Guest column by Genevieve E. Chandler: Resilience needed to work ordinary magic

  • A bee collects nectar from dandelions growing at the Greenfield Community College campus on Tuesday. PAUL FRANZ

Published: 4/6/2020 4:00:17 PM

Ordinary magic is what Ann Mastin called the ability to bounce back from stress. We all have the ability to be resilient.

Like the tiniest baby who learns how to suck on her own finger to wait for the next feeding but, here’s the kick, she can’t wait too long, she needs support from someone else, just like we all do. That doesn’t change as we age. Outside support is key to bolstering our inside abilities.

In the first studies of resilience, it was thought that if you could problem solve, look at the bright side or McGiver your way out of a tough situation, you were resilient. Next, however, we learned that, our inside abilities need outside support to blossom, grow and thrive.

Some of us come into the world as orchids and we do need more attention and TLC. The rest of us come as dandelions and we are going to fight to pop up regardless of where we’ve been planted. Orchid or dandelion, we still need support from outside ourselves, from our family, our friends, our job.

To boost your resilience, start with the ABCS: Active coping, Build strength, Cognitive awareness and Social support.

When stressed, think “Am I Actively coping?:” What do I need to do to cope with this stress? Go for a walk to ease this tense energy? Or sit quietly and listen to my breath so I can calm down and think clearly? Maybe write down all these swirling thoughts so they come out of my head down my arm and onto the page so now I can look at the problem outside of myself?

Build Strength: Our whole culture is focused on what we don’t do well and how can we improve. That stress side of our brain gets lots of oxygen and glucose, it’s the calm side of the brain that we need to grow. Start with strength, just write down what you do well. Like garden, mentor, compete.

I have my students take the Strenghtquest, a 20-minute, forced-choice survey with questions like, “Would I rather throw a ball or have coffee with a friend?” Questions about your preferences. Then they have their five strengths and an action plan. In our resilience course we create a plan to put our strengths to use. Just as we would build any other muscle, we practice using these strengths to become stronger.

Cognitive awareness means watching your thinking. Recognize when you catastrophize. We all do it. If you are a student and fail a quiz, immediately you think you’ll fail the exam, you’ll fail the course, you’ll get kicked out of school and have to go home to live in your bedroom for the rest of your life.

That’s catastrophizing in 30 seconds. Notice that and stop. Step back, Take a deep breath. Observe what you are thinking, practice what works. A wide receiver said, “Every time I missed a pass I got so mad I missed the next one. Now I don’t do that, I say OK, let that go, I’ll try again.” Of course, he was 20, so that was easier, but we can all stop and think more rationally. Maybe call a friend.

Social support: In survivor shows reaching out to a friend is described as using a life line. Friends are life lines. First we usually get down on ourselves, then isolate, maybe self-medicate. We could just call a friend. The research tells us connections are key to health. This is where outside resources are critical.

Whether it’s a person, a pet or a responsive organization, we all need those outside resources. It doesn’t mean you are any less independent or your autonomy is threatened, it means you know when you need to ask for help.

That’s just the way we are built. We need people and communities that support us, like a ride to the treatment center or grocery delivery. Reaching out takes courage. Connections promote resilience.

Heck, I needed the ABCS to just go to the grocery store. When I got back to my car the other day I was so tense I thought, “Did I contaminate myself, will I contaminate my family?” So when I got home I went for a fast walk. Then a strength I have is a relator, “I’ll text my son, he’ll make me laugh.” I recognized a touch of catastrophizing so I called in my social support and told my husband about the experience. Still, it took me hours to calm down. This is absolutely a time we need our resilience, we need to work our ordinary magic.

Genevieve E. Chandler is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst College on Nursing.

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