While trauma and tragedy can derail your life, practicing resilience can keep you moving forward.
Story by Julie Saetre
A worldwide pandemic. The loss of a loved one. A rocket attack. A lingering speech disorder. While vastly different in scope and effect, these diverse challenges — and many others — have two things in common: getting through them depends on resilience and develops resilience.
Beth Payne is a former U.S. consul in Iraq. One early morning in October 2003, a rocket slammed into the Iraq hotel where Payne was staying. The guests were plunged into chaos, and Payne — clad in blood-covered pajamas — helped dozens of her colleagues escape to safety. For years afterward, she struggled with trying to sleep, irritability and a sense of emotional distance, until she was diagnosed with and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Her experience led her to study resilience so that she could help other U.S. ambassadors and senior officials who were going through similar traumas, and she eventually partnered with colleagues at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center to create the Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience.
“I have a two-factor definition of resilience,” Payne says. “One is the ability to function effectively and adapt and be flexible during a period of crisis or adversity. You want to be able to perform and do well. The second is to be able to bounce back when there is a negative — maybe even bounce forward. People who are resilient are able to bounce back so much easier than those who aren’t resilient.”
Payne has since extended her resilience training to the general public. She’s not the only expert to realize that the need for such education has never been so crucial.
Zaheen Nanji’s road to resilience began when she developed a stutter at age 7. Through the years, she did her best to hide it, but by the time she traveled from Kenya to Canada to attend college, she realized she wouldn’t excel in her classes by employing her usual avoidance tactic of limiting verbal interactions. Nanji sought speech therapy, where she was advised that she had a choice: remain stagnant in life or use available resources to face her fears and live differently. She chose the latter and today is a professional speaker, trainer and coach who calls herself a “resilience champion.”
“Just like a car steers through traffic, resilience is the ability to steer through life challenges and find ways to overcome those and thrive,” Nanji says.
The good news is that, like Payne and Nanji, we can all learn to be more resilient. Resilience isn’t an innate talent or gift that you are born with or without.
“Resilience is a lifestyle,” Payne says. “It’s not one and done. There’s no quick fix. It’s how we live our lives that makes us more or less resilient.”
“Resilience isn’t what you have. It’s what you do,” stresses Dr. Margie Warrell, founder of the leadership consultancy organization Global Courage and author of five books on leadership, courage and resilience. “I often think of it as a resilient rubber band. You pull it, you stretch it, you twist it, and it bounces back. All of us have the capacity not just to bounce back into the shape of who we used to be, but actually into an even better version of who we were.”
Warrell had to put her own words into action last year. In March 2020, she was in Singapore, preparing to mark the release of her latest book, “You’ve Got This,” when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the pause button on activities around the world. Two of her four children were living on a school campus in the U.S. and had to move in with friends’ families (people Warrell had never met) when their residence halls shut down. Her husband flew into Singapore from the U.S. just before the borders closed — only to be promptly diagnosed with COVID-19, one of the earliest patients to test positive. He was hospitalized for over a month.
“I had been due to fly to start a book tour,” Warrell says. “And instead, I was locked in quarantine in a small apartment in Singapore. My husband was in the hospital. And I was like, holy moly. I’ve got this book ‘You’ve Got This,’ and I’m having to practice everything that I’ve just written about.”
Fortunately, practice is key to enhancing resilience — and to calling on it when we need it most. Life certainly provides plenty of opportunities for us to up our game.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Nanji says, “because we are faced with different challenges in different areas of our life, whether it’s health, whether it’s career or financial or with your family and loved ones. And the way we deal with those is different in every aspect. So practicing and getting access to resources that can help you overcome those is what it’s all about.”
For Ashley Bugge, those resources included support from family and friends — but at first she was reluctant to access the assistance. In 2018, Bugge, then 34, was living in Hawaii with her husband, Brian, a Navy member who was working for the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Integrated Undersea Surveillance Systems department. Bugge was six months pregnant with the couple’s third child when she received news that Brian had been in an off-duty diving accident. She rushed to the hospital, where she learned he had died.
“At the very beginning, I knew I couldn’t do it alone, but I didn’t want to ask for help,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone else to watch my kids. I didn’t want anyone else to fold my laundry. Because I didn’t want anyone to feel pity on me. I should be able to do this stuff myself. This wasn’t their responsibility.”
That’s a common reaction, experts say. It’s also counter-productive to developing resilience.
“I think the misperception is that resilience is about grit. It’s about sucking it up and suffering the trauma,” says Payne. “And it’s like, ‘no, no, no.’ Resilience isn’t just about me. Resilience is about a group of people taking care of each other and helping each other be resilient.”
That’s what Bugge discovered when she finally accepted support and help from her loved ones.
“The truth is, we watch each other struggle and we want to help,” she says. “And allowing people to help is not just a gift to ourselves, but to them. Accept and embrace other people wanting to help you. Admit and acknowledge when you need that help and lean on your trusted circle of family and friends. All of that ties into resilience. You can’t do this alone.”
Accepting help is so important that “social support” is one of five factors Payne says are crucial for building and maintaining resilience, along with self-care, problem-solving, meaning and purpose, and a positive outlook.
Self-care is as simple — but as challenging — as making sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating healthful foods, getting physical exercise and taking time out to give yourself a mental respite. When you’re taking care of yourself, it provides a stronger base from which to work on solving the problem at hand — and that means learning what you can and can’t control.
“When there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Warrell says, “a lot of things are outside our control, and we can’t always control what happens to us. That’s just life.
“But we can always control how we respond to what has happened to us, focusing on the things that are within our control. We can always choose the mindset that we bring to things. We can always choose how we want to engage with other people. We can choose how we will spend our time or how we will apply new skills we may have learned.”
After her husband’s accident, Bugge turned to writing as a response to loss and grief. She began by pouring her experiences and emotions into her blog, where she wrote about Brian’s death, her heartbreak, the challenges she faced, the birth of their daughter Adeline, her family’s move back to the mainland and the subsequent restructuring of her life. That blog became the basis for her 2020 book, “Always Coming Back Home: An Emotional Tale of Love, Adventure, Tragedy and Hope.”
Bugge has also co-produced a documentary, “If Only … ” about Brian’s accident, and she speaks to groups about building resilience.
“It became something to invest myself and my time in,” she says. “It gave me purpose. When you go through traumatic events, you lose your confidence and you feel like you can’t do this, you’re in it alone, you’re not the same person you were before.
“So finding a purpose or finding a new thing that you always wanted to do or wanted to try, and investing yourself and your time into that — it really just made a huge difference in my life and made a huge difference in my kids’ lives. And more often than not, it’s a tangible representation of that resilience, which has been huge.”
Finding meaning and purpose, of course, is one of Payne’s five factors of resilience. That means Kiwanis family members have a head start on building their own reserves.
“Volunteering is an important element of finding meaning,” Payne explains. “When I help other people, when I am altruistic, I build my resilience. There’s a lot of research showing that people who volunteer, people who give to others, are more resilient than people who don’t. When you help other people, you have meaning in your life. When you care about your community, you have meaning in your life. And meaning is critical. When you lose meaning, you lose resilience.”
When you volunteer, Warrell says, you also gain new perspectives on your own struggles.
“When we focus on how we can be of service to others, it actually can take our mind off getting pulled into self-pity or ‘woe is me,’ into some of the negative emotions.”
Experts stress that choosing to find ways through a challenge, no matter how difficult or painful, does not minimize a loss or its impact. Rather, it acknowledges the significance of the situation and gives you permission to get through it to something positive.
“When you are faced with a challenge, a lot of people who don’t practice resilience may go into a negative spiral,” Nanji says. “’Why has this happened to me?’ Or they can go into a victim mindset. And there’s nothing wrong with going there first. I find our brains are wired to think of negatives first, or to the victim mindset, and that’s totally OK. What I’m saying is that we don’t stay there forever.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“It is a very hard thing to wrap your head around, especially if there’s a terrible circumstance,” says Bugge, who admits that she has experienced conflicted feelings when her book wins an award or her speaking engagements allow her to travel the world. “I have to remember, I can’t change the fact that (Brian) passed away. His death could either consume him and me and I could be shriveled up in a hole, or I could use that circumstance to make myself an award-winning author and push myself, my kids, my community to do better and to want more. It’s just not thinking of yourself, but instead accepting and embracing the event and then using that to push yourself in this next step.”
Bugge is experiencing what Warrell calls post-traumatic growth, which happens when people face a major adversity or trauma and emerge with an enhanced sense of wellbeing, a deeper level of connection in their relationships, a more optimistic outlook for the future and the ability to enjoy life.
Sometimes that growth makes those positive feelings even greater than they had been before the crisis.
“It’s important to say that it doesn’t negate that people may have suffered or experienced pain. It also doesn’t mean that they’re not experiencing a level of stress,” Warrell says. “In fact, it can actually exist in parallel with post-traumatic stress. People can still have some stress from what they’ve experienced, but they’re able to channel the experience in a way that actually gives them an enhanced sense of just simply being alive and their experience of life.”
By making a daily effort to build resilience by caring for ourselves and others, focusing on what is and isn’t in our control, reframing negative situations we face and finding new ways to get through tough circumstances, we can help ourselves and others face life’s many challenges, together.
“We don’t have to be perfect. It’s OK if you’re suffering. It’s OK if you’re struggling,” Payne says. “Reach out to people. Ask for help. We’re not robots. We’re human beings, and this is hard. Don’t feel bad. Say, ‘Yeah, this is hard, and that’s OK.’ Take that pressure off.”
The bigger point, Warrell adds, is to give yourself permission to feel your own vulnerability — to embrace your uncomfortable emotions as a way of embracing your humanity.
“Sometimes life is hard,” she says. “But just because life is hard doesn’t mean it’s all bad.”