Kathryn Britton, MAPP ’06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning (Theano Coaching LLC). She teaches positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. She recently published a book,Smarts and Stamina, on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits. Her blog is Positive Psychology Reflections. Full bio. Kathryn’s articles are here.
This Thanksgiving, I’ve had many things to be thankful for, but I’ve also been surrounded by people facing new adversities, such as:
- Getting laid off and looking for work in a shrinking industry. How much will great recommendations help?
- Experiencing high levels of tension at work because customers do not have money to spend in the normally busy December. Will working extra hard be enough to keep jobs from being eliminated or shipped overseas?
- Struggling to find the best way to help a parent following a serious stroke. What’s the best life situation available?
- Adjusting to a major but inexplicable health change that makes what seemed easy yesterday seem very hard today. What new habits and patterns are needed?
What helps in times of adversity?
First, we can build better personal strategies for dealing with moments of panic, self-blame, or anger if we understand the physiology of our responses to threat.
Second, resilence research reminds us not to let our minds be totally filled with thoughts of ameliorating the adversity. We also have ordinary competencies, resources, and protective processes that we can draw on.
The great surprise of resilience research is the ordinariness of the phenomena. Resilience appears to be a common phenomenon that results in most cases from the operation of basic human adaptational systems. If those systems are protected and in good working order, development is robust even in the face of severe adversity… Ann Masten, 2001, p. 227
When in the Throes of Panic or Anger
When you wake up in the middle of the night in a state of panic, there’s little point trying to think your way out of it. Your amygdala has been aroused — the center in your brain that registers fear and anger and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system to prepare to flee or fight. It is very hard to override an aroused amygdala just by thinking.I saw this first hand recently when I was hooked up to the Resilience Builder, a biofeedback sensor and software that measures heart-rate variability which serves as an indicator of sympathetic nervous system arousal (Jencke, 2008). I was trying to talk myself out of the bad feelings that followed a negative event. No matter how many ways I tried to reshape my thinking away from self-blame, I was getting nowhere bringing my heart-rate variability into the resilient range. So I stopped trying to think better thoughts and instead focused on breathing slowly and regularly. Within 5 minutes, my measurements on the machine were back in the range of excellent resiliency. Wayne Jencke uses this mechanism to teach resilience along with the following three steps for dealing with intense negative emotions:
- Calm down your amygdala, for example with deep breathing or meditation.
- Once you are calm, think of something that gives you a positive emotion – about something you are grateful for, about a time you were appreciated, about a very pleasant experience. (Fredrickson, 2009)
- Then try to shift your thinking about the challenge that started the response.
It can be easier to carry out this strategy if you are prepared. People who practice meditation tend to be able to calm down more quickly. Practicing deep breathing when you are not stressed makes it easier to do when you are stressed.
When it comes to having positive emotions, having a prepared set of cues can make it much easier. One friend has a scrapbook of appreciative emails she has received from people she has helped. Another has a collection of poetry that she reads to remind her of all the things she has to be grateful for.
Taking Inventory of Competencies and Assets
A lot of resilence research has focused on understanding why some young people do very well in very difficult circumstances while others with the same or milder adversities do not. At first, the idea was that the resilient youngsters had extraordinary qualities that made them invulnerable to harm.More recent research has indicated that resilience comes out of ordinary adaptive resources and systems. Yates and Masten (2004, p. 525) have a table of assets and protective factors that promote positive development including safe neighborhoods, connections to prosocial organizations such as libraries, close relationships with care-givers, positive sibling relationships, connections to competent and caring adult models, a positive view of self, good problem-solving skills, and appealing personality.
Their view of resilience as ordinary magic has led them to suggest that interventions for increasing resiliency focus not only on ameliorating problems but also on promoting competencies, enhancing assets, and developing protective resources.
So while you think about the adversity, make space in your thoughts for the resources and competencies you have accumulated. You may be taking some of the ones listed above for granted. The questions below may suggest other possibilities. Nobody will have them all. What is your particular collection?
- Have you shown self-regulation in the past by saving money that you can use during lean times?
- Have you built a community of friends and family who are ready to support you?
- Have you helped other people who may be eager to return the favor?
- Have you dealt well with serious adversity in the past? If so, what were the skills and thought patterns that you brought to bear?
- Do you have good problem-solving skills, or perhaps a friend with good problem-solving skills?
- Do you have experience grieving from losses and then being able to let them go?
- Do you have a rich store of positive memories that you can spend time reliving?
Living the StoryRemember the story of Pharoah’s dream about the 7 fat cows followed by the 7 lean cows? Joseph interpreted the dream as 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine. Pharoah appointed Joseph to set aside food during the 7 years of plenty so that the people could survive the seven years of famine.
Adversity is part of the human condition. What competencies have you developed or resources have you acquired in good times to help you face adversity well?
An edited version of this article appears in the book, Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves.
Crocuses in the snow drawn by Kevin Gillespie for the book, Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves
At the feet of the great master courtesy of premasagar
Resilience (Well-used hand) courtesy of 小猫王
The fattest cow in the world courtesy of Muddy Funkster
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Jencke, W. (2008). Balance and health. Positive Psychology News Daily.
Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56, 227-238.
Reivich, K. & Shatte, A. (2003). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Yates, J. & Masten, A. S. (2004). Fostering the future: Resilience theory and the practice of positive psychology. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice, pp. 521-539. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.