Adversity is defined as a condition marked by misfortune, calamity, or distress; an unfortunate event or circumstance. Potentially adverse events and circumstances come in all shapes and sizes, and how distressful they are is usually determined by our perception of them. If we believe that we have the ability to meet the challenge, or if the demand of the situation is not an important one, we aren't stressed. However, if we don't believe we have the skill or knowledge to manage the situation, but believe we must handle it well, we will feel stressed. In meeting daily challenges, our perceptions of which ones are important, and our assessment of our abilities and skills, determines whether we are facing adversity or just a situation that may be slighting annoying.
So what do we do when stressed, when we are faced with a situation that makes an important demand on us, one we are not sure we can meet? The general answer is we do what we have learned, what we have seen others do in a similar situation, or what we have done in the past. And being creatures of habit, if what we did in the past appeared to work, we will often try it in a new situation. Unfortunately, trying harder in the same way may not work. A new situation, even if it resembles one we've dealt with before, may require a new and different solution.
What can help us to be resilient, to bounce back during hard times? Certainly training and education about resilience skills and attitudes is key. Bay Path College in Massachusetts is a fine example. The college recently began offering a stress management course to students in its One-Day-A-Week Saturday Program, an accelerated, full-time degree program for women looking to earn an undergraduate degree. The women who enter the One-Day-A-Week Saturday Program are seeking to transform their professional and personal lives. Many of them have young children at home, work full-time jobs; a number of the women are working, single mothers, and so their stress level is high to begin with.
The course examines the concepts of stress and its effect on physical and mental performance, how to recognize and tackle stress indicators, examines effective communication and stress reduction, the importance of understanding our past and its affects on stress, breaking through old patterns of thinking, the importance and value of developing a resilience plan, and an in-depth analyses of the factors and characteristics that make up resilience. By the end of the course, the students create for themselves a personal stress management and resilience-building plan.
Rita Schiano, the course instructor, shared the following: "At the start of the course, many students believed the stress in their lives was insurmountable. I had to get my students to understand how thinking styles and habits that don't serve us affect our emotions and behavior." Each week she took them through a series of quizzes and thought-provoking questionnaires that helped them to identify and recognize their stress triggers. Next, she taught them a Kaizen approach to stress management -- making incremental change or improvement by breaking stress-reduction tasks into small, manageable steps.
The latter half of the course was dedicated to resilience building. "By reconstructing their personal stories, each student was able to identify situations and/or moments in their lives that tested their limits," she said. "Some had faced horrific tragedy, others had dealt with the loss of a spouse or child. Some were dealing with catastrophic illness. Yet, step-by-step -- again, utilizing a Kaizen approach -- they discovered the resilient skills and attitudes that they already possessed and began to formulate a workable plan to build upon that foundation to heighten their resilience."
In the weeks ahead, through story-telling, I will be looking at these skills and attitudes and I'll discuss how the ones that work, that make for resilience, can be learned and how the ones that don't work can be unlearned. This process is key to facing adversity.
Psychologist Ronald L. Breazeale, Ph.D., is the author of Duct Tape Isn't Enough and Reaching Home.