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Road to Resilience

There is new branch of psychology known generally as "positive psychology". Researchers in positive psychology focus on people who are happy, resourceful, and able to function in difficult circumstances. They look at the characteristics of those who survive and thrive after losses, disappointments and life-changing traumas. Resilience is the quality of being able to accept change and bounce back after adversity.

In the last few years there has been a lot of adversity to research: floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and war, in addition to the usual issues of crime, illness, job loss, relationship failures, etc. The memorials for the World Trade Center bombing victims and relatives were a vivid reminder of how extreme human experience can be. And yet, it was clear in the stories that some of those families have recovered and gone on with school, work, new interests, and a new reverence for life.

So, what does it take to develop resilience? It does help to be born in the right family – the one with good genes, loving relatives, enough money, a peaceful home, and parents with enough common sense not to overprotect you as you are growing up. But even if you weren't, resilience attributes can be practiced and learned. We have all heard stories about the abused children who grow up to be competent, successful and loving adults, and about the injured athletes who come back for successful careers in other fields. Psychologists have identified some ways to practice to increase your resilience.

To build resilience:

  • Make connections with others. One of the most important buffers for stress is good, close, stable relationships. Those include family and friends as well as people from faith organizations, civic groups, work and volunteering. Too many people rely on one confidante, and then are lost when that critical person is not available.

  • Know that change is part of living. If you are too attached to your life as it is now or your things, as they are now, changes will be more difficult.

  • Develop your confidence by solving daily problems and making decisions.

  • Take care of yourself. You know what that means – watch your diet, exercise, relaxation and work routines. Keep your life in balance.

To deal with an upsetting event:

  • Avoid seeing the crisis as insurmountable. "I'll never get over this" may seem true now, but it will impede your progress. Your perspective will change in time.

  • Focus on the present. Think only about what you have to do now, not all the complications, which could come later.

  • Make decisions.

  • Take action. People deal with traumatic events better when they do something, however limited the options may seem.

  • Let yourself grieve. If the event means a big life-change, you will have strong feelings. Allow time for them when you can and be patient with yourself.

  • Think about what has helped you to cope in the past. All of us have overcome obstacles and survived. Remember what is normally soothing to you and do it.

  • Stay flexible. Some decisions will not work out. Be willing to try a different approach.

  • Keep trying. To quote the ancient Chinese text; the I Ching, "Perseverance furthers".

These ideas are adapted from a brochure from the American Psychological Association. There are more ideas on their website at www.APAHElpCenter.org.

Bonnie L. Fraser, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist

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