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Original Chinese version by: Francy F. Wang – Psychoanalyst MD RP Psychotherapy/psychoanalysis 416-816-9721 www.francywang.com
What is psychological resilience? The following is the definition from Wikipedia:
“Psychological resilience is the ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis or to return to pre-crisis status quickly. Resilience exists when the person uses “mental processes and behaviors in promoting personal assets and protecting self from the potential negative effects of stressors”. In simpler terms, psychological resilience exists in people who develop psychological and behavioral capabilities that allow them to remain calm during crises/chaos and to move on from the incident without long-term negative consequences.” （Wikipedia）
In other words, psychological resilience is the mental and emotional ability to adapt to crisis and to quickly recover. If one is able to remain calm in a crisis or a chaotic situation without a long-term negative impact on the their psychology and behavior, then this is a sign that the individual has strong psychological resilience.
Everyone has psychological resilience. Just like every spring comes with different elasticity, every individual has a different level of psychological resilience. Many factors can affect our psychological resilience, and there are also various theories on resilience. Here, I am only going to use an example to illustrate certain factors that influence one’s psychological resilience. Of course, the story I am about to share cannot cover all aspects of psychological resilience, nor can it demonstrate everyone’s level of psychological resilience. Although an individual case, it helps with our explanation.
Ann is a 50 years old nurse. Ann was born in an impoverished country, raised in a large family with limited means. She became pregnant at the age of 16. However, the father of the child did not give them recognition or support. Together with her parents and sisters, Ann raised the child. When she was 25, Ann came to Canada through a volunteer event at the church and met a man. After the event, the man travelled great distance to see Ann, expressed his love for her, and eventually sponsored Ann and her child for immigration. However, this relation did not last long. After the breakup, Ann had to raise the child on her own, while going to school. Through her hard work, she became a nurse. As time passed by, the child grew up and developed their own professional career as well.
A few years ago, Ann came to know a man much younger than herself. She loves him dearly. He wants a baby no matter what. To prevent losing him, Ann decided to get pregnant again at the age of 48, despite knowing the risks. However, she ended up with a miscarriage, and the men left her.
The breakdown of the relationship and the unfortunate miscarriage were devastating. But life went on, and Ann gradually recovered.
As the pandemic hit, Ann kept working incessantly at the frontline. Unlike before the pandemic, she washed her hands and sanitizes frequently and thoroughly every day. From the professional counselling perspective and our after-the-fact conversation, Ann’s behaviors reflect her anxiety and worry, of which she had no idea at the time.
One day, a patient in Ann’s daily care was diagnosed of COVID-19. Ann did not feel anxious at the moment. However, the next day as she reported to work, she suddenly felt that her heart was beating so violently that she felt she was dying. Ann called 911 and was sent to the ER. The doctor performed all the examinations but could not identify the cause of this symptoms. She was not infected with COVID-19. Neither was there other factors inducing such physical reactions. Nevertheless, the doctor gave my contact to Ann.
That was the peak time of Toronto’s pandemic. After finishing a day’s work, I saw Ann’s email in my inbox. She introduced herself as being referred by the COVID-19 Mental Health Network. During the pandemic, I viewed relevant cases with emergency, and therefore called her immediately. On the phone, Ann was polite and fluent in English, but seemed to be anxious. I squeezed in an appointment for her the next day.
In our video call, Ann looked languid due to sleep problems. Although I am not good at guessing the age of individuals of different ethnic backgrounds. Ann looked much younger than her actual age. She kept a fit physique. Her workout tank top revealed her well-toned muscles. I could not help but wonder, this is probably the “benefit” of working as a nurse!
That was the first time Ann attended counselling. In the past when she was going through the most difficult times, she roughed it through on her own, and had never thought that she would need professional psychological support. Patients referred by the COVID-19 Mental Health Network are usually cases that require short-term intervention. As an analyst, I focus on psychoanalytic listening. I also use skills like empathy and explanation, coupled with cognitive behavioral techniques, to provide crisis intervention and support.
Although it was the first time for Ann to participate in psychological counseling, she trusted the therapist very naturally, which was rare. Ann was very frank and open about her experience and thoughts. She was curious about her own condition and could understand her condition very well following the counsellor’s guidance. We had frequent “surprises” during our conversations. Moreover, she worked very hard after our sessions and continued doing the daily exercises that we tailored for her through our discussions.
The first time Ann came to see me, she had stopped working. She was uncertain when and whether she could resume work. Although she had a stable job, she was not that comfortable financially, and was therefore worried. She did not know what happened to the strong Ann that she knew. Initially, Ann attributed all these changes to aging. As I got to know her better, it was in my opinion that the breakdown of the previous relationship was still impacting her sense of security and confidence. The loss of her unborn child added to the challenge, and yet she did not properly grieve for this parent-child relationship. These were the causes of her changes.
Gradually, Ann became calmer after a few counselling sessions. The number of episodes of her panic attacks was decreasing, from more than once a day, to once a day, and eventually once every few days. After a few weeks, Ann made a significant progress for not experiencing any panic attack for three days in a row. She could therefore attend to her side business online. She was occupied with her video-recordings, promotions, and shipping. Communicating with her friends through calls, videos, and messages made her seem even busier.
During the last counselling session, Anna said even though she had not completely recovered to her prior state, and that anxieties, worries, and sleep problems still trouble her, she found that her friends shared similar anxieties. Such discovery alleviated her stigma of her condition and boosted her confidence. She felt willing to challenge herself and had already requested her supervisor to assign more patients in her care.
This is a very fulfilling case. From experiencing more than one panic attack daily and serious anxiety, to resuming a rather normal state, although Ann had her ups and downs, she was recovering steadily.
Many factors impact psychological resilience. One’s genetic factors and their early life experience are definitive. Ann’s early living conditions were not advantageous. Still, she has a supportive, inclusive, and understanding family. Therefore, following the professional attachment theory, Ann has formed an early, secure attachment, which she has extended to her adult life. She is confident, able to trust, open to help, and good at mobilising resources.
In addition, her challenging experience and living conditions honed her survival skills and psychological resilience. Under those circumstances, she must find a way to survive. Therefore, Ann is also a pragmatic person who can make practical plans in response to different scenarios and put them into action.
Meanwhile, Ann is able to keep forward-looking through her negative experiences. She can adjust her emotions rather quickly instead of dwelling in the past. She also has good interpersonal and communication skills, which she probably picked up from her harmonious family. The first time Ann talked to me, she had already made me feel comfortable and trusted. I could therefore imagine her making others feeling comfortable in her other relationships. All of these experiences and skills help shape her interpersonal abilities and allow her of a good support system. She has friends to whom she can confide what is preoccupying and bothering her. Her good relationship with her child shows that she successfully “copies” the benign relationship model from her original family to that of her own. While she gives love and support to her child, she also receives them. Besides, she is goal-oriented and perseveres. This is exemplary from her completing college and becoming a nurse despite all the difficulties.
In the process of counseling Ann, she was able to follow through the plan we made. She continued with the practices and the relaxation exercises every day without fail. This shows that she is a person with goals, persistence, and perseverance. Therefore, I have to say that she is a highly resilient person!