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Taking a Resiliency Pause

When faced with distress, take a pause and look for your inner helpers.

 Nobuko Hattori
Source: Nobuko Hattori

By Nobuko Hattori, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” ―Fred Rogers

Even with the COVID-19 vaccine becoming available, many schools and college campuses are still closed to in-person learning. Most families and friends haven’t seen each other for a very long time. The political divisiveness is still felt many weeks after the election, sometimes within a family. Civil unrest continues.

I am a psychotherapist and a teacher of stress management. Yet, I too get frustrated sometimes. Ok, every day to be honest. How do you find calm in such times where there is so much stress and struggles with no clear end in sight? I want to share what has been helpful to me and thousands of people. It is taking a “resiliency pause,” a term coined by Elaine Miller-Karas, LCSW, of the Trauma Resource Institute.

A resiliency pause means that, when we are faced with distress, we take a pause and ask ourselves this question: “Who or what is helping me get through this difficult time?” It is like what Mr. Rogers’s mother told the young Fred: Look for the helpers. In a resiliency pause, the helpers are not limited to people but include pets, animals, places, events and beliefs. It can be anything that makes you feel better.

There are many things that we engage in doing to make us feel better, such as going for a walk, meditating or talking with a friend: things we may not always have the time or the access to. In contrast, resiliency pause is recalling up to your mind what is already within you. It may be a memory from your childhood or just a few seconds ago. It may be something timeless, like an image of a perfect beach that exists only in your mind. It may be tangible, like your pet, or formless, like a warm glow. They are your inner helpers or your resources for your well-being.

The resiliency pause has three steps. First, find your answer to the question, “Who or what is helping me get through this difficult time?” I invite you to take a moment now and try.

There are no right or wrong answers. Your answer may be your favorite activity that calms you, such as taking a walk, cooking or reading. It may be your family, friends, pets or someone who makes you smile just thinking about them. It may be a spiritual figure or belief guiding you in the right direction. It may be memories from your past giving you a sense of strength. It may be small things that you might easily overlook, like the perfect cup of coffee that you had this morning.

The more details you can bring up to your mind, the better. Take your time and notice the colors, scents, sounds, movements or temperature of your helper.

The second step is to become mindful of how your body responds to your answer. You may notice a deep breath coming in naturally, shoulders dropping, or a gentle smile. These are signs and sensations of well-being. Physiologically speaking, these indicate that your autonomic nervous system is coming into balance. Note that it is about how your body responds now as you think about the helpers, not about how you felt when you were with the helpers.

The third step is to let yourself mindfully feel these sensations of well-being for 10 to 20 seconds, or longer if it’s pleasant to you. Be curious about the natural changes of the sensations. You may experience another wave of a deep breath and relaxation.

How did it go for you? Pleasant, I hope.

Why did it happen the way it did for you? It’s because whatever we pay attention to becomes amplified. The more we pay attention to the sensations of well-being, the stronger they get. With the same mechanism, if we pay attention to what is stressful, the sensations of distress become stronger. Bringing in our physiology again, our body uses the same mechanism to respond to a real-life threat and the possibility of something bad happening in the distant future. The bad news is that we are biologically wired to notice what is stressful, just as the young Fred Rogers did watching the news.

The good news is that we are capable of finding the helpers by becoming mindful of what we are paying attention to. Moreover, the apparent significance of the helpers does not matter to our sense of calm. Whether your answer to the questions is something as profound as a spiritual awakening, or as ubiquitous as a flower bud about to bloom, either way, we can feel the calmness in our body.

The resiliency pause is not about denying the challenges that we are experiencing. Rather, it reminds us that the helpers exist within each of us even in a moment of distress. What’s more, we can call them to our mind whenever we need and wherever we are.

My helpers? There are many, but my favorites are a hot cup of Darjeeling tea warming my hands, soaking in a Japanese style hot spring out in the crisp air of winter, and a very old memory of my (then) baby peacefully sleeping in my arms. Even though I am writing this without the cup of tea and at my desk, I can feel my body warming and loosening just by listing my favorite helpers.

So, take a resiliency pause. Look for your inner helpers. You can always find them.

Nobuko Hattori, Ph.D. is a Licensed Psychologist in private practice. She also teaches trauma-informed and resilience-informed care to psychotherapists internationally, working to reduce the stigma of mental struggles and empowering those who have been burdened.


Reference: Miller-Karas, E. (2015). Building Resilience to Trauma: The Trauma and Community Resiliency Models. New York, NY: Routledge

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