By Leticia Quezada, MSW, LCSW
How many times have we asked ourselves how is it that some people go through the worst of experiences in their lives and yet they seem able to rise from the ashes renewed, healthier, and happier?
We know this phenomenon as RESILIENCE.
One person that is really an example of resilience is Steve Pemberton. In his book “A Chance in the World” he talks about his story of incredible pain, acute abuse and neglect, lack of identity having been abandoned as a baby, and ending up in an abusive foster home. He remembered spending long hours looking at himself in the mirror trying to understand who he was and where he came from. Being bi-racial, he studied his facial features, his afro hair, and his intense blue eyes.
With his extraordinary resilience, and the help of some mentors along the way, he was able to achieve his goals: having a successful career, a family of his own, and finally finding his origins by locating family members, both White and African American.
What is resilience?
Resilience has been defined as: “The ability to adapt and thrive despite experiencing adversity. It reflects the ability to ‘bounce back’ after traumatic and victimizing experiences.” (Dr. Donald Meichenbaum, Ph.D., Presentation at the 2017 Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference.)
Dr. Meichenbaum cited some neuro-psychological mechanisms that nurture resilience: reframing, use of humor, realistic optimism, goal-oriented coping, pro-social behaviors, social supports, and meaning making buffers of negative feelings.
Jerry White (2008) lost some of his limbs to landmine explosions and he founded “Survivor’s Corp., an organization designed to foster a mindset of survivorship and prevent what is referred to as “victim mentality.”
Jerry White proposes five steps for trauma survivors to tap in their innate resilience to grow stronger:
- Face the facts: acknowledge and accept what happened
- Choose life: live for the future, not the past
- Reach out: connect with others with similar experiences
- Get moving: set goals and take action
- Give back: Be thankful for what you have and contribute to others. Express both gratitude and generosity
Resilience is not the privilege of a few.
Although some people may have a genetic pre-disposition for resilience, the good news for all of us is that it can be learned by all, it is not the privilege of a few lucky ones. Resilience seems to be a set of skills rather than a disposition or a personality type. If this is the case, that means that it is possible for every person not only to get through hard times, but also to thrive during and after the experience.
Traumatic experience affects the brain in many possible ways, but according to Dr. Meichenbaum “the brain is a remarkable resilient organ.” In his book “Roadmap to Resilience, (2013) he adds that individuals who have experienced trauma can bolster their resilience in six different domains: physical, interpersonal, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and spiritual.
In summary, by no means, it is my intention to minimize or ignore the damaging effects that trauma and abuse cause to our physical and mental health, including real changes in the structure of our brains.
“It is impossible to tell from a single glance, the journeys someone has traveled, the experiences that have made them who they are.” (Steve Pemberton, “A Chance in the World” P. 205)
The good news, though, is that resilience, according to Psychiatrist Dennis Charney, is a set of skills that can be acquired.
Actor Michael J. Fox, who has been battling Parkinson’s Disease for more than 30 years, states the following in his interview by AARP Magazine (December 2021): “As I came through the darkness, I had an insight about being grateful, and how gratitude makes optimism sustainable.” “And, if you think you don’t have anything to be grateful for, keep looking, because you don’t just receive optimism, you have to behave in a way that promotes that.”
The following are suggestions from the experts that would help us bolster resilience:
- Develop a core set of beliefs that nothing can shake.
- Try to find meaning in whatever stressful or traumatic thing has happened.
- Try to maintain a positive outlook.
- Take cues from someone who is especially resilient.
- Don’t run from things that scare you: face them.
- Be quick to reach out for support when things go haywire.
- Learn new things as often as you can.
- Find an exercise regimen you will stick to.
- Don’t beat yourself up or dwell in the past.
- Recognize what makes you uniquely strong and own it.
Above all, be willing to reach out to others for help when needed. We all need professional help and peer support at one time or another. Let’s be willing to take the extra step to come out triumphant from our traumatic experiences.
We are here to assist you.