Resilience, which we all need now, can be learned


Everyone is able to build up more resilience — the ability to deal with adversity — according to Erin Commendatore.

“Resilience,” she told the Faculty & Staff Development Program class, Resilience: Finding Hope in Hardship, “is a skill we can learn and we can cultivate.


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“Resilience is not fixed, it’s not static,” added Commendatore, program manager with UPMC’s Life Solutions, Pitt’s employee assistance program. “We always have a chance to enhance our resilience.”

If you want evidence that resilience is possible for us all, just look at how we are coping with this unique pandemic, which is “challenging and stressful, yet people are coping and adapting and continuing to live their lives. What? Why? How?”

Commendatore defined resilience as “the dynamic interaction between perceived risk and an individual's coping skills that determines their ability to adapt well in the face of adversity and thrive in everyday life.”

It is indeed a “dynamic interaction,” she emphasized, involving both risk and coping skills: “The interaction can grow and evolve, and that’s up to us.”

And there is always a “perceived risk,” even where there is also a very real risk, such as from COVID-19. Our perceived risk is how safe we feel.

“People are going into work with every precaution available to them. But they’re still terrified,” she said. “They’re still nervous now that the cases are going up.”

Building up resilience, she added, helps us to thrive, even now, and makes us “more likely to find achievement and joy in the everyday moments.

“Our level of resilience is a choice. It is not something we’re born with,” Commendatore said.  “At any given moment, you have the power to say, ‘This is not how this story is going to end.’ ” Even when we encounter circumstances we can’t control, we can control our reaction to them.

Enhancing your resilience takes some work, but Commendatore offered many strategies, starting with reflecting on your own strengths. We have all come this far into adulthood and have all experienced some trauma or crisis, so we all must have “a reservoir of resilience.” Reflect on the challenges you have overcome and how you have already persevered, she advised.

Is your reservoir spiritual, stemming from prayer or a gratitude journal, or from a connection with family and friends, Commendatore asked. When is the last time you reviewed your own positive attributes?

“We all have personal strengths” when facing adversity, she said. And “there is no such thing as a wrong reaction,” although, of course, there are harmful reactions. Stress can affect us physically and emotionally. We may engage in rumination — mulling too hard over the bad moments — or the stress may affect our sleep, make us irritable or push us toward using alcohol or drugs.

Living with the specter of COVID-19 may bring out stress reactions in you that you have never seen before, she cautioned: If you think you are suffering too much, too little or too long, it may be time to take action.”

Talk to loved ones or friends, pastors or counselors, she advised: “Confront the adversity. And the best way to do that is to tell your story … to whomever and however you can. How are you uniquely experiencing this crisis? How are you letting that out?”

Our stories are best shared in person, but that may not be possible today, so substitute a phone call or even social media, if need be, or even a journal. “We all need a safe person, ideally a few more,” she said. “Our safe people will listen to us without limits or judgments.

“Your support system can be not only personal, but professional,” she explained, mentioning that Life Solutions provides life coaches and counselors for Pitt employees.

“Replenish often,” she recommended, through commitment to a new or more intense self-care activity, such as playing with pets, exploring nature, reading, listening to music or creating or enjoying art.

Today, during an international health crisis, is “a time when self-care is more important.” But such a situation can be the time when we have the most trouble practicing self-care.

“I would encourage each of you right now to commit to a self-care practice that you will start today,” she said.

In the end, connection with others would seem to be the primary factor that gets us through difficult times, she reported. “We need each other. You may just need to chat with a friend or you may need formal support.”

Perhaps the toughest task in these toughest of times may be cultivating gratitude — for all things, she said: “That means we should be grateful for the easy stuff and the hard stuff, the triumphs and the trials.” And that includes being grateful for “some of the positive outcomes of the crisis,” such as reconnecting with loved ones during isolation, or having fewer commitments that force us to run around every evening and weekend.

“We as human beings are hard-wired to focus on the negative,” she concluded. “When one negative thing brings us down, we need to think about three positives to get us back up to the baseline. So take some time every day to think about some of the good. When we’re grateful, we’re more optimistic.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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