Updated: October 8th, 2021
That was the question posed to a recent class I attended.
I raised my hand along with about 7 other people in a class of 25. “Why aren’t more people raising their hands,” I thought, “and why did I raise mine?” I’ve always been told I was resilient, and I have weathered some intense, life-altering experiences including the loss of a step-daughter in an auto accident by a drunk driver, the loss of my husband to cancer leaving me with a 20-month old daughter to raise alone, the closing and failure of a company I’d largely enjoyed for 30 years, being outsourced and then being laid off as part of a merger at age 55. Does the fact that I’m alive mean I am resilient? What is resilience anyway? What does it look like and is it good and important to have it? Let’s take a look.
What is Resilience?
At its most basic, it is the ability to “bounce back” after encountering difficulties. Having resilience doesn’t mean that you won’t be affected by adversity or chaos, but it does mean you may be stronger in tolerating and responding in the midst of the chaos and you will have the capacity to recover more effectively and even experience growth.
Steven M. Southwick, M.D. & Dennis S. Charney, M.D. interviewed three groups identified as highly resilient individuals, former Vietnam prisoners of war, Special Forces instructors and civilian men and women who had survived enormous stress and trauma but had somehow endured or even thrived. The outcome of their research identified 10 “resilience factors” or coping mechanisms that were crucial or lifesaving for those interviewed. These are grouped in three categories, All the respondents, Most of the respondents, and Many of the respondents.
All the respondents cited the following:
Accepting and facing their fear. Acceptance was largely achieved through acknowledgement. Gavin De Becker describes fear as a gift, one in which it is vital to pay attention to because fear can give you information you need to keep yourself or others alive. Facing that fear and taking effective action can be accomplished by practicing skills in advance such that they became automatic. First Responders actively do this already in areas such as defensive tactics and target practice. A missing skill in their toolkit is learning to regulate the body under stress and maintaining these skills so that they are automatically drawn upon without thinking in the field. A key approach to regulating the body is Tactical Breath Work and this can be activated anywhere, in the squad car, at your desk, or at a family picnic. This is learned in Yoga for First Responders during lecture and mat work; breathing diaphragmatically and moderating your heart rate as the body is put under stress.
Optimism, belief in a brighter future but also being realistic. Studies have often suggested this is a hereditary trait, but we now know that only 30-50% of optimistic traits are hereditary. That means 50-70% can be a learned response. You cannot always choose what happens to you, but you can learn to choose your response and the language you use internally to process what is happening to you.
Sought and accepted social support. Study after study shows that having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized. However, to effectively function on the job, First Responders learn to suppress normal emotional responses to get the job done; essentially detaching from or avoiding their own emotions such as anger, revulsion, or compassion. The issues arise when detaching persists off the job.
“The long-term challenge for police officers is to find a way to maintain humanity in the face of inhumanity, to stay connected when disconnection makes a lot more sense, and to show compassion when confronting people who have none. It is no easy task to balance the need to detach and the need to connect. “
Imitated sturdy role models. They had a mental map of someone who inspired them which provided both hope and practical tools or characteristics to emulate. Who inspires you?
Accepted responsibility for their own emotional well-being and many used their traumatic experience as a platform for personal growth. The interviewees were able to reframe the negative and search for opportunities in the midst of adversity and extract positive meaning. This is often described as Post Traumatic Growth. A Post Traumatic Growth Inventory can be found at https://www.careinnovations.org/wp-content/uploads/Post-Traumatic-Growth-Inventory.pdf
Most of the respondents cited the following. They also:
Relied upon their own inner moral compass, ethics, and altruism.
Turned to religious or spiritual practices.
Found a way to accept that which they could not change.
Were active problem solvers and looked for meaning, purpose and growth.
Many of the respondents:
Attended to their health and wellbeing, training intensively to stay physically fit, mentally sharp, and emotionally strong.
After the loss of my stepdaughter, husband, and mother within a 6-year span of time, I had a compelling desire or calling to reach out and help others through their loss. The year I lost my mom, I signed up to volunteer in a Grief Support program. I was with this large, thriving Grief Support program for over 15 years, becoming director of the program for the last 5 years. I studied, trained, and learned much about trauma, grief, and loss, achieving several certifications. I went on further to lead/co-develop a train-the-trainer Grief Support program for leaders in South Africa and Zambia to help their community grieve well. I had found deep meaning and experienced growth after many intense losses.
Can you lose your resiliency?
The answer is sadly yes. In the last few years, I was feeling stagnant and rudderless. I was transitioning into a different season of life and after some fumbling, I realized I was not practicing enough of the many lessons I had learned in my own life. I was not paying attention to what I was paying attention to. Resilience encompasses a full cycle of proactive training, self-awareness, and a desire/ability to grow from adversity and regularly engage in effective recovery activities. As I learned during the YFFR training, resilience is a perishable skill.
I had been practicing yoga for 10 years, once or twice a week and decided to step up my engagement.
I joined a gym/yoga studio and committed to going 3-4 times a week. In mid-2019 I signed up for a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training. That further committed me to practice yoga almost daily. I was learning and growing, getting physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger in my newfound community. It was a community in which I could be authentic, support others and be supported and find encouragement. Then COVID happened and the world shut down, but I continued practicing yoga with my core community virtually. That continued yoga practice was vital to my resilience. I was able to keep perspective, maintain optimism most of the time, stay physically fit and mentally focused, and still find contentment and purpose. I don’t always want to practice but I have never regretted doing so.
Staying resilient takes intentionality, reframing our experiences, getting, and staying connected and engaging in a group, with self-awareness, mindfulness and physical practices that process stress, build resilience, and enhance performance like Yoga for First Responders.
I have tough days, everyone does, but tomorrow is a new day where I can begin again.
Am I resilient? Yes, I choose to take responsibility for my wellness, and so can you.
Written by YogaShield® Instructor Deb Gerlach Class 0018 S6
Deb was thrust into the world of loss and grief through two traumatic deaths. First, her stepdaughter was killed in an automobile accident caused by a drunk driver, and then, she lost her husband to cancer leaving her with a daughter 20 months old. After a successful career in IT management over 35 years, her passion today is to equip and guide others, both locally and internationally, through grief to wellness and flourishing in life. Since 2016, she has been the Program Manager and co-teacher of an Officer Wellness workshop delivered in the NE Illinois region and certified through the Illinois Law Enforcement Training Standards Board. A daughter of a WWII vet that suffered from PTSD, she has a certificate in trauma-focused narrative counseling from The Allender Institute of the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and is a RYT200 certified yoga instructor with a specialty certification in Yoga for First Responders®. Deb is a widow with one adult, married daughter
Steven M. Southwick, M.D. & Dennis S. Charney, M.D, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Cambridge University Press, 2012
Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, Little, Brown and Company, 1997
Basel Van Der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Viking Penguin, 2014, Page 210
Kirschman, Kamena, Fay, Counseling Cops, What Clinicians Need to Know, Page 195