Building resiliency in yourself and others following disasters

Mental health professionals have spent a long time studying post-traumatic stress disorder as a response to disaster. But more recently they have focused on resiliency, defined professionally as “the ability to spring back from and successfully adapt to adversity,” and by a 15 year-old high school student as, "Bouncing back from problems and stuff with more power and more smarts." Resiliency is also sometimes referred to as psychological hardiness, wellness, and positive psychology.  Regardless of the name we give it, resiliency and the ability to “bounce back from (disasters) with more power and more smarts” is an important goal of mental health, and mental health providers can do a lot to facilitate resiliency in those we accompany.

Each of us has a built-in capacity for resiliency, "a self-righting tendency" that operates best when we cultivate and practice it.
Here are some suggestions for building resiliency, excerpted and modified from a very comprehensive American Psychological Association website.

10 Ways to Build Resilience in yourself and others:

  1. Make connections. Good relationships with close family members, friends, colleagues, or others are important, especially following disasters. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience. Some people find that being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local groups provides social support and can help with reclaiming hope. Assisting others in their time of need also can benefit the helper.
  1. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. You can't change the fact that disasters events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations. Punctuate time: write for publication or keep a journal to remind yourself that time is passing.
  1. Accept that change is a part of living. Acceptance of the fact of trauma is an important element of resiliency. Certain ways of being human, for you and for those you work with, may no longer be attainable as a result of the circumstances around the disaster. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you and your consumers or clients focus on circumstances that you can alter.
  1. Move toward small and tangible goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly -- even if it seems like a small accomplishment -- that enables you to move toward your goals. Instead of focusing on large and abstract tasks, ask yourself, "What's one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?" What Bertrand Russell termed “tranquilization by the trivial” is certainly relevant in disaster resiliency.
  1. Take decisive actions. Emerging ecological models of trauma recovery emphasize the need for action and empowerment. Act on the adverse situations associated with the disaster as much as possible. Take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away. And encourage those with whom you work to do the same.
  1. Look for opportunities for self-discovery. There is some interesting work on the role of insight in trauma and disaster resiliency. Focus on what we can learn about ourselves, and how we have grown in response to loss, as an important feature of resiliency. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship have reported better relationships, greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality, and heightened appreciation for life.
  1. Nurture a positive view of yourself. Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.
  1. Keep things in perspective. One of the effects of trauma is to shrink our perspective on time and space. It is helpful to nurture in ourselves and our clients and consumers the ability to keep the disaster in perspective. Try to consider it in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective.
  1. Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you and those you work with to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.
  1. Take care of yourself and encourage self-care in your clients or consumers. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

The key is to identify ways that are likely to work well for you, and for your clients and consumers, as part of your own personal strategy for fostering resilience.

Web Links

This pamphlet by the American Psychological Association, titled “Road to Resilience,” is a great guide that introduces resiliency, how it is developed, and strategies for developing it.

This website on resiliency has a Resiliency Quiz that presents the principles behind resiliency, assesses individual factors that contribute to resiliency, and gives tips on building resiliency. The site also has literature that can be ordered and a resources page with links to relevant outside articles.

This is an article reporting the findings of research conducted at the Illinois Bell Telephone company in relation to resiliency of people who work in highly stressful work conditions. The study found that certain individuals are able to thrive despite adversity, leading to the understanding of the set of principles that operate behind resiliency, or “hardiness.”