Bouncing Back – Bouncing Forward – Mastering Resilience in Either Direction
Years ago, when I told my brother Barry I was writing a book about resilience, he said, “Resilience…what’s that? Oh, I know…it’s bouncing back from the terrible.” That’s where I got the title for Bouncing Back.
And certainly, bouncing back is a key element in resilience: returning to baseline after a scare, recovering our center when criticized by a boss or an in-law. One definition of resilience offered by neuroscientists like Richard Davidson is the rapidity and reliability with which the nervous system can recover from a spike of the stress hormone cortisol and return to our natural physiological equilibrium, calm and engaged.
Yet sometimes there is no returning to baseline. Twelve weeks of surgery, chemo and radiation catapults us into a different body, a different life. Repairing the betrayal and rupture of an affair pulls a couple into new dynamics, new protocols of communication and trust. Losing a child in a car accident or causing the death of someone else’s child in a car accident can completely upheaval our sense of how the world works and our place in it.
My good friend and colleague Michaela Haas wrote the book Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs two years after I wrote Bouncing Back. She says, “People do not always bounce either back or forward. The process of coming to terms with new realities, drawing on resources deep within, and reaching out to others can take time. The process certainly takes awareness, intention, commitment, perseverance, and the support of people who trust that healing and recovery are possible.
Here are some of the most basic steps of the process of resilience in either direction:
[Note: the language below is Michaela’s or that of other experts on resilience.
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Accept What Is
The ability to accept situations that cannot be changed is crucial for adapting to traumatic life events. Post-traumatic growth researchers call it “acceptance coping” and have determined that coming to terms with reality is a significant predictor of post-traumatic growth,
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
– Reinhold Niebuhr
Allow Yourself to Struggle
Self-control is important, but struggle is inevitable….Scratch beyond the surface of any hero’s life story and you’ll find he or she had to overcome a great deal of challenges, and sometimes they thought they weren’t up to the task. It can be liberating and validating to discover this.
A devastating loss is simply this: devastating. Post-traumatic growth does not dissolve the pain. Allow the tears to flow, scream at the funeral if you must, go into the woods and curse the sky, take up boxing and beat the crap out of the punching bag. Repeat as needed.
It’s from the fierce place of acknowledging the raw spots that we derive strength.
Take breaks from pain
It is absolutely necessary to take a temporary leave of absence from pain. Not once, but regularly.
You can’t stay in the misery of this all the time. In order to cope with these things, people need to have the capability to take a dose of it, then go away from it. Some degree of comforting yourself or distracting yourself is useful. I’d call this good coping. It’s smart. You have those times where you say, enough is enough, you have to stop the bleeding, and then you come back to it another time.
– Richard Tedeschi, Posttraumatic Growth in Clinical Practice.
Let the pain crack you open
It is all too easy to let a shock harden us, close us down, make us more anxious and uptight. Yet, we could use it the opposite way – to let it crack us open. Are they aspects of yourself that you have suppressed or not paid enough attention to? Are you honoring your soul? Is this crisis an opportunity to do something you have always wanted to do but never found the space? Trust your intuition. Spend more time in your heart. Find something, anything, that brings you joy and that connects your with your creative energy.
When misfortune fills the world and its inhabitants, make adversity the path of awakening.
– Tibetan teaching
Stay flexible Flexibility can hardly be overrated as a crucial asset when we face difficulties. It means to be tough and unyielding at times or soft and adaptive at others. To express our emotions honestly when surrounded by people who can hear us, or to stay quiet and just listen. It means to keep searching for options, but to settle when decisions need to be made. Diverse dilemmas demand diverse strategies.
Flexibility is adaptive because different kinds of adversity create different kinds of demands. The better able we are to adapt ourselves to those demands, the more likely we are to survive. An intriguing implication of this idea is that in some circumstances, it is adaptive to think or behave in ways that we would normally think of as inappropriate or even unhealthy.
– George Bonanno, The Other Side of Sadness.
Identify unhelpful patterns
Most people believe that an event triggers a response. Being taken prisoner triggers helplessness, being attached triggers fear or aggression, being praised triggers happiness. But if you think about it, it’s not the event itself that triggers our response, it’s our mind. It’s what we make of it.
Between a stimulus and response is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. The last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.
– Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
How you respond to the issue…is the issue.
– Frankie Perez
Resilient individuals tend to view mistakes as experiences for learning and growth. Accepting responsibility is a crucial step in recovery, but blaming themselves again and again is not.
-Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein, The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life.
A traumatic experience hijacks our ability to control. Facing a sudden disaster or an unexpected diagnosis, we lose power over what we thought was ours: maybe our body, our freedom, or our dignity. Precisely because trauma often leaves us helpless, the antidote is taking back control.
The guiding principle of recovery is to restore power and control to the survivor.
– Judith Hermann, Trauma and Recovery.
Invite positivity into your life in whatever form it takes for you. Visit a friend, tend to your garden, take up running! After a grueling divorce from an addict, one of my friends learned deep-sea diving in her mid-fifties. It was something she had always wanted to do but never got around to while raising her kids. She now credits it with saving her life.
Reflect on the benefit
Is there a gift hidden in the mistake or the pain? Is there a silver lining in the suffering? Is there anything you learned, even if it might be a difficult lesson? These questions might be too provocative when the wounds are fresh. Being able to reflect on them honestly is a sign that we are well on our way to becoming trauma alumni.
The hero’s emergence through trial and resurrection is among the oldest stories in history. “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.
– Joseph Campbell
Value the process, not the outcome
The growth does not come from the event itself as if the event itself were a great thing. It’s not the death of a beloved child, but the parent’s long and arduous and permanently painful struggle to cope that might produce some elements of growth. Even people who have lost their children can say, ‘I hate that I lost my child, but I like the person I have become in the aftermath a lot better than who I was before.’ Many bereaved parents go on to be active in non-profit work or help others in altruistic ways. It’s what happens afterward how people strive to understand and rethink what’s going on. And it is a struggle. If it’s not a struggle, nothing is really being learned.
– Richard Tedeschi, Posttraumatic Growth in Clinical Practice
Integrate the event into your life’s narrative
Eventually a survivor will need to weave the traumatic events into the narrative of their life; they will rewrite their life’s script. That process can take years, or even decades. But at some point in our life, we need to acknowledge that want happened has become part of our story.
In order to move toward a growth perspective, you have to go through a phase of intense reflections. People have to figure out, ‘Where does this traumatic event belong in my life story? Is this something that’s central. Is it just a minor detour? Does it change my perspective and choice about how I am going through the rest of my life?
– Richard Tedeschi, Posttraumatic Growth in Clinical Practice
Resilience is a group effort
Resilience is a team effort. We learn resilience not in isolation, but only from other people, by interacting, connecting, and observing. Bouncing forward after a crisis depends not only on our own resources but also at least as much on our connection to the people that surround us and how well we are able to gather support.
Throughout our life, our close relationships with caregivers, friends, romantic partners, and others build and sustain our resilience, The central significance of close relationships for resilience has been noted in virtually every review on resilience in development over the past half-century. I cannot think of one person who did it by themselves. A lot of what makes the difference for people is the support they are receiving.
– Ann Masten, Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development
From Bouncing Forward, we learn that people can not only survive the most catastrophic of losses and the most unforgiving of tragedies, but actually recover a sense of themselves and a deeper meaning and purpose to their lives in the process.
Post-traumatic stress is a catalyst for the emotional growth. The worse has happened, and we are changed. Let’s face it. Few of us live our best and kindest lives. Most of us hurtle along, propelled by bills and responsibilities, somewhat impervious to our true potential. A breakdown also breaks down the musts and should-haves that ruled our daily routines, along with life as we knew it. Temporarily suspended in a vacuum, we can recalibrate, and maybe for the first time, tune into what truly matters.
– Michaela Haas