By Rand O’Leary
I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it. – Maya Angelou
If there’s one thing that 2020 has definitely called for, its resilience. We’re living in turbulent times and COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of American life – from health to work to childcare to education and even exercise. Add to that a fragile economy, a smattering of natural disasters, and widespread political and racial unrest, and you’ve got all of the ingredients needed to keep most people in a state of near-constant stress. The concerns and events of 2020 have been even more profound for essential workers, especially those in healthcare settings.
According to Psychology Today, resilience is the quality that allows some people to be knocked down by these stressors and come back at least as strong as they were before. “Rather than letting difficulties, traumatic events, or failure to overcome them drain their resolve, highly resilient people find a way to change course, emotionally heal, and continue moving toward their goals.”
The good news is, resiliency can be learned, and you can come back from obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats. While some people are far better than others at dealing with adversity, George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College contends that, “all of us possess the same fundamental stress-response system, which has evolved over millions of years and the vast majority of people are pretty good at using that system to deal with stress.”
It all begins with perception, and whether you see an event as traumatic or as an opportunity to learn and grow. Optimism and pessimism also factor heavily into a person’s resilience; in The Resiliency Advantage by Al Siebert, PhD, two leading researchers, Charles Carver and Michael Scheier, explain that, “optimists are people who expect good things to happen to them; pessimists are people who expect bad things to happen to them.” Believing that good events will happen in your future is different than hoping that your current difficulties will get better.
Siebert writes that the starting point for resiliency often begins with asking yourself questions such as, “How can I cope with this? What is still good in my life?” Focus on the positive because your brain is on duty, and when you send it out to look for something, it often finds it. If you define the situation too narrowly and think of it only as devastating, chances are, it will be. However, living through adversity doesn’t guarantee that you’ll suffer moving forward. The experience isn’t inherent in the event, its often in the way you move through it.
Setting goals and taking steps to achieve them are also key elements to resilience. David McClelland, a psychology professor at Harvard University, found that successful people work to achieve personal goals; they are not motivated to achieve social indicators of success. Success, for them, is a feeling they enjoy when they reach their self-chosen goals.
What do you want to do in the next five, 10 or 20 years? What steps do you need to take today to reach those goals? Focusing on the big picture, especially when you are going through hard times, keeps you grounded and can give you something to work towards and look forward to, creating resilience, no matter how hard life seems to be at any given time.
And lastly, it’s also important to embrace change. If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us, it’s that nothing stays the same. Obstacles and events beyond our control are a given, and when we recognize that and know that “this too shall pass,” we’re much better positioned to move through situations as they arise with confidence and determination, making resilience a way of life.
About Rand O’Leary
Rand O’Leary, FACHE, most recently served as the PeaceHealth Chief Executive for the Oregon Network. He shares his thoughts on leadership and the healthcare industry at randoleary.com.