I’ve always told my clients that resilience is born of learning to grow from the adversity they face, but given the confluence of challenges we’re collectively facing these days, developing resilience has become more crucial than ever. Though it’s often defined as the capacity to “bounce back” from a difficult experience and return to a baseline of functioning, I believe these times call for us to expand the definition to “bouncing forward.” Our baseline has been obliterated, and we now need to ask, how can we bounce forward to new possibilities, new perspectives, and new strengths?
Handling Overwhelming Emotions
Clients may be experiencing whatever emotions they were bringing to us before the pandemic more intensely now. If they can begin to be consciously aware of that happening, we can also begin to help them construct a more heightened state of resilience.
With my own clients, I start by framing their emotions as useful signals that shape and filter everything they do. I then offer instruction on mindfulness and compassion that helps them hold and meet whatever they’re dealing with. To help with this, I use the acronym ABC.
“A” is being aware and attuned to what’s happening, and accepting of it. “B” is befriending the emotion and its important signal—not ignoring it, which takes too much energy. And then “C” is compassion. We need to have compassion for the emotion and for ourselves, because it’s hard being a human being. We’ve got to be able to say, “I'm not a bad person if I'm angry or if I'm in fear or if I'm sad. I'm a human being.”
As I see clients learning how to manage their emotions, I make a point of noticing and reflecting that back to them. "You did that. Maybe you didn't know you could, but you did!" When we help clients see their own growth and competence and resilience, they begin to trust it.
There’s a quote I love from Louisa May Alcott: "I'm no longer afraid of storms, for I'm learning how to sail my ship." When clients trust that they're learning how to sail the ship, they're not so afraid of the storm. That leveling out often becomes the key to their resilience.
Resilience via Telehealth
Though we’re working across screens more these days, I can still offer clients small but effective resiliency practices and exercises. I teach them to put their hand on their heart center and breathe gently and deeply so they can learn to calm down their nervous system. I’ll encourage them to change their body posture so that they're standing more erect and can feel a sense of strength and courage in their physical self. They also learn to call on other people in their imagination as a circle of support, and begin to feel the difference that can make when they have to face a difficult situation.
Clients may feel safer, more protected, more reassured, and more comforted when they're sitting in a session with me. But I tell them if they can also take an image of me with them and call up that resource when they need to, they're using a powerful mode of processing in the brain to support their resilience. I teach these tools of visualization and meditation and imagination all the time because they’re portable resources that can be called upon in any moment.
Via telehealth we can still create a safe place, a wiser self, a compassionate friend, and a good inner parent. Though we’re doing this through virtual resources, those resources are real to the brain. Whatever we can imagine is real to the brain.
Engaging Our Own Resilience
I believe it’s up to me to stay energized, grounded, and focused during resilience work, so my clients can use me as a resource. But I’m finding that takes a good deal of energy as we work via telehealth. It can be harder to help clients feel our energy across a screen, so I’ve taken to doing things a little differently.
When they're talking, I now look directly at their faces on my screen. But when I'm speaking, I make sure that I'm looking at the camera, so they perceive me truly looking at them, and our connection feels more real. I also try to engage, open up, and enlarge as much as I can through the screen, much more than I would in an in-person session where I'm more intent on listening patiently and reflecting.
I make an effort to bring more warmth to my eyes and my facial expressions, because if I can be more expressive, they can see and know that I'm with them. I also pay closer attention to the tone and prosody of my voice, so that they get the kind of reassurance and calming they need. And I interact with them more often during our allotted time to keep our connection going.
All this effort means I may need to take a big breath and collapse afterward. I’m finding it helps to get up and move my body after every session—to do some stretching and bending and flexing, so that my body begins to feel more comfortable again.
Beyond my computer screen, I can see my backyard garden, so I'm also getting that resourcing of looking out on nature. When I’m not on the computer with a client, I make sure to go out and be in the bigness and vastness and spaciousness of that nature, so that I can expand and be nourished. That nourishment is critical now as each of us, and our resilience, continues to be tested.
Linda Graham, MFT, integrates relational psychology, mindfulness and neuroscience in her international trainings. She’s the author of Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster.
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