Newsletter #4
December 2002

From the Editor
This is a significant time for our country and our world. We are attempting to recover from 9/11 and to understand what the long term implications are for us as a country. We have sustained personal losses. Trauma has become a much more frequently used term. In the aftermath of this life-changing event, our economy has gone on a nerve wracking roller coaster ride. In the face of trauma, loss, and economic uncertainty, we must continue to find our path toward healing, peace, and a new respect for our fragile world. Here is a small potpourri of articles to stimulate your thinking in these directions. Here's to your health.

What is Resilience?

American Psychological Association

Practice Directorate, 2002

One of the most important messages is that resilience can be learned. Many people believe it is something you are born with-either you have it or you don't. Dr. Suniya Luthar, professor of psychology and education at Teachers College in New York, describes resilience as a phenomenon whereby individuals show positive adaptation in spite of significant life adversities. The general public may refer to it as "bouncing back." The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress-such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.

Factors to remember:

  • Being resilient does not mean a person does not experience difficulty or distress.
  • Developing resilience is a personal journey and every journey is different.
  • Resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary.
  • Resilience is an ongoing process that requires times and effort and engages people in taking a number of steps.

10 Ways to Build Resilience

  • Make Connections. Good relationships with close family members, friends, or others are important. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience. Some people find that being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations or other local groups provides social support and can help with reclaiming hope. Assisting others in their time of need also can benefit the helper.
  • Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. You can't change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations.
  • Accept that change is a part of living. Certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.
  • Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals, and do something regularly-even if it seems like a small accomplishment-that enables moving toward your goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seen unachievable, ask yourself, "What's one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?"
  • Take decisive actions. Act on adverse situations as much as you can. Take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away.
  • Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle with loss. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship have reported better relationships, greater sense of personal strength even while feeling vulnerable, increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality, and heightened appreciation for their life.
  • Nurture a positive view of yourself. Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.
  • Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.
  • Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.
  • Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your minds and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

Defy Aging: He Who Laughs Lasts
-Michael Brickey, Ph.D., ABPP

As Michelle Pritchard put it, "You don't stop laughing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop laughing." Cultivating a sense of humor is one of the best ways to stay young.

Our society tends to regard humor as frivolous. Few activities, however, are as mentally demanding and intellectually stimulating as humor. Humor requires appreciating other perspectives and understanding cultural norms and expectations. It is no accident that one of the eleven tests on the world's most respected IQ tests asks people to arrange cartoon pictures to tell a story.

For people who are learning a language or culture, understanding the culture's humor is one of the last skills they master. Telling a joke or relating a humorous event requires great judgment and insight in knowing whether someone is likely to find something funny. What is funny to one person might be dumb or even offensive to another person. Telling a joke also requires times and acting skills.

Humor helps you develop perspective and not take yourself too seriously. Laughing uses a lot of muscles and stimulates your immune system.

Just as physical fitness is a "use it or lose it" proposition, your ability to understand humor declines with age unless you exercise your sense of humor on a regular basis. The phrase "someday you'll laugh at this" illustrates how humor also helps us put pain in perspective. Cartoons like Peanuts (Charlie Brown) and Ziggy prompt us to not take ourselves too seriously. Dilbert's satires assures us that we're not crazy but sometimes our jobs are. The Family Circus helps us appreciate how children perceive the world, enabling us to be more sensitive to their needs and nourish our childlike sides. Doonesbury and political cartoons lampoon our political processes and help us see when "the emperor has no clothes." Humor's ability to get us to appreciate others' perspectives is a great antidote for racial, political, and international problems.

...In short, humor is an art form that exercises our minds. Appreciating humor can keep you "mentally fit" and add fun and enjoyment to your life. It is a great stress reliever.

Humor also reveals our anxieties and reinforces stereotypes. Unfortunately, much of the humor about age reinforces negative conceptions of aging. If you want to live a long, healthy, vital life, be alert to ageist humor and challenge it. Examples of negative humor about aging include remarks about being over the hill, an old geezer, an old bitty, and having a senior moment.

The longevity humor challenge is to have your radar tuned to notice when humor has implications for longevity. If negative, spit it out. If positive, savor it and remember it.

What Does it Take to be Happy?
-Ed Nottingham, Ph.D., ABPP

Your happiness is intertwined with your outlook on life. -Anon.

How many times have you heard that question, "Why can't I be happy?" How many times have you asked yourself that question? In my practice of clinical psychology, it is a question that I have heard people ask many times over the last 20+ years. It seems like a fair question, so why can't people be happy?

I believe that there are some serious problems associated with the search for happiness and general contentment. First, there is some evidence that humans are not necessarily pre-wired for happiness. Second, we tend to develop bad habits that get it our way of achieving a reasonable degree of happiness and contentment. For example, we learn a lot of "if only's"-that if only we had a good job, a big house, a nice car, and lots of love, the (and maybe only then) we would be happy. We learn to compare ourselves to our friends, neighbors, even relative strangers, all of those people who seem to have "more" and therefore are "better and "happier" than we are.

So happiness, and our pursuit of it, becomes directly related to outside events, achievement, possessions, and other external factors. Therefore, all people who achieve their goals and who have nice cars, big houses, and terrific loving relationships are, of course, happy. Right?


Why isn't this true?

While a number of external factors do play roles in the human condition, such as economic conditions, environmental stressors, and physical health, the big piece of the puzzle that seems to pull it all together is "outlook." Let me use an example. I love to fly airplanes. I know many people don't, and in fact, many people are quite fearful of flying. When I fly and the airplane encounters significant turbulence, I like to do an experiment. I like to look around and watch how people are reacting. I seem to always notice the same thing: some people appear very anxious and frightened, some seem mildly "uptight," some seem not to even notice the turbulence, and still others seem to be extremely relaxed.

If we maintain that "things" (turbulence, money, events, other people, etc.) make us feel angry, depressed, or in this case, anxious and scared, then why doesn't turbulence in this example "make" people on the airplane all exactly the same emotions? Why don't all the people feel exactly the amount of anxiety? How can some people be relaxed and others on the verge of a panic attack?


In this example, things happen and people react. But outlook affects their reactions. Some people are anxious flying through turbulence, others are neutral or even relaxed. When my beeper goes off, if I think that something bad happened, I will likely begin to feel uncomfortable. These feelings and reactions are largely caused by the outlook and attitude of those involved.

When people seek counseling for depression, anxiety, anger, relationship difficulties, I teach them that how people feel and react in a particular situation (and often, how "happy" they are) is not based on the external factors but is largely the result of how we think, what we believe, and what we tell ourselves about that situation. "Things" such as external events certainly play an important role in triggering our emotional reactions But since we may have little control over these outside events, why not learn to control what we can-our outlook and thinking?

So, now you know that happiness is not as elusive as some may think. You know that things may play a role, but do not control our happiness or how we feel. You know that happiness is often blocked by "stinking thinking" that results in feelings of depression, anxiety, panic, anger, and low frustration tolerance. You know that you may be powerless over other people, places, and things, but powerful when it comes to your thinking, feeling, and behavior. Happiness really is an inside job and closely tied to our outlook on life. Is getting rid of irrational thinking that blocks greater happiness simple? Maybe. Is it easy? No way! Habits, including habits of "stinking thinking," take time to develop, and it takes times to change bad habits to good habits of healthy, rational thinking. It takes work and practice, and then more practice, practice, and practice. But, you can do it. And remember, good thinking really does get good results!

Selected Reading

Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope and Optimism in your Child. Brooks, R and Goldstein, S. Chicago, Il: Contemporary Books. 2002.

The Best Year Yet. Ditzler, Jinny. Warner Brothers, 1994.

Living Your Best Life. Fortang, Laura B. Tarcher. Putnam, 2002.

Fit From Within. Moran, Victoria. Contemporary Books/Mcgraw Hill, 2002.

It's Not as Bad as It Seems: A Thinking Straight Approach to Happiness. Nottingham, Ed.

Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. Breathnach, Sarah Ban.Warner Books, Inc., 1995.

Gratitude: Affirming the Good Things in Life.
Beattie, Melody. Hazeldon/Ballantine Books, 1992.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Harper and Row, 1990.

The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation. Hanh, Thich Nhat. Beacon Press, 1987.

A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life. Kornfield, Jack. Bantam, 1993.

Internet Sites for Your Health

Georgia Psychological Association. Local referral and general mental health information.