When talking about resilience, most people think that it is the ability to overcome seemingly impossible circumstances. Such understanding, however, may not be totally accurate.
The American Psychological Association defines resilience as ‘the process of adapting well in the face of adversity …’. Hence, resilience can be more aptly described as the capacity of an individual to bounce back after a challenging or traumatic experience.
Resilience is not about being immune to the turbulence of life circumstances. It cannot be detached from emotions because emotional pain is part of the journey to develop a resilient self.
In June this year, Singapore remembered the tragedy that happened a year ago, which led to the loss of lives of young Singaporean students who were at a school expedition in Sabah. In June 2015, an unexpected earthquake in Mount Kinabalu brutally claimed the lives of primary school students and their teachers who were on a trekking expedition.
In a tragic disaster like this, what can be done to help those affected to overcome the traumatic experience and to regain balance?
Within hours of the earthquake, reports of parents, family members and friends who were in deep emotional pain were all over the news. What just happened seemed unreal: the shock was intense, and the loss of lives was traumatising.
In such a circumstance, resilience is not something to have or not have. It is something that is developed through conscious choices of behaviour and through the re-calibrating of thought patterns.
Over the hours and days following the quake, news reports started to show varied responses from those impacted in Singapore. Anger, disbelief, frustration and a general sense of fatality were common scene.
Some remained hopeful as the search of survivors began while others got into action in providing emotional support to those affected by building a network of care. School counsellors in Singapore were mobilised to debrief students and help them process the secondary trauma resulted from the unexpected event.
Research studies have identified caring and supportive relationship as a key factor to resilience. These include having a sense of being loved and cared for, and the confidence that someone is there to provide a listening ear, encouragement and reassurance.
In fact, children begin to develop a sense of security from being loved by their parents. In a loving environment, they are able to develop a positive self-view and an awareness of their strengths and ability to solve problems. They learn skills to build relationships and gradually develop resilience to change and unexpected life events.
In my own practice of counselling, I find that people are better able to overcome ‘stuckness’, depression, anxiety and life tragedies when they develop realistic and meaningful life goals. The move towards such life goals creates the momentum to experience a greater sense of control over the distressing circumstances. This also gives them a sense of hope and reduces the tendency to magnify problems.
When an individual develops a capacity to acknowledge stressful events, they are more likely to be able to take into consideration the broader context rather than narrowly focusing on the problem. This allows them to pick themselves up and act on the adverse situation rather than stay passive and helpless.
In the weeks following the Sabah tragedy, the emotional support network was extended nationwide throughout Singapore, with the mobilisation of professional counsellors and psychologists. In a rare display of vulnerability, the nation allowed itself to grieve: Singapore declared 8th of June as a day of national remembrance. The collective resilience of those affected by the disaster, and of the nation, powerfully brought people together in a common humanity.
Such events provide us with an important lesson about resilience. Pause for a second and ask yourself:
‘What events are the most stressful for me?’ – You may connect with a time of your lives when you felt low, stuck, and possibly lost.
‘How was I impacted by the stressful event?’ – How did you react and feel?
‘What did I do that was helpful?’ – How can you shift your mentality from being problem-centric to being solution oriented?
‘Who did I reach out for support?’ – What are your resources in times of distress?
‘What helped me feel more hopeful?’ – What are your coping mechanisms?
These questions bring to our awareness what had worked before, how we garnered our strength and who were there as our support system. These are precisely what help us build a resilient self.
In the process of developing our resilience, flexibility is crutial to sustain a balanced life. I have seen clients coming for counselling who are totally fixated on the problem at hand and are unable to see beyond a certain possible solution which may not be realistic. The tunnel vision can be limiting, isolating and highly distressing.
In such situation, they need the support of their loved ones and friends who can help them see a perspective to their problem Alternatively, they can reach out to a qualified counsellor who can create a safe and nurturing space to help them develop resilience by putting in place an action plan for moving forward.
One year on, survivors and family members of the Sabah earthquake victims are still recovering from the trauma. However, what is more powerful than the earthquake is the collective resilience of the survivors, the victims’ families and the whole nation, which was manifested in the aftermath of the disaster.
This reminds us that resilience is not just an individual’s capacity to overcome challenging situations, but also the magnifying impact of a collective effort unified by a common goal. Each of us has the capacity to build a resilient community, and collectively, we can build a resilient humanity.
Jean Bernard Sampson is a Counsellor at an institute of higher learning in Singapore. He is a Registered Counsellor with the Australian Counselling Association, and a Professional Member with the American Counseling Association. He is a Supervisor Member and Faculty Member of the William Glasser International. He is certified in the administration and interpretation of MBTI® and Caliper profiling. He has a Master of Guidance and Counselling from James Cook University and a Bachelor of Science from the National University of Singapore. His professional interests include multicultural counselling, counselling individuals with special needs, physical disabilities, and minority groups. Website: http://www.jeanbernardsampson.com