Robins Resilient!

for the town in which I live and work

What we are experiencing is a slow-moving trauma. There is a way in which you see something coming, not exactly knowing what “it” is. But you feel the challenge already. It reminds me of the way that we have weathered hurricanes and tropical storms in the past … glued to our screens, watching the bands of wind and rain move closer and closer.

There are feelings of helplessness and fear … and the advice that we hear is often to prepare, then hold on.

At least for me, I want more than that.

Part of the reason that I think of this through the lens of trauma is my own occupational bent. I work with a lot of people, young and old, who have had upending experiences in their lives. We live in a “base town”. Often these experiences are related to deployment and war, but just as often they could be family trauma, abuse and neglect, or a present difficult reality.

This present reality we are facing involves some of the hallmarks of trauma: the threat of death to you or someone close to you, indirect exposure to violence or death (our healthcare workers), and those feelings of horror and helplessness as the event unfolds.

Most scholars will point to resiliency as the way through trauma, with “resiliency” being a trait that we can nurture in ourselves and those around us.

A resilient person as “a twig with a fresh, green living core. When twisted out of shape, such a twig bends, but it does not break; instead, it springs back and continues growing.”

from Aging Well by George Vaillant

This ability to “spring back”, to have some flexibility in the midst of life’s challenges, this is what we mean by resiliency.

But how do we foster resiliency in ourselves and in our community?

We start with the story that we tell ourselves. In therapy, I often use the analogy of eyeglasses, that the words we tell ourselves, about ourselves, will either bring clarity or distort how we see the world. If the story we tell ourselves over and over is one where we failed, where we were “not enough”, or a story that predicts future failure, then we begin to live out that story.

Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

Now this is not to say that we can tell ourselves that we can fly without being inside an airplane! But it does mean that we should practice taking off those lenses, looking around at what is really in front of us, at all the possible ways of looking at our situation, and make a decision from that place.

As a community, this small farming village of Wellston grew into a thriving base town during World War II and then later during the Korean War. Our story is one of meeting adversity and finding a way to help.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Another aspect of resiliency is having a strong moral compass and the grounding of religious/spiritual support. This makes sense in that when one is being thrown around by the challenges of life, having some center onto which you hold aids you in making sense out of the senseless. Our faith communities help us hold on during the crisis. They also are the types of places where we rethink what happened and find ways in which meaning and purpose emerge.

Not that the number of places of worship is the only measure, but Warner Robins Georgia and the surrounding communities have a large number of faith communities. Finding our way through often means holding on, with others, to what we know to be true.

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Standing together with others is also an important aspect of resiliency. It is a myth that any of us do anything on our own. Our military members will remind you over and over again that even the one who stands at the front has been supported by so many others behind them. Without a supportive community of parents, our teachers could not do their jobs. Without a community who cares about our first responders, they would lose their ability to keep us safe.

One aspect of a pandemic is a tendency to “draw in”, to become suspicious of others, perhaps even angry with others. And although “social distancing” requires physical distance, it does not mean that we cannot reach out to each other, support each other, in ways that don’t require us to be physically together.

Photo by Luke van Zyl on Unsplash

Practicing flexibility is a key aspect of resilience. The shadow side of having that “strong moral compass” can also be an unwillingness to change or see another way; this is often a reaction based more in fear than faith.

Resilience is about looking honestly at your situation and then considering ways to adapt and change. We work to maintain a flexibility in our thinking and emotions. This often means taking a deep breath and asking yourself the question, “I wonder if there’s another way here?” You give yourself a moment to look around so that you can see all the possible directions.

Fear tends to cause us to think in either/or terms, not both/and.

With parents and children, I often find myself coaching both of them by simply saying, “I wonder if there’s some other way you might have thought of … even if it feels silly at first.” When we share these in a space of curiosity instead of judgment, then we may be surprised at the possibilities that emerge.

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

Physical and emotional fitness are vital to resiliency.

It has been heartening for me, a runner, to see so many people running, biking, walking, and finding those ways to take care of their physical selves. As a mental health clinician, I know how much research there is about how exercise is important not only for our physical health, but our mental health as well.

And as a clinician, I know that we often neglect our emotional/mental health because it seems to be harder to consider our brain as an organ that we need to protect in the same way that we see a cardiologist for our heart and an endocrinologist for our diabetes! Mental health is about our overall health. And when we aren’t caring for our mental health, our physical health usually follows.

We should also not forget how all of this works together, for ourselves as individuals, but also for our families and our community. Part of the story of this community is coming together to help an effort as a country. There was purpose and meaning in what we were doing. Oftentimes the best actions we can take are small ones that we see as connected to a larger whole.

Our lives are tied together. Our diverse community has a history of uniting in a shared purpose.

That is Robins Resilience and Robins Strong!

“Our hurts return at different ages and stages.”

Part of an occasional series about phrases that this therapist finds himself repeating, often.

Photo by Brent De Ranter on Unsplash

As a clinician in private practice, a phrase that I hear myself repeating often is “Our hurts return at different ages and stages”. This phrase generally arises in working with the parents of a child or maybe even a young adult when some early difficult event in their life seems to have returned.

We feel like we have circled all the way around to the exact same spot again.

You may feel defeated or may say, “But I thought we had beat this” or “I thought I was done with talking about this.”

But here we are … sometimes dealing with the same problematic behavior. Sometimes we are treading through the trauma again, although there is something different this time around.

We feel like we are in the same place, yet it is different, all at the same time.

Our hurts do change us. Much in the same way that a physical injury means that we have to adjust; we find a new way of moving through the world and often a change in how we view the world. The world won’t be the same again. And there is a way that this change unfolds again and again, over the lifespan.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Children go through developmental stages, with discrete tasks to work through.

Depending on when the trauma happened, there may be a great deal of self-blame associated with it. Children often see themselves as the center of the universe, therefore they often see themselves as having a major role in an event, even if the trauma was certainly not caused by them.

For instance, if the trauma is the loss of a parent, a child may have worked through the difficulty at the earlier age. But when moving into adolescence, the absence of that parent means something different to them. Even in their physical self, that child may look for their missing parent in their facial features or in the way that their body is maturing. “You look just like your mother when you …” is common for children to hear.

In addition, there is the realization that this missing parent will never watch them play soccer. The missing parent will not have a chance to criticize who they are dating. The child will not hear, “I’m proud of you” from the parent who is no longer present.

The original absence of the parent was a trauma, but the absence continues as the child moves into a new stage of their lives.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Young adults hit milestones in their lives that remind them of the original trauma.

As the child turns into an adult, there are new questions about identity and finding one’s place in the world.

For the young adult who has experienced difficult events in their life, identity questions lead them to look to how their identity has changed with respect to what has happened to them, and specifically the trauma.

Who am I now? How do I tell my story?

Another aspect of identity is about relationships. Relationship questions arise because learning to be intimate with someone (whether emotionally or sexually) may bring up some of the violations that occurred with the original trauma.

So even though they may have worked through an aspect of the trauma at the age it occurred, we should be aware that it may come around again … in a different way perhaps … in a different guise.

But … we didn’t circle around to the exact same place; it is more like a spiral.

Yes, we may finish with the trauma at that stage, but it does not mean that we don’t find it waiting for us at the next stage.

This is not necessarily a pessimistic stance. Because the spiral shape of change represents growth and development, not stasis.

Circling around and around again would be frustrating for you as a person, but also for parents who are raising children affected by trauma.

Being realistic about the nature of trauma means moving into a recurrence of symptoms with curiosity, seeing this as an opportunity for growth.

In a way, it should not be a surprise that you (or your child) encounter a different aspect of the trauma as you move into different developmental stages. But if it does feel like a shock or surprise, then simply step back, take a deep breath, and think about what you might need in that moment.

  • What worked before to help you through may work again.
  • The lessons you learned then may need to be adapted to a new age and stage.
  • And this new older you has the opportunity to see the hurt in a different and potentially healing way.

So when you find that you are working through the hurt again, recognize that this may be another “age or stage”. There may be new meaning and potential for healing here too … if we are willing to walk through it.

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