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Genevieve E. Chandler: On the power of personal resilience

Some of us are born more able to bounce back from a difficult situation. Others, from how we were raised, recognize when bad things happen we need to have compassion for ourselves. There’s the rub. We can be cynical and pessimistic when faced with adversity or compassionate and optimistic. We can chose.

Difficult childhood experiences can diminish resilience. If a person is emotionally or physically abused or neglected, or in a family with substance abuse, incarceration or loss, he or she may store this stress in brain and body. The emotional stress can show up later as physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach distress, anxiety or depression. Some cope with exercise or therapy, or self-medicate by drinking, smoking or using drugs. Over 100 studies show negative coping behaviors can lead to our most prominent public health problems: heart disease, lung disease, obesity, diabetes and depression.

But we can change. We know now that the plasticity of our brain can change to be more resilient. If we build our strengths, recognize our automatic thinking, develop a positive brain, and call in support, our ability to bounce back increases.

• Build your strengths: Strengths means we recognize what we are good at, such as if we like to learn new things, mentor others or compete. Rather than focus on our weakness — what we can’t do, what we don’t know — we can think of these things: “What am I good at?” “When have I felt strong?” “What gives me energy?” Start there.

• Watch your thinking: Monitor our “automatic” thinking. If our project gets put on hold or we fail a quiz, we think “I’ll fail the exam, I won’t pass the course, I’ll never graduate!” Stop. That automatic thinking too quickly moves to catastrophe. We can recognize that we are going down a rabbit hole and choose not to. We can choose to accept that bad things happen and learn another way of thinking by practicing compassion. You could start with, “OK, I failed the quiz,” then recognize, “maybe I didn’t study enough, or I haven’t learned what to expect from this teacher. I wonder who did well, how can I figure this out?”

Train a calm, reflective brain and then connect to others.

• Train your brain: We know that our old brain is still very primitive, watching for threats at every turn, just as our cavemen ancestors had to. When we consistently prepare for the worst, oxygen and glucose rush to that “on alert” area of our brain making our automatic response to new situations one of fear and anxiety.

Even when we can relax we may automatically go to the well-developed stress brain and then wonder why we can’t sit still or get a good night’s sleep. We need to help our brain practice seeing the good so we can nourish the calm, peaceful areas. Simple moments can retrain our brain, such as watching the first snowfall, noticing a red leaf on the deck or hearing our child smile over the phone. Stay with that. Let the brain have a peaceful moment and notice the body relax. Try this today.

• Call for support: When we are stressed we tend to isolate ourselves, not wanting to let anyone know we feel like a failure. It is better to connect. Connect to a friend, a pet or a higher being. That’s why “Survivor” shows call it a lifeline. Reaching out during a difficult time can bring support, understanding and resources. Most often both benefit, the friend you called feels needed or the dog gets a pet and they feel good too. Connect, don’t isolate.

Different thoughts, behaviors and connections can promote our resilience. The ability to bounce back can promote the community’s resilience, which, in turn, creates a more resilient world.

The world will respond when we bounce back because it needs us, it wants us to come back stronger, more aware, more connected, more ourselves. Our planet could use some resilience about now, don’t you think?

Genevieve E. Chandler, Ph.D., R.N., is an associate professor of nursing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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