Resilience is something everyone can build

by Jeanne Preisler •

Jeanne Preisler

Resilience is not something you have or don’t have. Resilience is something everyone can build. The more tools you have, the more resilient you can become.

Here is an approach that has helped me that I believe will be helpful to you and, through you, to others in your life—including young people in foster care.

Resourcing Happy Memories

I have a happy memory I absolutely love. I was teaching an 8-year-old how to play chess. We were at a friend’s beach house, right after lunch. We were at a table outside on the porch and the day was beautiful. The temperature was perfect. The sky was blue with white puffy clouds. There was a little breeze. I could hear the waves and other children laughing nearby.

I have “resourced” this memory. I have turned it into a tool—part haven, part pick-me-up—I can use any time I need to center myself or change my perspective. I have shared this memory with others in such detail that they can “see” it like they would experience a movie. This crystallized the memory for me. Sometimes, instead of going for coffee, I go to this memory instead.

When I remember that wonderful day, I almost instantly feel better. There is a smile on my face and I am renewed with energy.

I learned this process of making “resources” out of good memories through something called the Community Resilience Model (for more on this, see box below). We often help children handle their traumatic histories with cognitive-behavioral strategies. This is one such strategy that is simple and accessible to everyone. This is a strategy we can help develop any time with any person (young or old).

We can boost resilience by knowing when difficult memories are likely to arise for us and how our bodies react when they do.

Unhappy Memories

Of course, not all memories are good. Many of us have witnessed or done things we would rather forget. One way we can boost our resilience is to understand when these difficult memories are likely to arise and how our bodies react when they do.

For example, if you grew up with domestic violence, someone raising their voice in a discussion may cause you to have a flashback. If you experienced something bad around the holidays, walking in the mall at that time of year, with those decorations, may cause you to remember that event. Better understanding your history and preparing for how you might react when memories intrude is a great way to start building your resilience toolbox. This can be especially helpful to young people in foster care, many of whom struggle daily with difficult, intrusive memories.

Given your history (or the young person’s history you are working with), think about what might cause you to relive those negative experiences. Some things that trigger memories may be:

  • Being touched
  • Yelling
  • Time of year
  • Particular time of day
  • Being isolated
  • People being too close
  • Fighting
  • Anniversaries
  • Loud noise
  • Specific people
  • Doors closed
  • Doors open
  • Being forced to talk
  • People in uniform
  • Seeing others out of control

Even if we don’t know what triggers us, our body reacts when we relive negative experiences. These reactions are a kind of “tell”—a tell is change in a poker player’s behavior or demeanor that gives clues to what’s in their hand.

What is your body’s “tell” when you are experiencing a difficult memory? Think about what happens when you are stressed. Some stress signs might be:

  • Sweating
  • Red faced
  • Rocking back/forth
  • Crying
  • Sleeping less
  • Breathing hard
  • Wringing hands
  • Pacing
  • Eating less
  • Eating more
  • Racing heart
  • Hyper
  • Clenching teeth
  • Bouncing legs
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swearing
  • Nauseous
  • Agitated or yelling

One of my “tells” is that I get impatient with people or my animals. Usually this happens before I even realize I am stressed. Other times, my eyes begin to well-up before I have the words to understand what I am feeling. When I see these signs, I know it is time to use the strategies I have learned to get myself back to an “even baseline.”

Getting Back to Baseline

When we get thrown off balance, we need ways to get back on track. I encourage you to identify many strategies that will work for you. Some might be things like:

  • Writing
  • Listening to music
  • Reading
  • Taking a shower
  • Drawing/coloring
  • Weighted blankets
  • Walking/exercise/sports
  • Video games
  • Watching TV/movies
  • Talking with peers
  • Drinking cold water
  • Ice chips
  • Quiet room
  • Nap
  • Your “resource” memory

If you don’t know what works for you, try something listed above. In fact, try several things. Create yourself a resilience toolbox. Everyone needs one!

Work with friends and other supportive individuals to better understand your tells. Friends can often point them out before we realize they are happening. Your friend might say something like this: “Hmmm. I notice you are bouncing your leg. That was one of the things you said happens when you get anxious, right? Would you like to go take a quick walk around the block with me?”

Let’s Be Resilience Builders

All positive relationships can be restorative. Positive relationships help build resilience. No matter how long you are in a young person’s life—a day, 20 days, or 20 years—each moment is an opportunity to restore that person’s self-esteem. To restore their confidence. To restore their self-worth. These are key tools in a resilience toolbox.

Today, I ask you to not only be trauma detectives, but also resilience builders. Parents who are trauma detectives and resilience builders will leave an enduring legacy on the young people they serve.

Jeanne Preisler, a Program Consultant with the NC Division of Social Services, is leading an effort to help our child-serving system become more trauma-informed.

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The Community Resiliency Model

The Community Resiliency Model (CRM) of the Trauma Resource Institute trains community members to not only help themselves but to help others within their wider social network. The primary focus of this skills-based stabilization program is to re-set the natural balance of the nervous system. CRM skills help individuals understand their nervous system and learn to read sensations connected to their own well-being, which CRM calls the “Resilient Zone.” CRM’s goal is to help to create “trauma-informed” and “resiliency-focused” communities that share a common understanding of the impact of trauma and chronic stress on the nervous system and how resiliency can be restored or increased using this skills-based approach. You can learn more about CRM by visiting