Part V: Brain re-set: Resilient Thinking for Bereavement

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” 
Helen Keller

Here I am, safe in the land of  my comfort zone: analytical thinking.  Enough of all that new age-y spiritual type stuff, the meditating, the journalling, the self disclosing; those methods that work so powerfully though God knows why. Magic, in other words.  What a relief to be back in the concrete, scientific world of logic and reasoning; back to the safety and detachment of analysing my beliefs and learning how to change them to make myself feel better.

I’ve been working with resilient thinking for the last fifteen years; I was persuaded to do this by a colleague who was working on an educational project to teach teachers to teach eleven years olds the skills of resilient thinking as a way of immunising them against the perils and anxieties of adolescence.  I could really get behind this purpose, despite my reservations about the method. Back then, I branded myself, rather preciously, as a depth psychologist, dismissive of the value of more behavioural methods, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, the fundamental tool of resilient thinking. My years of working with these methods have shown me how wrong I was. Practical as they are, behavioural as they are, they pack a powerful punch and they took me deeper into my own psychology and taught me more about my thinking habits, and how I could change them, than I ever could have imagined.

What does it mean?

The term resilient thinking was coined by Professor Martin Seligman and his team at the University of Pennsylvania several decades ago, when they were asked, by the US Government, to investigate the worrying epidemic of teenage mental illness in the Western World and to advise on what could be done about it.  After extensive research, Seligman concluded that the antidote to teenage angst is the development of the skills of resilient thinking before adolescence begins. As it’s not possible to identify which teenagers are particularly at risk of depression and anxiety, resilient thinking skills should be taught to all eleven year olds as an immunisation against the normal mood changes of adolescence, which can, in rare cases, lead to more serious breakdowns in mental health.

The resulting scheme of resilient thinking, developed by Seligman and his team, is now being taught around the world in education, business and clinical settings by a network of professionals trained and accredited by the University of Pennsylvania.  I am a member of this network.  An extensive and convincing body of scientific research is accumulating, demonstrating the effectiveness of these methods across the globe.

My personal experience tells me that the combination of meditation, journal writing, and resilient thinking are a potent blend for managing mood in both the short and long term. I often use journal writing for resilient thinking and for capturing my meditative experiences. I notice that resilient thinking infuses my general journal writing too.

The definition of resilient thinking is clear and simple: it’s the ability to think both accurately and flexibly.

Thinking accurately is the ability to see what is happening realistically: neither pessimistically, nor optimistically. Resilient thinking is not positive thinking: it’s seeing free of bias or prejudice; and trying to do that is, in itself, an education in self awareness.  Practicing this one single skill will alert you to how your view of what’s happening is distorted by your hopes and dreams and fears. Success at this skill starts with focussing simply on the true facts of the situation, and setting aside your feelings, your judgements, and what you wish to be true. Once you are confident you can see the clear simple facts only, you may, if you choose, interpret them on the more positive side, as that is generally more relaxing, so why not?

Thinking flexibly is the ability to accept that whatever is happening right now, and however you feel about it, is likely to change over time. Any sentence containing the word always or never is not flexible and therefore is not resilient. Notice what you say, how often you use always and never statements: most of us use them more than we realise. Thinking inflexibly makes us feel bad; if you have a choice about your beliefs (and believe me, you do…) choose the belief that feels  more relaxing to you, for example: “I will never get over this…..” versus  …. “One day I will wake up and it won’t be the first thing I think about.” Flexible thinking gives you hope for the future.

How does it work?

The core of resilient thinking is the basic method of cognitive behavioural therapy, that helps us to think about our thoughts and feelings and how they impact each other.  This is called the ABC, defined as follows:

A stands for the Adversity or the Activating Event: something has happened to upset you in some way.  This may be anything from a minor annoyance, like being stuck in traffic when you are in a hurry to a major trauma like the loss of a loved one. 

B stands for the beliefs we hold about the adversity/activating event. Under pressure, in the heat of the moment, our brain chemistry alters to distort our beliefs in ways that prevent us from thinking accurately and flexibly.

C stands for the consequences that flow from the activating event and the beliefs we hold about it.  There are two types of consequences: how we feel, and how we behave. Often, the consequences of our beliefs under pressure can make a difficult situation worse, not better.

What comfort can resilient thinking offer to the bereaved?

Resilient thinking is based on the idea that what we believe can make us feel better or worse.  A lot of what we believe is unconscious. In grief, we might subconsciously believe that the depth and duration of our pain demonstrates our love, so our recovery/happiness would be a kind of betrayal.  Or we might believe that our lost ones would want us to live our lives fully, and be happy, because life is precious. Makes a difference, right?  Consider your beliefs carefully and pay special attention to beliefs that might undermine your healthy recovery from grief.  The last thing your lost loved one would want is for you to remain grief stricken for too long, depriving you of the joy of life.

Bereavement is a normal trauma that we all experience.  The only escape is to die very young yourself. Loss of a loved one activates some of our deepest and most primitive emotions: the four big emotions are: grief, fear, anger and joy.  During bereavement, intense grief comes as standard; often accompanied by intense fear, especially if the death has been a shock. If aspects of the loss are especially tragic or unjust, intense anger may also be present.  Our joy in life is crushed as the intensity of our negative emotions take hold.  

Loss activates the primeval fear of separation and abandonment, and in our primitive brain this equals death.  Our biology and neurology may keep us in a state of near panic in the face of our fears, and our distorted beliefs prevail. In this state, resilient thinking is disabled, and our thoughts are run by fear.  Moving ourselves to a calmer state takes effort and will-power, as we push ourselves to do the things we know will make us feel better, even though they are the last thing we feel like doing.

So, how can we help ourselves to think about what’s happening in a resilient way?

Let’s look at an example of my ABC, some weeks after Tino’s death.

Here is my ABC worksheet in the heat of the moment. For a minor irritation these beliefs and feelings may last minutes or hours.  For a bereavement, they can be the intrusive background mood for days, weeks or months.

Next, below is an analysis of my ABC worksheet, where I have analysed the ways in which my thinking was distorted by grief and panic: 

Once I can see my distortions of thinking, I can go through a process called disputation, taking one belief at a time and questioning myself about it’s accuracy and flexibility:

  • Is that belief true?
  • Can I be sure it’s really true?
  • What’s the evidence for that?
  • Is there a more accurate way of thinking about that?
  • And more flexible?
  • How can I form a more resilient thought, that I can really believe, instead of my upsetting belief?

Here is the result of all that disputation, leading to my formation of resilient beliefs. Fifteen months after my brother’s death, these are the beliefs I hold. I still feel sad, of course; but not all of the time. it would be unrealistic to expect to never feel sad about a loss; but I accept what has happened.

Sometimes, this process can be transformational, like magic. Sometimes it can take longer.  Once I have defined those resilient beliefs, I can keep repeating them to myself: if I do that enough it will aid my recovery. It takes time and repetition, it’s a skill that takes practice. It’s always a challenge to learn something new, but the benefits of resilient thinking are worth the effort, in bereavement as well as other challenges that life presents.

Give it a go, really, try it. Good luck.

Tino’s son Anthony with his wife Mam, and baby Ella, born ten days after her grandfathers death. Tino would have loved her, as we all do.

 “Strong people know how to organise their suffering so as to bear only the most necessary pain.”

Emil Dorian

Next blog, coming soon:   Physical Health

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2 thoughts on “Part V: Brain re-set: Resilient Thinking for Bereavement

  1. Voula, this was so good…written in such a simple, clear way. So far each of the parts of this chain have been so interesting. I have been enthusiastic about all of them and in particular the meditation and this one on resilient thinking. You are inspiring Voul, and I think these posts will be of help to your readers.
    Thank you for sharing (I wish I had read these before our tragedy…)

    1. Oh thank you Chrys, really appreciate your reactions. I publish these posts with trepidation, never sure of how they will land… so it’s so reassuring to get this feedback! Xxxx

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