Building Resilience With Your Strengths With Dr. Sherry Hamby – Episode 114

LFL 114 | Building Resilience

 

The secret to building resilience is already within you; you just need to know how to activate it! In this conversation between Patrick Veroneau and Dr. Sherry Hamby, you will learn that developing the resilience to weather adversity doesn’t cost much if you are just willing to commit and do a few simple things consistently. A research professor of Psychology at the University of the South, Director of Life Paths Research Center, and the Founder of ResilienceCon, Dr. Sherry built her stellar academic career around her interest in developing strengths-based approaches to coping with adversity. In this episode, she talks about the three domains of the resilience portfolio and the simple things you can do to stimulate them. This conversation is packed with interesting and useful information grounded on solid research backing. You wouldn’t want to miss it.

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Building Resilience With Your Strengths With Dr. Sherry Hamby – Episode 114

Thank you for joining me on another episode. If you have any interest in learning how to develop resilience, improve your resilience, or maybe help somebody else that you feel like could use some help in regard to developing resilience, then this is the episode for you. My guest is Dr. Sherry Hamby. She is a Research Professor of Psychology at the University of the South. She’s the Director of Life Paths Research Center. She’s the Founder of the ResilienceCon. On top of that, she’s also the Founding Editor of the American Psychological Association journal, Psychology of Violence. She’s a licensed Clinical Psychologist. She spent many years on the problem of violence, including frontline crisis intervention for domestic, as well as other violence. Her work focuses on resilience and strengths-based approaches to coping with adversity.

She won numerous awards, including one in 2017, the Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Science of Trauma from the Trauma Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association. She’s also appeared in the New York Times, CBS News, Washington Post, Huffington Post, USA Today, as well as hundreds of other media outlets. She also has a book that is titled, Battered Women’s Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know. In this episode, Dr. Hamby is going to talk about some of the most current research in regard to developing resilience, what she’s been involved in, as well as giving a number of different recommendations in terms of how we can develop our own resilience. It doesn’t cost a lot of money. It doesn’t take a lot of time. It’s small and simple things that we can do, but we need to do them consistently. I know you’re going to enjoy this episode. Let’s get into it.

Dr. Hamby, I had the good fortune of reading one of your articles as I was doing some work around resilience and volunteering. I read some of your work and I thought you’d be a great person to talk about such an important topic around helping people to build resilience. Thank you for taking the opportunity to be on the show. I was hoping we could go from there and start talking about how do we help people?

That sounds great. Thank you for having me.

What are your thoughts on that? I’m sure you must be hearing more about this too. As I see it from a leadership perspective, there’s a misalignment or a challenge in regard to managers or leaders aligning their expectations and behaviors with what are the new realities. Many people that they are hoping will follow them. Those new realities have created a great deal of stress for individuals. What is your experience has been in that?

I was talking with some of my colleagues at the University of the South about this. It has been a hugely stressful time for everybody. It has also created opportunities to reprioritize and to rethink what’s important or essential about your business, your work, or whatever it is that you do. Looking at these things, taking that post-traumatic growth perspective is what they often call it in the literature is the key to taking incredibly stressful times like this pandemic. We’re trying to come out on the positive side of that.

We were talking about it before we went live around one in particular purpose and the importance on that can have on helping us develop resilience. Could you go a little deeper into that?

One of the key questions I’ve been trying to answer is, “What helps people the most when they are trying to overcome some adversity or trauma?” There’s a huge literature or dozens and dozens of things that help from emotion regulation or social support. In my own research program, we’ve looked at more than 35 different strengths. They’re all good things to have. It’s good to be emotionally regulated. It’s good to have social support. It is important to have what I call a large resilience portfolio so that you have a toolbox full of different types of strengths you can draw on when times are tough. What we have found even to a surprising extent is that a sense of purpose is by far the most important of the 35 that we’ve looked at so far. I didn’t expect that because there are people who are big or huge boosters for social support. Those things are all good too, but it does seem that having a sense of purpose is the most important strength that you can have. Connecting to something larger than yourself. This is what you could get out of bed in the morning.

In one of the articles that I had read, you talked about you being a parent. What’s your thing at that point that you realized that there’s a purpose there?

LFL 114 | Building Resilience

Building Resilience: A sense of purpose is the most important strength you can have.

 

Parenting is one of the classic ways that people can develop a sense of purpose. You realize that you will do anything to make sure that those people are okay and thriving. I have a son and a daughter. One’s in high school and one’s in college. So much in my life is oriented around them and that helps give me a sense of purpose. There are lots of other ways that people can get a sense of purpose too. For many people, religion or faith and connecting to a higher power of some kind. A church community is a great way to connect to something larger than yourself. If you have a mission, for me as an example, I’m trying to reduce the burden of trauma on the world. That’s what all my work is oriented around. That is also a big motivating factor for me.

Along with that, would you categorize that with things like volunteering in terms of the mission end of it?

That’s another terrific example. There’s a psychological word called generativity. It’s an old word. It dates back to the work of Eric Erickson from the mid-20th century. His idea was that you keep on developing even after you are physically grown. Psychological development didn’t stop at the end of adolescence when you’re cultured and busy learning all these basic life skills. When you’re a child and an adolescent, this is basic relationship skills. He thought that one of the key things that adults did is to learn how to develop a sense of generativity.

Parenting would be one example for him, but also in terms of volunteering, teaching, coaching, if you’re a girl scout leader or the head of a youth group. That would be a way of helping to bring the next generation along. All of those activities are also terrific ways not only to help all of the young people that you’re trying to help but to do yourself an enormous favor too, in terms of boosting your wellbeing. There’s some emerging research that is fascinating, which shows that it can have physiological benefits, like reducing your inflammation, boosting your immune system, and important impacts like that.

Which would seem to make sense? The feeling that most people get when they do something for other people is you generally feel better. Is it a distraction from your own challenges when you’re helping somebody else through a situation? To me, it seems like it would be beneficial on a number of levels.

It can be a distraction. I know a lot of it probably comes down to trying to make it seem all worthwhile. Another important part of what has been coming out of this research on resilience is that people are more and more starting to realize how universally the experience of trauma and adversity is. We used to take this siloed approach. We would look at child abuse, bullying, or community violence. We realize that if you take a more holistic view, everybody gets exposed to some trauma sooner or later, if not for themselves then for a loved one. Going back to the experience of being a parent, it would be more difficult for me to know that my child had been exposed to some kind of victimization than it would for me to get exposed to it.

The paradoxical unexpected piece of that is if that’s all common than we realize, then resilience has to be so much more common than we realize too. I wouldn’t use the word distraction because what it helps to do is that it lets you take what you learned from coping with your own struggles and make it seem like it has some value that you went through all of that. You came out and you survived. You came out on the other side. You can help somebody else cope a little better or get through it a little bit more easily. That’s the meaning-making that helps people. That’s why volunteering, tutoring, and all those kinds of things can be such a powerful way to overcome your own adversity.

Something else that I’ve thought about is your thoughts around grief and people experiencing grief. From a number of different perspectives. I’ve thought about the number of people that may not even realize that they are grieving certain losses of everything from somebody that enjoyed going to Broadway shows that doesn’t have an outlet for them anymore, sporting events that were their thing or summer, or picnics that they used to do. Those things have gone away and they don’t recognize them as grieving in terms of like, “I lost a loved one.” Internally, does that weigh on people in terms of loss?

For me, it was travel. We used to travel quite a bit for work and pleasure. Sometimes I would get tired of it, but I realize how much I relied on that to break things up and give me something to look forward to. A Broadway show is a terrific example of that. It adds some variety, creates some anticipation, and we’ve all lost that. For most of us, our days are a lot more routine than they used to be. A lot more limited as we all try to practice social distancing. For sure, that is a form of loss. Making more space to grieve is going to be an important part of healing from this pandemic in the long run. A lot of people aren’t in a space where they have the ability to take the time to do that grieving. Hopefully, as we start to come out of it with the vaccine or better treatments and some of the advances that are coming down the line that will also free people up to process this event. We’re all still caught up in the middle of all the trauma that it’s hard to process.

Just as trauma is a universal experience, resilience has to be much more common than we realize. Click To Tweet

We talked about purpose, about volunteering. Based on your research, what are other things that you think would be very beneficial for individuals to somehow put into practice?

One of the new constructs that we come up with from our qualitative work of talking with people is something we’re calling a recovering positive aspect. My work is based in rural Appalachia. One of the things that we were trying to do is often a community that gets treated in very stereotyped ways and often seeing through a very deficit-based lens. When you go out there and talk to them, they do such an amazing job of overcoming trauma and such a terrific sense of humor that they bring to it. One of the things we kept hearing about over and over again was how they would cheer themselves up. I realized that something that’s not bending the resilience literature is the role of humor and being able to get back into a positive mood like if you have a flat tire on your way to work then back when we were able to drive to work.

It’s going to ruin your morning, day and week. It’s how long does it take you to let that go and not end your bad mood, but to be able to get back in a positive mood? Most of the emotion regulation literature has focused more on getting rid of negative emotions. Getting rid of anger, sadness or distress. We realized that there was this missing piece about not being able to get back to neutral, but recover a positive mood, a good mood. That has turned out to be one of the powerful measures of strengths in our work that we’ve done. That’s an important one. That is something that we’ve neglected.

Recovery positive effect. That reminds me of a story about an individual that was diagnosed with cancer. Immediately after the diagnosis, they went to the video store when we used to have video stores and all they did was consume comedies and they were cured of cancer. This isn’t a clinical trial. They put a lot of the benefit of those movies and maintaining a sense of humor and positivity as they were going through this as critical to their process.

That’s another one that can have physiological effects too. Moving to the topic of like, “How do you get toward a resilient place where you’re achieving and thriving again after adversity?” Mindfulness also adds that emotion regulation component. That’s been around for thousands of years. It wasn’t taken seriously by mainstream Western medicine for a long time, but it finally has started to. We’re finding that mindfulness can work as well as a lot of other therapies or medications can in terms of helping people get rid of depression and anxiety after some traumatic event.

I’ve seen some of that research as well, where they talk about it even in cancer research. The impact that it can have in terms of a state change. I do believe in the whole piece of mindfulness. In 5 or 10 years, we’re going to look back and the research is going to be strong on this. It will be one of those. You just, “How could you not apply this? The benefits of it.”

The great thing about it is that it is so accessible to everybody. You can live in rural Appalachia and you could still do mindfulness meditation. You don’t have to have access to a specialist or be able to afford therapy. It’s practically a wonder cure.

Anything else that hits your radar in terms of the work that you’re doing?

We have our resilience portfolio breaks strengths down into three different domains. We’ve talked about two of them. The first is the meaning-making domain, where having some of the purposes turns out to be the biggest piece of that, although also mattering to other people is an important element of that as well. We’ve talked a little bit about the regulatory domains. Learning different kinds of self-regulation, where being able to cheer yourself up and recover that positive aspect or positive emotion after trauma is the key thing. The third domain is the interpersonal one. This is the whole social ecology. The help that you get from family, friends, broader community, or even your social and cultural values, that can sustain us during tough times.

LFL 114 | Building Resilience

Building Resilience: Making more space to grieve is going to be an important part of healing from this pandemic in the long run.

 

Social support is the one that we have found is the most helpful. That domain turns out to be a little bit trickier than the other two. For example, in one of our studies, we found that the adolescent boys who were reporting the highest levels of social support were also reporting the highest levels of delinquency. You have to be careful about what they’re getting socially supported to do. Having a safe person for someone to talk to and someone who will offer tangible help if you need a ride to the doctor or someone to look after your kids. We’ve found that what we’ve had to do is get a lot more specific about what kinds of social support we’re talking about. We’re not talking about encouragement to go shoplift or something like that. That’s probably one that’s important there. We are still trying to figure out what other pieces of that one might be helpful. That one has turned out to be the trickiest and there’s often this double-edged sword about it like, “What example is giving you social support?”

Another one is that investment in family, which was turned out to be trickier than I expected because this important to me. I put a lot of energy, like a lot of people do, into celebrating holidays and family traditions. On the one hand, you can see the benefits of that. That gives people a lot of joy and even stability in their lives. In our work, you can see that there’s a little bit of a burden to that too. Many people have talked about it can get quite stressful around the holidays, trying to live up to your own expectations or other expectations. Having those interpersonal relationships is important, but it’s a little bit trickier there to strike the right balance about me in. It doesn’t end up being more of stress or a burden than it is something that you’re also deriving sustenance from.

You mentioned the interpersonal domain to have researched around belongingness and how important that is for us. In the work that I do with organizations, we’re certainly building teams. It seems that we’re pack animals by design that we need each other. There’s a sense of power that we gain from the inclusiveness of being inside a group or that supported by a group as long as it’s positive.

We are social animals by nature. The flip side of that is also true that there’s research on loneliness that shows that is one of the best predictors of mortality among older adults. It’s like a better predictor of whether they’re going to die in the next 5 or 10 years. Things like hypertension, diabetes and all these other things that you would think sound much more serious. We can’t truly thrive without having that sense of belongingness to some groups somewhere.

If you’re isolated or you identified yourself as being lonely, your life expectancy is short. Is that correct?

That’s right. There’s quite a large literature on that.

That isn’t interesting because it does speak to that thousands of years ago. We were voted outside of the tribe. That was a death sentence. We couldn’t survive on our own. I would argue that it’s the same thing today. It looks different, but it is the same.

Back at one point in time, that was the worst punishment you can impose on somebody. In some ways that still is true and we haven’t fully appreciated what some of the psychological ramifications are. There have been huge demographic factors with that. It changed a little bit because of the pandemic. I was reading an article in The Atlantic by the social psychologist, Jean Twenge. She said that it’s been hard on adults that adolescents are doing well as they were before, or maybe even a little better during the pandemic. She thinks it’s because they’re all reporting, spending a lot more time with family, and things like that.

It has changed. My kids are around a lot more because they can’t cope anywhere. I’ve seen more of them in the previous months. They’ve got old enough to go run around on their own and jump. That’s very important. Demographically, we’ve had such huge changes with that. The most common household in the United States is one person living by themselves, which has never been true in all of recorded history. We’re beginning to understand the impacts that are going to be on people in terms of psychology.

We are social animals by nature. Isolation is one of the worst punishments you can impose on somebody. Click To Tweet

One that we haven’t touched on is your thoughts on this, two parts, practicing gratitude and journaling and where those might fit.

Practicing gratitude can fit into that work about volunteering and teaching. Anything that you do that strengthens your relationships, it gets you to have more positive or pro-social relationships with other people is a good thing. It depends on whether or not you’re expressing gratitude to somebody else or if you’re doing some of those things where you write down three things a day that you’re grateful for. There are some benefits to that too. None of this stuff is bad for you, but in terms of what’s better, you’ll get a lot more boost out of writing that teacher that made a difference in your life and saying, “I never told you how much it mattered to me, that you encouraged me in my interest in medicine or whatever it was.”

For journaling, that is right up there with mindfulness. One of my favorite interventions. It goes under a lot of different names. It goes under a narrative or expressive writing. A lot of people more in the violence, trauma fields, or in psychotherapy have missed that. There’s been a huge amount of work going on, on these different types of narrative, social psychology, developmental psychology, and positive psychology. It turns out that light mindfulness is one of the best things that you can do for yourself. You don’t have to. When you say journaling, a lot of times people come up with this idea that you have to write down what’s going on in your life every day for the rest of your lives.

I’ve tried to start a journal several times and I never get more than a few weeks into it. The good news about that is that it turns out from all this research that you don’t have to do that. Sometimes people will use instructions to write down the most traumatic or upsetting thing that’s happening to you. That’s the centerpiece of a lot of emerging narrative forms of therapy like trauma-focused, CBT, or narrative exposure therapy. In positive psychology, they ask you to write about things that are meaningful to you like somebody who meant a lot to you as a child, what you think your values are, or to write about a turning point in your life when you realized what you wanted to do or who you wanted to marry.

You can write those. There are tons of research about writing for an hour that shows that it has long-lasting psychological impacts and also physiological ones. That’s another great intervention that will boost your immune system, reduce inflammation, and other physiological benefits like that. Laura King, the Positive Psychologist, did one study where she only had students write for two minutes a day for three consecutive days. After a six-minute intervention, they still weeks later were scoring better on psychological measures than the control group who was down a list of things they had to do. If you write about anything that’s psychologically meaningful to you, it helps you process it and helps you gain perspective on it. It helps you appreciate what you might have learned or what your real priorities in life are. It’s an amazing intervention. It’s accessible to anybody who has paper and a pencil.

You bring up such a great point that it doesn’t have to be exhaustive. This was for two minutes. Who can’t find two minutes to write down something? I know for me trying to end the day where I will write down 2 to 3 sentences of what went well for the day. Oftentimes I find myself, “What do I still have to do tomorrow? What didn’t I get done today?” Whereas if I put myself in that place of forcing myself to think about, “What didn’t go well?” There are things that went well as difficult as it might be. If I can go in that route, it’s not to be a Pollyanna, but it’s trying to get myself into a place of not focusing on what didn’t go well.

Anything that you’re writing about as long as it’s meaningful to you. That has been the great thing about this narrative research. People do many different variations of it and the control group in most of these studies is writing down a to-do list, or if they’re college students like writing down your study plans for this semester. They’re still writing to create better comparable control, but they’re not writing about something meaningful, or personal to them like what you need from the grocery store. That seems to be the key to it. If that’s meaningful to you if that helps you to focus on acknowledging that you did do some constructive things during the day, and that gives you a sense of closure and accomplishment. That would be a great strategy.

The last thing I’ll ask you is around exercise as a tool. What are your thoughts research-wise on that?

The exercise we’re learning more and more about these mind-body lengths. It goes along with the research on mindfulness in that way. This impressive evidence-based showing that you don’t need to become an Olympian that even any regular moderate exercise can do. I’m not a big sports person myself, but I have dogs. I make sure that I get out and walk my dogs. Take a brisk walk with my dogs for 30 or 40 minutes every day. Even something like that is enough to have a strong impact on depression symptoms or anxiety symptoms. They’ll reduce them if you already have them. They’ll protect you from developing them.

LFL 114 | Building Resilience

Building Resilience: Among the pieces that contribute to a good life, the three with the biggest backing in evidence are mindfulness, expressive writing, and exercise.

 

A bunch of research has shown that this is about as effective as psychotherapy or antidepressant medication. Some people are talking about that being practically a miracle cure. In the United Kingdom, they’re prescribing exercise as the first line of treatment for depression before they give them anything else. They give them maps to all the walking paths that are all over England and Scotland. Some of the other benefits that go along with that are also being in the outdoor spaces. There’s some emerging research that shows that you’ll get better psychological benefits if you walk in a park or the woods than you will on city blocks, although they both help. Getting sunshine and adequate amounts of vitamin D. These are all folding in there but exercise too. Another one that is free and accessible or nearly free, if you decide to go for something that requires a little bit of equipment. A wonderful way to sustain wellbeing and throwing across the lifespan.

It’s not something that takes a lot of time to do it. It doesn’t need to. If you want to work out for 60 minutes, you can. I’ve seen research that as little as ten minutes of walking can activate a lot of those neurochemicals. That was a self-serving setup in regard to that question around exercise because it’s something that I promote so often in terms of something easy for us to do. There’s research that you can site that exercise compared to pharmacotherapy in terms of the benefit that it does better than some of the treatments. That’s not to say, “You stop taking medication and work out for 30 minutes.” It speaks to the power that exercise provides in helping us out.

Exercise has a bunch of other side effects, but it will also lower your blood pressure and help you maintain a healthy weight. It will have all these other benefits instead of being something that can have potentially risky side effects. There are some risks too, especially if you’re going to take up skiing or things like that, be careful not to injure yourself. In terms of thinking about the pieces of what good life are, the three that have the biggest evidence-based behind them are mindfulness, expressive writing, and exercise.

What a great way to end this. I can’t thank you enough, Dr. Hamby, for your input on this and for helping other people. There are so many different options for people and different perspectives. Different people can do different things, but they don’t take a lot of time. Try things out and see what works for you.

That’s the basic idea behind the portfolio model. The same combination is not going to work for everybody, but anybody can put together a combination that will help them thrive and achieve well-being. Thank you for inviting me to talk with you. I enjoyed it.

Thank you. I’m wishing you all the best.

The same with you.

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About Dr. Sherry Hamby

Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., is Research Professor of Psychology, University of the South, Director of Life Paths Research Center, and Founder of ResilienceCon.

She is also founding editor of the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Violence.

A licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Hamby has worked for more than 20 years on the problem of violence, including front-line crisis intervention for domestic and other violence, involvement in grassroots domestic violence organizations, therapy with trauma survivors, and research on many forms of violence. Her current work focuses on resilience and strengths-based approaches to coping with adversity.

Her awards include the 2017 Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Science of Trauma Psychology from the Trauma Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Hamby has appeared in the New York Times, CBS News, Washington Post, Huffington Post, USA Today, and hundreds of other media outlets.

Her most recent book is Battered Women’s Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know (Oxford University Press, 2014). She lives in Tennessee with her husband and two children.

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