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Neil Rocklin: Surviving in a Tough Economy

Resilience gives you the strength, courage and determination to seize control of your circumstances

What does it take to overcome the greatest recession ever (maybe even a double-dip recession, God forbid)? How can a resident keep one’s economic head above water in a part of the country where an annual salary of $65,000 is still $4,000 short of qualifying for a median-priced home? A home that would require a $68,000 down payment?

Neil Rocklin
Neil Rocklin

In one word, resilience. Resilience is a dynamic process that individuals exhibit when they positively adapt to significant adversity.

Consider Aron Ralston, an experienced mountaineer who on a spring morning in 2003 was exploring southeastern Utah’s narrow Bluejohn Canyon. As he was climbing over an 800-pound boulder, it shifted and pinned his right wrist and arm. He tried to dislodge his arm, but could not. He chipped away at the rock with his pocket knife. He rigged ropes to lift the rock. He ran out of food and water after several cold nights. He started sipping his own urine and made a goodbye video telling family and friends how much he loved them. Five days later, he was still alive and he envisioned himself as a preschool student being held by a one armed man. He then knew that his will to live was greater than his despair, and he broke his bones, tied a tourniquet on his arm, and cut off his arm. He rappelled down the 65-foot cliff and hiked five miles to find help.

“Every experience that I’ve ever had in my life, all the positive memories that I’d talked about, everything from 27 years of being alive on this world came to me as the potential for another 27 years of experience in life,” he recalled. “It was a rebirth for me. Having been dead and standing in my grave, leaving my last will and testament, etching ‘Rest in peace’ on the wall, all of that, gone and then replaced with having my life again. It ... it was undoubtedly the sweetest moment that I will ever experience.”

How about 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke, the sole survivor of 92 passengers and crew in a Christmas eve 1971 crash of a commercial airliner in the Peruvian rainforest. As the plane went into a nose dive, her mother exclaimed, “This is it.” Koepcke remained strapped to her seat as she fell two miles, suffering a concussion, gashes in her arms and legs, a broken collar bone and an eye swollen shut by the impact. Her parents had shared their understanding of surviving in the Amazon, so Koepcke set out following a creek that would lead her to a stream and, hopefully, assistance. Flies laid larvae in her open wounds. She waded through water inhabited by crocodiles, piranha and devil rays.

“Sometimes I would see a crocodile on the bank and it would start into the water toward me, but I was not afraid,” she said. “I knew crocodiles don’t tend to attack humans.”

After 10 days of wandering, she found a group of Peruvian lumberjacks who rescued her. Today she is a librarian at Munich’s Zoological Garden in Germany, still haunted by memories of her ordeal.

You must know of others who inspire you to realize that the future holds great opportunities that justify optimism for all of us. Susan Turk Charles, Chandra Reynolds and Margaret Gatz, writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2001), outlined their discovery that positive feelings grow after midlife and negative feelings subside, despite shrinking income, fading memory and a deteriorating body. In fact, their brains, as reported by Mara Mather and others in Psychological Science (2003), remain more reactive to positive experiences but less reactive to negative ones.

So, if you want to take advantage of your biological optimism and improve your resilience, follow these 10 steps from the American Psychological Association.

» Make connections with close family members and friends. Accepting help and support from those who care about you strengthens resilience. Become active in your church or synagogue.

» Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. Look beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations.

» Accept that change is a part of living. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.

» Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals, and do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment.

» Take decisive actions. Act on adverse situations as much as you can. Take decisive actions, rather than wishing they would just go away.

» Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and may find they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle with loss.

» Nurture a positive view of yourself. Find positive affirmations and recite one each day.

» Keep things in perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.

» Maintain a hopeful outlook. Visualize what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.

» Take care of yourself. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

— Licensed clinical psychologist Neil Rocklin is a psychology lecturer at CSU Channel Islands. For the past 30 years, he has treated children, teens and adults with a host of psychological disorders, and currently teaches college students about personality development, abnormal behavior and criminal behavior.

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