Welcome to ‘Torches‘, a month dedicated to undestand coping in its many forms.

Let’s start with definitions.

To cope is to deal effectively with something difficult. Sounds a lot like resilience, but while resilience is the ability to “recover quickly”, to “bounce back”, almost being untouched by the circumstances, coping implies a process of managing them, expending effort to solve problems, and seeking to master, minimize, reduce or tolerate stress or conflict. So, when we cope, we are more affected by the things that happen to us, but seek a way to process them, whether it’s by attaching some form of meaning to them, or by simply avoiding them. As you can already see, coping can range from very aware strategies to rather ‘defensive’ ones. But ultimately, it’s a very personal way to jump obstacles.

Little exercise to reflect: how do you think you tend to cope usually? What do you do with that obstacle? Do you push it off, do you see it as an occasion to learn how to jump, do you sit in front of it and hope it will disappear?

Coping can vary a lot from person to person, or even from moment to moment. We might be in a more protective mood and that might lead us to avoid the problem (sort of a survival mode), or we might be more prone to see what a tough experience can teach us.

Let’s look at four forms of coping:

  1. Positive appraisal happens when we reframe an event in a positive light, managing to get the positives out of it. It’s a matter of change in perspective, that allows us to see multiple aspects of the same event, and focus on the positive ones.
  2. Problem-focused (or approach coping) where we invest our efforts into finding a solution to manage or solve the problem at hand. It requires a clear vision of the issue, and a concrete plan on how it can be overcome.
  3. Emotion-focused (or avoidant coping) focuses on reducing the emotional distressed caused by the event we are living. This often involves seeking emotional support, or self-soothing with drugs or alcohol. The focus is on the emotion experienced rather than what caused it.
  4. Meaning-focused is based on a narration of the event that extracts meaning from it, drawing on a person’s values, beliefs and goals. It’s what allows us to see ourselves as part of something bigger, a process made (also) of obstacles, that are there to teach us something.

We have probably used all of them in our life, while having a ‘default’ for some situations, or more variability in others. This strongly depends on our emotional state, our support system, and the nature of the problem.

Happy shortest day of the year

Today, 21st of December, is the shortest day of the year.

For me, it’s always been a day of relief, especially since moving to the Netherlands, where the difference between winter and summer is measurable in hours of sun and it is so much more consistently than it is in Italy.

It’s the day that opens the doors to an improvement: even if it becomes incredibly cold, I look outside the window knowing that every day gives me a tiny minute more of sun. 

Even if I don’t perceive it every day, in a month I’ll realise there’s an hour more, and something gradual will become visible, if I have the patience to believe that things happen beyond my perception. 

Sometimes all it takes is to realise that our sadness, our loneliness, our fear is temporary, and that we should trust our micro-improvements and time. We will only see the difference when we take some distance.

(Today, daylight in Amsterdam is 7.29 hours long, while on the longest day it’s 9 hours more. In Italy it’s just 6.) 

Us between freedom and fate

December is an existential month, especially in a year like this.⁣

A recap of the process we have, willingly or not, been the protagonists of for the past 12 months.⁣

For me, looking back at this past year means coming to terms with the bulky presence of the body, enhanced by forced distances, reflection on vulnerability, mistrust in its ability to fight back or to show it’s ill.⁣

As psychologists, we are increasingly including the body in the picture, because we start realising it cannot be separated from “the mind”. The mind is, itself, part of the body. ⁣

But the interconnectedness goes beyond that. As humans, we are required a constant and effortful focus on the balance between our symbolic self (who we identify with, where we intend to go, which meaning we attach to what we do or who we surround ourselves with) and our biology (genetics, hormones, impulses). The former brings a sense of freedom, the latter reminds us of our fate. In a year like this, the contrast becomes visible, tangible, unavoidable. It’s us and our desires, accompanied by the limits of our body. The body does not have to be a limit, but in 2020 it forcedly became one.⁣ So, instead than feeling lucky for this convergence of dimensions, we end up feeling crushed by it.⁣

We will talk more about this, but for now let’s stay in this complexity without seeking a simplistic resolution. Let’s embrace the duality of our direction. Solutions come only from acceptance. And today, we approach together the end of a year of intense changes and ambivalences, and it’s our full right to feel all of it. ⁣

8 steps to resilience (by APA)

According to the American Psychological Association (2017) there are many ways to increase our resilience. ⁣
1. It’s important to actively foster a sense of self-efficacy (remind yourself of what you are able to accomplish, be helpful to others, make small daily steps to reach your goals).⁣
2. Optimism can really help when in a realistic form, and the ability to reframe events that happened to you in a more positive way.⁣
3. When trying to cope with adverse situations, favour a solution-oriented long-term approach, rather than avoidance, which will only postpone the emotional processing while also making it increasingly harder to handle.⁣
4. Channel your sense of meaning, spirituality and purpose (for example through mindfulness, nature, self-care).⁣
5. Cultivate strong social connections and actively seek and give support.⁣
6. For parents: provide protection, empathy and teach coping strategies and a healthy expression of emotions. Role models are a great idea.⁣
7. Cherish your connection with places and stay connected to your culture.⁣
8. In an emergency situation, don’t only prepare indispensable items, but valuable, meaningful ones that increase your quality of life. Remember that you deserve better than barely surviving.⁣

(This list refers specifically to resilience in times of catastrophes, when negative events are not only happening to us, but pervasively affecting society as a whole. These events can be less immediately traumatic than a personal struggle, but become overwhelming long-term and require patience, preparation and the ability to see the bigger picture. During this pandemic, remember to take care of yourself, you connections, your values.)⁣

Plastic Brain

Our brain is a complex machine, an incredibly smart one that tries to maximise our quality of life, by making us more adaptive, learning from our mistakes and mastering the skills we use the most.⁣⁣
‘Plasticity’ refers to the ability of transforming itself according to needs, whether they are ours or our environment’s. Our brain is at its most plastic during our development, where new information and skills can – more – easily be learned. ⁣⁣

Does this mean plasticity is a good thing? No. ⁣⁣
Is it a bad thing? Neither.⁣⁣

Let’s try to understand why. If our brain changes in relation to circumstances, the way it changes will depend on the circumstances. ⁣
If it experiences a lot of stress, it will readily implement an emergency system that will make us alert most of the time, to prepare for the adversities we are experiencing. (If a child is psychologically or physically abused on a daily basis, their brain will prepare for it, trading the ability to self-soothe with the one of noticing signals of danger, for example).⁣⁣
“Being less responsive to environmental change” means, in a situation like this, undergoing constant danger without the means to handle it. ⁣
The same characteristic that makes some people more “vulnerable” to turn traumatic events into depression, is also the one that facilitates them when a change occurs around them. Those same people that develop an emergency system more easily (thus being more anxious) are also the ones who benefit more from a positive upbringing.⁣⁣

So, we could call resilient those who resist the adversities around them without being irreversibly affected by them, while they are also the ones who will introject less of the positive elements in their life.⁣⁣
We happen to live in an era where resisting is considered more functional than integrating, but let’s not get fooled: we need both!⁣⁣

(The facts I have summarised above are a simplified version of what we study in psychobiology books, there are many more nuances to this, and these differences are not rigid ones, plasticity can be improved and resilience too.)⁣⁣

Resilience vs. Recovery

Resilience vs. Recovery ⁣

We can all agree that dip might look scary, when compared to an amazingly unaffected straight line. ⁣
When experiencing – or even expecting – a trauma, or a struggle of any kind and degree, we can feel as if losing our own grip on reality. We can face apathy, despair, a detachment from meaning. We can feel we are losing ground from under our feet and urge to rush back to normal. To bounce back.⁣

As we saw, most of us experience this at least once in their life. The dip, not the bounce. ⁣
When the pandemic started, many people started to talk about “going back to normal”, and just as many replied “we should not go back to normal, because normal was the problem”.⁣

Here’s the hard truth: only the dip allows revolutions (of the Self, of society, of values). The straight line is an appealing alternative, sure, but as a default reaction, doesn’t it remind you of robots? ⁣
Desperation might make us want to feel like robots at time, impassible and unbreakable, but when the sun starts shining again we might want to face another hard truth: if the bad doesn’t touch us, the good won’t either. ⁣
There’s a price in experiencing emotions, and there is one in floating. ⁣
Sometimes we need to resist.⁣
Sometimes we need to change.⁣

Can we be resilient at all times? Nope.⁣
Can we sink at any trauma? Nope.⁣
Should we find a balance? Yup.⁣

(As usual, let’s leave over-simplifications out of mental health.)⁣

Resilience: multi-dimensional

According to a study from Lopez and Snyder (2009) our ability to be resilient derives from a good parenting style: the authoritative one, characterised by “qualities of warmth and affection that also provide structure and support to the child”. So, as often happens, a good attachment – and good relationships in general – seems to be a condition for being adaptive human beings. ⁣

But let’s first make a distinction. Resilience is often mistakingly assumed to be a trait of the individual, while in fact It’s a process. One of acceptance, meaning, adaptation. ⁣

It’s a multi-dimensional construct that includes life satisfaction, negative or positive emotions, general health and physical health. It is not simply the ability to cope: it’s an all-encompassing concept that requires awareness and acceptance at many levels. When considering just one of them, a high percentage of the population seems to have some resilient traits (19-66%) but only a very small percentage of us is all-round resilient (Infurna & Luthar, 2016). Precisely, 8%. The majority of us actually experiences ‘recovery’: a dip in functioning and a gradual improvement. ⁣

This shows us that together with this increased use and promotion of resilience, there grew also an over-attribution of resilience where in fact it is not as common to ‘bounce back’. And, most importantly, it is something that can be learned. ⁣

It is the result of a multitude of little things, of a state of tranquillity, acceptance of one’s own limits and expectations and life as a complex machine.⁣

So when you see all these shortcuts to resilience, be skeptical: resilience is a goal, a guideline, not something along the lines of ‘fake it until you make it’. ⁣

While recovery should be normalised, in honour of being human and vulnerable, resilience can be assumed as a direction to always move towards. Something we work every day to balance with our own, personal need for vulnerability.

November theme: Resilience

Here comes our November theme: #RESILIENCE.⁣

The word ‘resilience’ is increasingly (mis)used. ⁣
Originally, it was defined as the mechanical attribute of an object of⁣ “resuming an original shape or position after compression or bending”, and it has been brought to the psychology world with figuratively the same meaning: the ability to “bounce back”, to be unaffected (or mildly affected) by the difficult circumstances that could happen around us.⁣
It’s a quality that helps us face challenges without being overwhelmed by them, keep a positive attitude in the face of struggles and extrapolate a meaning from tragedies. ⁣
So, it’s a great thing right?⁣

Not so fast.⁣

Resilience is, like many other skills, an useful tool that has unfortunately become a simplified slogan. We live in an era of quick solutions and quick emotions, where there’s little time and problems have to be given just enough to be moved aside. It’s a time that favours simplifications and black&white views, because they require less reflection. So, resilience and many other words have been transformed into mantras, taken in their totality and not questioned.⁣

Is it really desirable to ‘bounce back’ from everything? Where do we draw the line between being immune and favouring contamination?⁣

We will have this whole month to reflect on this, Stay tuned!⁣

Denial of our time

Today, we talk about denial.⁣

Very similar to repression, it also works by excluding unacceptable thoughts and feelings, but goes further in actively denying them.⁣

“It’s not as bad as it seems” so the event and its consequent emotion are belittled, and assume a different connotation.⁣

A very relevant example is the denial many of us experience towards the climate crisis. It is a natural reaction to something as umbearable and huge as the environment degradation, and, as any other defense mechanism, is there to protect our psyche.⁣

It’s important to give it therapeutic ‘attention’ because what is good for our psyche is not always good for our wellbeing, for our community and for society.⁣

Denial of this state, and the micro-denials that come with it, lead to inaction.⁣

“It’s not as bad as they are portraying it”, “It will be alright” and “There is nothing I can do that will make a difference” are all forms of denial. Optimistc, naive or pessimistic, the goal is always removing something from our sphere of control.⁣

Embracing that control means also embracing a certain degree of powerlessness. This is the complexity we need to progress, and this is why the simplicity of denial can be so effective sometimes.⁣

[Read the article of the Guardian]