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Aurbach: Recalibrating Resilience, Part 2

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Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series on resilience. The third part will post on  Thursday.

Robert Aurbach

Robert Aurbach

What is individual resilience?

To understand what's going on, we have to look at how we process information and learn.  Our brains are incredible parallel processors of information.  William takes in all of the inputs from the external world (sensory data, events of all kinds, interactions with others) and all of our internal data (thoughts, emotions, sensations within the body) and have to link them together for the not-so simple task of focusing on that which is most important at the time.

 We've all experienced this focus when we are able to shut out things that normally would attract our attention. (Remember having gotten a cut or bruise and not being able to recall when or how?) We know what happens when we lose the focus (“we are distracted") and find ourselves doing something other than what we started out intending to do. The important part to understand is that all the things that happen at one time are connected in the mind so that we are able to make choices about what attracts and holds our attention.  

William has a flood of inputs surrounding his claim – pain, anxiety and a sense of loss of control arising from his injury, a separation from his identity as a worker, economic stress, messages about what he’s supposed to do from his claims manager, doctors, lawyer, family and friends (that may be conflicting) and the weight of all the expectations from his own life and the cultural environment. All these inputs (and notice that many of them are negative) are presented at the same time and so William’s mind has to link them together to focus and stay present.  

When the moment passes, the connections may persist for a while, until the brain recycles the connection capacity to process new experiences. But suppose the connections between some thoughts, emotions, sensations and experiences of the outside world repeat over time.  It may be that William experiences some repetition of the connections in the course of telling his claims manager, doctors and lawyer all about it, but most of William's repetition of the connections will come through his ruminating over what's he's experienced.   Claims may sit for weeks on hold while liability is determined. Healing takes time.  Litigation (if there’s a dispute) takes a lot more time.  The repetition of negative messages continues through ruminations and internal "self-talk", and William isn't given the opportunity for the messages to just fade away.

With enough repetition, physical changes occur in the connections within the brain and those repeated connections become "wired-in" - faster, more automatic and less likely to be subject to conscious consideration.  We say "practice makes perfect" to describe how a musician learns to play their instrument, how a worker learns to be efficient and effective in his or her job or how we learn the "reflexes and instincts" to make us react appropriately when something unexpected happens when we drive. This process occurs with much more complicated actions than just physical skills, as when we learn to "read" another person's moods, use heuristic tools to make quick judgements or invoke selection, confirmation and other biases. William learns, in the same way to associate his pain, his sense of helplessness and his reactions to the system in which this is all happening and lashed out at her.  The expression of anger that followed wasn't even really directed her – Margaret is just the trigger for associations between pain, anxiety and tension at home (a psychosocial factor) made at another time and place.

The ability of the mind to make facilitated networks of thought, emotion and sensation may also create maladaptive responses.  Current neuropsychological research suggests that chronic pain and PTSD may be examples of such maladaptive systems.

A new definition of resilience

If repetition is the key to this kind of learned association between the things that we experience, we have to wonder how the repetition occurs.  Many times we physically repeat the same actions over and over, as in taking the same route to work each day.  Most of us have experienced starting out on that route, intending to go elsewhere, but in a moment of distraction accidentally taking a familiar turn toward the workplace.  The route to work has become engrained, and we follow the familiar route unless we consciously override the habit. Neuroscientists suggest that it takes about 12 weeks of focused effort to engrain a habit so that it becomes engrained – which, not coincidently,  is the same amount of time it takes for an injured worker to become significantly less likely to return to work.

But sometimes we "learn" things in a powerful way that haven't been repeated over and over. William might only have been told that he "will never work again" by his doctor on one occasion.  Nonetheless, the message may become a mantra, repeated over and over until it becomes a self-limiting belief.   So, how does this unrepeated message get "wired in" with the rest of the experience of recovery?

While the message may only be uttered once by the doctor, repetition still occurs.  The message may be repeated to his lawyer, a claims manager, family members and friends.  More importantly, the message becomes part of the inner dialogue or "self-talk" that we all experience. We tell ourselves, over and over, what we have heard, repeating it at the speed of thought.  It becomes our explanation for what we do and do not do.  It's especially common for such repetition to occur at night, while William is lying in bed trying to fall asleep.

Our self-talk also becomes a perceptual filter that influences how we perceive the events going on in the world, so that everything is interpreted as being consistent with the message.  Our repetition through self-talk becomes part of what and who we perceive ourselves to be.  "Victim", "disabled person", "loser", "survivor", "worker", and "winner" are all labels that we give ourselves. The labels come from our self-talk and express a reaction to the retention or loss of a sense of control over the circumstances that confront us.  If William is able to maintain his important sense of being in control, he maintains his identity and is likely to make strong effort to get back to "normal". If he becomes overwhelmed and loses his sense of personal control, the return to normalcy may become too hard to achieve.  Some people give up.  William’s red flags suggest that he has a lot of negative inputs already, and that he may be closer to being overwhelmed than others. His self-talk is already negative before he started the claims process and he is likely fairly close to losing control already.

If self-talk is the principle mode of repetition that creates mental habits, interpretations of events and the limitations and labels we apply to ourselves, then it follows that self-talk has a huge influence on our ability to "bounce back" from adversity. That leads to a functional definition of how resilience actually works:
Individual resilience is the ability to quiet, change, or modulate self-talk about events and situations.

If Margaret or William can calm or change their negative self-talk it will not get sufficient repetition to become part of a network of automatic beliefs, interpretations of experience or perceptual filters. Without the undue influence of negative messages on perceptions of what's happening now, they will be able to experience  the world as they would have before the negative event  – and for most of us, that means that they will "bounce back" and cope as they did before.

Most of us have fairly well-developed skills around shutting down the adverse voices in our heads. For all of us, there are circumstances that have the ability to overwhelm the defenses we have in place.  Self-doubt, indecision, anxiety, depression and other symptoms follow when negative self-talk is inadequately controlled. The trick to being a "resilient person" is having a set of behaviors that will work in a wide variety of circumstances to change or quiet the inner voice. One resilience skill doesn't provide defense in depth – if it's overwhelmed by events, we need another skill to fall back upon. Resilient people have multiple strategies for quieting adverse self-talk.

Next Time

In Part 3 (the final segment of the article) we will realize that different people with different personalities have different techniques for quieting self-talk and being resilient. This is the key to using this information effectively, because some techniques are more or less “comfortable” for the person, depending on his or her personality. All techniques can work, but finding a good “fit” means that you can use the technique enough to make it a habit, building your resilience toolbox. Part 3 will close by directing you to a website for a free personal evaluation of your preferred resilience styles.

Robert Aurbach is owner of Uncommon Approach, a consulting firm, and former chief legal officer for the New Mexico Workers' Compensation Administration.

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