A Survivor’s Guide to Motivation

They say that life’s progression can be reduced to simple math.

You start off with nearly zero as a baby and then it’s about addition while you mature. But beyond that, growing older is all about subtraction – one year you need glasses, another year you might need a cane or start losing your hair, and so on. Year after year, your abilities are slowly reduced. 

But having a stroke or a brain injury is not about addition or subtraction, to me it seems to be about division – when you feel like you have been suddenly cut in half.

When this happens, life can feel overwhelming – when you wonder how to keep going; whether what you’re doing is really making a difference. You’re not alone – we all have been there!

Sometimes it helps me to stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and get some inspiration to help me move forward, remembering that big changes start with little steps. And if you take just one little step today, you have moved closer to your goals. That’s all we have to do on those discouraging days: just take one step forward!

As a great man once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” 

So here are some tips about motivation to do just that.

Motivation is hard and tricky
We all know keeping motivated is hard. That’s why 45% of us give up our New Year’s resolutions after only one month! 

But studies have found that play and enjoyment are the strongest factors in staying motivated. Therefore, try incorporating things you enjoy with your speech and rehab exercises. For example, try reading a book to a little kid, playing cards or a word game with a friend, and so on. Or turn your focus to something that you always wanted to do, like taking a class, painting, creative writing, or volunteering. 

If we are just waiting around, waiting for outside forces to get us well, that is certainly a recipe for depression. Don’t wait for a sign – let’s do it for ourselves!

And doing is always better with company. Isolating yourself from others can be harmful to your soul. This is why we all love this group. It connects us with other survivors and gives us a much needed opportunity to learn from others, to be around friends, and to laugh. They say the laughter is the best medicine. And everyone here knows how true that is.

Another factor in motivation is being realistic about your goals. Pacing your expectations is better in the long run than painting an overly rosy – or a gloomy – picture. If your goal is to overcome all your deficits, you will have a harder time keeping that up than if you pick one thing at a time.

Try not to diminish your achievements by comparing them to the way you did them before. When tying your shoes is a major accomplishment (as it was for me), feel proud if you can do it at all – not sad or embarrassed that you can’t do it better.
Keep in mind that you are the most important person in your therapy. 

We all forget this sometimes. You may feel tempted to sit back and let the therapist take charge and feel that without her, you are just spinning your wheels. Not true! Acknowledge your own accomplishments. This means, you can be your own advocate to empower yourself – to make the most out of your rehab.

In my case, I turned the corner in my motivation when I realized that my recovery needed to be one of my top priorities and a life-long journey.

Don’t use others as a crutch, especially your family. The best thing a family can do is determine what we can do alone or with help, and what we simply cannot do. Then they should avoid doing things for us that we are able to do for ourselves. For example, each time you speak for yourself — no matter how imperfectly — your confidence will grow. 

Plateau myth
Many people lose motivation because they think their recovery has plateaued. Don’t give in to this depressing lie that your recovery must be over.

Although it’s true that recovery is more rapid in the first months after a brain injury, it’s also true recovery really never ends. Study after study has shown that the so-called “window of recovery” does not exist. For example, many survivors see recovery for many years after their accident.

Try to avoid coming to any conclusions today about where you have to be in the future. Instead, take it a day at a time.
Brain plasticity
They say that you’re never too old to learn new things. That goes for re-learning old things too.

This is thanks to brain plasticity – the remarkable way that our brains can accommodate and change to learn – or to relearn. 


Modern research has shown that – long after childhood – the brain can continue to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones to adapt to new experiences, new information, new memories, and to recover lost abilities.

And this is great news for people like us, and should motivate us all!


(given at the speech clinic at Cal State University at San Marcos, March 2016)