Real-life Resilience – A Crisis of Hearts in Herts
Recently I facilitated the Penn Resilience Programme in Hertfordshire in the very town where I had gone to school as a teenager. The school bus used to drive me straight past the Lister Hospital, which always sent a shiver down my spine, as it was where my father had a heart attack and died. Decades later I was back working in Herts and pleased to be able to spend time with my elderly mother. When the course finished she waved me off as I headed to Amsterdam for the European Positive Psychology conference.
I had just presented some new research on my book when I noticed that a phone was ringing. The caller was persistent. 3 times it rang. When I got to my handbag and saw it was my brother trying to reach me, my heart flipped. It was the call we all dread – he had found my mother in a semi-conscious state. I headed straight back to Schiphol airport and in the early hours made it to her bedside in the Intensive Care Unit in the very hospital where my father had died. This time she was the one with the crisis of the heart.
Now days into a bedside vigil if ever there were a test of resilience then this surely is it. A chance to put into practice the ingredients that help us to cope positively in conditions of adversity. A life lab in real-time resilience.
Keeping a journal is one way to build resilience which is why I’m writing this blog. Research shows that ‘expressive writing’ in times of distress helps us to process events and can protect our psychological and physical health over the long term. Coincidentally in the Relatives Room adjacent to Intensive Care a poster encourages family members to keep a diary. Apparently what patients remember is disjointed like a jigsaw puzzle, rather than a chronological order of events. They may be in a dream not knowing fantasy from reality. As a result patients’ memories can often be chaotic, combining a mixture of dreams, life experiences and actual events.
The doctors are taking the short view, assessing things every few hours and I am following their example. Many of the principles of mindfulness are in play such as staying present. We’re taking it one step at a time and crossing each bridge as we arrive at it, not looking too far ahead. Observation is another mindfulness practice which in medical speak is known as doing ‘obs’. This has echoes of the mindfulness practice of the body scan – actively noticing what’s going on in the body’s systems – from temperature to digestion etc. Acceptance, another principle in mindfulness, is hard to do when a loved one is seriously ill but when faced with a situation out of your control it is advisable. As if to remind us of the benefits of mindfulness practice my mother is under the care of a Dr Buddha!
In resilience training we teach the three Ds – Disputation, Distraction and Distancing. Disputation helps to challenge pessimistic beliefs but right now it is the other Ds that are helpful in dealing with the intensity of emotion. The simple act of breathing deeply brings instant relief. I’m discovering the power of distraction by finding mundane tasks to engage in. Deleting old emails and sorting the receipts for my tax accounts has worked well but engaging in pleasant fantasy about boys is even better!
Reaching out is another route to resilience. I’ve had so many messages of support. In times of crisis you see your friends in their true light and the quality of the friendship is revealed. I am lucky that so many of my friends have proved to be such gems. As it’s hard to keep everyone updated social media has really come into its own as a way of communicating. The short form of Facebook and Twitter is a plus when juggling responsibilities with my new role of critical care nurse (untrained!) I am especially grateful for all the meditations on my mother’s return to health. Old friends I’ve not seen for years have been sending uplifting and optimistic thoughts.
Talking of optimism, one way in which optimists protect themselves from the emotional consequences of negative events is to view them as temporary rather than permanent. The phrase “this too will pass” epitomises optimistic thinking and this has has been a source of comfort.
As for how I’m coping during the crisis of the hearts, my emotions are sharper than usual – I am touched by every act of kindness and angered by the pettiness of jobsworths. I am grateful to those who have been flexible in their thinking and resent those who are rigid in theirs. I am moved by music and laughing harder at humour. It is an intense and bittersweet experience – veering between optimism and despair. I am living in the present more than ever before and am so aware of what’s important in life – our loved ones. Everything else fades into insignificance.