MEMO: Responding to Stressors and Building Resilience

Throughout their lives, individuals have been subjected not only to an unusual amount of negative traumatic events, but also many minor stressors reflecting society’s attitude towards them as being “maladjusted”. The resulting impact of these major stressors and/or the accumulation of minor stressors on self-esteem is that these individuals develop a picture of themselves of being worthless, useless, ineffective, and helpless. As they become psychotic, this baggage of negative self-attitudes and attitudes towards and beliefs about other’s images of them become exaggerated and they tend to withdraw from any productive activities including associations with other people. Thus, the individual may have the thought “I am worthless” in response to frustrations on the job; “I am useless” to slurs from other people; “I am unlikable” to other’s social rejection and “I am unsafe and vulnerable” from others’ intimidation. Also, they tend to feel helpless when they are being controlled.

The key element in developing resilience is focusing on the meanings that the individual attaches to the major or minor stressors. The meaning may be unraveled by elucidating the negative automatic thought or by directly asking the individual what meaning he/she attaches to the event. Meanings may also be discovered through the voices saying “you are stupid… weak… useless… worthless”. In any event, the impact of the dysfunctional meaning is observable in the individual’s reaction. These reactions can take the form of maladaptive behaviors such as regression and total passivity, avoidance and inactivity, or hostile reactions including getting into fights, or self-harm such as swallowing objects or lacerating the self. To insulate the individual against such reactions, it is useful to conduct a chain analysis of the sequence. This chain reaction can then be used to reframe the meaning of the event and change the reaction to the event from dysfunctional to more functional. Once the sequence of self-derogatory meanings and the dysfunctional behavior are explicated, then it may be feasible to conduct a role-play in which the individual would rehearse the reaction and then subsequently, a different, more adaptive reaction. Additionally, it may be helpful to the individual to mobilize some common phrases such as “When you’re in a hole stop digging…… Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill… You have to make mistakes in order to find the right path, etc.”

Through the general course of treatment, individuals’ resilience becomes enhanced. Also, the bi-products of the therapeutic program namely an increase in the individual’s sense of safety, worthwhileness, efficacy, connection, and power, work to further amplify and maintain resilience. Thus, when the individual is subjected to the minor traumas, the hurt to their self-esteem may be neutralized by the individual has built up resilience in the form of a number of positive beliefs about themselves which allows for more rapid recovery. Also, the individual is less likely to misinterpret other people’s attitudes and situations and instead activate learned principles such as correction of misinterpretations and other cognitive biases.