Resilience? You can build it.

It’s funny what can put you over the edge. I had been managing to stay pretty upbeat during the first two weeks plus of “pandemic normal.” All through my son’s layoff, my work cancellations, my husband’s working at home and my newly terrifying trips to the grocery store. But the last straw for me was when on Tuesday, as president of my condo board, I had to shut down our roof deck. It was the one place where people here could go to be alone or to work, or to let their toddler run around for a few minutes. Stricter stay-at-home guidelines took that last little escape away from us. Tuesday was also the day that it became clear that these orders will probably have to remain in place not until the end of April, but more likely at least the end of May. I felt sad, depressed and trapped.

Today, I read about polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found high numbers of people suffering mentally and emotionally from the pandemic. Forty-five percent said it had affected their mental health, with 19% saying it had a “major impact.” Nobody knows yet how this experience, which is essentially a mass trauma, will affect us long term. Many, if not most, people have the coping resources to bounce back, but as always, some are more resilient than others. And even highly resilient people are finding themselves challenged right now.Labyrinth-with-Pilgrim

What does resilience look like anyway? Here are some of the characteristics of resilient people:

Commitment – a resilient person has a sense of meaning & purpose; and believes in their own value.

Challenge – a resilient person sees change as opportunity and looks for creative ways to manage it.

Control – a resilient person tries to impact the things they have control over, and lets go of the things they don’t.

You can build your resilience by:

  • Developing & strengthening supportive relationships – it’s more important than ever to bolster the bonds you have with family, neighbors and co-workers in order to build a mutual support network. Keep reaching out.
  • Making & carrying out realistic plans – even it’s just a daily to-do list, rather than a long-term plan, it’s important to have a structure and to get a sense of accomplishment from each day.
  • Believing in yourself — Keep saying, “I can do this.” Think back to other hard times when you survived and thrived.
  • Enhancing your communication skills — take the time to think about what you write in emails and texts so that your true meaning gets conveyed; check in with people more often by phone; work on ways to convey meaning without the benefit of body language; use humor.
  • Learning how to manage strong feelings — take the time everyday to sit quietly for a few minutes and notice what arises. Name your feelings, think about where they’re coming from, maybe write them down. Tell yourself that it’s okay to feel the way you do.

In case you haven’t been with me for long, you might also want to read some of my older posts about resilience — one in 2014 about bouncing back, and another after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

We’re going through one of the biggest challenges most of us will ever have to face, but I I have to believe we can get through it. I wish you and your loved ones continued good health. Be safe, stay strong.





Self-care for the full catastrophe

What if a person is really clear about what his purpose is, and what his values are, but is blocked from putting them into action? What if unremitting stress is the result of that conflict and loss of control? What can be done?

Those were questions I was faced with yesterday while giving a presentation on stress management at a government agency in Washington. Over the past 16 months, the career employees who work there have had their life’s work come under fire, putting everything they value under assault. It’s practically impossible to do their jobs as they believe they should be done. How do they deal with that frustration day after day? For some, the answer is to walk away, take retirement if they can. For others, the choice is to remain on the job, struggling to promote the work they believe in.

Selfishly, I want these good and dedicated people to stay in their jobs, fighting the good fight for the rest of us. But with what we know about the long-term consequences of chronic stress — higher risk of heart disease, mood disorders, and musculo-skeletal problems; weakened immune systems, premature aging and more — what will the personal cost be for them?

If ever there was a stressor that’s not going away, or not anytime soon, this is it. As I continued my discussion with these employees, I realized that they would need every tool in the stress management arsenal to keep themselves emotionally and physically healthy for the time ahead. The problem was too big for any one of the strategies I had to offer them. And yes, the word “arsenal” seems highly appropriate when talking about this kind of assault on values.

MC900383136So my overall message was that if they want to be around in 4 years or 8 years to start doing good again, they need to practice self-care right now. Here are some of the things we talked about:

  • Support groups — In any kind of stress, social support provides both a buffer and a direct antidote to its negative effects. Studies show, for instance, that mothers of children with disabilities who participate in support groups have fewer cellular signs of premature aging than similar mothers who don’t. We need both the emotional support and the informational support that can come from a group, along with the ability to laugh and cry with people who know exactly what we are dealing with.
  • Becoming more resilient — People who can adapt well to changing circumstances do better in the long run. Certain people are born with this ability and others have to practice it. Some ways to do that are by having good relationships with others, being able to make and carry out plans, having a positive self-view (i.e. monitoring negative self-talk) and developing good communication skills.
  • Gratitude practice — Focus on what’s going right instead of what’s going wrong. I was delighted when one of the group brought up the movie “Pollyanna,” a favorite of my kids when they were young. Pollyanna changed the people around her by always finding something to be glad about, even in the face of adversity.
  • Everyday mindfulness — Slowing down and focusing on just one thing at a time can help with some of the physical effects of stress and bring down heart rate and blood pressure. Listening more to others, giving them the full benefit of your attention, brings benefits such as increases in understanding, empathy and intimacy. And setting aside device-free times and places helps us disconnect from the grind of work and news, allowing space for silence or connection to others.
  • Relaxation breaks — Even 5 minutes of attention to the breath is a respite from the stress of the work day, and brings many more minutes of benefit. True relaxation only requires 4 elements – a quiet environment, a mental focal point, a comfortable seat and setting aside judgment.
  • Joy, fun and play — We forget how good it feels to laugh and play. It’s so important to build something into each day that gives you joy, if even for a few moments. Dancing, shooting hoops, jumping on a trampoline, playing a board game with your kids –carve out some time to do something for no other reason than that it’s fun. Lifestyles

In the introduction to his book, “Full Catastrophe Living,” Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that his title came from the movie, “Zorba the Greek.” Zorba describes his married life as “Wife, house, kids….the full catastrophe!” But as Kabat-Zinn points out, Zorba’s way is to:

“dance in the gale of the full catastrophe, to celebrate life, to laugh with it and at himself, even in the face of personal failure and defeat.”

For those who are living the “full catastrophe,” perhaps my best advice is to follow Zorba’s example, riding the waves and celebrating what you can each day.




Do you believe in miracles?

“We need to recognize that there is no age at which we lose our ability to be miracle workers,” writes  Darren Main in “Spiritual Journeys Along the Yellow Brick Road.”  Leave your comfort zone, he says, take risks and rediscover a sense of creativity and exploration – because in doing so, you can accomplish great things.

IMG_0086Are you feeling like it might take a miracle to get through the next four years? Do you doubt how much control you have over what happens to you? If so, it might be a good time to take stock of your physical, emotional and psychological “bank account”. What resources do you have and how can you best put them to use?

It is widely recognized that resilient people are more able to recover quickly from stressful events, and to utilize a variety of coping skills and strengths in doing so. Resilient people have generally built up these resources ahead of time (i.e. the bank account) by engaging in practices that enhance their physical and psychological well-being.  So when tough times hit, they have a more positive view of themselves, can make plans, and are clear-eyed about what’s needed. Most importantly, resilient people tend to have what’s called an internal locus of control.

Locus of control is a term that refers to the degree to which individuals believe that they can control the events that affect them. Are outcomes based on your ability and effort, or are they the result of outside forces and luck? If you believe that you can control yourself and influence the world around you, you are said to have an internal locus of control. If, on the other hand, you think that everything is decided outside of your control, and many events are just fated to happen, you probably have an external locus of control. While most people don’t fall at one extreme or another, we do have tendencies in one direction.

People who have a high internal locus of control tend to be happier, less depressed, and to suffer less stress. People who have a higher external locus of control often don’t seek solutions for problems because they don’t believe they can effect any change. It is possible to develop a more internal locus of control, however, by monitoring your self-talk. Check to see if you are speaking in absolutes (never, always, must, have to), and try substituting other words. Instead of saying, “I can’t”, say “I won’t” or “I choose not to”. The important thing is to remind yourself that you do have choices.

The more you can leave your comfort zone and have some success making small changes, the more you will believe in your capabilities, and the greater sense of agency you will have. Or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, “Your confidence in your ability to grow influences your ability to grow.”

This is more important than ever for people who are unhappy about the direction of the new U.S. administration. During a recent talk at American University, DeRay Mckesson of the Black Lives Matter movement said that progressive activists need to do more than just oppose everything for the next four years. They need to be creative, ambitious, and to “fight for real things, too, in this moment.  I worry sometimes because I’ve seen people get so defeated that they forget to dream about what the world can be.”

Miracle workers are the resilient, dedicated people who leave their comfort zones every day to dream and enact what the world can be. They are the teachers who show their students how to be critical thinkers. They are the people I volunteer with, who provide food, clothing and opportunity (with dignity) to those who need a helping hand. They are the lawyers who went to airports to represent immigrants. They are the women who are deciding to run for office in their local communities.

Amelia Earhart once said that, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” We can all be miracle workers if we set aside fear, make the decision to act, and fight for real, positive change.





Dealing with obstacles? Think like Pac-Man

The life we hope for is one of smooth sailing, the wind at our backs, and nothing but blue skies ahead. It’s a life where we make plans and carry them out, where we’re successful and satisfied and loved. Unfortunately, things don’t usually work out so perfectly. I’ve heard that President Obama’s mantra as a community organizer was, “Dream of the world as you wish it to be, but deal with the world as it is.” For most of us, the world as it is includes obstacles.

In some ways, modern life sets up to be surprised by obstacles. After all, we have an app for everything. We hear how easy things are if we just use this or buy that. So when we do hit a roadblock, often the first reaction is, “This shouldn’t be happening to me.” Today, for instance, I went running in the park after a bad storm. Some parts of the path were relatively dry and clear; but many areas were engulfed by puddles or covered in mud. I had to decide: which obstacles do I detour around, which do I leap over, and where do I plow right through? Just as the run today required some physical agility, dealing with life’s tougher obstacles often demands mental and emotional agility.

I’m reminded of the old Pac-Man video game where most of the time Pac-Man is outrunning his enemies, but sometimes he has the power to eat them. In life, we obviously try to avoid most obstacles, but sometimes confronting them gets us where we’re going faster. The question is what power pellets do we have that will enable us to confront the obstacles head-on? pacman_wallpaper_by_meskarune-d4a8m3k

Our strongest “power pellets” are past experience and social support. This means that when we encounter an obstacle on the path ahead, we first ask, “How have I dealt with this before?” And then, “Who can help me deal with this?” Change and blockages are inevitable, but it helps if you’ve been there before, or you know that someone can offer you advice or comfort.

The ability to adapt in the face of adversity is the hallmark of a resilient person, and keeping a positive view of your abilities is another power pellet for building resilience. Going through times of trouble can often be an opportunity for self-discovery and growth, and a time to gain a different perspective on smaller problems. It helps you realize that not every mud puddle is a crisis.

Nurturing a positive self-view is also enhanced if you continue to move toward your goals in spite of the obstacles. The other night I went to an event that featured gospel singer Bebe Winans talking about the new musical of his life story. He discussed and sang the title song, “Born For This.” The song grew out of an experience of being rejected, yet realizing that his goal was still valid and his purpose was clear. Knowing that your life has meaning, and keeping your eye on your purpose, is what gets you over the rough, messy patches on life’s path.

So while I wish you a journey free of obstacles, I also offer you this the next time you find yourself stuck in the mud: Don’t resist, don’t personalize. Deal with the world as it is, by asking “What can I learn? What power do I have? How can I creatively respond to this problem?”

How high do you bounce when you hit bottom?

Humans may be unique among species in our potential to be resilient in the face of change. Biological imperative drives most species to persevere in a programmed way even when circumstances become dire. The sea turtle returns to the same beach no matter how much development or predation occurs there. The monarch butterfly’s route to a certain Mexican forest is encoded in its DNA and it flies as if on auto-pilot. The salmon will swim upriver to spawn even when a dam is in its way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPerseverance is necessary for our success too, and sometimes it’s enough. But today, more than ever before, the world is changing at a breathtaking pace and we need something more than drive and diligence. We need resilience.

Resilience is the ability to adapt to change, to bounce back from losses and hardship, to thrive anew after experiencing adversity. Our resilience benefits us in small ways every day, but especially when life throws a big curveball our way. Think job loss, natural disaster or personal tragedy.

Resilience is about having inner strength, but it’s not about being a Lone Ranger kind of tough guy. In fact, one of the hallmarks of a resilient person is being socially connected: having supportive relationships, working collaboratively with others, and asking for help when necessary.

Our ability to be resilient isn’t fixed — it’s not even something we’re really born with. According to This Emotional Life, resilience develops as people grow up. We gradually gain more knowledge and experience, and that enhances the belief that we can cope with new situations. Ideally, we also learn self-management skills such as how to express emotions. And if we enjoy supportive relationships with our family and community, they help us gain trust and optimism.

Of course we’re all born with different kinds of temperaments, and most of us don’t grow up in that kind of ideal environment. So it comes as no surprise that many of us aren’t all that resilient. We become rigid in our beliefs, resistant to change, and unwilling to look for silver linings. We dig in our heels, deny that change is necessary and hold on to the status quo as long as possible.Detour

See, decide, believe. That’s how someone who resists change can change himself. Like any behavior change, first it’s necessary to see that you might not be so resilient, then decide you want to change. After that, start telling yourself that you are resilient. Believing it helps make it so, because brain research suggests that resilience depends on communication between the logical, prefrontal cortex part of the brain, and the limbic system, which is the seat of emotions. So what we say, what we think, the story we tell about ourselves, helps make the reality.

Other tips for building resilience come from the Mayo Clinic and the Centre for Confidence:

  • Try to see change as a meaningful challenge, and make each day have purpose
  • Learn from experience, and use it to build problem-solving strategies
  • Nurture connections with others; try to resolve any persistent conflicts with family or co-workers
  • Stay positive and hopeful
  • Know that you cannot control all events, but you can control your reaction to events
  • Take care of yourself – being physically, mentally and spiritually well prepares you to adapt to change.

Nothing lasts forever, change is a given and there are no guarantees. The headline of a piece in the Harvard Business Review said it best: “Surprises are the new normal; resilience is the new skill.” Be ready.

Keep hope alive

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” So said Benjamin Franklin over 200 years ago, and yet it has taken a very long time for schools to consider student engagement in a serious way.

The school system in my community has just announced that they will partner with the Gallup polling organization to measure hope, engagement and well-being in its students. They are the biggest of many school systems that are measuring well-being and putting social/emotional learning into practice. Taking a more holistic approach to student achievement isn’t just some feel good strategy. Social and emotional wellness has been found to be directly linked to student achievement and long-term success in life. The ability of a student to set goals and work toward them requires that he or she have a sense of hope – the belief that the work will lead to something good – and a feeling of being engaged in the process.

While there seems to be some hesitation on the part of some local politicians to fully embrace the idea – they don’t want to seem “silly” – the science backs it up. A 2011 study showed that students demonstrate academic gains when social emotional learning (SEL) is emphasized in school; and Daniel Goleman cites neuroscience research on how the emotional center of the brain is linked to the areas of the brain involved in cognition and learning.IMG

How do schools nurture hope and increase engagement and well-being? Developing self-awareness, self-management and interpersonal skills usually figure prominently in SEL goals. Achieving them entails nothing less than changing the climate of the school. SEL activities might include role-playing stressful situations such as bullying, working on anger management and teaching children the language of expressing emotions.

The president of Emotionally Intelligent Schools, Marc Bracket, uses an acronym to describe social/emotional learning: RULER. It stands for “recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating” emotion. Having the words to describe feelings, and being encouraged to express them, is a necessary step to being able to manage emotions better, and the teacher’s role is key in that process. As Daniel Goleman has said, “Teachers need to be comfortable talking about feelings.”

One of the measures on the Gallup survey being used in my district is “There is an adult in my life who cares about my future.” Whether that adult is a parent, a teacher or another mentor, the presence of someone who exhibits concern and empathy for a child is an important backstop for them, and makes it more likely that they will ask for help when they need it.  When I think back on my school years, I remember the teachers who truly cared for me as bright spots in a not-always-happy environment. Those were the teachers I really wanted to please, and I like to believe that I learned more from them than from the teachers who did not inspire me to commit to myself.hope

Holding a positive view of oneself, having a hopeful outlook and being goal-directed are all qualities that relate to resilience – the ability to adapt and bounce back from stress and adversity. Resilience doesn’t mean that you don’t have problems, but it makes you more able to see beyond them – to be happy in spite of them and to take steps to improve your situation

The American Psychological Association says that it’s not success that makes people happy; rather, it is happy people who “work toward goals, find resources they need and attract others with their energy and optimism” who become successful.

Half full or half empty

Perspective. It’s what makes the difference between coping well with misfortune, or falling apart. It determines whether we’re happy with what we have, or always wanting something more. It can turn an event into a huge stressor or a minor bump in the road.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, perspective is everything.

The hurricane barely affected me – a cancelled flight and a messy yard. But the devastation and loss elsewhere is on a scale that is almost overwhelming. Yet, even some of the hardest hit people are able to put their situations in perspective, like the man I saw quoted in the newspaper who had no power and was waiting in a gas line, but was grateful that he didn’t lose anything more; or the people who lost their homes and all their possessions, but were happy they didn’t lose their lives or their families.

It’s the meaning we give to events that makes them more or less stressful to us. Our ability to reframe a situation, to view it more positively, is affected by our personality type, by overall wellness, and often, by something called “hardiness”.

The term hardiness, and the idea of a “hardy” personality, came out of research done back in the 1980s with the breakup of the Bell Telephone companies. Dr. Salvatore Maddi did a long-term study of telephone company employees to find out how they dealt with the stress of job loss or change. What he found was that hardiness was a determinant of how resilient people were in the face of stress, whether they were able not just to survive, but to thrive.

The people he designated as “hardy” had three important beliefs that helped them during adversity: an attitude of commitment that drove them to be involved in events rather than isolated; an attitude of control, which helped them work to influence the outcome of events, instead of passively accepting them; and an attitude of challenge which motivated them to look at the unexpected changes as an opportunity to learn.

So when we see neighbors helping each other after the storm, we are witnessing a form of commitment. When we see people taking out their own chain saws and cutting up downed trees, opening up fire hydrants for water, or walking miles to work, we see them taking control of the outcome. And when we see people hoisting water up to an 8th story window by ropes, cooking dinner on their outdoor grills, or huddling around a satellite TV truck to pick up a WiFi signal, we see that they are accepting the challenge of the situation and learning new ways to get the things they need.

We can’t forget, however, that some of the hardest-hit people did not come into this situation with a great deal of resilience or wellness. They were barely surviving as it was, because of economic uncertainty, poor health, or both. For them, and for people who suffered the most devastating losses, their emotional and physical reserves will be exhausted quickly. I’m gratified by how quickly power is being restored in some areas, but there are other places, and many people, who will need our help for a very long time.

The American Psychological Association has some guidelines on their web site for dealing with traumatic stress, such as after a disaster. Many of them come from the research on hardiness and resilience. The American Red Cross, in addition to providing for physical needs, also provides emotional assistance to people affected by the disaster. Please consider making a donation to them.

Well, we all need someone we can lean on, And if you want it, well, you can lean on me.”   (Keith Richards, Let It Bleed)

Transition Time

I’m getting ready to leave on a trip out of the country, and I find myself looking forward to the airplane flight. Is it perverse to look forward to 8 hours stuck on a plane, with uncomfortable seats, so-so food and potentially irritating fellow passengers? Maybe, but the reason I’m anticipating it is because of the time it will give me to shift my perspective from the hustle and bustle of home/work/pre-trip preparation to the rhythm of days spent seeing new things and mastering unfamiliar cities.

Skipping transition time can make it more difficult to change tasks. From the toddler who has a tantrum when a play date abruptly ends, to the adult who has to go from meeting to meeting all day, everyone needs space to process change. When we don’t leave enough time before and after each activity, stress is often the result, either because we can’t stick to our hectic schedules, or because we just don’t have time to think.

When we experience stress in the emotional center of the brain, other executive functions of the brain are affected almost immediately. It’s harder to focus, we have trouble making decisions, and our ability to engage in abstract thinking is compromised. Some people can recover more quickly if they are psychologically resilient, but that usually is a result of a temperament you’re born with, or practicing stress management.

That brings me back to transition time as part of a stress management plan. It provides a psychological break between one thing and another that can allow us to process what just happened and to organize our thinking for what’s about to happen. It can also nurture our creativity. The Japanese chef and restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa travels all over the world regularly. He said in a recent interview that, “I actually prefer a longer flight to a short one. That way I have time to read a book, watch movies, and think about new dishes.” If he didn’t have that time to just relax and think, would his restaurants be as successful as they are?

In this era of 24/7 availability, it is also welcome to have time on planes to be quiet. Although the advent of WiFi on planes has made it easier (and perhaps expected) that people will work during a flight, at least there are still no ringing and buzzing cell phones. We can all have a short break from immediate access.

My time during the flight will be spent with a book, maybe a game of Sudoku, and I hope, some sleep. I will enjoy hearing the accents of the Scandinavian flight attendants, adjusting my ear to the voices I will hear when I arrive. I’ll have time to breathe, to re-set my brain, and get ready to discover what the days ahead hold for me.