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Living a life of resilience

Do you find yourself snapping at your kids at the smallest trigger? Resilience training may be what you need.

Lucy Hone has a master’s degree in resilience psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and studied resilience through trauma post the Canterbury earthquakes. But it wasn’t until personal tragedy struck that she really found out what it meant to live it.

Thirty-one May, 2014, started like any other day for Lucy. Her family was travelling to a mountain biking holiday in the lower South Island and her 12-year-old daughter Abi decided to make the journey there with her friend Ella and Ella’s family instead.

Lucy and her husband Trevor were already at Ohau Lodge when the police knocked on the door.
Abi had been killed instantly in car accident in rural Canterbury, the victim of a Dutch tourist who failed to stop at a stop sign. The accident also claimed the lives of Ella and Ella’s mother Sally. Lucy said in that very moment she knew straight away that she would be fighting for the survival of her sanity and family unit – her husband and two teenage sons.

“At that moment, my life took a completely unexpected and unbelievable turn. I literally remember seeing this fork in the road thinking to myself, “Wow. We didn’t see that coming. This is going to be our life now.””

Her next thought was remarkably lucid considering the shock.

“It occurred to me that we didn’t have any choice in her death, but we did have a choice in how we recovered from that loss,” Lucy said.

That’s when her resilience training kicked into gear.

What is resilience?
Before studying resilience psychology, Lucy had heard they phrase bandied around a lot and wondered if anyone really knew what it meant.

Today, she’s confident in her definition. Resilience in a nutshell she says, is being able to do whatever it takes to get you through the current adversity. It is the skill set that helps you cope and get over things. That includes:

Childhood adversities – i.e. not being emotionally loved, being physically abused, a traumatic parental divorce.

Daily obstacles – i.e. someone stealing your parking space, being late, the printer not working.

The big challenges – i.e. redundancy, divorce, death.

Reaching out – i.e. the ability to try new things, speak to new people, take on new challenges, live in different places.

How do you become resilient?

It may seem that some people are more naturally resilient than others. However, research shows that resilient adults are often surrounded by strong, supportive relationships, and particularly resilient kids who have done well despite the odds thrown at them normally have at least one person who has enabled them to get through. Not everyone is that fortunate.

The good news, Lucy says, is that you can learn resilience, and it’s something that you can change as a parent and foster in your children. That, she says, is what parents want the most.

“I work in schools and I ask parents what they want for their kids. They always say “healthy and happy.” That’s how I define wellbeing – it’s feeling good and functioning well.”

A telltale sign of non-resilience is being short-fused, always angry, always negative and pessimistic. That’s not to say that resilient people don’t experience negative emotions, but they don’t get stuck there.

“It’s absolutely fine to be angry, sad, guilty, anxious, but don’t get stuck in any one emotion,” Lucy said. “And if you find yourself stuck in one emotion, that’s when you need to get help.”

A big part of that help would be cognitive behavioural therapy – or in layman’s terms, changing your thought patterns.

Thought patterns
Our thought patterns determine much of our mood and we may not even realise it. One key as a parent is to help your kids to identify what they are thinking/feeling, and why. Lucy calls it the three Ps.

“When something goes wrong, did they personalise that event in their mind, did they make it permanent, and did they make it pervasive?”

For example, a child who fails an exam may feel like they are going to fail the entire school year and their life is ruined. Did they personalise that event? Well, probably – it’s important to realise their own role in failing the exam. But in reality it’s not a permanent failure – they can re-sit the exam. And it’s not pervasive – in the scheme of a lifetime, it’s little more than a blip and will soon be forgotten.

The ability to break down your own thoughts and determine their veracity is crucial to developing resilience in adults and kids. A big part of that, she says, is learning to fail well.

“A teacher that I’m working with said recently that fail stands for First Attempt In Learning. And I thought, that’s so cool, because that is what it is.”

For adults she suggests disputing negative thoughts like a friend.

“So you’re friend says to you, “I’m not going to go to that party because nobody likes me.” And you reply – “well, that’s ridiculous. What evidence have you got for that? Let’s unpack that and talk that through shall we?” So you need to do that for yourself.”

Changing the channel
It’s those kinds of things that have helped Lucy get through the past two years since Abi’s death. She considers her thoughts and decisions in light of whether they ultimately help or harm her. She doesn’t allow herself to fall into thinking traps. She tries to put things into perspective and accept the good things in the midst of the difficult.

That said, she admits “It’s very hard work.” But through the pain of loss she chooses life. And when she doesn’t feel like it she’ll use music to shift her mood, go for a walk or run or call a friend who makes her laugh.

“Thoughts are like a radio station,” she said. “With a bit of effort, you can shift the radio frequency.”

Lucy has detailed her resilience journey through grief in a book released in June, titled What Abi Taught Us. But the lessons learned in extreme circumstances also apply to everyday life.

“Having some of these strategies on board enable us to live more easily,” she said.

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