our whole lives and how we work are happening before our very eyes: webinars, e-learning, online schools, virtual meetings, sports classes, virtual yoga and meditation, doctor appointments — we’re in constant movement, whether we’re living and working remotely or not. Rarely do we get to take a breath or stop and smell the roses, and consider what brings joy to our lives. Maybe it’s time we calm down a bit and reflect on what we’re grateful for.

It’s more than just expressing thanks. Gratitude is the readiness to show appreciation and the willingness to return kindness. Being thankful unlocks the fullness of joy and strength for mind, body, and soul. Gratitude is an emotion that makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow. And for me, having survived a massive stroke in 2005, faced countless challenges, and dealing with aphasia, I know firsthand how important gratitude has been to me in my recovery — not only for now but into the future.

Physical disabilities are gruelling, as is the aphasia I have — the result of that a massive ischemic stroke. The stroke cut short my successful career and turned my life upside down. So I built a new life journey, and along the way I have been grateful for those who helped me, grateful that I had the resiliency and inner strength to work on my own recovery, and grateful I can share my experience with others.

During my recovery, I began to bring my experience to the world not just to tell, but to help. I published a memoir and in it, talked about the power of giving back. Helping others who have experienced a stroke and now are dealing with aphasia feels like paying it forward. It’s so important to know what strategies that worked for someone else with the same condition and struggles. Here are some ways gratitude plays a key role in my life:

Gratitude builds on acceptance. Acceptance is a recognized phase for dealing with grief and loss. Acceptance was the first step in my long journey towards recovery, but I never lost sight of it. It allows me to see things from a broader perspective, to take moments and people as they are, and to see the opportunity in any experience — and I’m grateful for that. Acceptance is a kind of transformation: it doesn’t mean you give up your dreams, but that you can implement a different plan, or choose Option B or C, and still have a fulfilling, happy life.

Gratitude means not taking anything for granted. Every day, people get in life-altering accidents. I’m looking at myself: now a stroke survivor and an advocate and educator for those with strokes and aphasia. Prior to the stroke, I had no idea my life was about to change forever. I just took it in stride, and I took it for granted: the schedule, the success, the travelling, the work. I assumed I would always be that way, and I never thought about it. Now, years into recovery, I can walk, I can write, I can talk. There are some people who experienced a similar stroke to what I had that will never ever have those abilities again. Tragedies make us re-examine our lives and then reframe them for the better. But look at your life now, and consider what you take for granted.

Gratitude is how I take action. COVID-19 has presented countless obstacles for anyone who needs therapy. So I have developed a kind of speech therapy for stroke survivors and people with aphasia who need it — that can be done over Zoom. Every week we get together via this digital platform, and I teach them techniques and exercises. We talk about the challenges and issues of trying to recover our speech. It doesn’t feel like work: these are situations that I really enjoy, and they help fuse past and present. It’s inspiring to work with new technology applications, answer questions, and help people learn and practice. It’s a service done with gratification, kindness and the hope that my presence and experiences will resonate with others, and it does.

Gratitude is powerful. Scholars and researchers have found that being thankful for what life throws at you has many positive effects. It opens the doors to more relationships, improves both your mental and physical health, reduces your “fight-or-flight” reactions, helps you sleep better, and increases your self-esteem. Life doesn’t owe you anything, as the saying goes. But, appreciation means you stop taking everything for granted. The things you take for granted are the things others wish they had — such as contentment and peace of mind.

Gratitude can be practised and learned. There are effective ways to achieve the right mindset and attitude to cultivate gratitude, including:

  • Keep a gratitude journal in which you write down the big and little joys you experienced throughout the day.
  • Do one thing a day that you’re good at, such as cooking, gardening, or taking the dog for a long walk, then write down what went well for you and why. When you finish this, that’s another thing to be grateful for.
  • Write thank you notes or letters to others, and help make someone else feel good.
  • Reach out to help someone else: generous, kind acts not only help them, but they also give you a boost too.
  • Reflect on the people who have inspired you and what about them was most significant.
  • Imagine what your life would be like if you had some positive, beneficial event had not occurred.
  • Think about the future, especially right now. How good will it feel to meet a friend at the coffee shop, or stroll in the park with people you care about? Remind yourself not to take these things (or these people) for granted in the future.

When you wake up every morning, try asking yourself: “What am I grateful for?” What you get out of life depends entirely upon your mindset. During my stroke recovery, I could have fallen into a prolonged and deep depression. I could have gotten stuck asking why me, or if things would have been different had I changed my life pre-stroke. But I didn’t labor over those questions. It wasn’t going to help. Instead, I chose to focus on things that made me better, physically and language-wise, and to maintain hope. Even now, I’m always looking for opportunities and more creative ways to craft my life. Life is too short to waste time thinking about what we don’t have. It’s how we feel within ourselves that really matters.

Ted W. Baxter (MBA, Wharton), was an auditor and management consultant at Price Waterhouse, passed all four parts of the CPA exam in one take, and built a financial services consulting practice in Tokyo for Price Waterhouse, becoming partner in record time. After working in the Asia-Pacific for Price Waterhouse and Credit Suisse First Boston, he became a managing director at Citadel LLC, a premiere hedge fund and global financial institution. He retired after twenty-two years in the financial industry. In April 2005, he experienced a massive ischemic stroke. He’s now an advocate, author, and speaker on strokes, aphasia, inspiration and motivation. He volunteers at health institutions, is involved in philanthropic causes, and lives in Newport Beach. He is the author of Relentless: How A Massive Stroke Changed My Life for the Better (Greenleaf Book Group Press, July 2018). Learn more at www.tedwbaxter.com.

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