Trauma therapist, Lisa Young, teaches you the truth about resilience from working with emergency responders who have been through it all.
People love stories of resilience.
It made national news when employees at a Mexican bakery in Houston were trapped at work for two days during Hurricane Harvey and decided to spend their time baking nonstop, staying open late and providing bread for the community that could no longer access a grocery store.
During the Montecito Mudslides, a man who had climbed to his roof to wait out the landslide heard a faint cry and was able to direct emergency personnel to rescue a baby girl trapped in the mud and debris.
Then there were the neighbors who formed a human chain after Hurricane Harvey to move a woman in labor out of the flood zone to get proper medical care for her delivery.
We love hearing these stories. We yearn for these stories.
Stories of strangers finding connection. Stories of overcoming fear. Stories of unlikely heroes beating overwhelming odds to save those they love. Stories of connecting to humanity. Stories of resilience in the face of adversity.
We listen for these stories because we hope we can have that strength, that perspective, that ability to overcome our own challenges. Dr. Scott T Allison Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Richmond, says hero stories simultaneously comfort us and elevate us to our own heroism. When we see average people displaying extraordinary resilience, we think we can become that resilient, too.
Guess what? We can be.
What Resilience Really Is (Most People Get This Wrong)
Here’s a secret about resilience. Resilience is not a character trait (or even an adjective).
Resilience is the capacity to recover from or adjust quickly to
difficulties. First responders understand this well. Our survival instincts are just that – innate instincts. Resilience involves thoughts, behaviors and actions that can be developed in each of us. Resilience is learning to maintain perspective, manage strong thoughts and emotions while accepting what is difficult and taking direct actions towards a goal. Resilience is quite ordinary, actually, though we see others’ resilience as heroic.
So, here’s the secret: Resilience is not the absence of fear, pain or distress. Each story above is about individuals caught in terrifying circumstances and highlights their continued ability to move and respond. Take the bakery employees in Houston for example. They were trapped and then adjusted by focusing on what they could do, and in that, stay connected to their community.
How Resilience Works In Real Time
Resilience in action means staying flexible and clear in your thoughts, behaviors and actions. Remember, resilience is not an inflated sense of confidence or avoiding what scares us most. Resilience means taking stock of what is in front of us, seeing a situation clearly without deleting or inflating the hard stuff, then managing strong emotions and taking action.
Imagine yourself standing in the doorway between two rooms. In one room are your fear and survival instincts. In the second room are your abilities, strength and courage. With your feet firmly planted on the threshold, you listen to your fears and concerns calling from one side while you hear calming words of strength, clarity and encouragement from the other. Both rooms are vying for your attention. Both messages are valid and important
Resilience is the movement of attention back and forth between these rooms, like the inhale and exhale of your breath. On one side you can acknowledge your internal alarm system, broadcasting fear and concern to alert you to potential danger. You take in the intensity of the experience. On the other side you have a sense of support and confidence, the ability to move forward. You focus on what you do have control over and you begin to see opportunities for action. You note the subtle ways that you are okay and/or capable, allowing those ideas to drive your continued movement.
When we are face-to-face with adversity, we can sometimes get stuck in the room dominated by fear. We may feel paralyzed by paying too much attention to the awfulness or to our feelings of powerlessness. Or we may turn quickly to self-criticism (“Why didn’t I...? Should I have...?) Perhaps we get caught feeling shame about the challenges we are facing, a notoriously demotivating emotion. This is where the other room is essential; there are small steps we can take internally that can help us begin to access the realistic, the courageous, and the strength within. Remember, resilience is tending to both sides, allowing us to manage these powerful emotions in order to continue forward.
Preparing for adversity or developing resilience means deliberately paying attention to that which scares us and that which means most to us. Taking the time now, when not under direct threat, allows us to acknowledge the fear and practice ways to keep ourselves from getting stuck. However we choose to do this preparation, (it will be personal to us) is how we build and gain greater access to our own resilience.
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About the author:
Lisa Young is a trauma and first responder therapist and serves on Terra Frma’s advisory board. She is trained in Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing trauma work with additional training in Richard Schwartz's Internal Family Systems model.