Resilience: Building The Ability to Bounce Back

Where did this come from? I pointed to a note someone had left in my husband Vito’s ICU unit where he was lying paralyzed. A serious case of Guillain-Barré, a neurological disease that attacks the myelin sheath around nerves, had rendered his body’s nerves useless. I had gone out to grab a quick lunch only to come back to find a yellow post-it note with some words scrawled on it. Who left this? I asked as I re-read the quote, beginning to tear up. The words landed squarely in a well of vulnerability and need that I hadn’t yet named. Despite my outward facade of having it all handled, I really needed to hear those words. That quote meant someone believed in our family’s ability to handle this latest gut punch, even if I was feeling kind of shaky. The ICU nurse smiled and said that Dr. Jason Litten-our son Nick’s oncologist-had dropped by. He only had a short break from his own duties, but wanted to see Vito and spend some time with him. Jason was especially important to our family. He had been the lead on Nick’s oncology team from the moment that Nick was diagnosed at age sixteen and had seen us through some really hard times. It was precisely that knowledge of who we were as a family and what we had gone through that made his words so powerful. He believed in us and in our ability to get through this. But even more than that – Jason held up a mirror so that we could see it ourselves – our own resilience. He...

Going From Bad to Better: The Gratitude Strategy

Focus on the positive. It’s hard to believe that a serious life crisis and the word “blessing” would come in the same sentence. When my son and husband had cancer, idea of looking for something positive in our family’s experiences probably seemed hyper-religious or Pollyanaish in the extreme to some people. Spiritually, I viewed it as a form of radical surrender to an organizing framework of my life; practically, it kept me sane. Tune down the victim thinking. Leaving behind the “poor me” mentality meant walking away from the norm. After all, my family was going through hell. Didn’t I deserve to throw myself a pity party and invite a few friends? Yet, as comforting as it seemed initially to wrap myself up in the cold comfort of victim thinking or anxiety, or as easy as it was to allow the fears take over my day, I always came away from those internal, negative conversations wearier than before. And I couldn’t afford to add to my exhaustion. So, logically, anything I could do to grow the positive in my life made more sense to me than focusing on the negative. I needed all the infusions of energy I could get and I found that looking for and counting my blessings filled me up. Gratitude turned out to be the best antidote I could find for fatigue, anxiety, self-doubt and dread. Cultivate gratitude. Research bears the importance of gratitude. The Greater Good Science Center, citing the research of more than 30 scientists and graduate students, has found that gratitude impacts not only our emotions with increased happiness, joy, optimism, compassion,...

Avoid Going From Bad to Worse in a Crisis

“No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse.” Randy Pausch But, as Randy, author of the book“The Last Lecture,” also pointed out, “at the same time, it is often within your power to make them better.” When things are going badly, what do people do that makes things worse? They move too quickly—Quick resolution of an issue can be a wonderful thing. Our cinema action heroes are known for their lightning fast responses to terrible situations. And while they rarely make situations worse in the movies, in real life making a decision when tired, overwhelmed, or scared often does. They isolate—Research on coping behaviors in a severe crisis points out the danger in retreating from support. In isolation, fears often grow as does depression and loneliness. While it is normal to pull in to process or deal with the flood of emotions and information that can come our way during a crisis, staying in that bunker of withdrawal can ultimately make the tough times even more difficult to navigate. They let the negative overwhelm everything else. When a disaster occurs in our lives, we can be engulfed by the emotions, logistics, and disruption—none of which is likely to feel positive. Yet spending our time thinking or talking about how unfair the situation is yields only more negative feelings. For several months, I had the improbable opportunity to take both my husband and son to their respective weekly chemotherapy treatments. As I sat in the waiting room with my husband, I noticed how rarely the adult cancer patients made contact with one another other than the barest of...

Five Ways Your Crisis May Be Changing Your Life—For The Better!

“Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.” ― Rumi What? My crisis has an upside ?? What kind of do-gooder, Pollyanna optimism is that? Don’t get me wrong. Every single crisis I have ever been through was heart wrenching, scary, and kept me awake on numerous nights when I desperately needed sleep. I don’t like crises. In fact, I coined a little acronym for them that explains just how much I would like to avoid them. I call them AFGOs, which stands for Another Frickin’ Growth Opportunity. And yet…..I grew. From every single one of them. Sometimes the growth was exponential—like finally seeing just how strong I was when my son and husband both had cancer within the space of three years. Other times, it was only in retrospect that I saw the impact of the crisis—the ability to buckle down and study in order to graduate with my MBA (something that was in doubt after the first two semesters in grad school.) So, what are some gifts that come from crisis? Researchers in post traumatic growth have found five areas where many people report a positive change in their lives, in the aftermath of a disaster or crisis: 1) Greater appreciation of self. While I owned, finally, the strength and resilience that others had always seen in me, my clients have had similar realizations. Angela (name changed) discovered just how good her business instincts and decisions were when her husband was incarcerated. She handed over the creative side of the business to others and began handling the day to day running of the company. In...

Angels Among Us

Oh I believe there are angels among us. Sent down to us from somewhere up above. They come to you and me in our darkest hours. To show us how to live, to teach us how to give. lyrics by Becky Hobbs, sung by the group Alabama. In August of 2004, I was invited to conduct a workshop in Shenzhen, China. The morning of the workshop, while breakfasting in the restaurant of my hotel, my purse was stolen. In it was my money, cell phone, credit cards, driver’s license and most important, my passport and visa. While the staff of the five-star hotel searched the hotel and restaurant premises, I stood in the restaurant, in shock, desperately trying to wake up from a traveler’s worst nightmare. My mind immediately began to create the list of what would have to be done to be able to leave two days later on my flight.It seemed almost impossible–particularly as I spoke exactly three words of Mandarin Chinese. Stories of Chinese bureaucracy and stereotypes of Asian indifference, along with a fear of disappointing my important clients curled through my brain. My stomach clinched, my anxiety escalated and I kept forgetting to breathe. It was in the midst of my panic that the first of many angels, Western and Chinese, appeared. Almost immediately the concierge—a wonderful young man named Paul–was assigned to accompany me through the logistical and legalistic labyrinth that leaving the country would require. Next, one of my clients opened his wallet and handed me the equivalent of $200 so that I had spending money on me. As I returned to my...

Six Ways to Find Firm Ground in a Crisis

You’ve just been gob-smacked and your world is spinning. You can’t think clearly, want to throw up, are looking for a place to hide or trying to wake up the nightmare that your world has just become. Most people, when faced with a life changing event like a cancer diagnosis, death of a loved one, sudden loss of an important relationship or job, feel it in their bodies. It becomes hard to breathe, our stomachs roil, we become light headed and nothing seems real. My memory of those first days after my sixteen year old son was diagnosed with precursor B cell lymphoma is hazy, I was disoriented, terrified, and numb—sometimes all at the same time. So, what is going on, inside this skin that may feel like it no longer belongs to us? Our bodies, relying on the primitive (and successful) evolutionary design of the limbic system responds quickly and completely to stress or distress that we perceive to be severe. Our neurochemistry kicks into action, flooding the brain and the body with massive amounts of neurochemicals and hormones (adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, and epinephrine) to read y us to fight or flee. Physiologically, our blood pressure goes up, our pupils dilate, and our senses become hyper-vigilant to any changes around us. Given all this and more that is happening inside of our bodies, it’s not surprising that we have trouble thinking straight. If we are going to move from shock to effective action, the first and most important action we can take is to move back into our bodies. In addition to the obvious techniques of eating well...
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