Written by Dana Fulwiler, Provincial Project Coordinator, Ever Active Schools

“Building Resilience in Four Questions” is part 3 of 4 in a series on Teacher and Staff Well-being.

“Like tiny seeds with potent power to push through tough ground and become mighty trees, we hold innate reserves of unimaginable strength. We are resilient.― Catherine DeVrye, The Gift of Nature

Water drips from a hand onto young plants, building resilience in nature to represent building resilience in yourself and others.

 

We. Are. Resilient. We can navigate adversity and uncertainty and grow in the face of challenge. We can take risks. Not only are we wired to overcome challenges, resilience can also be learned and taught. It is not something you either have or you don’t, or something that requires hardship in order to build. As Dr. Ann Masten’s (1) research on development suggests, resilience is common and results from ordinary processes (check out her book: Ordinary Magic). Since we always live on some spectrum of uncertainty, we can build tools to help us manage those states with greater acceptance, intentionality, productivity, and likelihood of bouncing forward with new insight and strength. 

Resilience is a multifaceted human process with a wide range of lived experience and research to help us unpack what it means to us, why it’s a powerful resource, and how to cultivate it.

Studies on resilience training in schools have shown decreases in symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improvements in optimism and healthy mindsets. (2) Resilience protective factors include self-regulation, self-efficacy, connection, mental and emotional agility, self-awareness, physical fitness, and optimism (3) – these are all resources that can be developed. 

OPTIMISM AND RESILIENCE

While it might seem counterintuitive (or even impossible) to practice optimism right now, science tells us it’s a powerful resource for resilience. Optimism is often misunderstood as blind positivity, rather than realistic confidence that good things can and will happen. It’s actually a mindset we can work toward. Cultivating optimism allows us to not take things too personally, to accept that “this too shall pass”, and to approach challenging situations with compassion, curiosity, and a commitment to growth. Below are a few prompts to help cultivate optimism(4):

  1. How can I celebrate the goodness in myself and others?
    • As we covered in our first and second posts in this series, experiencing positive emotions through actions like gratitude and strengthening connections all have a massive impact on our well-being and resilience! They energize and help us keep perspective. To notice the goodness in ourselves, we can express self-gratitude – “what did I do today that I’m grateful for, and/or proud of”? 
  2. What’s within my control?
    • This is a tricky and important one. As we mentioned in the first post, our natural tendency is toward the negative. Often that energy is wasted on things beyond our control, and since uncertainty impacts our well-being, it’s even more essential to be intentional in the ways we redirect our focus. In tough, overwhelming or uncertain times, we can say to ourselves “one thing I can control is ____________” – and then follow through.
  3. What’s really going on here – am I still connected to reality?
    • Sometimes our minds cloud a clear answer. Thinking traps are patterns of thought that can narrow our view of the world around us and result in missed (or misunderstood) information. Two common thinking traps of mine are catastrophizing and personalizing:
      • Catastrophizing: imagining the worst possible scenario and getting stuck there. This often results in feelings of anxiousness and overwhelm. Try using the mental cue “breathe” and the question “what’s the evidence”?
      • Personalizing: blaming adversity on yourself alone and internalizing the struggle. This might result in sadness, guilt, and/or withdrawal. Try using the mental cue “look outward” and the question “how are other circumstances contributing”?
  4. These thoughts are counterproductive – I’m going to challenge them!
    • Real-time resilience is a process to further challenge those thinking traps and the negative self-talk that’s all too common. It helps to shut down our unhelpful thoughts, redirect our focus, and build our confidence to rise to the occasion. It’s not about “thinking positive”, but rather challenging those counterproductive thoughts head on. Think of an upcoming difficult situation, or something you’ve been worried about (maybe a tough conversation, what next year will look like, etc.), and consider these real-time resilience prompts to quiet any negative self-talk:
      • Evidence: that’s not true because … (be specific)
      • Plan: if X happens, I will Y …
      • Reframe: a more productive way to see this is …
      • Control: one thing I can control is … 
      • Signature Strengths: I can use my character strength, X, to … 

REACHING OUT RESILIENCE

Dr. Reivich and Dr. Shatte identify four uses of resilience: overcoming trauma, steering through regular life stressors, bouncing back from hardship, and reaching out to take positive risks (3). I think the last one is underrated. Reaching out resilience sparks the joys of life: “a mindset that enables us to seek out new experiences and view life as a work in progress”. It helps us acknowledge our own potential, avoid mediocrity, and strengthen our sense of meaning and purpose by connecting with others, leveraging resources, pursuing new opportunities, etc. 

In reality, this can be really hard! Reivich and Shatte’s research suggests that we become so comfortable in the perceived safety of routine, that we avoid switching things up – even if we love the exhilarating feeling that comes with trying new things – the fear of failure or embarrassment can be overwhelming. When this happens – we can access their real-time resilience prompts above! Self-awareness, connection, and optimism also enable us to reach out.

As we transition into summer, I invite you to cultivate this lesser-known aspect of resilience. Identify one new thing that you’d like to try that aligns with your values. Perhaps it’s something you’ve reconnected with since the pandemic hit – art, hiking, yoga, music (these came up during our In the Round chat when teachers shared positive moments they’re enjoying). When was the last time you took a class in something you love, or read a book you normally wouldn’t, or cooked/ate a new type of meal, or reached out to someone new? These may not sound that risky – but our minds might beg to differ. As we get used to trying new things and using tools like real-time resilience to help us overcome our doubts and fears, we build new habits of thought and show our own minds that it’s okay (and fun!) to take risks, and possibilities blow wide open.

RECOMMENDED RESILIENCE RESOURCES

REFERENCES

  1. Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56(3), 227–238.
  2. Bastounis, A, Callaghan, P, Banerjee, A and Michail, M (2016). The effectiveness of the Penn Resiliency Programme (PRP) and its adapted versions in reducing depression and anxiety and improving explanatory style: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Adolescence, 52, 37-48.
  3. Reivich, K. & Shatte, A. (2002). The resilience factor: 7 Essential skills for overcoming life’s inevitable obstacles. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
  4. Reivich, K. J., Seligman, M. E., & McBride, S. (2011). Master resilience training in the US Army. American Psychologist, 66(1), 25.

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