The Ripple Effect of Hope

by Dennis Radman and Arden McGregor

Two people sustain similar brain injuries. One person flies through rehab. He continually moves forward—working hard, asking for the next exercise and the next step—so much so the rehab clinicians have to rein him in on occasion. It’s inspiring to see. Meanwhile, his counterpart has a terrible time. Empathy notwithstanding, she needs extensive support to get the day started let alone participate in rehab on a consistent basis. There are just as many steps backwards as there are forward. We see this often in rehab: people repeatedly struggle for the lack of—and, conversely, thrive because of—hope.

What’s hope got to do with it?
Hope is more than just wishing, it’s more than a presidential campaign platform, and it’s more than the metaphorical lift one gets from Emily Dickinson’s poetic description of hope, “the thing with feathers.” When you peel away the layers, you see how hope is defined in the scientific literature and why it’s crucial. Hope has three parts. The first is goals. Goals are the dreams and aspirations that we imagine and desire. Goals range from learning how to make an omelette to learning how to walk again. The second component is what’s called the “will power.” It’s the motivational component in hopeful thinking. It’s the belief you have in your ability to reach a goal. Some examples of “will power thinking” are “I can do this” and “I am not going to be stopped.” The third component is called “way power.” This is the cognitive component. It’s that skill whereby you develop step-by-step instructions, paths, or workable routes to your goals. An important part of way power is having flexibility and preparedness for roadblocks and detours. With wishing you get hope, but with hope you get wishing with a goal, you add the ways to achieve that goal, and the effort to close the loop to take you from here to there.

One of the most important aspects of hope is to look forward, to the future, towards the goals you want to achieve with the skills you are mastering to achieve those goals.

We know the importance of hope, but can it be taught or enhanced? Yes! The repertoire of hope interventions is rapidly growing. People with brain injuries and professionals alike can learn to develop a hopeful mindset and reap the benefits of hope-fostering strategies.

Three strategies to foster hope
Hopeful stories surround and inspire us. They paint a picture we can all resonate with and draw strength from. There are many user-friendly technologies at our disposal. From smartphones and tablets to blogs and social media, we can both consume and produce hopeful stories on a daily basis. Practicing reading and watching as well as producing and writing hopeful stories have been shown to increase what is deemed a hopeful mindset.

Brainworks’ “Finding the Silver Lining” technique is a simple yet powerful strategy. It’s not about minimizing the trauma, loss, or challenge, but rather moving forward from it. Finding one genuinely positive component of a difficult situation strengthens a hopeful mindset.

Here are two examples of this strategy in practice to illustrate its usefulness:

  • Learning to use a smartphone as a memory aid? Find the silver lining: the tech-skills you are learning will rival the modern teenager.
  • Changing your vocation? Find the silver lining: you are learning new skills and you will learn much about yourself, particularly your resilience. Realizing you have resilience is a powerful component of a hopeful mindset—an ally for years to come.

One of the most important aspects of hope is to look forward, to the future, towards the goals you want to achieve with the skills you are mastering to achieve those goals. Although the past contains memories of pain, loss, or trauma, it does not have to define you. While it is important to work through the challenges of the past, without forward momentum, the danger is that you get stuck there. Looking forward with a hopeful mindset sets you up for thriving as you work toward a more hopeful future.

Brainworks’ “Don’t Look Back – You’re Not Going That Way” is an effective strategy that with practice can curb those negative thoughts and help you to turn towards the future, towards the goals you are working on now. An example of the exercise: Notice yourself thinking about the past or talking about the past in a negative way; when you do, intervene with the script, “Don’t Look Back, You’re Not Going That Way.” Put away the negative thoughts and replace them with a hopeful script: “You are looking forward; forward progress only.”

A practical and specific example might look like this: “I used to play ice hockey. I hate that I can’t play anymore.” When it gets turned around it can sound like this: “I can still enjoy watching hockey. Now I get to have fun with a little golf and I am learning some woodworking. I look forward to making a table with my own hands.” There is a crucial difference between dwelling on the past, learning from it, and ultimately moving forward with lessons learned. Practicing viewing rehab and life in general through a future-oriented and hopeful lens has been shown to be crucial towards developing that hopeful mindset.

Hope is real. Hope is a choice. Hope can be learned.
When you choose hope, the ripples start from within and spread in every direction. From the heart to the home, from the classroom to the boardroom, hope matters. Rehab gets transformed from something you survive to something you thrive in. Hope won’t give you feathers nor will it make you fly, but it does make reaching for the stars a reality. As Christopher Reeve said, “When you choose hope, anything is possible.”

Originally published in the Brain Injury Journey magazine