by Dr. Suzana E. Flores
One of my clients shared a story where she was driving home from a birthday party with her son. It was raining and dark outside so she was especially alert of the road ahead of her. She reached over to turn on the radio, when all of a sudden a severed head landed on her windshield. She and her son screamed “their heads off” so to speak, while she swerved all over the road before running into a light pole. Luckily, they were not seriously physically harmed. She later discovered that a motorcyclist was driving well over the speed limit on the overpass, hit the concrete guardrail, causing his body to propel several feet forward and head to sever. This unfortunate motorcyclist’s head just happened to land on my client's windshield.
Within two weeks following this event, my client experienced a miscarriage, her eldest brother died, and her sister was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. My client initially presented with symptoms commonly associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Hypervigilance, reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks), panic attacks, anxiety, feeling emotionally numb, and trouble sleeping. She also experienced severe depression.
Despite her symptoms, she insisted on getting back to work as soon as possible and made her best efforts to focus all her energy on her son. When we discussed her amazing resiliency, she said that she was always able to “get through really bad stuff” fairly quickly and move on.
What is resiliency and why do some people seem to bounce back from traumas with relative ease – even thriving after negative events while others have a significantly harder time overcoming traumatic events?
Resiliency is the ability to overcome challenges of all kinds – trauma, tragedy, personal crises, and bounce back stronger, wiser, and more personally powerful. According to research, resilient people tend to have some common traits: they can adapt to new situations quickly and do well with constant change. They are also able to reframe negative experiences to positive ones. For example, they believe that “everything happens for a reason” or simply assume that they can handle most challenges and setbacks – no matter how severe. They are good at asking for support and focusing on helping others. As a result, they tend to recover faster.
1. Develop positive connections.
We are social beings. When we surround ourselves with positive and supportive people, and can participate meaningfully with our family, friends, and the community we live in. Realize that your friends have skills and advice to offer. Non-resilient people have trouble asking for help and often feel they are being a “burden” to others if they ask for assistance. Positive and healthy connections provide meaning and value in our lives. Learn how to ask for and receive such nurturance and support.
We cannot laugh over every situation, but during the times when we are able to laugh in the face of adversity, we can develop a sense of control over our emotions. Go out with friends who can distract you from your worries. Playful humor, joy and laughter lead to reductions in stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine. When we laugh the brain also releases endorphins that can relieve some physical pain. Laughing in the face of adversity can be profoundly pain relieving, for both the body and mind.
Many people experiencing depression often become socially isolative. They think, “When I feel better, I’ll go out with friends, but I don’t feel like it right now.” People assume that their regular activities will resume when their mood improves; however, the truth is, the reverse is often true: Forcing yourself out of bed, leaving the house and re-engaging socially (even when you don’t feel like it) will help you to create an emotional shift. Because individuals with anxiety or depression often lack the energy or motivation to socialize, they often need encouragement and support from friends to get moving again, but the sooner they re-engage with the world, the better.
4. Take care of you.
Making efforts to maintain good health: eating regularly, maintaining a regular exercise routine, and getting eight hours of sleep every night are fundamental to both mental and emotional resilience. Maintaining healthy daily habits keeps stress levels low and will help you feel less vulnerable and less likely to fall into deeper emotional pitfalls after a traumatic event or serious setback. When feeling overwhelmed, try to take regular mental breaks, even for 5 minutes. Take a few deep breaths, meditate, or go for a walk. Relaxation also helps control stress chemicals, reducing the likelihood of becoming even more overwhelmed.
5. See each experience as an opportunity to learn.
The more you can change your perspective on challenges, the more you will be able to accept them as opportunities to grow and evolve. Look at a stressful event and think, “What is this trying to teach me?” Every challenge is an opportunity to learn to problem-solve and build confidence. Instead of focusing all your energy on running from the pain, spend some time examining why or how this experience might help you evolve. Ask yourself what about the situation can you control versus those you cannot, and focus on the steps you can make to problem-solve on areas that are within your control.
When going through a difficult situation, remind yourself who you are and what you stand for. Do not settle for less than you deserve, ask for what you want, behave in a manner that matches your personal values, and speak your truth – even when doing so creates tension or conflict. Integrity is the courage to make tough decisions regardless of the consequences and the inconvenience. When you can face your fears, with the knowledge that you are doing what has to be done, you can overcome adversity knowing that you did so with courage and grace.
Dr. Suzana E. Flores is the resident clinical psychologist to Prose & Cons and author of Facehooked: How Facebook Affects our Emotions, Relationships, and Lives due out October 1, 2014 through Reputation Books.
Dr. Flores frequently presents at universities and organizations, and was recently quoted in Esquire.com, Mashable.com, Everyday Health Magazine, Dame Magazine, The Nation, SheKnows.com, New Parent Magazine, Newlyweds, Upwayve.com and Moms.me.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her literary agent, Liz Kracht at email@example.com.