Resiliency fosters healthy communication and relationships, which are particularly necessary within the family system. In this blog, Clinical Therapist Maura Nolan, LPC, LCMHC, NCC explores the different ways we communicate with one another, the impacts these communication styles have on our nervous systems, and how she works with students and families to cultivate greater resilience and more productive communication. Click below to read more!
Resiliency is the ability to navigate stress and recover from adversity, grief, and trauma. The way I explain it to students is the ability for us to “bounce back” from difficult experiences. In families, resiliency is present if the family can respond positively to adverse situations. These families often report experiencing post-traumatic growth, or the ability for growth to blossom from prior painful experiences. Resilient humans have a strong sense of self-worth, can effectively cope with a variety of life problems, and demonstrate qualities of self-reliance and self-compassion. Individuals who are more resilient also have more regulated nervous systems, higher levels of distress tolerance, and a greater ability to reflect on their post-traumatic growth.
Resiliency also fosters healthy communication, something particularly necessary within the family system. There are many ways individuals can communicate with one another, taking up attitudes, tones, postures, and beliefs that may be rigid, challenging, threatening, or passive toward others. Some become defensive in conversation and feel the urge to escape from the situation. Others shut down and become quiet, as it feels easier to agree with others. Resilient individuals tend to communicate from an assertive stance. For many, assertiveness is a skill that needs to be practiced and cultivated. We’ll talk more about each of these communication styles below and how our nervous systems respond when we are in each style of communication.
When we experience moments of resiliency, we experience positive emotions such as joy, peace, calm, and awe. Fostering resiliency strengthens our nervous system’s ability to bounce back to what we’ll call the green zone. That’s the zone where we feel safe, confident, connected to ourselves and others, aligned in our values, and embodied in our emotions.
When we get into a yellow state, we’re in fight or flight mode, and our brains have difficulty taking in new information in these moments. We might feel anxious and on edge.
Once we hit the red zone, we’ve reached a place of shutdown, resulting in feelings of depression and behaviors such as substance use and isolation.
Ther are four basic styles in which we communicate: aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive, and assertive. When we communicate from an aggressive state, our nervous systems are in the red zone; when we communicate from a passive aggressive state, our nervous systems are in the yellow zone; and when we communicate from an assertive state, our nervous systems are in the green zone. Assertive communication is our goal. It is the best state to respond and make decisions from. Refer to the following chart for more information about and examples of each communication style.
Keep in mind, there are caveats to the assertive communication style. For example, assertive communication will likely not be effective if interacting with an individual who is an active threat to your personal safety. In that case, do what you can to remove yourself from the situation.
Fostering resilience is key to healthier, more productive communication. See below for some tips and tricks for effective communication. Take time to practice each.
Emotion regulation and learning how to tolerate distress is at the crux of fostering resilience. Learning to identify, name, and cope with our emotions in a healthy way forms new neural pathways in our brain regarding how we navigate stress. Some emotion regulation skills we teach here at Open Sky are the 3-fold and 3-3-5 breath, XYZs, and dialectical behavioral therapy skills.
When you have an impulse to respond out of anger, sadness, hurt, or frustration, that’s probably a good time to take a step back from the situation. Pause. Remove yourself, if you can, to regroup. In this time, practice your coping skills and plan how you want to return to the conversation from an assertive standpoint. Make a commitment to return to the conversation when you are ready.
Tools such as orienting, grounding, and pendulating are especially supportive for individuals who have experienced trauma and struggle to be present in the here and now. These skills bring us back into the present moment and offer us an experience of positive emotions. Meditation and self-compassion exercises also bolster resiliency and non-judgment towards self and others.
From inner-meditations to daily self-gratitude journals to coping skills such as the 5-4-3-2-1, I am always encouraging present moment awareness for my students in the field.
Art, movement, and play are also great ways to foster resiliency. Getting into our bodies, expressing ourselves, laughing, and connecting are surefire ways to enhance positive emotions. Bring out the art supplies, go for a hike, or play a game of hacky sack like our students do!
I’m a big proponent of art therapy groups and assignments and am always carrying a bag of art supplies with me in the field. My students are often excited about having access to art in the field, and it’s an alternative way to portray and express emotions. I’ll have students paint their resiliency, draw their “light,” or create a wilder-sculpture that represents what they want for the future. Aside from being a therapist, I am also a potter. One of my favorite things to do with students is teach them hand-building techniques, create sculptures, and pit-fire them!
Challenge the negativity bias, which is the cognitive bias that explains why negative feelings or events have more significant impact on our psychological state than positive ones. We all have a negativity bias, but some brains have a stronger bias than others. Where does your negativity bias show up? What does it say? It’s important to recognize that our brains will find and fill negative experience/evidence to fit into our preconceived schemas and core beliefs. Resiliency takes us out of our negativity bias and into a place of strength and connection.
Oftentimes, I’ll have students track their negativity bias by writing it down, journaling, or talking about it with their peers and field guides. Negativity biases are often tied to negative core beliefs we hold about the self, and they can tell us a lot about the way we view ourselves, others, and the world. Once students start tracking their bias, they bring it more into their cognitive awareness. From here, we can work with it! I’ll have students elicit feedback from others, find evidence to the contrary, or complete therapeutic assignments that directly challenge the negativity bias.
Give and receive feedback. Pull from family and friends’ observations around your communication style, as well as your negativity bias. Honest, non-judgmental feedback from loved ones can be a helpful way to see ourselves and our work more clearly. Set aside time in your family to give positive and constructive feedback. Use “I feel” statements to convey your emotions.
Each week in my team, I have a different student hold a “fearless feedback” group. The group is structured to provide positive and constructive feedback to each team member, as well as the group as a whole, related to how they are showing up in the team. Is the way they are showing up in alignment with their values? Are their behaviors or actions breaking these values?
Fearless feedback is always done from an emotionally safe, compassionate, and supportive space. We give feedback because we are invested in one another’s work and because students want to see each other achieve their goals and succeed. Oftentimes, I encourage families to implement a similar structure in their home.
Resiliency prompting statements are helpful in fostering positive emotions and healthy communication. Because we can get so sucked into our negativity bias at times, it can feel difficulty and taxing to get out of it. That’s the point! Our brains are wired from an evolutionary standpoint to pay attention to things that are negative. It’s actually addicting to the brain. You may have noticed this if you, or someone you know, has ever told a traumatic story. There is a tendency to get consumed and sucked into the details. In practice with students, I’ll often offer what I call “resiliency prompting” statements. Here are some examples:
“Wow, I’m hearing how painful and hard this experience was. Can you tell me more about how you got through it?”
“I’m hearing you talk a lot about the grief and sadness you are feeling, and I want to honor that it is present. I’m also curious about the gratitude and relief you mentioned having gone through this experience. Can you tell me more about that?”
In this way, I am prompting an individual to shift from a trauma state to a more resilient one. What questions might you ask your child or family members to shift them into speaking from a resilient state?