When you hear the word ‘resilience,’ what’s the first thing that comes to mind? If you were to ask someone close to you what they think it means to be resilient, what do you think they would say? Most people might define resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” But Col. (Dr.) Sam Preston, Army psychiatrist and Chief of the Office of the Surgeon General, Behavioral Health Division, says resilience is much more than being “tough” and overcoming setbacks. A commonly misused, trendy buzzword, resilience is often confused with stoicism – being cool, calm, and collected when subjected to difficult stressors. Preston says that resilience IS NOT the ability of an individual to simply withstand stress. He said being “bulletproof is not resilience.” Resilience doesn’t necessarily mean toughness – it’s not outward, it’s an internal experience. “We often assign (resilience) to the external portrayal of appearing bulletproof. It’s OK to show signs of stress. Not showing signs of stress does not mean you’re resilient,” said Preston. Preston defines resilience as ‘having the ability to take challenges, stresses and the negative energy associated with them, absorb it, refocus, and grow from it.’
Nature vs. Nurture
According to Preston, we’re given a biological temperament (nature). We’re all born with some level of temperament – i.e., how we respond to anxiety, stress, etc. Then there’s how we were raised (nurture); how we were conditioned to respond to stress – our response and coping mechanisms learned from parents, communities, coaches, and caregivers. Preston said that while those exposed to violence and abuse can bounce back, those traumas can also come back. Self-esteem and self-worth can be negatively impacted as a result, but social conditioning can help one develop resilience. In essence, develop posttraumatic growth.
Healthy/Mature vs Unhealthy/Immature Defense Mechanisms
According to Preston, people have mechanisms to address challenges and stress. For instance, there is a subset of people who ‘appear’ happy-go-lucky but internally are struggling and do not demonstrate the stress externally. Often these types of people are struggling internally and are not actually addressing their stress and letting it build. Their outward demeanor is to avoid the stigma of looking weak or appearing they lack the skills to solve internal issues. To be truly resilient, they must be willing to engage in the process of receiving the help they need to overcome their internal issues. Often those supporting a person can add guilt or negativity accidentally when trying to help someone through a challenge by pathologizing them and telling them how they should feel (ex. If you’re faced with this challenge, you should feel “x”). Because each individual possesses different strengths and coping mechanisms, two people may have different internal responses to the same experience. Focusing on listening to the person’s experience and asking them how they are managing the event is better than assigning emotion to them, and following up on the conversation is just as important because emotions can change over time.
Want to boost your resilience? Follow these tips by Preston to improve your quality of life:
1. Get to know yourself. Be true and faithful to who you are, be honest with yourself, and be aware of what your limits are – and if you are exceeding what you can bear. Appreciate what your mind and body are telling you: is a situation affecting your sleep, are you drinking or smoking more than usual, do you lose your train of thought in a conversation, is your work performance lacking? Once you’re self-aware you can start putting healthy coping mechanisms into practice.
2. Learn to name your stress. Not all stress is the same. It comes from different places like work, your relationship, poor or inadequate diet, financial insecurity. Identifying the type of stress you are experiencing (i.e., financial stress, relationship stress, work stress) allows you to focus on addressing it. Do not sit with the feeling, identify its source, and seek methods to address it.
3. Be gentle with yourself. Treat yourself as you would treat other people – don’t be overly judgmental – give yourself permission to seek help just as you would encourage others to do the same.
4. Whatever it is, you are not alone. There is help available. If you see someone else struggling, reach out – you might help someone make it through. A good place to start is Military OneSource at www.militaryonesource.mil. Military OneSource provides confidential non-medical counseling online or over the phone to get you on the road to wellness. For severe issues or safety concerns, the Military Crisis Line can also provide immediate support: www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/military-crisis-line. Both Military OneSource and the Military Crisis Line are available to Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families.
Lastly, self-help phone applications that are free and designed to assist personal improvement, sleep, mood, and relationships are available at https://mobile.va.gov/appstore/mentalhealth?page=1.