According to the American Psychological Association, “the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person’s resilience.” They further state that the following factors are associated with personal resilience:
- The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
- A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
- Skills in communication and problem solving.
- The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.
One factor that I think is implicit but worth naming as an addition is curiosity, wonder, and an attitude of experimentation or problem-solving in response to challenges.
In contemplating my experience working with people in crisis, it occurred to me that a crisis could be characterized by the lack of these resilience factors. In my observation, a person in a crisis state often experiences some combination of the following:
- Obstacles or stressors that seem inescapable, untenable, or impossible to cope with/overcome with current resources.
- Overwhelming emotion—particularly the famous sympathetic nervous response called the “fight, flight, or freeze” reflex—or dissociation from that emotion.
- Impulsivity in response, difficulty assessing available options and making decisions that are more beneficial than harmful in the long run.
- Narrowing of perspective and fixation on challenges, setbacks, grievances, or fears.
- Negative view of self and insecurity in strengths and abilities.
- Feeling unsupported, alone, or actively opposed.
People in crisis are metaphorically drowning, and they bring up strong emotions in the people around them. When in crisis, we seem to invite others to freak out with us, join in our outrage or our terror, even though that’s not what we really want or need. We also start looking for a savior, anyone who can pull us out of this overwhelming situation and make the crisis end. We feel helpless, alone.
We are thus vulnerable to people who would exploit our crisis for their gain. We’re more likely to agree to harmful “solutions” that seem to fix the problem but get us stuck in worse. We’re more likely to give our power to people who promise us safety and security—two qualities guaranteed to no one in this world—only to learn later how much we’ve given up of our autonomy and values. When politicians and advertisers put out messages that stir up our crisis responses, we would do well to wonder what it is they’re trying to sell us.
People in crisis are like drowning victims. Those who want to help feel like we should get in the water to get them, but that runs a high risk of turning the would-be savior into the victim. (Link to source.) People who are drowning or in crisis want out as quickly as possible by any means necessary, so fixated on the existential threat that their brain’s capacity to evaluate outcomes and make reasoned decisions has been essentially turned off to focus resources on survival.
If you want to help someone who is drowning, the best way is to find your own stable ground, throw a line of some kind out to the person, and pull them back to stability. This is good advice for helping someone in crisis as well. Often what benefits folks in crisis the most is someone who can offer calm, grounding presence, who can listen while they process their distress and help them think through their options, find resources, and come up with a plan of what to do next. You might notice that this fosters resilience, as the supportive person is being that caring and encouraging relationship that helps the person reconnect with their strengths, manage the strong feelings, and think about the problem as something solvable.
If you want to find your stable ground, look to those resilience factors and figure out which ones you need to strengthen. Find someone who has experience and skill those factors, and build a relationship with them. You might start a sitting meditation practice to learn how to remain calm and observant in the midst of distressing emotions, but that is only one of many possible disciplines that can help with that. With practice, we can learn ways to move out into distress, surf its energies, and find our way back to calm.
This post is a variation of a presentation I gave at a recent conference, which was followed by a discussion about community resilience. More on that discussion is written up in this post.