Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Remarkable Power of Resilience

Often we talk about resilience  as that extraordinary capacity some people have for bouncing back in the face of adversity, trauma, or tragedy. And while research has shown that resilience is ordinary and not extraordinary, and that people commonly demonstrate the characteristics and factors that make for resilience, sometimes we do witness extraordinary examples of lives transformed through the power of resilience.

When I think about the remarkable power of resilience, two people come to mind immediately: Congresswoman Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords and her husband, Commander Mark Kelly.  Giffords, as you may recall, was shot in the head by Jared Laughner in 2011. While doctors were cautiously optimistic about her recovery, Commander Kelly had little doubt his Gabby would recover. He knew his wife embodied "The Right Stuff," beginning with a firm attitude of optimism, and so he encouraged her doctors to develop a resilience plan as part of her recovery. 

A resilience plan has been shown to reduce the frequency and intensity of post-traumatic stress disorders and other health problems that occur after a personal disaster, allowing those affected to recover more quickly and completely.

During the couple's interview with Diane Sawyer, we were reminded how Gabby was once called, "the most positive person in Congress," quite a feat considering the craziness that occurs daily on Capitol Hill. Knowing that optimism was at the core of Gabby's being, and his belief that "Optimism is a form of healing; hope is a form of love," Kelly posted a sign outside her hospital room for visitors: No Crying.

Resilient optimism is not the rose-colored glasses view of the world. Resilient optimism recognizes that bad things happen. Yet, rather than wallowing in catastrophic thinking -- that tendency to assume the worst and to perseverate about irrational worst-case outcomes -- resilient optimists acknowledge and manage their strong feelings, looking for the valuable negative information that edifies the foundation of the learning experience 

Research on resilience has also shown us that people who struggle with their emotions, fear in particularly, may become more restrictive and rigid in their view of the themselves and their place in the world. To help Gabby hold on to that attitude of optimism and build her inner strength, the doctors advised that she be kept unaware of the full extent of the tragedy that occurred that day -- the lives lost, the people injured – until her road to recovery was more firmly established.

Studies in resilience, too, have repeatedly underscored the significance of social relationships, our connectedness to others. Visits from family and friends offered Gabby encouragement and confidence.

Another example of the remarkable power of resilience is Christopher Reeve. On May 27, 1995, actor Christopher Reeve was thrown headfirst from his horse during a jumping competition, shattering the first two vertebrae in his neck. Upon regaining consciousness and realizing he was totally paralyzed, Reeve thought that the best thing to do would be "to slip away."

Unable to speak because he had no ability to exhale air, he mouthed to his wife Dana, "Maybe we should let me go."

Dana responded, "I will support whatever you want to do, because this is your life, and your decision. But I want you to know that I'll be with you for the long haul, no matter what. You are still you. And I love you."  Her response is another example of the resilient power of our connected to others. Reeve wrote, "She made living seem possible, because I felt the depth of her love and commitment."

While catastrophic thinking -- ruminating about irrational worst-case outcomes -- is contrary to resilience, it is not uncommon for survivors of catastrophic accidents to think obsessively about what happened. Reeve said that for the first year he "wondered over and over about the accident. The jump was a relatively easy one. Why did his horse balk at this jump? Was it a freak accident? Did he move forward in the saddle before he should have?" However, as his resilient spirit grew stronger, he realized that endless speculation about what happened served no purpose other than to torment him.

So what can we learn from these three resilient spirits? I offer the following:
  • Acknowledge that loss or illness is inevitable. By developing and nurturing a resilient spirit at the core of our being, little that can transpire that can affect us permanently.
  • Know that connectedness to others is vital, and so we must cultivate relationships that create love and trust.
  • Learn to communicate effectively your needs.
  • Be flexible; accept that change is a part of living. 
  • Develop goals and realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
  • Live an authentic life. Believe in what you do and do it with joy, gratitude, and grace.
  • Find the positive in experiences and avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems.
  • Be spiritually connected, whether through an organized religion or by adopting a philosophy of life.

Christopher Reeve, in writing about his spiritual journey, said: "I have come to believe that spirituality is found in the way we live our daily lives. It means spending time thinking about others. It's not so hard to imagine that there is some kind of higher power. We don't have to know what form it takes or exactly where it exists; just to honor it and try to live by it is enough."