By Alan Leavens, Ph.D.
I have two friends who are hospital nurses in the States. Both got COVID-19 at work and came through it with the usual symptoms, but no ventilators or anything. One of them went back to work within a week of testing negative, but my other friend is an emotional mess and does not think she can ever go back. What is the difference between them? Why is one so scared and the other so eager to return?
The capacity to recover relatively quickly from a traumatic incident is called resilience. According to Wikipedia, it’s “the ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis … quickly. Resilience exists when the person uses mental processes and behaviors in promoting personal assets and protecting self from the potential negative effects of stressors.”
Some people may be born with traits that can lead to being more resilient, but resilience can be, and often is, taught by professionals in the field of Critical Incident Debriefing. These people are experts at dealing with the aftermath of crises and the individuals who have experienced them. Some individuals are more traumatized by an incident than others. Research pertaining to soldiers who went through the Vietnam war and more current research into critical incidents found that some developed Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but most did not. The difference was in two major areas: Risk Factors and Protective Factors.
Most risk factors are obvious: Having a trauma or major anxiety at a young age can have a devastating effect on later life. A history of drug or alcohol abuse is another; and—maybe not so obvious—not having strong social support after the trauma. Protective factors include support from friends or family, being part of a support group, or coping in a positive way by learning from the incident. A bit of psychotherapy goes a long way in ameliorating the result of risk factors and strengthening protective factors.
Resilient attributes include having a sense of belonging, self-confidence, and sharing one’s experiences with significant others. Other attributes of resilience include being able to overcome pride and ask for help, having good problem-solving skills, and seeing oneself as a survivor, as opposed to a victim. These can be learned by anyone who is interested in becoming less vulnerable to many of life’s stresses. Most of our resilient attributes develop in childhood. However, later experiences can cloud the optimism we once felt and make it difficult to access those positive qualities. And there is a lot of literature out there about resilience, which has become more of a focus of interest with all that is going on in the world.
If you want to plan for the future and be prepared for crisis situations, some reading may be in order. If you have already experienced crisis situations and are struggling with the outcomes, please consider consulting a professional.
“The ability to learn resilience is one reason research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary.” (American Psychological Association)
Alan Leavens Ph.D., is a California licensed Clinical Psychologist, living and working in SMA. For questions or concerns that you wish him to address, please email: email@example.com