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Zhuangzi said that the sage can walk through fire and not get burned and through water and not get wet. There is a similar passage in Isaiah 43:2 – “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” How do we accomplish the ability to get through difficult times and be resilient? There are a couple of books that can help.

Coaching for Resilience: A Practical Guide to using Positive Psychology, by Adrienne Green and John Humphrey

The authors of Coaching for Resilience are the founding directors of Nice Work Consulting, Ltd. which specializes in workplace psychology and workplace wellbeing. Green, a psychotherapist, also authored Out Of The Blue: A Practical Guide To Overcoming And Preventing Depression. Both authors are based in the United Kingdom. Coaching for Resilience is an expanded and detailed guide based on workshops Green and Humphrey give on building resilience. Their goal is to help people manage stress so that they do not become overwhelmed and become physically and emotionally unwell. The authors see high stress and low resilience as a vicious circle, and this book helps one to get out of that vicious circle and does so with a series of thoughtful exercise based on what they call “the seven keys.”

The book is divided into two parts with each part having exercises and case studies that allow you to personalize and come up with your own way of learning to manage stress. There are also directives for reflection and specific ideas to pay attention to in each chapter to help you with the process of learning to manage and redefine how you cope with stress. Part one gives the background on what resilience and stress are, the neuroscience of the relationship of resilience and stress, the effects of stress, and why the strategies that we typically use to cope may not work so well. The neuroscience is explained in clear understandable language. Part one lays the groundwork for helping you to understand and define what is causing you problems with stress and resilience.

Part two covers their “seven keys” in detail. Key one is the need people have to be liked and/or to be in control. These needs are the underlying causes of stress. Those who need to be liked may use passivity as a communication style. Those with a need for control may use aggression as a style, while those with both needs may use passive aggression, which the authors see as the most problematic of the three styles.

Each key builds upon the prior key. For example, the second key is to live your values. They help you to determine your values, and then give you exercises to help you determine if you are actually living those values by using a continuum of whether an activity is important or not important and whether it is urgent or not urgent. The third key is that you have a right to determine your own life. Exercises, case studies and reflections teach you empathic assertiveness to help you take charge of yourself.

The subsequent keys are: change is the only constant, life is difficult and that is okay, attitude makes all the difference, and live in the present. In each section, you look at your life as you are living it and decide how you would like to change it to cope better. For example, people typically see change as either dangerous or as an opportunity. The authors use cognitive behavioral techniques to help you build self-confidence and change your self-talk to increase your coping skills. They also address challenging yourself in ways to improve your chances of functioning in a flow state by practicing mindfulness.

Despite the book’s relatively short length, it should not be thought of as a quick read. The authors include many exercises and opportunities for reflection and growth throughout the book in a structured step-by-step way. This is a workbook, and the fact that it is based on workshops the authors have given is a strength. You know as you work through the exercises that the authors have developed and refined these in their teaching. The authors also give examples from their own lives of times when it was a struggle to stay with the keys. What they teach here is realistic. It is an excellent book for getting to know yourself, how you manage stress, and how to improve your coping skills so that they become a way of life do that your life is one of resilience.

Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney

Since the publication of the first edition of this book in 2012, both authors have had to put their research on resilience into practice in their own lives. Dennis Charney lost his father, and Charney himself was shot with a shotgun last year while leaving a deli in New York City by a disgruntled former employee. After five days in intensive care, he faced an arduous rehabilitation. Both of Steven Southwick’s parents died, his sister had colon cancer, and his very athletic brother’s leg was amputated, and his recovery was difficult as well. In researching this book, the authors spoke with Special Forces instructors, veterans who had suffered in POW camps in Hanoi, people who survived the World Trade Center attack of 9-11, individuals who had been raped and almost killed, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, who had lost limbs to land mines, who had survived refugee camps in the Sudan, who overcame congenital birth defects, and more. They also did an extensive literature review on resilience – what it is, what are important factors in resilience, and how to be more resilient in your life.

Resilience is a complex topic. The authors came up with what they call “resilience factors” based on their interviews with resilient people but concede that the list is not comprehensive in what gives us the strength and ability to come back. The factors are the ones that were “most often the ones described as crucial and even life-saving.” The factors are realistic optimism, facing fear, a moral compass, religion and spirituality, social support, resilient role models, physical fitness, brain fitness, cognitive and emotional flexibility, and meaning and purpose in life.

Southwick and Charney look at a multitude of influences on resilience including neuroscience, epigenetics and genetics, physiology, and environment. They also put these into the context of the United States and our vulnerability in terms of resilience. Our overall lack of physical fitness, our disconnectedness with each other, and other factors are sometimes framed as a national security weakness. According to their research, about “75% of Americans age 17 – 24 are no longer eligible to join the military.” The most common reasons are poor physical fitness, not graduating high school and a criminal record. Our all-volunteer military comes from an ever-smaller cross-section of the US.

Each chapter has an extensive list of references, so you can do further research if you like. The research is impressive and comprehensive. The stories are what really stick with me. If you need role models for resilience, this book has an abundance of them. There are famous people like James Stockdale who was the ranking officer as a prisoner in Hanoi and Bob Woodruff of ABC news who suffered a traumatic brain injury covering the war in Iraq. There is Jerry White who lost a leg to a landmine in 1984 while hiking in Israel. His struggle to recover eventually led to his winning a Nobel Peace prize along with Ken Rutherford for their work with the Landmine Survivors Network. Just the stories of the strength and resilience of the people interviewed is worth the read. The people are amazing and inspirational. And the stories of how they were able to recover is insightful and thoughtful and always respectful of the struggle. The authors write with both critical thinking and open hearts.

I am happy to have this resource. Over the years I have worked with people who suffered repeated hospitalizations in psychiatric facilities, who were repeatedly incarcerated, and who suffered physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse. I have worked with those who have struggled with severe physical injury and illness, and who were in combat in the armed forces. I have always been impressed by the resilience of not just those who were able to thrive, as the folks interviewed in this book, but also those who somehow got up each day and survived despite living in systems and environments stacked against them. I can share this valuable resource with them.

There are two appendices to the book. One is on posttraumatic stress disorder. In pondering the section, I came to realize that there is a high probability that two of the people I was very close to as a child most likely had some degree of PTSD, one from war and one from childhood trauma. This book is enlightening on many levels.

The other is on community resiliency. All too often we are complacent and don’t plan ahead or do what is needed to be prepared for the crises in our lives that sooner or later come to be. This book is an excellent resource to help us all become more resilient in our lives. The final story is of a small teenaged boy in a track race in the Special Olympics. The young boy’s attitude and his words will leave you with a smile and feeling moved and inspired. A young girl, also in the race, pointed out to him that, “You came in last.” “Tha, tha, that’s okay,” he stuttered as he faced the girl and looked her in the eye. “I came in.”

 

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