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Are You Emotionally Resilient?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

I was quite impressed when neighbors of ours recently described how they dealt with Hurrican Charlie that hit the western coast of Florida a few years ago. It had a devestating impact on that area of the state and was the first hurricane to hit the area in 40 years.

What was impressive about their story was not only how they rode out the storm in their home, which they had shuttered against the, but went out the very next day, volunteered with the Red Cross and began helping far less fortunate people in a town nearby. What impressed me was the fact that they did not panic, did not become hysterical, did not desperately try to flee, prepared as best they could, remained calm, thought through their strategy for the next day and then helped others and resumed their lives.

If you believe this was a small feat, I want to tell you that they were without electricity for two weeks but managed despite the intense heat and humidity and shortage of drinking water. 

We hear of economic recession and even depression. We know people who have lost their houses to foreclosure or are near to that ourselves. We have neighbors who have lost sons and daughters to the in Iraq or we have experienced that loss in a way that is real and personal. We heard of the 9/11 terrorist attack or were in and escaped from the towers of the World Trade Center or we lost loved one’s in that attack. How do we deal with these things? The ability to cope with these and other things is called "emotional resilience."

We hear the term "emotional resilience" but few people really know what it means and, even then, often make errors in their definition. So, what is it, what is it not and what to do to increase yours?

Emotional resilience is really the ability to cope with many aspect of life without becoming overwhelmed or becoming paralyzed. Inevitably, life poses certain types of challenges in addition to "taxes and death" as the saying goes.

Life brings with it change. In fact, change is an inevitable aspects of life and is, therefore, important to embrace. Today, change is occurring in the world at ever faster rates of speed. For example, the Soviet Union is gone, the United States is no longer the sole powerful country in the world, Arab nations and peoples have risen to great prominence, China is continuing to emerge as an economic power house, the people who make up the population of the United States has changed and is continuing to change as more peoples immigrate into the nation. Today the percent of the population with Hispanic roots has risen gigantically, changing the voting and cultural patterns.

Resilience means that people are aware of these changes, accept them without bemoaning and romanticizing the past. It means that the resilient person adjusts to even welcomes change as a challenge and as something that makes life interesting.

In fact, it has been speculated by many gerontologists, that the reason some individuals are able to reach extremely old ages of 90 more is that these old elderly are able to accept loss and change.

Think about it. As we age, we all lose more people. Grandparents and parents die. Younger people die as a result of everything from accidents to diseases. As these losses mount due to the inevitable cycle of life, the resilient person adjusts and continues to live on.

How is this so? The resilient person is able to:

1. Acknowledge their grief when the loss of a loved one occurs without becoming paralyzed by death.

2. Have a real sense of optimism about life, viewing the proverbial glass as half full rather than half empty. In other words, while accepting the death of loved ones, they welcome, embrace and are themselves renewed by the new and young life around them.

3. Remained involved in their lives in ways that are active and vital. It is like the 80 year old neighbor of mine who not only rides his bicycle for miles each day but has formed a bicycle club consisting of people far younger than himself.

4.  Have, maintain or create support groups around them. These support groups give them a sense of aliveness and participation in life.

5. Maintain what psychologist call an "internal locus of control." That means that they have an inner sense of confidence in their abilities to problem solve and cope.

6. Possess a sense of humor about life and much that happens during a life time. In particular, they are able to laugh at themselves.

7. Admit their mistakes and learn from them when this occurs.

8. Accept adversity when it happens and meet it as a challenge. This is instead of viewing themselves as a victim. These are people from whom you do not hear, "why me," or "woe is me."

These types of characteristics allow people to cope with earth quakes, storms, terrorist attacks, and all forms of disaster.

While some of this is inborn, it is possible to develop and nurture a sense of resilience. Some of the ways to do this is through psychotherapy, particularly the cognitive behavioral type, reaching out to people and participating in activities, outside of work, such as volunteer organizations, being involved in spirituality and continuing to learn new things rather than allowing stagnation.

As the old saying goes: "If you keep on doing things the same way, you will keep on getting what you got." If you want something different, learn to do things differently and learn to do different things. All of this is regardless of your age, young or old. If you are young and want to learn skiing or mountain biking, do it. If you are fifty years of age and want to ride a motorcycle, do it. If your house is washed away, as in hurricane Katrina, build a new one. I do not say this lightly or blithely because I know a number of people who did just that, from Louisiana to Florida. One man calmly told me how he rebuilt his house after it was completely

Life is filled with stress. It is how we view it and cope with it that makes the difference.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged including answers to the question: "Are you resilient?"

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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