How to Survive Whatever Life Throws at You

As Emergency Managers (EMs) we talk a lot about “resilient” communities which are cities and towns that can bounce back after a disaster. Lots of things make some places more resilient than others: stringent building codes, strong local business, committed volunteers, closely connected IRL social networks (IRL = in real life… we’re talking about how well people are connected to their neighbors).


But individuals can be resilient too. 

I’m reading Resilience at Work by Salvatore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba for class and it got me to thinking about what happens to people under high stress–why some people crumble and why some withstand or even thrive under the stress. Understanding what makes people resilient is important to me (and you!) for three reasons:

1. Both of our jobs (mine and yours) are likely to change frequently and rapidly these days due to changes in technology, political/social contexts, etc. It behooves our mental and physical health to withstand the stress that comes with change. In other words, I want to be prepared to be happy more frequently than miserable.

1b. Emergencies are stressful so practicing coping skills is part of being prepared.

2. The more resilient we are, the more we can help people.

3. The more resilient everyone is, the better we can recover from disasters and the better the world is.

earthquake woman2

So what makes us resilient?

Good question. Lots of things. Resilience is a mosaic of attitudes, beliefs, and skills that you can learn. (Yay!) Lets look at what the experts say. (For ease of viewing, I’m going to group overlapping ideas into categories with citations after each line.)

  1. Believe growth is possible instead of believing you’re born with a finite amount of intelligence/talent/creativity/etc. (This is straight from Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset“. I HIGHLY recommend you read it if you haven’t already. Not only is it important, but it’s got interesting stories too.)
    1. Be pro puzzle/challenge. Resilient people see problems as an opportunity to grow their toolbox. They think puzzles are fun and like challenging their brain. Seen in this context, problems and failure aren’t so threatening. (Dweck)
    2. Failure isn’t final. Failure doesn’t mean your stupid or talentless. It means you’re learning which is valuable. (Dweck)
    3. Change is an opportunity. Rather than fear or avoid change, Resilient people think of ways to benefit from the change. (Maddi & Khoshaba)
  2. Practice good mental tools:
    1. Choose what you tell yourself: (What Pscyhology Today calls “self-talk”)– talk to yourself about your strengths and support. Reject self-criticism and fear. Be thankful. Remember, you head toward where you look.
      1. Nurture a positive view of yourself (American Psychological Association, Psychology Today)– here’s where rejecting automatic negative thoughts and confronting lies comes in. Keep practicing, you can do it.
      2. Fake it till you make it: (Psychology Today). This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you act confident, soon you’ll feel confident. Here’s a wonderful TED talk for more.
    2.  Practice Functional Attitudes: Give yourself a break if you don’t get these right away. They take practice.
      1. Stay positive/optimistic (Psychology Today)– this isn’t to say you should avoid the realities of your current problem or deny your fear, but you can choose to focus on things your thankful for or a cautiously optimistic picture of the future.
      2. Stay open and curious (Psychology Today)– stress can narrow our focus and cause us to rely on old habits to get us through. Resist that temptation. Brainstorm other solutions, talk to people, be curious about the new changes and your role in it.
      3. Be brave As Maddi & Khoshaba state in their book, “It’s difficult to completely eliminate the fear that comes with stressful changes, but you can learn to manage it and do what needs to be done anyway.”
      4. Tolerate a little Uncertainty. We don’t like it, but since you don’t know the future, you’re just going to have to be flexible (Psychology Today) For more info, here’s what wikipedia says.
      5. Keep things in perspective: place change in a broader context (Maddi & Khoshaba, American Psychological Association)
      6. Believe what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: Psychology Today calls it “stress inoculation“–those who have experienced some stress are better able to handle later stress.
  3. Embrace change as a part of life
    1. If you expect it to happen, it’s not so scary. (Me)
    2. Maddi & Khoshaba’s 3 C’s
      1. Commitment: view work as important enough to stay engaged
        1. Have a sense of purpose. (Maddi & Khoshaba)
      2. Control: Believe that you can positively influence outcomes. Resist sinking into powerlessness. 
        1. stay engaged with your work, the process of change, your fellow coworkers/family, etc.
      3. Challenge: be alert for opportunities, embrace change as a part of life, and express optimism toward the future 
  4. Cope well
    1. Get Support: Stay connected and engaged with coworkers, resolve conflicts, and work for win-win solutions (Maddi & Khoshaba)
    2. Get Organized (Psychology Today). List coping mechanisms you can employ, list possible solutions, choose a goal, list steps to get there, list opportunities you could forsee, list priorities (maybe it’s time to clear a few things from your plate?), put your projects on Trello, Make a to-do list. Whatever you need to feel more comfortable, do it.
    3. Get prepared (me)– get training if you need it (especially in technology–I know I tend to avoid new tech that I don’t understand. But that just makes it worse.). Get mentally prepared (Psychology Today calls it Visualization)
    4. Set limits (my mom)– say no to extra projects, set a timer on odious projects, etc. This is good advice for lots of areas of your life. Learn more at PsychCentral.
    5. Take care of yourself: (Psychology Today)
      1. Stay connected with family/friends
      2. Take time to de-stress But make sure you aren’t avoiding the stress of work with Netflix marathons (Maddi & Khoshaba)
      3. Watch your health:  (Maddi & Khoshaba) Stress often causes us to over-eat, over-drink, and under-sleep. Remember, exercise is an excellent de-stresser.
...so true...
…so true…

Final thoughts:

  • You can see how these resiliency factors overlap and support one another. The good news is you probably already have functional coping skills that you can build on.
  • While Maddi & Khoshaba were writing primarily about work-related stress, I believe the principles hold true for disaster-related stress. The book uses army personnel as examples of resiliency under acute stress, so there’s some precedence here.
  • If you’d like to know more about how YOU cope. Take my QUIZ! It’s quick.

Are you practicing any of these ideas? Tell us about it!

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