Learning To Surf: Resiliency and Compassion Fatigue
This week the Diane Rehm Show aired a terrific program called The Science of Resilience and How It Can Be Learned and it got me thinking about why resiliency, being able to bounce back, matters so much for those of who are caregivers or work in helping professions.
What is Resilience?
According to the American Psychological Association, “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”
So how resilient are you? Here’s a quiz to help you get an idea of where you’re at these days.
For people who work in helping profession, resiliency is essential. It’s what allows us to engage with people and animals who are suffering each day and cope with the challenges of doing this complex work that is so often filled with adversity.
Resilient People Cope Better
People who are resilient cope with negative experiences differently than those of us who are less resilient. According to Barbara Fredrickson PhD, resilient people are more hopeful, engaged, and connected to others, which helps them to avoid a major depression (or recover from it) after experiencing something negative.
And they also approach uncertainty, something we face a lot of in life and especially at work, differently as well. Less resilient people tend to brace themselves for a negative outcome and they are slow to recognize when things turn out not to be bad. In other words, they were expecting the outcome to be negative and they have a hard time noticing that things turned out ok.
On the other hand, more resilient people tend to wait to see what happens. They don’t automatically assume a negative outcome and therefore are better at discerning the positive and negative in a given situation. And, they don’t project negativity onto a neutral situation.
That’s a mighty handy skill when our work life is filled with situations where we don’t have all the facts and so often, will never know the end of the stories that we glimpse during our day, right?
What Are The Characteristics of Resilient People?
So what do resilient people tend to have in common with one another that allows them to relate to the world in this way?
They tend to have strong social support, are more adaptable, have an internal locus of control, and nurture a spiritual life (sometimes this includes religion, but not always). They actively look for and acknowledge the positive (this shouldn’t be confused with blind optimism, pretending negative things don’t exist like a Pollyanna, or a denial of emotion), and often find meaning in helping others.
While some people are born naturally resilient, many of us are not. But thankfully that’s not the end of the story.
You Can Build Resiliency.
While a small portion of our resiliency may lie in our genes, as Dr. Dennis Charney says in the Diane Rehm program, “…your genes are not destiny here…you can become a more resilient person by challenging yourself and working on things that are out of your comfort zone. So that eventually you develop a psychological toolbox that help you overcome tough times.”
This toolbox is an important concept because it would be misleading to think we simply acquire resilience over time. While the passing of time does allow for us to potentially develop a deeper perspective which can lead to increased resiliency, just as might lead to wisdom, the accumulation of more years on the job or on the planet, isn’t a guarantee that we’ll develop either. Resiliency is a more active and complex process than simply clocking in to life each day.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, captures this idea in one brilliant sentence, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
Life is filled with challenges that we work to bounce back from – losses of loved ones and jobs, illness and injuries, violence and heartbreak. And if you work in a helping profession, then the waves of adversity never stop coming. Each day we show up to meet the needs of those who are suffering and in need, we are confronted with loss and grief regularly, and we struggle to do our work with resources that often are far too small to meet the needs in front of us.
But rather than trying to run from or fight the waves in a futile attempt to get them to stop hitting us, we can learn to meet those waves more skillfully. And in doing so, we can ride the waves in such a way that we not only survive, but have the opportunity to thrive among life’s many challenges.
How Do We Increase Resilience?
According the the experts on the Diane Rehm show we can work to reduce our stress levels, face our fears (in small steps), practice mindfulness, build our social bonds, consciously look for the positive, avoid ruminating on the negative, and find purpose in giving to others.
In doing this for ourselves it’s not that we’ll prevent difficult things from ever happening, but it will increase our ability to bend and bounce, instead of crashing and breaking when the waves of adversity blow through our personal and professional life.
Despite our history, past experiences, and present difficulties, in each moment we have the opportunity to make a choice about how we will perceive and respond to our circumstances. When we build resiliency skills, we strengthen our ability to relate to the circumstances and challenges in our life in a more optimal way.
Like actual surfing, increasing our resilience isn’t easy and it takes time. But choosing to become more resilient is possible for all of us, no matter how old we are or what we do for living. So why not learn to ride those waves with skill?
Want to build your resiliency? Here are some resources you might like:
10 Ways to Build Resilience from the American Psychological Association
The Science of Bouncing Back from Time Magazine
Becoming More Resilient from PBS This Emotional Life
5 Things Resilient People Do from Kripaulu
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