A Wealth of Health | The importance of resiliency

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As college students, balancing academics with social lives and extracurricular activities can seem overwhelming. When we push ourselves to balance all three of these, all alongside family and work obligations, forks in the road are imminent. In those tough times, it’s vital to have go-to mechanisms to bypass mistakes, control what you can control, lean on healthy habits and most of all — have resiliency. 

Resilience, JMU graduate psychology professor Gregg Henriques said, is measured by how fast you can get back to baseline and function when you’re knocked down by adversity. It can be partly cultivated, Bob Harmison, director of sports psychology for JMU Athletics, said, but the other part of how effective you are at getting back to that baseline is determined by genetics. 

“I always joke that if you want to be mentally tough, you have to pick your parents wisely,” Harmison said. 

“Neuroticism” is the most important trait relative to resiliency, Henriques said. The trait refers to the set point of your negative emotional system, and it varies from person to person. Those that are highly neurotic, Henriques said, are more likely to feel either anxious, shameful or angry when the negative emotional system clusters together stimuli — for example, if someone said something mean to you — that makes you say, “Hey this is bad.”

The other side of developing resiliency, however, is controllable. Becoming more resilient, Henriques said, involves pinpointing your vulnerabilities — which goes hand in hand with resiliency through neurotic loops — and being self-critical in a “healthy and promoting way.” Henriques said that after identifying your vulnerability, it’s important not to collapse into self-blame because everyone deals with neuroticism on different levels. 

For Henriques, a vulnerability he said he needed to face was dating issues he had in high school and being split between wondering why girls rejected him and if he was really “datable.” To overcome it, he found other women who said, “Hey Gregg, you’re lovable,” which he said helped him flip his perspective on the vulnerability and become more mature about it.  

“There’s a big difference between saying, ‘Hey, I have a vulnerability,’ and ‘I am a horrible person,’” Henriques said. “Those are totally not synonymous … Hold that capacity to be honest, aware, accept [and] then actively change without actively shaming the essence of yourself, or blaming the world in some absolute way.”

5 techniques to increase resilience 

Having ample resilience is still attainable, even if you’re highly neurotic. Harmison said some methods that can be used to improve our responses to adversity are goal setting, mindful thought control, visualization, attentional control, and relaxation and emotional control strategies. 

Setting goals helps build mental toughness, Harmison said, because goals foster confidence, provide motivation and focus you in the right direction. For example, if it’s Monday and you have an important exam on Friday, setting a goal to study quietly every night for 45 minutes and simulate a practice exam can help calm the nerves come test day. You’ve already rehearsed the information and won’t be as prone to meltdown if the test is challenging. 

There’s a correct way to set goals, and there are ways to set goals that instead get in your way, Harmison said. In order to optimize resilience, Harmison said to use the SMART goal method: goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic — not too challenging but not too easy — and timed. 

Harmison said knowing how to filter negative thoughts in the face of adversity is also crucial to building mental toughness. He said this involves seeing thoughts for what they are — just thoughts. 

“Rather than trying to fight those negative thoughts, just make room for those doubts and fears and anxieties,” Harmison said. “If you let them just kind of come in and let them go, they’ll come back around again, but they have no power unless you give them power.”

Breathing properly, Harmison said, is something he teaches JMU athletes to do so they can better handle adverse situations — you can’t control your performance until you have control of your body and breath. Long, deep breaths can slow the heart rate down, which makes you more attuned to bouncing back to your baseline when adversity — whether in the classroom or in personal relationships — knocks you off kilter. 

Harmison said imagery and visualization can also be powerful tools to utilize when faced with hardship. Drawing back on previous successes through visualization, he said, builds confidence because you’re rehearsing what you want the result of the task to be. Using visualization, combined with positive self-talk, helped Harmison complete graduate school, he said. 

“When I was in graduate school, before I would take an exam I would always shoot free throws,” Harmison said. “It made me feel good about myself but it also relaxed me … seeing myself achieve the grade on the exam I wanted and really seeing myself be focused while I took the exam.” 

Staying on the straight and narrow can also be cultivated by where you put your attention, Harmison said. Not only should attention be focused on things you can control and away from what you can’t, but attention should always be in the present moment. 

“It’s important to have your mind where your feet are,” Harmison said.

Attention should also always be focused on what can help you execute skills to the best of your ability, Harmison said. Developing a pre-exam routine, for example, is a way of optimizing focusing skills for a better exam result — similar to a pre-sleep wind-down routine or a pitcher’s pre-pitch procedure. 

In the case of a slalom snowboarder who Harmison worked with, he said she would reach peak performance by looking at her coach right before she went down the mountain and thinking of everything he did that annoyed her in practice. Harmison said they found that irritation gave her a slight edge and motivation to go faster.

Not only did this practice bring her back to baseline when faced with the adversity of going down a mountain as fast as she could, but it also brought her over that baseline and closer to her optimal performance. 

“That, to me, is peak performance,” Harmison said. “Knowing what your ideal mental and emotional state is, and then developing strategies to be able to create those feeling states as opposed to just letting them happen by chance and hope that you feel and think the way you optimally want to think and feel.”

Cultivating resilience through sustainable actions

Oftentimes, people will take up a lifestyle change because their friends do it or it’s trendy. Then, because it was never something you intrinsically wanted to do in the first place, willpower runs on overdrive, trying to keep the habit up. To prevent leaning on willpower too heavily, it’s important to make lifestyle changes that you, and only you, want to make, JMU kinesiology professor Sarah Carson Sackett said. 

Even when we make a lifestyle change that works for us, Carson Sackett said, the going will get tough — that’s when intervention is needed to boost our resiliency to the challenges. 

For example, if you want to start reading for enjoyment for 30 minutes every day, Carson Sackett said, prioritizing it in your work schedule ahead of time is crucial to enhance stick-to-it-ness. This needs to be done, she said, to prevent life’s other obligations from swallowing up free time. 

“If you [really plan] before time, you’re just more likely to stick to it,” Carson Sackett said. “Even that can go awry, but you’re just more likely to be successful that way.”

Carson Sackett — who works with JMU field hockey on performance-enhancement practices — said based on one of the principles of self-determination theory, we’re going to be most intrinsically driven to do things that make us feel like we’re competent. Within that, mistakes will be made as we push ourselves to competency. 

Whether it’s a habit or a new skill we’re trying to grasp, improving resilience is dependent on how we respond to those hiccups. 

“Failure is functional,” Carson Sackett said. “You’re not going to get better at anything without mistakes.”

Along with understanding that mistakes are a function of pushing ourselves to reach new heights in the classroom or in the workplace, knowing how to respond to these mistakes is the next step. Not only can we get back to our baseline after a slipup, but we can accelerate past that baseline by rewiring our brain to not associate a bad outcome with a negative response, Harmison said.

“Our minds like consistency,” Harmison said. “If our behavior is ‘bad’ and the outcome is bad, then to be consistent, we want to feel bad.”

Instead, Harmison said we should respond to failure with “optimism and hope.” Doing so, he said, enhances creativity and problem-solving strategies to better prepare for the situation if it happens again. These energizing and positive emotions, Harmison said, get conjured up when we dwell on the aspects of a mistake that can be improved rather than what can’t. 

Resilience case study — Lucy Hone: choosing how you live

There are levels to the saying, “The going gets tough.” Everyday college stressors can skyrocket, but they wouldn’t likely scrape the surface of what Lucy Hone, Auckland University of Technology associate professor and resilience researcher, went through. Hone shared in a 2019 TEDx Talk that in 2014, her 12-year-old daughter, her daughter’s best friend and the friend’s mom — who she said was a dear family friend — died in a car accident. She said she was told by victim support that she should expect to write off the next five years of her life to grief. 

“Instead of being the resilience expert, now I’m the grieving mother,” Hone said in the talk. “Waking up, not knowing who I am, trying to wrap my head around unthinkable news — my world smashed to smithereens.”

To keep living with a semblance of how she once did and to not feel like a “victim” or “powerless to exert any influence over her grief,” Hone made a choice to be resilient to the highest extent. 

Building off research she performed at the University of Pennsylvania on resilience and positive psychology with Mark Seligman — just as the school picked up 1.1 million American soldiers for resilience and mental health training post deployment from Afghanistan — she performed a self-experiment. She said she found three go-to strategies that “saved her in her darkest days.” 

Hone said the first secret of resilient people is that they get that “shit happens” and that suffering is just a part of life. Knowing that adversity is just part of the human experience, Hone said, helps from feeling discrimination when the tough times come. 

Another strategy Hone used echoes Harmison: Resilient people are excellent at choosing carefully where they select their attention. This includes focusing on the things they can change and not on what they can’t, and it also means seeking out the good when our primal instincts focus on threats and compulsive thoughts

Hone said this practice is called “benefit finding — making an “intentional, deliberate effort to tune into what’s good in your world.” For her, this meant understanding that her daughter died suddenly and didn’t have to go through drawn-out suffering, her family had an outpouring of support and she still had two boys to live for.

The third thing Hone said all resilient people do is ask themselves, “Is what I’m doing helping or harming me?” Hone said this was her primary defense for many questions — would going to the trial and seeing the driver help or do harm? Would going through old photos of her daughter help her or harm her? Asking the question, she said, “Puts you in the driver’s seat [and] gives you control over your decision making.”

“Never did I find myself thinking, ‘Why me?’” Hone said. “In fact, I found myself thinking, ‘Why not me?’” 

Contact Grant Johnson at breezecopy@gmail.com. For more health & wellness content, stay tuned for the “A Wealth of Health” column every Monday and follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.