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What Fosters Resilience in Tough Times?

Vital strategies for surviving problems—marital, money, parental alienation...

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Difficulties happen. Making it to the finish line can take both determination and resilience.
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Resilience refers to the ability to keep moving forward, bounce back from difficult situations, and eventually emerge with a positive outcome. What life strategies maximize resilience?

This post offers three perspectives on resilience. The first is from Donald Meichenbaum, a psychologist who has long focused on the study of resilience.

The second is from a client of mine, Billy, who struggled at length with an ex-wife who turned his daughter against him (parental alienation), lost all contact with his daughter, and eventually came out the other end with a renewed and full father-daughter relationship.

For the third, I explain my "Hand Map," that is, how your hand looks like a map of the five routes people can take in response to challenging circumstances. Which of these routes augments resilience—and simultaneously increases the odds of a positive outcome?

Donald Meichenbaum's five-factor strategy for resilience enhancement.

Psychologist Donald Meichaenbaum recommends these responses for all who face difficult circumstances, and especially for handling the stresses created by coronavirus.

  • Share Your Negative Emotions. Needn't be anything fancy. Just give your feeling a name and say those words aloud to someone. "I feel... (worried, furious, sad, etc)."
  • Focus on Your Positive Emotions. "I feel so grateful for..."
  • Use Both Active and Palliative Coping Strategies. As Meichenbaum writes, "There are two general classes of coping strategies, namely those that are direct-action problem-solving and those that are palliative and self-soothing." Recognize when to use each—when you are facing a circumstance you can potentially do something about, and when to accept that "it is what it is." In that case, feel the feeling, and reassure yourself that "this too will pass."
  • Maintain Social Supports. Reach out to friends and family members to talk. Talk about anything. Do anything together. Interacting with others produces what author Loretta Breunning calls the happy chemical of oxytocin.
  • Use Spiritual Coping Strategies. What is your concept of a higher power to whom you can turn?

Billy's resilience in the face of parental alienation.

I asked Billy if he would write to me with reflections, looking back, on how he had coped over many months—several years, actually—with his painful struggle against an ex-wife who had alienated his daughter from him. With false accusations about him having molested the child, his ex had convinced child protective services and the courts that Billy should have zero contact with her.

Interestingly, Billy's observations about what helped him through his trauma dovetail strikingly with Dr. Meichenbaum's. Billy wrote:

"I understand that my parental alienation situation has had a more positive outcome than most. So much of why I was able to get through all of this isn't easily explained. I'll do the best I can."

"Generally speaking, the two areas that aren't easy to explain and have a tremendous amount to do with my getting through are my faith and my family and friends."

"If I was to be able to offer some advice it would be to strengthen and reinforce yourself in these two areas before anything might possibly happen. I was married 30 years and never had expected something like this would happen. I think that's the sentiment of many of us who will go through something like this. It's why my suggestion is that you prepare ahead for a storm that can come into anyone's life."

"It's about reaping and sowing. I have long been a man with a tremendous amount of faith. I was able to rely on this throughout this process. I also always have had deep relationships with friends, family, and even work clients. They gave me more support than I ever would've thought was possible."

Dr. Heitler's Hand Map for understanding and reacting to emotions.

In my book, Prescriptions Without Pills, and the worksheets and videos on the accompanying free website, I suggest that you use your hand as a map. When you are walking down the road of life (represented by your arm) and then hit a life bump (represented by the bump at your wrist), from there you have five potential pathways. The five potential pathways apply whether the bump turns out to be of minor or volcanic intensity.

The four fingers lead you to Fight (anger), Fold (depression), Freeze (anxiety), and Flight (addictive and obsessive-compulsive habits). The thumb route, by contrast, offers a road to resilience: Find Solutions. Problem-solving has the highest odds of leading you to better circumstances.

Can the Fight Road get you what you want?

Anger helps you by highlighting that you have a problem. It also energizes you so that you will do something about the situation. The trap on that route, however, is that dealing with most situations in an angry way creates additional problems. Anger leaves a hurtful toxic residue.

How about the Fold Road, i.e. giving up?

Giving up prevents fights but means that you will not get what you want, which in turn is likely to perpetuate feeling depressed.

Better to take the Freeze Road?

Anxiety freezes your brain's ability to think. While, like anger, anxiety does warn you that there is a problem ahead, staying anxious inhibits constructive thinking. An anxious mind becomes at risk for wheel-spinning in worry mode.

How about avoiding the situation by taking the Flee Road?

Looking for an escape route, say by becoming an alcoholic, can block painful feelings of anger, depression, and anxiety. Alas, however, avoiding problems by developing an addictive habit creates new additional problems and also, like anxiety, turns you away from effective problem-solving.

Ah! There's still the thumb route, the route of Finding Solutions.

Finding solutions requires gathering information, talking with people who might be able to help you, trying this way and that way. With attempts to look for and create a solution to your difficulty, the odds go up that eventually, like Billy, you will succeed.

Resilience ultimately requires facing problems.

Gather information. Think creatively about various ways to do something that will bring you closer to a solution. Look for many possibilities. When these do not solve the problem, gather more information and think about additional options. Meanwhile, doing something constructive toward getting what you want fuels your ability to keep bouncing back from frustration and disappointment. A problem-solving approach to life's difficulties holds one of the ultimate keys to resilience.

At the same time, do use Dr. Meichenbaum's five-factor strategy to keep yourself emotionally strengthened.

And above all, as Billy suggests, start now, before problems emerge.

Thank you, Billy, for your vital insight.

Build the spiritual and social foundations for life-long resilience now. Invest in your faith, family, and friendships now. These investments pay dividends immediately—and at the same time, assure that you will have the resources to sustain resilience when you need them the most.

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