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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Benefits of Gratitude


Every year, on the last Thursday of November, American families, friends, neighbors, and the otherwise lonely, gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving. For many of us, this year will be no different, and we’ll engage in yet another gastronomic extravaganza. We’ll gnaw on spiced and tenderized turkey wings, eat forkfuls of oven-baked stuffing, scoopfuls of buttered mash potatoes, cleanse the palate with a slice or two of cranberry sauce, and slip into our sweatpants to make room for the must-have dessert: pumpkin pie. We will likely eat ourselves into a tryptophan daze.

Some of us may even dress up in native American costumes, or as Pilgrims, recalling what we learned in history class, how the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians indulged in a three-day affair of eating, fishing, and hunting in November 1621, celebrating what is acknowledged as the first Thanksgiving. In the winter of 1620, after much of the Pilgrim population was killed, the colonists requested help from the native Indians, who taught them how to hunt, fish and plant crops. In return, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag to feast on their bounty of ripe food to celebrate their first successful autumn harvest.

While the narrative of Thanksgiving is partly about how varying cultures and races can gather together and actually get along, the holiday is a time to reflect upon what we are thankful for – in other words, gratitude.

A few weeks ago, while engaging in meditation during a yoga class, the instructor spoke in a melodic chant, with the goal of centering our thoughts on self-appreciation and appreciation for others. She encouraged us to hold onto equanimity and to release ourselves from attachment and aversion, then asked us to imagine sharing that peace of mind with others – loved ones, friends, strangers, even those with whom we are experiencing a somewhat challenged relationship.

As I focused on my breath, filling my lungs with the sweetness of a Sunday morning, I thought about the once-upon-a-time gratitude journal in which I wrote daily statements of thanks each day. I couldn’t recall how long it had been since I had written in that journal. As the yoga instructor had encouraged, I carried my mindful practice into the rest of my day, also bringing with me the theme of gratitude. I told myself I would start a new gratitude journal, in which I would jot down brief observations, thoughts, anything that reminds me I have a lot to be grateful for: the hand-knit afghan my mother-in-law gave me, hot water, a refrigerator full of food, socks with no holes.

In my research about the benefits of gratitude, I learned that keeping a gratitude journal does more than remind me I have a lot to be thankful for. Studies have shown that gratitude improves our emotional, mental, and physical health. It makes us happier, helps us sleep better, inspires us to exercise more, keeps us connected, increases our social capital, makes us more productive and less envious, motivates us to make decisions.

If it’s that easy, writing in a gratitude journal five minutes each day as a means to improve our long-term well being, by more than ten percent researchers say, then I’m in, hook, line, and sinker. Are you? I can’t think of a better time than now, November, National Gratitude Month, to start penciling the page with, “I’m grateful for …”

“This a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.” ~ Maya Angelou



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Depression and Traumatic Brain Injuries

depression and TBI

Are you struggling with depression as a result of a traumatic brain injury (TBI)? Do you feel as if you are emotionally drowning, as if your existence is meaningless? Or maybe you don’t have a TBI, but also feel saturated with hopelessness. Depression is as real as a broken bone, a slipped disc, a migraine. It is more than feeling blue. Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. It can impact every day life: work, sleep, relationships.

About fifty percent of those who have sustained a TBI suffer from depression within the first year of injury, and two-thirds are affected within seven years. More than half of all TBI survivors who are depressed also experience significant symptoms of anxiety. In the general population, the rate of depression is much lower, affecting one in ten people.

TBI survivors may suffer from depression as a result of changes in the level of chemicals in the brain, and injury to the area of the brain that regulates emotions. Depression also stems from an emotional response to the struggles of adjusting to life after a TBI. Some people have a family history of depression, placing them at greater risk.

On October 4, I joined Donna O’Donnell Figurski, the host of “Another Fork in the Road,” and Juliet Madsen, a TBI survivor, on the Brain Injury Radio Network for a discussion about TBIs and depression. If you missed the show, here’s your chance to listen to the archived version.

*If you, or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, here are a few resources.

Suicide prevention

Crisis text line

Vermont Department of Health

If you are suffering from depression, please know: You are not alone.

* The information provided in this post is intended as a suggestion, and not my endorsement of any or all of the resources listed.  Nor am I providing medical or professional advice of any kind.

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