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Resiliency: When the Finish Line is Ambiguous

5/3/2021 8:40:00 AM
Written By:
Lori A. Burkett, PsyD, LCP, CSAC - Colonial Behavioral Health

How much further? When will we get there? Are we there yet?

Most of us are familiar with these questions coming from the back seat as we drive along, navigating to our final destination. We find comfort knowing we will get out of the car soon enough. Away from backseat bickering, smelly feet, and sticky fingers. We point to maps and road signs to encourage our little and adolescent riders that the journey will be coming to an end, with the confines of the car, plane, or train as temporary.

But what if there is no end in sight? What if no one in the car knew when the journey would end? What if the driver or navigator could not offer answers to satisfy even their own questions?

We are living in an unprecedented time of uncertainty and ambiguity. From COVID-19, to continued school shutdowns and hybrid learning, to widespread protests, to a politically divisive climate, to social unrest, to a ‘cancel and woke culture’, and a myriad of other stressors - families are facing economic, relational, emotional, spiritual, and physical uncertainties. We are all experiencing an evolving situation due to COVID-19 and the societal mitigations imposed upon us to reduce the impact of the pandemic.

Early in 2020 and ensuing throughout, to now, researchers, politicians, and community leaders have questioned the impact of secondary factors of the pandemic on families, children and adolescents. We are faced as a society with an increase in emergency rooms visits for mental health needs, suicide and self-injurious behaviors, rampant substance abuse, and ongoing isolation. Reports indicate that our elderly are making end of life decisions, longing to avoid the isolation that another ‘lockdown’ may bring. Mental health agencies, governmental and private, have sounded the battle cry for innovation of services, trauma informed care, and policy adaptations.

The American Psychological Association (2014) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress.” There is ongoing discussion and mixed views as to whether children are born with resiliency. The prevailing notion indicates that whether one is born with resilient traits or not, all can learn to become more resilient. Trauma specialists note the impact of ongoing stressors on the body’s ability to respond and adapt to every daily life.

Jelena MacLeod, MD, of the Yale Child Study Center, examines resiliency and trauma considering the ongoing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a survivor of the war in Croatia, Dr. MacLeod has a personal perspective on the emotional and physical toll of traumatic events on the daily life of a child. Dr. MacLeod notes that most children and adolescents do not develop mental health diagnoses following a traumatic experience, finding that Post-traumatic Growth is more common than a post-traumatic stress disorder. Post-traumatic Growth is characterized by “increased personal strength, enhanced appreciation of life, identification of new possibilities, and improved relationships with others.” Like building a muscle, resiliency can be built over time and with intention.

Lucy Lin (Forestlyn.com) offers seven (7) methods to develop resilience during a global crisis (adapted).

  1. Stay strong. Accept the reality of your situation no matter how hard that may be. Think – adaptable and flexible.
  2. I get knocked down; I get up again. Tenacity to never quit. Think – persistence and perseverance.
  3. Continuous growth is key. Flowers don’t grow without the rain and they don’t grow over night. Think – learning and evolving.
  4. Plan. Set short- and long-term goals. Think - planning and preparation.
  5. Be kind to others. Even in toughest times, being selfless helps discover our own inner strength. Think – supportive and empathetic.
  6. Create a support network. It is hard to navigate through a crisis alone. Think – building relationships that last.
  7. This too shall pass. Control what you can, manage what you can’t.

The American Psychological Association offers 10 tips for building resilience in youth (adapted).

  1.  Make connections.
  2.  Help your child by having them help others.
  3.  Maintain a daily routine.
  4.  Take a break.
  5.  Teach your child self-care.
  6.  Move toward your goals.
  7.  Nurture a positive self-view.
  8.  Keep things in perspective and maintain a hopeful outlook.
  9.  Look for opportunities for self-discovery.
  10.  Accept change.

As we navigate what some are calling our new normal, we are seeing hopeful signs that new innovations in the delivery of mental health services, advocacy by community groups, and education by our leading mental health agencies are having a positive impact on the lives of many. We must not resign ourselves to a journey without a destination, without a plan of action for the course, without thoughtful intention to the needs of the least of these in our care, or without hope that inspires courage to overcome. Henry Miller once said, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” As we look to support and encourage one another during these times, may we see opportunities, bridges, and open doors.

Lori A. Burkett is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Certified Substance Abuse Counselor working at Colonial Behavioral Health's Greater Williamsburg Child Assessment Center. She has over 20 years of experience specializing in psychological assessment and evaluation, trauma-informed care, forensics, adolescent substance use, spirituality and faith issues, and LGBTQ issues. 


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