We’re talking a lot about maintaining our physical health these days and that’s good. But we need to start talking about our emotional health. We need to know what the long term cost of collapsing can be and how to turn that cost around, how to maintain resilience and even grow through the adversity and challenge we’re experiencing in our world today.
Some of the factors that can make a situation feel traumatic are: feeling of a loss of an orderly and predictable world, sudden shocking events that are outside of the normal scheme of things and a feeling that you can’t escape, a feeling of being trapped by circumstances beyond our control.
Welcome to COVID-19. Another trauma engendering feature is if there is the feeling of helplessness, that no matter what you do you cannot change what is happening and make it unhappen, that nothing you do will make a difference.
The sheer amount of information we’re exposed to daily is pounding away at our sense of a safe and secure future. There was already significant anticipatory anxiety in our culture but add the election, climate change and the invisible enemy COVID to that list, and we’ve got a lot to manage. “We experience a fear of the invisible: COVID-19 can be anywhere, and our primary safe sense vision, eye sight, is absolutely useless” says Christophe Sauerwein MSc, MBA. “We cannot see our enemy, and more over, it can be carried by our kin, friend, neighbor. And our innate coping styles need modifying. We survived through social gathering, “strength in numbers.” Now we’re being told to “socially distance.” To not gather. And even though we know it is the right thing to do, it’s hard.
But here’s a kicker, the reality check as it were. As a psychologist I am much more concerned by the people in denial than the people actually experiencing the stress that we’re truly in. Having the resilience to face reality is much more valuable in mental health terms than denying it. Because denial is not healthy. We all deny a little and that’s OK, we need to reframe and to look on the bright side of things, but denial can become pathological when it means we cannot make the kinds of choices that will actually allow us to maintain our psychological and emotional well being.
Research on resilience finds that those who thrive in situations that might defeat others, have somehow figured out how to mobilize their supports and make use of them. They have a sense of reality and acceptance about their circumstances but they are proactive in taking steps to make things better. We can see some of the social movements of late, like Black Lives Matter or the massive voting turn out, as proactive attempts to make things better, to counter feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and take positive actions on one’s own and others’ behalf. “Resilience depends on supportive, responsive relation-ships and mastering a set of capabilities that can help us respond and adapt to adversity in healthy ways,” says Jack Shonkoff, MD, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard. “It’s those capacities and relationships that can turn toxic stress into tolerable stress.”
Here are some of the basic factors that appear over and over again as common threads when it comes to understanding what goes into creating resilience. Resilient people tend to have:
✦ The availability of of stable, nourishing relationships
✦ A sense of mastery over life circumstances
✦ Strong executive function and self-regulation skills
✦ The supportive context of affirming faith or cultural traditions (Walsh, 2015)
Wong and Wong, two researchers on resilience propose that certain qualities of behavioral resilience can only be developed from actual experience of having overcome adversities (Wong and Wong, 2012). These researchers identified at least three typical patterns that resilient people appear to display that I think are useful to know. They see these qualities as being developed through facing and meeting life’s challenges; they are dynamic, relational, constantly evolving qualities rather than qualities residing only within the individual.
1. Recovery: bouncing back and returning to normal functioning.
2. Invulnerability: remaining relatively unscathed by the adversity or trauma in their lives in terms of their ability to function well.
3. Post-traumatic growth: bouncing back and becoming stronger, learning and growing through adversity. (Wong & Wong, 2012).
In other research on children from families affected by violence, poverty, substance abuse, racism, or family disruption, Sybil and Steven Wolin found that one of the qualities that resilient people often possessed was “survivor’s pride” or a feeling of having met their challenges and prevailed. Sybil and Steven Wolin (1994) identified seven qualities that resilient people affected by addiction and adverse childhood experiences possessed that helped them to thrive where others did not.
✦ Insight. This is the ability to see people and situations in some degree of depth. They are able to see into a situation, they are perceptive and can benefit from their discerning awareness.
✦ Independence. Resilient kids and adults, Wolin and Wolin found, had a natural or perhaps a developed independence; they could think for themselves, act autonomously, and also create space between themselves and their troubles or difficult situations or families.
✦ Relationships. Resilient people were able to have and enjoy relationships and to feel sustained, supported, and nourished by them. They could give as well as accept caring from others.
✦ Initiative. This refers to the ability to take initiative on one’s own or another’s behalf, to take action to make a situation better, and to hang in there and show perseverance and doggedness.
✦ Creativity. Resilient kids and adults can come up with creative solutions to complex problems; they can think outside of the box. They often have their own creative sides and can take pleasure and pride from their own creative endeavors or appreciate and enjoy those of others.
✦ Humor. Resilient people keep their sense of humor; they are able to turn a tough situation on its head and have a laugh at it.
✦ Morality. Resilient people tend to have a moral code that they live by, one from which they can draw strength and a sense of direction. It can relate to spirituality, to nature, to the universe, or to living a good and decent life for one’s self and others. Dayton (2019)
So we have choices and exercising those choices is an important part of being a resilient person. Choosing hope and positive action actually overcomes our sense of helplessness and helps us to remain resilient and to even grow through adversity and challenge!.