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Powering the Lights: Building Resilience

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It was a dark and stormy night last fall on the campus where I work. Actually, there were several dark nights that were uniquely memorable. Now that this academic year is over, I find myself reflecting on those turbulent times and taking stock of their hidden blessings. In the fall of 2011, Tropical Storm Irene hit. The storm challenged our college community in ways that staff, faculty and, especially, students will (knowingly or unknowingly) celebrate for years to come.

Don't get me wrong, Irene certainly caused unwelcome destruction and harm for many. Still, most of our campus family -- including our newest members -- weathered the storm relatively well. In fact, I suggest that despite our widespread electrical failures, there were surges of power and light among campus-locked students and their evacuated friends.

From what I and colleagues saw, the storm presented stress that inspired many to shine despite the dark. Absent their laptops, phones, and Internet, students plugged into their new community and found new strength. Adversity and challenge, in the right environment, can make people grow and glow. In this instance, the many storm stories of "glow in the dark" students serve as testament to their resiliency potential.

After the storm passed, the job of staff, faculty and parents was and is to host an environment that enables students to sustain the power to persevere and light their own way ahead. Students' job is to embrace the lights (the lessons) in the dark and apply them in the tests of today and tomorrow.

Beyond the campus, this story's familiar. Most of us have shelves of dark-and-stormy-night stories we relive when new adversity comes. Being in the dark is scary, especially when in unfamiliar territory. Sometimes we feel the best we can hope for is to live to tell the tale. But if we focus, our history illuminates lessons that help us "bounce back" and move forward. Ultimately, our job in crises is to tap into supports and energies; power the lights within and find the way to thrive. Our job is to build resilience and bounce back.

Bouncing back is the definition of resilience, as described in the article "The Road to Resilience" by the American Psychological Association (APA). Resilience is "the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy [or] threats ..." It involves believes and behaviors that can be learned and developed. According to the article's authors, research shows resilience to be "ordinary, not extraordinary" with people commonly exhibiting actions indicative of resilience. Consider how individuals and communities rebuilt their lives after Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. So we can all develop and strengthen our resilience. Here's a summary of the APA's resilience building strategies (for more information check the APA link):

10 Ways to Build Resilience

Make connections. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience. 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.

Accept that change is a part of living. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.

Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly -- even if it seems like a small accomplishment -- that enables you to move toward your goals.

Take decisive actions. 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.

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 mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

In sum, the weather of life can be unpredictably dark and troubling. Harnessing your life challenges and tapping into the resilience building strategies discussed here will build resilience. Resilience that will light your way forward and prepare you to weather the next storm with all the light and power you need. Be well.