What a Brain Scientist's Stroke Can Teach Us About Mindful Resiliency

Anne Bruce

Anne Bruce

Author and Leadership Consultant

Published August 04, 2016

Welcome to Mindfulness in Medicine, an ongoing column by best-selling author Anne Bruce, designed to cultivate leadership and collaborative relationships among hospital leaders, nurses, providers, and ancillary staff. Mindfulness is a powerful leadership tool that enhances emotional intelligence. It is a tool that, when practiced, can help us develop and implement emotional intelligence in medicine. It is a tool that, when practiced, can help us develop and implement relational coaching skills and illuminate various ways to improve hospital operations and cross-departmental performance. Mindfulness also improves our capacity for decision-making and participatory medicine, all while enhancing our own health and well-being. Your comments and insights on these postings are greatly valued.

Sometimes in our busy practice, when we feel tired, burned out, or overwhelmed, we lose sight of the amazing resilience of our bodies and minds. Developing resilience has a profound effect on our response to stress and can rekindle the sense of mission and compassion that attracted us to healthcare in the first place.

A study by Zwack and Schwietzer, in the March 2013 issue of Academic Medicine, uncovered several resilience strategies that enabled healthcare providers to avoid the negative effects of stress and successfully deal with personal and professional challenges. Those strategies include practicing self-care, setting limits, expressing gratitude, and developing a support network.

I have written and spoken on the subject of mindful resilience for many years. During this time, I have gained a very special perspective and respect for the brain and its enormous capacity to give us strength, intuition, kinesthetic well-being, and so much more.

Understanding the connection between the basic functions of the brain and resiliency offers great insight into our ability as healthcare providers to rebound from challenging and even life-threatening situations. To illustrate, I’d like to share the story of one brain scientist and her “stroke of insight.”

When a Blood Vessel Explodes In Your Brain, Mindful Resilience May Be the Only Answer

One December morning, a young Harvard University brain scientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., woke up with a pounding pain behind her left eye. Despite the agony she felt, she made herself get up and get ready for work.

Unknowingly, Jill was experiencing a massive hemorrhagic stroke. A blood vessel literally exploded in the left side of her brain. Within the course of four hours, alone in her apartment, she lost her ability to talk, read, write, or recall any of her life.

Mindfully Activating Both Sides of the Brain

Before I share the rest of Jill’s powerful story, I’d like to talk about the anatomy and functioning of the brain. The left hemisphere of our brain is the rational, grounded, detail- and time-oriented side. It’s linear and logical. This is the area of the brain where Jill had her stroke, which had her swinging in and out of function for hours.

The right hemisphere is the creative and artistic side, where we experience euphoric nirvana, kinesthesia, and intuition. The right side holds our life’s pictures and higher consciousness. It’s the side that brings us feelings of well-being and peace.

When we talk about a person’s intellect, we sometimes refer to a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ) or their logical way of thinking, which comes from the left side of the brain. When we talk about emotional intelligence (EI), we are referring to the right hemisphere, where the creative and soft skills of reasoning, patience, getting along with others, and sensitive feelings reside.

The beauty of knowing more about your brain is also knowing that you have the power to activate both sides and make the most out of your circumstances to recover from emotional (and even physical) distress. This is known as emotional resiliency.

A Beautiful Nirvana of Consciousness vs. Get Help Now!

Jill’s experience is a phenomenal example of the power of emotional resiliency — the power we have to activate either side of the brain to help us reach our potential and even survive a devastating occurrence.

During the stroke, Jill alternated between two realities. The right side of her brain suggested it was a wonderful opportunity to be a brain scientist experiencing her own death by stroke. She felt a beautiful nirvana of consciousness, simply wanting to let go and be free.

But her left hemisphere recognized she was having a stroke and was urging her get help. In fact, she talks about hearing a voice that said, “You’re having a stroke!”

Jill knew that if she did not get help she would die. But she could not read numbers, remember how to make a phone call, or even speak. That’s when the left side of Jill’s brain, which was hemorrhaging severely, told her it’s time to “activate” the right side of her brain, which was in full operation. She believed that the right side could come up with a creative way to save her life. And it did.

With what little consciousness she had remaining, Jill activated and called upon the right side of her brain to figure out how to match the phone number on her business card with the numbers on the telephone.

It took her 45 minutes to punch in the numbers to her office. When her colleague answered the telephone, all she heard was “Arggh arggh, arggh,” because she had lost the ability to speak. Her office called for help, and an ambulance was sent to her apartment.

Being Mindful of the Energy We Bring to Patients and Each Other

The lesson Jill teaches us is that by stepping to the right side of our left brains, as she puts it, we can find courage and resiliency—even eternal peace—accessible to anyone at any time. This includes taking full responsibility for the energy and intentions we bring to patients, their families, our medical communities, colleagues, and one another.

We can find courage and resiliency—even eternal peace—accessible to anyone at any time. This includes taking full responsibility for the energy and intentions we bring to patients, their families, our medical communities, colleagues, and one another.

Jill fully recovered over a period of eight years and is a sought-after speaker worldwide. She describes her experience in detail when she speaks about her stroke and how she was actually screaming in her mind to those standing around her in the hospital room, “I’m in here! Come get me!”

Her right brain was fully able to process the compassion and kindness of others. She knew exactly when people were ignoring or patronizing her (assuming she was unable to understand). She also recognized when doctors and nurses were giving her their total respect and good energy.

Jill’s experience is a powerful story of physical and emotional recovery and a wonderful lesson for healthcare providers, patients, and families. It’s a story of resiliency at its highest level.

You can learn more about Jill’s remarkable story in her New York Times bestselling book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, as well as her TED Talks. A movie directed by Ron Howard starring Jodie Foster is also in the works.

Developing a Resilient Healthcare Team

As Jill’s story illustrates, the ability to navigate stressful situations is critical to long and satisfying personal and professional lives for everyone, including healthcare providers. Since 2011, Vituity’s resilience task force has worked to help providers learn and practice resilience skills through workshops and an online toolkit. Only by taking care of ourselves can we be more compassionate and provide the best care to our patients.

About the Author

Anne Bruce has provided training and performance coaching for Vituity. She also serves as MBSI's Employee Development Coach and Leadership Facilitator. Anne is a bestselling author with more than 20 books published by McGraw-Hill Publishing, New York. Her next book on mindful behavior is titled, Conscious Engagement and is scheduled for release in 2017. She considers her award-winning life-coaching book, Discover True North: A 4-Week Approach to Ignite Passion and Activate Potential (McGraw-Hill Publishing) to be one of her most "mindful" books to date. She also leads a popular Discover True North Expedition group on LinkedIn and a fan page called Fans of Anne Bruce on Facebook. Anne can be reached at 214-507-8242 or by writing to her at, or visiting her on LinkedIn or Facebook.

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