In a preview of her session at the Oct. 27 PICPA Women’s Leadership Conference, Karen Reivich, PhD, director of the resilience and positive psychology training program at the University of Pennsylvania, joins us to discuss the science of resilience. She also touches on ways resilience can be enhanced and overcoming psychological challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
The health of our families. Our ability to balance our careers while simultaneously educating our children from the home front. Societal unrest. The results of one of our history's most significant elections. There are so many things in modern society that require resilience, and today's guest will tell us how we can bolster that resiliency and strengthen our well-being. Today, in a preview of her session at the October 27th PICPA Women's Leadership Conference, we are talking to Karen Reivich, PhD, director of the resilience and positive psychology training program at the University of Pennsylvania.
What is exactly, for a little bit of context, the science of resilience? Where did it begin and how did it develop?
[Reivich] I think of resilience as the ability to navigate adversity and to grow and thrive from challenges like many of the ones you just named. The field started decades ago with the goal of understanding why and how some children who grew up in conditions that were really tough – poverty, parents with different forms of psychopathology or mental illness, other stressors – why is it that many of those children seem to grow up and meet all the sort of developmental milestones as other children who didn't have those same stressors? The initial language that was used to describe those children, the ones that despite a lot of risk factors were still doing well, was “invincible” or “invulnerable,” that those kids were invincible or invulnerable.
What we've come to understand is that while that early research was critical for setting us on the right course, those words were probably not the best words to describe what they were seeing, because when you hear the word, at least when I hear the word, invincible or invulnerable, I think like “lucky few.” I guess there's only a lucky few of us that could be that strong. And, really, what we've learned about resilience is that most of us, most of the time, are able to handle stress and adversity with great effectiveness. We can also learn things that further bolster our ability to navigate and to work our way through difficulty. All of that learning has come out of the early research that helped us to name what some of the protective factors or ingredients are that enable all of us to thrive and adapt to difficult things.
What led you into the field of resilience and positive psychology?
[Reivich] I started this work being very curious about depression in youth. I have four kids – two just graduated college, one is in college, and I have a high schooler – and when I first started doing my graduate work, I was interested in why some children seem to be more prone to depression and anxiety. I'm somebody who I describe myself as a pessimist by nature and an optimist through practice. I felt a lot of anxiety in my life, so I was curious about what we could do to prevent depression and anxiety. As we started to do that research in schools in this area and around the globe, as we taught students, middle-school-aged kids, some of the techniques, which we can talk about in a minute, we found that, yes, they were less likely to have depression and anxiety, but something more fundamental seemed to be shifting in these kids. They just seemed more robust, better able to work themselves through difficulty.
As we got interested in trying to name this more robust thing, we stumbled onto the language of resilience and that then caused our shop, our center at Penn, to shift a little bit and slow down and try to better understand the nature of resilience. Then go back to the work that we've been doing in schools and add a whole bunch of other sorts of tools and techniques and skills that we were teaching students so that we weren't just ... not “just.” I mean, preventing depression and anxiety is a really important thing. But along with preventing depression and anxiety, we were teaching them capacities to create lives that were rich in meaning and purpose, that had a lot of positive emotion, that had strong and abiding relationships. So the early work in mental health pushed me to want to understand this idea and concept of resilience more thoroughly.
How does resilience impact individuals? People have different levels of it? What would you say?
[Reivich] I think of resilience as a muscle that, the more we actively engage that muscle, the more we practice some of the techniques and skills and enable resilience, the stronger the muscle becomes and the less we do that, the more it grows. But all of us have that muscle, so all of us can further develop it through practice. One thing that I think is really important is that, for the people that are listening to this, resilience is not a binary trait. It's not “you have it or you don't.” It's a spectrum. So each one of us I'm certain can think of experience as really hard things that we've gone through, where we say, "Yeah, it wasn't easy. And maybe it felt like I was kind of working my way through mud at times, but I persisted. I adapted. I was flexible. I was resilient." All of us could think of other experiences where we felt more stuck, where we didn't feel like we were tapping maybe to those same reserves.
So there are moments in our lives where this is easier, moments in our lives where this is harder. You alluded to a lot of what's going on. I want to just build on that because when we are in times of uncertainty and ambiguity, like we are, when we're depleted, like many of us are, even though we're persisting and most of us are continuing to really engage in the world in productive ways, despite all of what we're confronting, that doesn't mean that we don't have mental and physical fatigue. So when there's depletion plus uncertainty, the need for resilience is even greater. I think that that muscle can start to feel a little tired.
One of the things that I like to stress when I talk about resilience is that there are simple actions, simple ways that we can engage day-to-day that help us to continue to strengthen this muscle and help us to feel better, to feel maybe we're not living our best lives right now, but we can be doing things day in and day out that help us to still feel connected to who we are and what matters to us. That feels like resilience as well.
What are some of those ways that people can enhance our resilience?
[Reivich] There are five or six, I referred to them a few minutes ago as, protective factors or ingredients that we know from our science that build resilience. Those are things like self-awareness, being able to look inward and notice your thoughts and emotions and physiology and say, "Is this helping me right now, or is it getting in my way?" It's self-regulation, being able to change what's playing on our internal radio station so that we're helping ourselves to feel engaged. Two of the others that I want to stress are ways that we can practice right now. One of those ways is optimism, and optimism is a mindset.
I describe myself as a pessimist by nature and an optimist by practice. What we know about optimism, I have this mind-set, is that it's not vapid. It's not pretending that the bad things aren't happening. It's not about turning a blind eye to difficulty. I'm a photographer. Pretend. I love photography. One of the things that I figured out in terms of optimism, it's about opening the aperture so that you're still seeing the difficulty and the suffering and the loss that makes us human, that makes us real. But it's opening the aperture. Optimism allows us to see things more fully so that we're still noticing the good, even though there's pain and suffering. And that mind-set, the mind-set of allowing ourselves to see good, of allowing ourselves to see opportunity, even admit struggle, to ask ourselves the question, "How am I going to be different, and different for the better, because of what I'm enduring right now?" That is a mind-set of optimism.
We can all practice that. Each one of us today can look around our homes, or wherever we are seated or standing or walking, and say, "What's beautiful here?" That's a question of optimism. That builds optimism. I'm looking out my window and I'm seeing a river bark tree, I think that's what it's called, blowing in the wind. And it's beautiful. If I just slow down and notice that, that fuels energy, and, by having more energy, I'm able to persist and have more resilience. So, optimism is one way to build resilience, practicing it.
Another way to build resilience – one of the other critical variables from the research – is being connected to something larger than yourself. That might be a person. That might be spirituality and faith. That might be a social justice cause. But when we engage in things that remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, we build and practice resilience. As deeply as that, we're creating meaning and purpose in our lives. Each one of us today can ask the question, "What do I want to lend myself to today? What is something bigger than me that I'm going to take purposeful action toward?" Whether that's voting or prayer and meditation or reaching out to somebody that you know is struggling, and you can, by reaching out to that person, help bolster them. That's an act that each one of us can engage in. That's obviously good for the other, but it's equally good for us. So, optimism and relationships or connection are two ways that each of us each day can strengthen resilience and well-being.
Obviously, COVID-19 has been an ongoing challenge for people. What would be your recommendation for remaining resilient as we continue through this particular challenge?
[Reivich] I'll say two things. One is practicing gratitude or the mind-set of appreciating what we are receiving. All of us right now are experiencing limitations. Some of us are experiencing loss in really profound ways. I don't want to make light of that. I don't want to be glib about that. However, along with the limitations and the loss that we're experiencing, there's still opportunity to notice what we've been given and what we're receiving. Having the opportunity to talk with you … 20 minutes ago, I didn't know you and now I know you. That's a gift that I've had the opportunity to have my orbit intersect with your orbit.
So one way that we can deal with the stress and strain of what we're facing with the pandemic and the broader issues that you often meet is that we can ask ourselves the question, "What am I receiving even amidst the loss and the limitations?" By doing that, we are keeping ourselves more whole, and that's really important right now. The other thing that I think we can do, and I mentioned this in my remarks to your previous question, is to reach out. The isolation that so many of us are feeling is not wholly under our control, but there are lots of ways in which we all can be reaching out to each other. I think we are, and I think we can continue to do that.
One of the things that I like to remind myself of about reaching out is I'm blessed. I have lots of people in my life who I can reach out to for different things at different times. I know who to call when I want to vent. I know who to call when I need laughter. I know who to call when I need somebody to give me a kick in the butt to sort of practice what I preach more. So, one of the things that I think we can all do is to be more bold about reaching out to other people and reaching out to the people that give us what we need, the moment we need it.
And those things – gratitude and reaching out – are good for all of us. When I'm experiencing more gratitude in my life, I'm kinder and that's good for the people that are in the house with me and the people I work with. When I reach out, I'm letting the other person know you have something that I value. It's not just the benefit to me, it's a benefit to the other. Both of these strategies are things that make both people stronger and healthier and happier. They're particularly good to practice. Sometimes it's about keeping ourselves healthy enough that we can persist and endure difficult times. I think what we're talking about today provides some of that.