Prioritizing resilience over stability


Last updated 12/15/2021 at Noon

Life is hard.

There is no way around this fact. If you are lucky enough to have resources and privilege to bypass certain stressors and outcomes, some of life’s curveballs may be dodged, but ultimately, we will all experience our own versions of grief, heartache, trauma, and pain.

The circumstances of our world the past two years have forced many of us to become far more intimate with our emotional fragility, as the triggers and vulnerability to emotional distress have been vast. More isolated, with fewer coping resources, many of us have felt overwhelmed with an emotional intensity we may not have encountered before.

Seeking mental health support has become near-trendy. Stigma has lessened and seeking counsel has generated more applause than perhaps ever before. The art of self-care is proudly featured throughout popular culture and social media platforms. Mental health professionals find themselves inundated with inquiries and waitlists are months long.

While the interest in shameless self-improvement deserves an exuberant cheer, accommodating the “worried well” while also saving space for individuals in crisis is a struggle many mental health agencies and professionals are grappling with. Despite the boom of interest in mental health, the prevalence of crisis is not slowing. Studies throughout hospital systems demonstrate an overall decrease in total emergency room visits in general (this makes sense in the context of COVID), but a significant increase in the median number of total mental health emergencies.

What is stability anyhow?

Stability seems to be the elusive and highly sought-after goal throughout healthcare disciplines as treatment plans develop. Chart notes tracking a patient’s progress echo:

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“Patient presents as stable.”

“Patient reports overall stability.”

“Patient leaves the emergency room in stable condition.”

Stability seems to be the endgame for many health professions, but especially in regard to mental healthcare, what is “stability” anyhow? The very notion of stability is up for interpretation and rich with bias per the reporter. My version of stability may very likely differ from the next provider.

While there are no true standards for what constitutes emotional stability, stability in mental healthcare is most generally noted as the absence of emotional distress. Of course, many of us are well accustomed to appearing “stable” while perhaps dealing with depths of distress internally. What constitutes the presence or absence of emotional distress is also rich with interpretation and bias.

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If so-called stability is the absence of emotional distress, and yet life is inevitably hard, creating inevitable emotional distress, then is the pedestal we place stability upon more predicated on avoidance than resilience? Are we haphazardly creating a mindset of emotional aversion rather than acceptance? Emotional wellness is not served by trying to run from what we cannot hide from.

Confronting avoidance and entitlement

I do not seek to take away the pain of my clients, but rather to empower them to sit with the pain, while developing more adaptive and constructive responses. I do not seek to make my clients “happy,” but to cultivate gratitude and lightness alongside the grief and heaviness. Do I prescribe medication? Yes. Is it a cure-all? No. Is it a stepping-stone allowing clients to strengthen other aspects of resiliency? Hopefully.

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In our westernized world, rich with privilege, many of us are lucky enough to have access to primitive necessities keeping us away from the basic pursuits of survival. Internal struggles are less about where to find the next meal, but rife with comparison, insecurity, jealousy, purposelessness, anger, and existential fears. Underscored by the filtered and edited world of social media, we can be tricked into believing that if our lives are not rich with happiness and inspiration, we are somehow “not OK.”

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We are too quick to believe that such happiness is something we ought to be entitled to in our professional and personal lives, which often only enhances the discomfort felt during life’s inevitable hardships. We are a culture not so well equipped to handle pain. We are, however, very good at numbing, distracting, repressing, and avoiding what we perceive as uncomfortable feelings.

It is not the feelings of sadness, anxiety, loss, or shame that are problems in themselves, but often the avoidant responses that create greater suffering.

Emotional wellness is not a destination, but a daily intentional process that demands radical responsibility. It is not something to be solved or “fixed.” Alongside medication, treatment protocols, supplements, and lab testing, comes the willingness to acknowledge pain layer by layer, become more comfortable with discomfort, take ownership of our behaviors, and strive for more productive responses.

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Cultivating emotional resiliency

Like stability, the concept of resiliency is also up for interpretation. Unlike the concept of stability, however, implied within resiliency is the inevitability of hardship. At its core, resiliency acknowledges struggle and distress.

Amid greater rhetoric around mental health and social-emotional learning, it is important not to enhance hypervigilance or skittishness around negative emotional states, but to enhance coping and responsiveness to the tough times that are part of being human.

The conversation can’t stop at “It’s OK to not be OK,” but must be expanded to, “How can we continue to be decent and relatively healthy humans when we are not feeling OK”? How can we better acknowledge and problem-solve so that we don’t project our distress on others? How can we create a lifestyle that enhances energy and compassion? How can we find meaning in a tough world? How can we limit distraction and numbing? How can we ask for help?

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The struggle is real y’all. There is no need for comparative suffering — it is not a competition. We have all had our dark days. Emotional distress will happen, stability is overrated, but resilience can be cultivated. In my version of resiliency, perhaps one of the greatest skills is learning to connect and ask for help. So do yourself a favor, and reach out. You are not meant to ride out this rodeo called life alone.

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