Are You Resilient?


Are you resilient? Do you sink or swim when faced with obstacles or stressful events? Say you grew up poor, I mean really poor, and all you had to eat for lunch each day at school were saltine cracker and butter sandwiches. Because you didn’t want your more well to do schoolmates to feel sorry for you, each time you crunched down on your cracker sandwich and licked the butter from the salted edges, you smiled. Despite your chronic adverse circumstances – low socioeconomic status – you worked hard in school. In fact you excelled, and you continue to do so: maybe at work or as a parent, or both. That’s resilience.

If you’ve never experienced a life challenge (unless you have lived in bubble wrap for all of your existence, I find this nearly impossible), you’ll never know whether or not you’re resilient. Adverse events can be chronic, as in the scenario I depicted above, or acute, as in witnessing a trauma or being a victim of an accident.

To better understand what makes us resilient, one researcher has looked at what are called “protective factors,” the particulars of individuals’ backgrounds, including personality, that play a role in their success, regardless of challenges. In follow-up to his research, his students identified factors that fell into two different groups: psychological makeup, disposition, or environmental influences in one group, and pure chance in the other. Another, larger study attempted to decipher the factors contributing to resiliency. Though, similar to the former study, luck played a role in some cases, psychological constitution was instrumental in the majority of situations. They might not have been geniuses, but the more resilient children possessed a healthy sense of self. They were willing to seek out new experiences, take chances, utilize the skills they had to be successful. One researcher describes these children as having an “internal locus of control,” meaning that they believed they, rather than outside circumstances, had control over their outcomes. They believed they were the authors of their life scripts.

As with most things though, resilience fluctuates. We’re human after all: if we’re burdened with one stressor after another – divorce, death, a job loss, injury – we tire and lose resilience (think of an overstretched rubber band). But the good news is: we just might be able to learn how to be resilient. Another researcher has discovered that individuals who did not bounce back so easily as children were able to develop resilient skills later in life, enabling them to prosper.

If we have the capacity to create our outcomes, then why not say resilience is an offshoot of perception, another human element within our control. As a clinical psychologist at Columbia University says, “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic.” Because we’re the ones who label the event as traumatic, we also have the capacity to re-label it as something else – simply as an experience, for instance. In this way we become more resilient. Of course, it’s not always that easy. Because we’re human, we agonize over this and that, lose sleep over this and that. It takes re-training the brain, taming our unwieldy thought patterns, tying our worries and fears into a constrictor knot. Though this hackneyed phrase may cause you to roll your eyes (Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this, how many times now?), I’m going to share it with you anyway: If we expect something to become true, it will become true. If we focus on an adverse event as potentially harmful, we sink. If we focus on that same event as a challenge, we swim – and win.


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Meet Nathalie Kelly: Daring Dreamers Radio

Nathalie Kelly

What is it like to live with a traumatic brain injury (TBI)? Maybe you feel as if you know longer know who you are. You might say that your identity has been “stripped” away, that your independence has been ripped from you. You feel utterly lost. In an interview with marketing consultant Angela Treat Lyon on Daring Dreamers Radio, this is exactly how Nathalie Kelly, a TBI survivor, describes how she felt in the days, months, and years after her sailboat toppled over during a storm on Lake Champlain in Vermont and smacked her in the head, leaving her bobbing in the cold water for forty minutes, until the coast guard arrived.

A brain injury advocate, writer, inspirational speaker, and board certified hypnotherapist, Nathalie speaks with eloquence and candor about her post-TBI road-blocks, set-backs, growth-spurts, and more. The motto of Daring Dreamers Radio is “to dare you to live free, inspired, and in constant delight.” And that is precisely what Nathalie does in the interview: She has come to understand that living with a TBI means learning to accept that you are “perfectly imperfect,” and, though our culture frowns upon anything less than perfection, she “dares” us to embrace it, to “embrace vulnerability,” to let yourself be the person you are now, to shed all expectations of others. “That’s living an authentic life,” Nathalie says.

To be inspired and awakened and free, I dare you to listen to Nathalie’s interview at Daring Dreamers Radio.







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Blueberries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder


What did you eat for breakfast this morning? I had yogurt with blueberries, lots of blueberries. Akin to gulping down a mug of coffee, these plump babes are part of my morning routine. The sweet burst on my tongue makes me smile and, let’s admit, smiles are more attractive than frowns. If I miss a day munching on an overflowing cup of blueberries, my mojo is all messed up. Thank goodness for blueberries. Why? Not only are they packed with anti-inflammatory, heart-protective, brain-healing extracts (see earlier blog post), they are the anti-depressant of the future.

Based on animal studies, researchers at Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine suggest that blueberries may help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. With the rise in PTSD diagnoses, this is good news, particularly since suicide is a very real risk among sufferers.

When researchers induced PTSD-like symptoms in rats, they found that, in comparison to “normal” rats, they had unusually low levels of SKA2, a gene expressed at unusually low levels in people who have committed suicide. The PTSD rates were fed a blueberry-rich diet – as much as two cups – and the results showed increased levels of SKA2 compared to the non-PTSD rats fed a regular diet. The SKA2 study came in follow-up to an earlier one in which blueberry-fed rats showed increased levels of serotonin, the saving grace brain chemical that makes us happy. Researchers plan to further evaluate the link between blueberries and SKA2, with the hope of finding a single pathway by which blueberries can relive both depression and suicidal behaviors.

In the meantime, since blueberries are harmless (unless they are sprayed with chemicals even a veteran linguist can’t pronounce), why not feed your brain a cup or two? And blueberries just might be better than taking drugs: anti-depressants, particularly Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), used to treat PTSD are not always successful. Paradoxically enough, they have been linked to increased suicide tendencies in some people.

Hmm … if two cups of blueberries a day equals, say, twenty milligrams of an SSRI a day, and there are three hundred sixty-five days in a year, if my math is correct, that comes to seven thousand three hundred milligrams of said SSRI versus seven hundred thirty cups of blueberries. Pass the blueberries please.

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Compassion Fatigue

You’ve heard of “burnout,” right? Your work environment is making you miserable, so miserable that you feel unfulfilled, depleted of energy, stripped of all motivation to effect change in the workplace. If you’re a healthcare professional, undoubtedly, you know all too well about burnout. But then there’s “compassion fatigue.” While individuals working in any kind of job setting can experience burnout, compassion fatigue is unique to those exposed to trauma while working in a helping profession: nurses, firefighters, police. Because you’re in the helping profession, you feel the onus is on you to save peoples’ lives, to make them better, to alleviate their pain, so you sign up for extra shifts, and, if you’re a nurse, offer to take care of the sickest patients. But what happens when your patients have little, or no family support, or are constantly ringing the call bell, making demands (get me water, I need more pain meds, I need something to help me sleep)? You feel like Sisyphus – no matter how many times you push the boulder up the hill, it keeps rolling back down into your weakened arms. You’re worn down, irritable, angry. That’s compassion fatigue, when you can no longer muster the sympathy to care for your patients because you’ve been exposed to the same kinds of patients again and again, and have answered an uncountable number of call-bell dings, but the bells keep dinging, and you want to keep helping, but, at the same time, you want to run.

It’s worth noting, however, that compassion fatigue doesn’t necessarily mean individuals experiencing it lack compassion, not at all. They still care about their patients. Instead, as a nursing professor at the College of Nursing at University of Arizona says, compassion fatigue is more like feeling too “full,” and even suggests a different name for it: “emotional saturation.”

Not only are healthcare professionals at risk for compassion fatigue, though, family members caring for loved ones with, say, a traumatic brain injury or dementia, are at risk too. Even those who hear about another’s traumatic experience over and over again are affected. I bring these scenarios into the mix because, sadly enough, I suffered from compassion fatigue when I worked tirelessly to navigate my father’s emotional swings, and, as he slipped into Alzheimer’s, made sure he was safe at home because he had insisted he never be put in a nursing home. And I’m witnessing compassion fatigue again, as my husband and his siblings stumble then pick themselves each day, determined to keep their aging mother safe from the ravages of dementia.

But it is possible to care too much, so much that it hurts. When I say hurt, I mean really hurt, as in traumatized hurt. Being pre-occupied with others’ suffering can cause “secondary traumatic stress” for the helping individual. It’s not unusual to experiences symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: anxiety, hyper-vigilance, irritability, impatience, withdrawal, poor concentration, sleep disturbance, nightmares, the list goes on.

What’s the cure for compassion fatigue? Boundaries and self-care. In other words, set limits, say no even when you want to say yes, remind yourself to take time out, meditate, go for a walk, keep a journal, draw, listen to your favorite music, dance, do yoga, take a bath, read a novel, watch a funny movie. Watch the sun set. Watch the sun rise.

For more resources on how to evaluate whether or not you have compassion fatigue and how to prevent/treat it, go to compassion fatigue and healthy caregiving.



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