Building Resilience

The 2nd annual YATA (Young Adult Transition Association) Conference was held on the campus of CU Boulder October 8th to 10th. The conference was well attended and was made up of young adult transition program owners, therapists, interventionists, and therapeutic consultants. About 85 programs were represented.

Every keynote session and breakout session were valuable and speakers and participants alike were all passionate about the work they do with young adults. Below are a few insights and “take aways” from one of the speakers at the conference.

Carole Pertofsky, M. Ed., is the Director of Stanford University’s Student Wellness Services. She has created a class at Stanford called the Psychology of Happiness and speaks frequently on issues like resilience, compassion, emotional intelligence, and stress management. Her keynote was titled Resilience: Gumption, Gratitude, and Grace. Some of her lecture that “hit home” for me included: 1) that there are two kinds of pleasure that we seek as humans: hedonic pleasure and eudonic pleasure. Hedonic pleasure is a short term pleasure, such as eating a good meal, drinking a glass of wine, playing a video game, or watching a sports event. While these activities are in themselves not harmful or bad, as a species, as we pursue short term pleasures, we often find that we need more of something for it to be fulfilling. Hedonic pleasure seeking can leave us ultimately feeling empty and depleted if it becomes the sole source of our pleasure. The second type of pleasure, Eudonic pleasure, she defines as an inside, deeper pleasure that comes about as we find meaning and authentic connection with others. (Having read some of Pia Melody’s books, I might call it true intimacy.) This kind of pleasure helps us grow and learn resilience. It may mean that we have to work hard, or endure some discomfort, but when we experience this kind of pleasure, we have the experience of “flow”… that time when we are so in the moment of what we are doing that we are able to “turn off” that part of our brain that is constantly evaluating and being our self-critic.

Pertofsky says that in order to build resilience and learn how to feel and expand our capacity for Eudonic pleasure we have to override a faulty part of our brain! We often find ourselves being triggered by events and others by our midbrain into a “fight or flight” response of fear. This response causes us to feel negative stress and can lead to feelings of depression, aggression or isolation. We can train our brains to “override” this system if we learn strategies of resilience. We learn to face our fears and overcome them. We learn to view challenges as opportunities of change as opposed to insurmountable barriers. In our families of origin, did we see our families as terrible failures without an ability to cope or did we see our families as facing adversity and working hard to overcome it? In order to build our ability to be resilient, we have to train our brains to move from a fixed mindset (This is impossible and terrible) to a growth mindset (This is uncomfortable, but I can move through it.)

How do we teach our bodies and brains to deal with this more productive response to stress? Pertofsky identified three specific strategies she called Gumption, Gratitude, and Grace.

Gumption is the practice of feeling fear and yet not letting it stop us from action. We must learn healthier practices when we encounter stressful events, such as deep breathing, and an ability to move through our fear. Her lecture reminded me of Brene Brown’s work where she describes an ability to “lean in” to our fear and anxiety. This is a learned skill, developed over time and is not initially intuitive. Once we learn how to override our initial anxiety, and move through the fear instead of staying stuck in it, we begin to develop confidence in our ability to move beyond our first, initial response to stress and anxiety. Pertofsky calls this upstanding instead of bystanding. A word for this process is courage… which comes from the heart.

Another key step is to develop a habit of practicing gratitude. She defines gratitude as a deep sense of appreciation for the gifts that we have. We have to learn how to notice, savor, and install those practices into our nervous system.

The third step, grace, has to do with learning to practice kindness and compassion to ourselves and to others. We all tend to be hyper critical of ourselves and we need to think about “survival of the kindest.” Pertofsky follows the work Dr. Kristin Neff, who is studying self-compassion. When we are compassionate and kind to ourselves, we develop stronger intrinsic motivation, are less depressed and less anxious. If we catch ourselves in the negative patterns, we can train our brains to shut off this negative talk and come back to the compassion and self-love. Her motto is: do unto yourself as you would do to others. We have to honor the brokenness in ourselves and learn to turn off the strong voice of our own self-critic. As we develop this habit, we become more compassionate and aware of another’s pain. As we reach out to support others, we strengthen our ability to feel the deeper, more lasting pleasure and meaning derived from helping others and this in turn reinforces our gumption and gratitude.

While I have heard many of these concepts and ideas in different contexts, their application to our young adults is so needed today. Young adults are surrounded by the intense, immediate, and often shallow digital world and need so much to develop this emotional resilience. Many of the students we work with at The Price Group are struggling with social anxiety, withdrawal from others, substance use, and a sense of hopelessness. By helping our students and their families create a deeper sense of connection, kindness and compassion within themselves, we help them become more open to a positive, more authentic deeper sense of happiness and wholeness.

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