Resilience 101

By Joy Carrico | Published Wednesday, September 13, 2017

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes it possible for a person to get through and beyond major life catastrophes.

We need look no farther than Houston for multiple examples of people who are clearing the debris and rebuilding after a disaster.

Joy Carrico

But looking that far south is probably unnecessary. We all know someone (if it’s not us) that is dealing with a major tragedy or life-altering event.

The Fella has a motto: improvise, adapt and overcome. It’s very manly. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot in recent weeks.

I read an article by a psychologist the other day that was speaking of what people needed to overcome disaster, and what we as bystanders can do to really help them. He spoke at length about the idea of resilience – another Fella favorite.

A person’s resilience, or their ability to bounce back after stuff happens, according to psychological research, can be broken down into two categories: demographic variables and psychological variables.

Demographic variables are things like: a person’s age, their socioeconomic class, gender, race and other categories we lump people into based on external circumstances.

Psychological factors can be further broken down into risk factors and protective factors.

Risk factors are things that make recovering from trauma more difficult. Something like an anxiety disorder, depression or high levels of stress.

Protective factors are things that aid in recovering from trauma: life satisfaction; optimism; self-esteem; and social support, to name a few.

Research has shown that of these three factors, protective factors have the biggest impact on someone’s resilience, followed by risk factors and then demographic factors.

I think this is excellent news.

When I think about it, demographic factors are things I cannot change. I cannot change my socio-economic background, my gender, my race, which patch of the earth I grew up on, or my age (except to continue to age). So I’m glad that these things have the least amount of impact on my ability to be resilient. Or, to put it in the Fella’s terms: to improvise, adapt and overcome.

Risk factors are also largely out of my hands. Mental illness can be treated, but someone with clinical depression cannot “snap out of it” any more than a person with diabetes can force his blood sugar levels to regulate perfectly.

But there is stuff I can do to improve protective factors. Self-efficacy, self-esteem, thinking positively, being satisfied with my life are things I can work on. They most likely will not change overnight, but I know from experience that I can teach myself to trust myself. I can tell myself, “I can do this” (self-efficacy), “I’m good enough to do this” (self-esteem), “things will work out for the best” (optimism) and “I’m right where I’m supposed to be” (life satisfaction – or possibly faith).

It’s also good news to those of us who are watching because there is something we can do to help others we see who are struggling to find their resilience: we can offer support.

Having a structure of support is really important. I’ve learned this repeatedly when my people have been there for me, and I’ve been a part of someone else’s “people.” The power of loving support is a mighty force and it can do great things to help someone find their way through the darkness.

Unfortunately, we cannot force loving support on someone who will not take it. I have to laugh at the idea of screaming, “You must accept my loving support!” at someone.

We can offer support and we can wait and we can pray, but we cannot make someone seek what we think they need.

I have learned that the best way I can offer support to someone hurting is to ask: “How can I support you?” I love this question because it respects their autonomy. Instead of charging ahead, thinking I know what they need or telling them how they should be thinking or feeling about something, I ask them what would help. If they don’t know, that’s OK. We can problem-solve if they’re open to it. Or I can leave them be if that’s what they want.

What I take away from this research is that if, when things are going well, I continue to build a life worth living and build relationships with people I trust and love, then when disaster strikes, I will have placed myself in the best possible position to improvise, adapt and overcome.

Joy Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist. The Fella wishes to report that he did not make up his motto. It came to him from the Marines via the movie “Heartbreak Ridge.”

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