Understanding Resilience

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In late October 2018 I was a pedestrian in Toronto and was hit by a car turning right on a red light. I experienced a fractured tibial plateau on my left leg and couldn’t walk. The severe pain kicked in on the ride to the ER at Sunnybrook, our nearest hospital. The admitting experience was largely very well organized and my care was well managed.

After plates and pins surgery a few days later, I was bed-bound for a couple of days and then up with a walker and toe-touch weight-bearing at 25% for 6 weeks. It was a challenging time with pain to be managed and sleep to be enabled, and the inevitable thoughts about the future: When will I be back to normal? Able to take a shower myself? Able to stand long enough in the kitchen to cook a meal? Able to get outside? Able to walk long distances for enjoyment and exercise?

As I travelled the road to recovery, I began to think about the all-important support from friends and family. I decided to tune into the idea of resilience to understand it better and to get a good sense of where my own resilience comes from so that I could focus and strengthen it. I have been thinking a lot lately about mortality – my own and that of my husband of 51 years – wondering with some degree of concern about how I would manage alone. This may be related to the fact that this, my 72nd year, is exactly the age when my mother, now 97, was widowed herself and I am now marvelling at how well she has managed her 25 years of being on her own.

As the days and weeks of my recovery progressed and I found myself less dependent on others for simple things like a meal and a shower, as well as emotional support, I tuned in to my own resilience and tracked not only how I felt at different moments of the experience but also how I reacted to others.

I have concluded that resilience for me has 3 tracks. The first is a large degree of what Seligman (1990) called Learned Optimism, the opposite of his earlier work on Learned Helplessness (1972). Learned Optimism is a glass half full approach, a sense of hopefulness, feelings of upbeatness, or whatever it might be called. Learned Optimism, says Seligman and others, is learning to be hopeful about the future, no matter how difficult the present seems to be. Choosing to focus on the positives in a situation is a skill that comes more easily to some people than others. How you interpret the facts about a particular situation is what matters to your ability to deal with what comes your way in a manner that is useful and increases quality of life. Positive situational focusing helps and often it is in the eye of the beholder.

The second factor in my experiences of resilience is Support and how the love and care of family and friends helps each of us to find our measure of optimism, hopefulness, and trust in a positive future. The relationship between resilience and support is an interesting one. From the friends who brought a cup of cappuccino and stayed to talk for a while, others who sent or delivered food, books and good wishes, to our kids and their families who arranged to deliver pre-cooked dinners from a nearby food emporium, the support was much appreciated from both a practical and an emotional level. Practically it helped us with the day-to-day challenges that I could not manage. Emotionally, it helped me to feel loved and cared for which likely helps healing.

And third in my arsenal for resilience is something about being able to Measure Progress in a forward direction with a goal of getting to a state that is valued, which for me at this time was mobility and independence. Little things mean a lot when you are measuring progress. Being able to walk down the hall for the first time, reducing the amount of analgesics that are required to manage pain, sleeping more than 3 or 4 hours, getting an appetite back, setting up an appointment with a physiotherapist – all these help with measuring forward progress which in turn helps to engender a sense of optimism and feelings of a positive future.

It was an interesting time, now largely resolved. I will continue to look at the concept of resilience both in myself and in others, and see if this idea of optimism, support and measuring progress holds up in other situations. And I will consider what other concepts might be operating in other situations requiring resilience.

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