November 29, 2017
How to build resiliency and move forward
BY Michelle Yelton
The couch was Janice Simon’s refuge. Overwhelmed and exhausted, the comforting cushions and a healthy dose of HGTV temporarily kept the personal catastrophes at bay.
Within a few months, Simon lost her father, a tropical storm caused major damage to her home and she found out she had an autoimmune disease.
“I really thought I was going to lose my mind,” says Simon, a project director at MD Anderson.
But she had resiliency. It’s what got her off the couch to accomplish at least one thing each day. And gradually got her to a point where she began looking forward to the next day.
Embrace a different mindset
“Resiliency is a mindset that helps people persevere during difficult situations and bounce back,” says Mark Berg, director of MD Anderson’s Employee Assistance Program. “For example, if someone asks me if my glass is half full or half empty, I tell them it’s refillable.”
According to Simon and Berg, building that resilient mindset begins before a crisis, whether that’s a cancer diagnosis, a treatment setback, storm damage, the loss of a loved one, or something else.
Focus on one task at a time
A year before Simon found herself in the midst of her own crisis, she watched The University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven give a powerful commencement address at The University of Texas at Austin about the lessons he learned during six months of grueling Navy Seal training.
“If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day,” McRaven says. “It will give you a small sense of pride and will encourage you to do another task. At the end of the day, that one task completed will turn into many tasks completed.”
At her most stressful moments, Simon remembered these words. Focusing on one task at a time helped her get through her work each day and take care of herself.
Swimming your way out
A crisis can make you feel anxious or powerless, caught up in chaos. Part of those emotions may be because you’re resisting the need to change or adapt.
Berg uses the example of quicksand. “Your instinct is to fight your way out,” Berg says. “But if you do that, you sink faster and get stuck deeper in the quicksand.”
Giving yourself up to the circumstances, lying back in the quicksand and taking a deep breath give you the ability to float and eventually swim your way out.
“To deal with change, we have to be fluid, flexible and sometimes go against our natural instinct or first reaction to the change,” Berg says.
Fill your bank
Building resiliency is like building up a bank account to cover your vital needs, according to Simon. You make deposits in the form of friends, hobbies and skills so that you have something to withdraw when a crisis happens.
When Simon meets with MD Anderson faculty and staff to share helpful tools, she tries to get them to focus on filling their banks.
“I ask them when they last did something fun or did something for themselves,” Simon says.
Five things she recommends putting in your bank:
1. A network of friends at work and at home
2. A walk in nature
3. Hobbies or other activities that bring you joy
4. Taking time for vacations
When things felt like they were spinning out of control for Simon, she was grateful to be surrounded by great people.
“They wrapped themselves around me like a warm blanket, and that made a huge difference,” Simon says.
Berg recommends thinking about the people you trust and reaching out to talk through emotions and challenges.
He recommends starting the conversation simply by saying, “I’m feeling ___.”
If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to a family member or friend, our social work counselors are ready to listen. MD Anderson patients and caregivers can call Social Work at 713-792-6195.
A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s quarterly publication for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
If someone asks me if my glass is half full or half empty, I tell them it’s refillable.
Director, Employee Assistance Program