The Thrill of Resilience

In the midst of winter, I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.”
-Albert Camus

Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
-Christopher Robin to Pooh (by A. A. Milne)

Just when we were all starting to get used to the unseasonably warm weather over Thanksgiving, we were given the brutal reminder that winter is upon us.   While driving to work on the morning of last week’s snow storm, inching along in the gray and exhaust clouded traffic; I couldn’t help but think about resilience.  How do we get up and face a wintery day when the bed is so warm and comfortable and the world is cold and stressful?  It is through resilience.

Resilience is a crucial component in a person’s recovery from illness, ability to adapt in the face of adversity and to handle tragedy.  Think of how many times you have been sick, had your heart broken or suffered a painful loss.  Think of how difficult if not impossible the idea of ever feeling good again seemed and yet here you are, chugging along, doing fine (hopefully).

Some people view resilience as a quality; something a person is born with and a characteristic that does not change much.  This is a misunderstanding.  Resilience is actually a process and a skill that can be honed and improved over a life-time.  Research shows that resilience is “ordinary not extraordinary”.

Additionally, people commonly believe that resilience is the ability to not experience strong and painful emotions.  This is a misconception.  You are supposed to feel terrified, despondent or furious at times.  Resilience is the skill you develop in handling those feelings.   An individual cannot improve his or her resilience skills without learning how to feel bad.

Research consistently demonstrates that a strong social support system with family and friends is powerful in building resilience.  I did a study myself (never published) in 2003-2004.  I was assessing factors that determined whether a child seen in a psychiatric emergency department was admitted for inpatient mental health treatment or was able to be sent home.  Factors studied included mental health problems in the child or family, socioeconomic status, substance abuse in the home, posttraumatic stress disorder and perceived social support.  Of these factors, the most significant in determining the disposition of the child was the perceived social support.  Those with parents that felt they had strong support were generally able to be discharged home and parents lacking support more often had their child admitted.

Skills in problem solving and communication are effective as well.  Active listening (which I have written about before; “Listen Up”) is a terrific way to communicate and solve problems.   This skill allows one to bring in more resources when needed and to identify and derail stressful and non-productive interactions.  A crucial component of resilience is to know when and how to use resources and how to “rally the troops” when needed.   I always tell people; never suffer alone.

There are other steps you can take in building your resilience.  This is the acquisition of a skill and you can have fun with it.  Do things to feel better such as saying “yes”, trying something new that you’ve wanted to do, visualizing success, exercising regularly, training in mindfulness, pursuing your passions, doing volunteer work, getting more involved with your faith, taking up yoga, and, for that matter, taking up under-water basket weaving.   The point of this is that staying active and setting reachable goals works.  Keep doing what works and stop or change what doesn’t work.

I am sure you all are good at something.  Think of the time and energy you put into that something to get good at it.  I assure you that with work you can get better and better at the skill of resilience.  With that, stay warm, may your commutes this winter be smooth and, in a snow storm, may you see a powder day and not the back of a car.

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