I’m a Survivor-Take 2

I have been thinking a lot about surviving grief and trauma.  In my current status as recently widowed it has been a real challenge dealing with my own grief. This can be particularly problematic in my job as a nurse, because patients and their families often need the support of their medical team to cope with the challenges of their diagnosis, treatments and dealing with the complicated medical milieu. By nature of the job, you have to put on a good front and keep going regardless of what you are currently going through, and that has left me tired, frustrated and running low on compassion.

I really had to look at myself first, because I found that I have been actively judging myself on whether or not I have been doing a good job with my own coping.  I have been internally lecturing myself when the small things have me stymied and patting myself on the back when I think I am getting a gold star. I had my own internal rating system for what is small and inconsequential and what is big. Bad place to be, it puts me in a position of having to perform well at all times regardless of the outcome, and also holding out this scale for other people.  Not fair on any account.  That’s why this post is a “Take 2”, I needed to change my perspective to better understand and forgive myself and everyone else.

Okay, back on topic. Some people who appear to have every card stacked against them are still thriving. They the ones that I really want to get to know.  How do they do it?  What makes them a survivor in the midst of the catastrophe of their life.  Is it genetic?  Is it something that we can learn?  I have posed this question many times to myself and others, and never received a good answer so I started looking into it.

What originally sparked my interest was a show on PBS’ Nova  on January 14, 2015 (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/mental-resilience/). It was titled “What Makes a Resilient Mind”.  This featured Amanda Lindhout who was in Somalia as a reporter and was kidnapped tortured and raped for over a year. She said that it didn’t get easier to suffer, but that she had to get out of her head to survive. She would remember life in other times and places, break it down to trying to survive the next day, hour or minute. She still suffers the effects of this today, but she has found meaning by sharing her experiences through writing and lectures.

I had never heard much about resilience as an area of study until it was presented as a part of my workplace wellness program and participated in the WISER (Web-based Implementation for the Science of Enhancing Resilience) study led by Duke University’s Dr. Bryan Sexton, PhD and Stanford University’s Dr. Jochen Profit, MD, MPH. They developed tools that can be used to enhance resilience. They are: Gratitude, Awe, Looking Forward, One Good Chat, Random Acts of Kindness, Signature Strengths, and Three Good Things. For me, they helped reframe how I look at the world and tune into the good things (If you are interested you can find more here: https://www.hsq.dukehealth.org/tools/).

So what is resilience? Michael Rutter at the Institute of Psychiatry in London defined resilience as “doing better in relation to bad experiences than other people with similar bad experiences”. If you search Google for “the elements of resilience” you will find numerous articles on the 4,5,7 or whatever many elements of resilience. Chances are you are already engaging in at least some of these elements. Dr. George Bonanno of the Columbia University Teachers College found that 65% of the subjects of his study showed resilience.  They had each suffered a traumatic event.  Even though they may have been extremely shaken by the event they were able to do well in the long term.

I have boiled down the various elements of resilience I found in my reading to the ones that I think are personally relevant:

  1. I have a good sense of myself. I may not know exactly who I am becoming, but whatever transpires it will be a better me.
  2. I have a strong faith in God and that my life and the events in my life have meaning. You could also call this hope.
  3. I am an optimist. I believe that things will get better and I am going to participate in making that happen. I am not blind to the realities of life: I am not going to become a prima ballerina, ridiculously rich, or suddenly become an extrovert, but I will create a new life that is uniquely suited to who I am.
  4. I have a support system of family, friends, and coworkers around me that I can rely on. I seek out opportunities to connect with them through fun activities, phone calls, texts, support group, Bible study, etc.
  5. I am adaptable. When I run into the inevitable pitfalls of life, small or large, I won’t get stuck in the quagmire. I don’t take it as a personal affront that I am suffering and get stuck in the round-about of why me? It may take me a bit of time, but I will figure out how to either navigate around it, or incorporate it into my life.

I hope that each of you will find the tools to boost your resilience.  If you are having a hard time, just keep going. Every time you put one foot in front of the other you are a survivor.  Even if you have had to stop and sit, by the virtue of the fact that you are still thinking, feeling and alive, you are a survivor. You can make it.

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