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Resilience


May is here, and for many of us it’s a time to bring more awareness to mental health. Over the years, I have shared many stories about my own struggles with anxiety, depression, panic, and suicidal ideation. I do so for a few reasons: to bring awareness, to help others, to let other fellow travelers know they are not alone, and to fight the stigmas that still surround mental illness. We would like to think we have made great strides in reducing stigmas, but the truth is, they are still alive and well. It’s why we still have not normalized talking about mental illness and often ignore or stay away from the subjects and even the people that it is impacting. It is why in areas of our current world we like to use the word “Trigger” to dull the real conversations that need to happen in regards to mental illness and suicide. It happens in schools all the time and all it does is silence kids instead of helping them feel less alone. 


Several years ago, when I was working in a fairly high stress position, and having past traumas creeped up, I was having horrible anxiety and almost daily panic attacks. For those of you that have had panic, you know how awful they can be. For me, anxiety and panic are worse than depression. When I have depression, I go to some pretty dark places in my mind, but I still feel like I am in control. With anxiety and panic, I feel like I am losing control and, especially with panic attacks, I feel like I am sinking to a place where I might not come back from. Also, it makes me feel vulnerable in ways that depression does not make me feel. So, a few years ago, I made what I call my Circle Map. I still use it to this day but my map has changed a little, as I have, and items have been deleted or added to, again as I have. Deleting and adding to yourself is a wonderful and remarkable thing. Change can be lovely and necessary.  I have also changed my mind in regards to treating our depression and anxiety. That is the wonderful thing about self-awareness and reflection, is that we evolve, change, and can make improvements along the way. 


My Circle Map was filled with many things: Therapy, yoga, mindfulness, writing, reading, exercise, nature, breathwork and meditation, tapping, Qigong, and for a last resort, medication. I am not a fan of medication, but I do understand that it helps many. I just feel like it’s a bandaid to what is actually necessary, which is getting to the core of the issue. Again, I am not anti-medication, I am just more concerned that there are many who want a pill to fix them instead of working on themselves. Even therapy is something that I use as needed because I have learned so much throughout the years that I know what it is I need to do to help myself. One of the problems with therapy is that when I need help, it takes a long time to get an appointment, and so by the time the appointment comes around, I pretty much have figured things out. Maybe you have experienced this too? With that, my therapist and I have had a relationship that is going on twenty-three years, so I also can often predict what he will say. 


Some things that I have started to realize in the past several years through self-reflection, public speaking, and talking with many individuals about their own mental health, is that resilience is key to helping yourself. Understanding that you have people that can be there for you is important, but understanding that no one is going to come along and save you, and that you have to do the work in order to help yourself, is crucial. It’s a game changer. My therapist and I have had these conversations because he knows I put the work in to help myself, no matter how daunting it can feel at times, and that many of his clients want him to have a quick “fix” for them, and when he doesn’t, they become stuck. Resilience helps you get out of the muck, the mud, and unstuck. Building resilience takes time but it’s very important, which is why I have also been outspoken about how we need to teach our children resilience while they are young instead of becoming victims to every bad thing that happens to them. I see it often in the schools, that kids become victims of their lives and we, educators and parents, enable them to stay this way. Now, I am not saying that children should have to bear their problems on their own. Far from it, but we are not doing them any favors by enabling them to carry their problems with them without teaching them strategies on how to be more resilient and cope with the issues they face. I am an adult with trauma and I was also a child with trauma, so I understand the temptation to try to “save” kids. I get the same temptation to want to save adults. Instead, let’s teach people, especially young people, how to save themselves. To me, it’s the only way to start combating the mental health crisis that is unfolding before us. We have a shortage of counselors, therapists, and social workers, and it often takes months for people to get in to see a psychiatrist to get help with medication if they truly need it. This is unacceptable, but it is also the reality we face, so this is why it is more important than ever to build resilience. Also, our school counselors, especially at the secondary level, are too bogged down with other duties such as testing, grades, attendance, and worrying about helping students with college entry than they are with actually being counselors to help with mental health. This is not a dig on counselors at all. It’s just a reality they face with pressures and false priorities from school districts and parents. Our focus needs to change. I believe building resilience is key and it starts, like most things, in the home. We should want to build a society of self-reliant young people, not kids who fall apart every time they struggle or suffer. 


We will all face adversity in life. We should want to because facing obstacles, hardships, suffering, will help build the resilience we need in life, that is, if we are self-aware enough and willing to work on ourselves in order to build the strength and determination it takes to overcome the obstacles and setbacks. We all know those people that fall apart when bad things happen. You don’t want to be them, and instead learn how to blend, accept and cope with what is happening to you. Increasing resilience takes time and intentionality. It is not something special that only a few possess. Anyone can learn to become more resilient, and it usually happens while bad things are happening. Pay close attention to how you respond to those moments. 


How do we build resilience? I believe there are some key things. Here are a few:


Keep good people around you. We are only as good as the people we keep close. If you have negative, toxic people in your life, no matter who they are, it may be time to move on or at the very least, limit your contact with them. This can be one of the hardest things you will ever do. It will feel lonely, selfish even, but in order to become more resilient, you need to have people in your circle that you can trust, are positive, will not judge your individual journey, and your relationship will be mutual. The people you have around you should feel safe to be open and honest with you, and should allow you to do the same, and with that, you should lift one another up, not tear anyone down. Try not to speak bad about anyone, especially yourself, and have those around you that practice the same. Chances are, if someone that you associate with is always talking bad about others, they are probably doing the same about you. Strong relationships are important for building resilience. Look who you need to release from your life and who you may want to invite in. Find those people who have experienced a lot of bad shit and keep making it through, and keep them close. Learn from them. My mom was one of those people. I am lucky I got to learn from her modeling. 


Take care of your body. I believe that you must take care of your physical self in order to help your mental self. I know many people that suffer from depression that think it’s best to sit in a dark room, Netflix running non-stop, and eating a bag of chips and box of cookies, smoking weed and drinking themselves to oblivion. You may feel like doing all that when you're so down, but it will just make it worse. Instead, start exercising. Work your body. Challenge yourself. Practice yoga, go for walks, get a strength training routine going, hike, bike, run, and spend a lot of time in nature. Exercise doesn't have to be complicated. It should be consistent and make you feel good. You do not need to be a super athlete to exercise. If I were to give anyone advice for exercising it would be to walk and practice yoga. Even if you did these two things, you would be in pretty good shape and it would help you gain resilience. For anyone who thinks yoga is easy, try holding your bodyweight up for an hour, moving through movements. It’s not and there are some wonderful on-line yoga classes, like Yoga With Adrienne. She’s amazing! Challenge your body and it will help you prepare your mind for the obstacles when they come. I have walked off depression many times. I enter the trail in darkness and along the way find the light.


You are what you eat. Yes, it’s the old cliche, but you are. We are exactly what we put into our bodies. I have found through teaching my students about nutrition that most have no idea what healthy eating actually looks like. They think granola bars are healthy. It sounds like it but they are not. My advice, stay away from things that come in a box. Stay away from sugar and fried foods. Start looking at labels. If the label shows several items and has ingredients that are hard to pronounce or you couldn’t spell it, then put it back down because you don’t need it in your body. Eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. Many won’t like this, but we are a protein crazed country, thinking we need to eat a hundred grams of protein per day. There is a lot of research that says that it can be cancer causing. Though, you can find research on anything that you want to favor your way of thinking. I’ve seen too many Instagram idiots saying kale and spinach are bad for you. However, I’d rather see someone eat steak every night than processed food. Try to stick to whole, one ingredient foods. Okay, okay, having the occasional ice cream, cheese curds, pizza, is not going to kill you, but everything should be done in moderation. I have seen students, and staff, come in with McDonald’s for breakfast every morning and then eat it again at lunch. Some of these same people have said, “Healthy food is too expensive”, but I think you can afford a bag of apples if you are eating a daily McMuffin and a bag of Cheetos. When you eat well, it helps you feel better, and therefore helps you be more prepared for the setbacks in your life. 


Practice mindfulness. When you are in the moment, living for the now, resilience follows. So many of our problems like anxiety come to us when we are worrying about things we cannot control or things that have either not happened yet or happened in the past. Think about that for yourself. Can you do anything about an event or situation that has already happened? Is that within your control? Absolutely not! It does not mean that you won’t be impacted by it or that it may have caused you trauma, but when we dwell on things that have already happened, we become stuck and often lost. Being mindful helps you become found. It helps you appreciate the moment that you are currently in. We live our best life by being in the moment, not thinking about things we cannot control, which is what has or will happen to us. With that, if you are thinking about past traumas, don’t push them aside, sit with them and tend to them. Tend to yourself. That too is being mindful. 


This brings me to the subject of gratitude. I believe in keeping a gratitude journal or at least getting up in the morning and thinking about what you are grateful for each day. This kind of mindset will help you appreciate the life you have, and in turn, will help you build resilience. Being grateful is something that many do not tap into enough. Instead, we complain about what we don’t have instead of appreciating what we do. Take a look around at the people you love most. They will not always be there, and neither will you. Be grateful for their presence. 


Keep your problems in perspective. I’ll give you a few personal examples. I was abused as a child. My father took a lot of his own anger and issues out on me and did so in ways that I believe he was trying to ruin his youngest child. I don’t have an answer as to why, but it happened. However, I also had a mother that loved me so much that her love for me helped me survive and overcome what was happening to me. Her love was stronger than his harm. I lost my mother last August, and as difficult as it has been and as much as I grieve for her, I also understand that I feel the way I do because of love. Grief is love. I have struggled with depression and trauma most of my life, and for years anxiety and panic. It can feel awful and has taken me to the brink of asking myself if I want to keep living or not. However, I have also lived a healthy and happy life. I am deeply in love with a woman who I got to meet at a very young age. I have gotten to teach students and hopefully have an impact on their lives. I have family and friends that love me. Yes, I have experienced a lot of death in my life, and some tragic, but mostly, I have experienced love and a remarkable life. I read somewhere that if everyone in the world put their problems in a pile in the middle of a field for everyone else to see, you would gladly take yours back. I think about this often when I consider the past couple of years with pain and injuries that I have experienced. The pain I have is from pushing myself, challenging myself, and building resilience. However, it's a pain that I can cope with. It’s not like some people I know that are battling cancer or a life threatening illness. I’ll take back my problems and past traumas from the pile anytime. Perspective helps you build resilience. 


Find purpose. Having a purpose will keep you moving towards something, hopefully something good. I have found when I am putting my energy into helping others, teaching, or simply having a compassionate conversation with someone who needs support, it helps my mental health and I believe it builds resilience. I believe setting a goal is different than purpose. A goal is something you try to attain, your purpose is a lifelong passion that feeds you daily. You don’t have an end in sight. Purpose is like water, it hydrates us for life. If you are struggling with purpose, start with thinking about what you love to do, what you dream of doing, and then make a plan. I find purpose in writing. I may never get a third novel published, but that does not stop me from writing. 


Reframing your thoughts is crucial to building resilience. Instead of saying things like, “Why do I have to go through so many bad things in my life?” change that negative question to something more proactive like, “What is this teaching me?” I have gone as far as saying that I am grateful for my anxiety, panic, and depression, and I am thankful for being at the brink of taking my own life because I have survived. I have proved to myself how strong I am to make it through the hell in my mind, and I have learned a great deal about myself. Even when my mom died I reframed the thoughts I was having from losing her to, “I am grateful for my grief because it means I was loved, and it was wonderful to be loved so much.” It doesn’t mean that you will just flip a switch and be happy. That’s not what reframing is about. Instead, it’s putting what you are going through into a different, new perspective. Even with some of the extreme pain I have had the past couple of years I tried not to dwell on it, but instead say, “This pain is teaching me and I will be stronger because of it.” That has turned out to be true. I learned to manage the pain while in it and I have now put various exercises into my routine that I did not use before, and it has helped with some of the muscle imbalances that caused much of my pain. I also started to meditate more in order to manage the pain, which has brought me into a different way of being. There’s power and grace in that. 


There are two things that I believe builds resilience more than anything else, and that is acceptance and impermanence. When bad things are happening to you, or good things, accept it fully. Do not try to stop it because it will get worse. For example, if you are having anxiety, pause, and then be curious, asking the question, “I wonder why this is happening to me at this moment?” With your curiosity and sitting with your anxiety, you are accepting it and therefore accepting yourself fully, which may lead to the answer of your question, “Why is this happening?” If you deny what is happening to you, how can you possibly work on it? I have gone to bed feeling good and for some reason when morning arrives, I am in an incredibly dark place. That is depression for many of us. We feel fine one moment, and the next the dark thoughts fill our head. It is not easy, none of what I am saying is easy, but instead of trying to “run away” from what is happening in my mind, which is impossible, I become curious and accept that my “Dark Friend,” as I call my depression, has arrived. I even say, “Where have you been? I have missed you.” I welcome it and then I put the energy that comes from depression into writing, reading, exercise, or sitting and breathing. Sure, sometimes the writing comes out a little dark, where I have had people say, “I don’t know how to respond to this.” I don’t need a response. It’s just my moment of accepting what is happening, combining it with my purpose to help others. 


Another powerful strategy for building resilience is impermanence. Last October I had a horrible panic attack that landed me in the emergency room. I tried everything I could at the time to calm myself down, but nothing worked. I could not stop the spiral and with the pain in my chest, I decided it was better to be safe and get checked out. While I was sitting in the hospital bed all of the thoughts that came with panic crept into my head such as, fear, losing control, and feeling like I will not come back from this one and my wife will have to put me in an institution. Then, it came to me, “I’ve been here before. I have been in this exact situation before. I know what this is and it will go away. It is impermanent.” The thoughts of the panic going away helped me recover from it quicker. Knowing it was not going to last and I have experienced it all in the past and survived helped me overcome what I needed to at that moment. Also, trying to understand what triggered the panic, being curious about it, and accepting it helped. I knew that it was all of the emotions with losing my mother coming out of me. It had to go somewhere, so it arrived in panic. Impermanence is powerful with just about everything in life. For me, it takes away fear or being stuck in misery. If you are in a bad situation, it will change, just give it time. If you hate your job, either you changing what you are doing, retirement, or death will end it, so that too is impermanent. Afraid of dying? Why? We are all impermanent. You and I will die some day and it is out of our control, so don’t fear it. Impermanence can be a useful tool to build resilience. 


I like to picture the worst case scenario in situations. That alone has helped me become more prepared in life for when the shit hits the fan. By playing out worse case scenarios, I am better planned for what may happen in real time. Think about your worst fears, picture them happening, and then plan what you will do if they come to fruition. Then, when they don’t become a reality, have gratitude and make sure you are living mindfully, in the moment, and enjoy your life because you know you are ready if things take a turn, and they will. 


I think other things that can help you build resilience and live your best life are many philosophies I have taken from Stoicism and Buddhism. By simply asking yourself, “How do I want to conduct myself in this life?” brings a great deal of self-awareness to who you want to be. Do you want to live with poor character, not helping others, complaining all the time, being cruel, only caring about material items, or do you want to be more reflective, show kindness, compassion, thoughtfulness, understanding, awareness, and practice mindfulness? Do you want to live a life maximizing positive emotions and reducing negative ones? Think about that for a moment and reflect. We can all be negative at some point in our lives, but are you the person who is constantly negative, never saying a kind word about anyone? Do you always find problems and never solutions? Always ask yourself, “What is within my control and what is not, and then let go of what is not. If you hang onto the things you cannot control, you waste precious energy and time that you could be placing into being more productive and proactive. 


Confront your reality with discipline. If you are struggling, do not make your life worse by complaining, using substances to dull your mind, or other bad habits. Don’t be the person who complains about all of their problems but then does nothing to help themselves. Instead, come up with a plan, a routine, that is healthy and will help you grow spiritually, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Find meaning in your pain, and then take action. If you don’t, you will remain stuck. If you don’t help yourself, you will be paralyzed. You can have all the support in the world but you are the one that has to do the work. 


Turn your depression, anxiety, panic, grieving, or whatever you are dealing with into an asset. Allow it to make you more self-aware. With mindful repetition, everything that I have mentioned on how to build resilience can help us change our own behavior and emotions. “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, because an artful life requires being prepared to meet and withstand sudden and unexpected attacks.” -Marcus Auralius, Meditations. 


None of this is easy. It takes a lot of work to care for ourselves and tend to our suffering. It takes practice and I believe it must become part of your daily routine. You are in control of yourself, your actions, and how you respond to others or the bad things that have happened or happen in your life. It is not what happens to you, but how you respond. Again, not for one moment is any of this easy. I have experienced a lot of trauma and suffering in my life, and I can honestly say that I am better, stronger, more resilient for it. My worry is that we are not teaching people, especially young people, how to be resilient. Instead, we are wanting to fix the problem, bail people out, because it is hard to watch people we love suffer. I say it again, no one is coming to save you, and you cannot save anyone else. You can be a part of their support system, and you can have a wonderful circle of people supporting you, but you must be the one who puts the work in to build the resilience necessary to enjoy life. I truly don’t see another way of helping people become unstuck and improve the mental health crisis we are falling further into the depths of. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but nobody does, otherwise we would not have the problems we do. I just have some suggestions. You are worth it!




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