Counseling Today, Cover Stories

Building client and counselor resilience

By Laurie Meyers December 26, 2018

Merriam-Webster offers two definitions for resilience. One is literal and drawn from physics: the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress. The second definition is a symbolic mirror of the first: an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

In the past, many experts ascribed this ability to an innate quality that certain people possessed but others did not. More recently, however, researchers and mental health experts have concluded that resilience is multifaceted — something that is influenced by genetics, yes, but also something that can be built and enhanced over a lifetime (see sidebar, below).

“I believe we all have the capacity for [resilience],” says licensed professional counselor (LPC) Cara McCarty, “but it’s not something that’s earned or received without work. It’s not something that we just get for free. It’s something that you fight for, you have to work for, you have to earn.”

McCarty says that in the counseling profession, the idea of developing resilience — at its essence, the ability to rebound, bounce back and overcome — has most often been linked to trauma work. However, she believes it is something that counselors should be trying to nurture in all of their clients. Indeed, resilience is so central to McCarty’s counseling philosophy that she named her Oklahoma City practice Resilience Counseling.

McCarty says it was her initial work as a counseling intern with transgender clients that opened the door for her to see what she calls the “incredible power” of resilience. As she points out, transgender people are a minority even within the LGBTQ community, are marginalized by society and live every day in bodies that they don’t feel are their own. They often have co-occurring depression and anxiety and are pursuing a goal that often feels out of reach to them — to live fully as the gender with which they identify. Despite all of these challenges, they choose to keep going and pursue being themselves. This ability to endure in the face of existential obstacles led McCarty, who continues to work with transgender clients, to believe that resilience is the key to navigating all of life’s challenges.

LPC Karl Memmer has also based his practice on resilience. “I believe the concept of resilience captures the balance between the acceptance of the negative in our lives and the acknowledgment that we can all develop the skills necessary to overcome the adversities we all face,” he says. “Building resilience empowers individuals to take more control of their own lives, take responsibility for what they can and cannot control, and develop a greater sense of confidence in overcoming challenges. … I feel it is central to the practice of counseling as, ultimately, our jobs are not to take away the burdens of others but to help them organize the chaos in their own lives by listening objectively and helping them develop or enhance skills to more effectively take action and responsibility.”

Assessing and building resilience

What does resilience look like? McCarty says that in her experience, people with high levels of resilience are more “flexible,” meaning they are more easily able to adapt and adjust to life’s happenings as needed. This applies to everything from being inconvenienced by a simple mix-up in plans to being diagnosed with a serious medical condition or experiencing the sudden death of a loved one. People with high levels of resilience take in what has happened to them and ask, “What next?” she explains. Other people, such as those who struggle with anxiety, are less flexible, so they have to work harder at building their resilience.

McCarty isn’t aware of a scale or assessment tool to measure a person’s resilience. Rather, she says that she begins introducing the concept at intake. In her paperwork, she asks clients to describe past difficulties that they have overcome. “It gives me a window on how they view themselves,” McCarty says.

Clients sometimes leave this question blank because they don’t view their own challenges as serious or particularly difficult. In other instances, clients may perceive that they have failed to address the challenges in their lives. In either case, the responses give McCarty an opportunity to explain resilience to her clients, point out the ways in which they have already been resilient and discuss ways to continue building on that resilience.

“I think everything counts as a chance to be resilient, [such as] changing jobs or moving neighborhoods. It’s not just for major life events but for things that happen all the time,” she says.

McCarty’s aim is to help clients recognize that they are already using their personal strengths and attributes — such as grit, toughness and persistence — every day to do hard things on a smaller scale.

“For example, let’s say my client has been working on social anxiety and we’ve made a goal of attempting low-pressure conversation three times this week. My client reports they spoke to someone in the break room at work, they made small talk with their cashier and they interacted with someone while pumping gas,” McCarty says. “I might ask them how successful each of these were. Let’s say two out of three were positive. I might ask my client if they noticed a change in their anxiety with each interaction and if they felt the interactions got easier or harder. Assuming their anxiety was lower with each interaction and they felt more comfortable as a result, I would point out how their grit and persistence kept them moving forward.”

“In this example,” she continues, “even if the interactions were negative, the fact that the client kept trying shows grit and persistence and helps the client understand that it’s not about the result of the interaction, it’s about the attempt. The more attempts we make, the easier it is to keep going regardless of the result or outcome. Resilience is the culmination of this practice and work.”

Andrea Cooper, an LPC and licensed clinical professional counselor who works with Memmer at Resilience Counseling and Social Skills Center in the Richmond, Virginia, area, says that building resilience often begins with shoring up clients’ self-esteem. She asks clients to keep a thought record, which helps them monitor what they are feeling and how they are reacting to situations that they find difficult or unsettling. The goal is to uncover automatic thoughts tied to negative
self-perceptions.

“Someone who has ideas about contributing to a business meeting but doesn’t speak up may be listening to their own automatic thoughts,” Cooper says, “such as ‘No one will care. They will not think this is a very good idea. Who am I to speak up?’”

She explains that these negative self-messages are often an indication of false core beliefs, such as “I have nothing of value to contribute” or “I’m not smart enough.”

“Developing an awareness of that automatic thought trail gives the person an opportunity to interrupt their habitual response — not contributing — by choosing alternative statements to tell themselves, such as ‘I feel uncomfortable speaking up, and that’s an old habit. I have an idea worth sharing,’” Cooper continues.

The process may sound simple on paper, but disrupting negative automatic thoughts takes practice. “We generally start practicing with low-risk situations — such as contributing to a social encounter in the break room — so the client gains a sense of success with their new behavior,” Cooper says.

Memmer chips away at self-esteem issues that can hamper resilience by teaching clients to distinguish between thoughts, feelings and actions. One tool he uses to do this is a “thought pyramid.” He and the client start by drawing a pyramid on a piece of paper. The pyramid is divided into three sections: Thoughts are at the top, feelings are in the bottom left-hand side, and actions are assigned to the bottom right.

Memmer then asks clients for examples of thoughts — typically negative — that frequently pop up in their daily lives. Those thoughts — for example, “I’m a loser” — are recorded at the top of the pyramid. Next, emotions such as anxiety, sadness and hopelessness that accompany those thoughts are recorded in the bottom left space. Finally, Memmer and the client move to the bottom right-hand corner: actions.

Memmer asks clients what they typically do when they feel these negative emotions. They might respond by saying that they isolate themselves from their friends. Memmer then demonstrates how those actions are contributing to a negative feedback loop by asking clients how they feel when they isolate themselves. The answer (for example, “Like an undesirable loser”) lands them back at the top of the pyramid: their thoughts.

By using this exercise, Memmer is also highlighting that clients cannot change negative thought patterns just by “deciding” to feel or act differently. Rather, they must disrupt the cycle through identifying and reframing the negative thoughts.

As clients begin changing their negative beliefs, they often come to the realization that they cannot always control their daily stress and strife, but they can control how they react. This awareness allows them to feel more capable and empowered — more resilient, Memmer says.

Because Cooper believes that cultivating emotional and physical wellness enhances resilience, she encourages clients to take time between sessions to focus on mindfulness techniques such as guided meditation. Rather than asking clients to sit down and aim for 30 minutes of meditation on their own, she recommends that they use an app such as Headspace, which offers numerous guided meditations that focus on stress, anger, anxiety and other issues. Other meditations are geared toward helping listeners sleep better or develop stronger focus.

The important things in life

Cooper also believes that helping clients identify their values — what is most important to them — and evaluating how closely their lives conform to those core principles enhances resilience. She does this by listening to clients’ stories.

For example, a client might talk about being unhappy at work because he or she is supervised very closely by a manager and expected to provide continual incremental updates. This tells Cooper that the client is feeling smothered and values autonomy at work. The client can then work to change or improve the situation by setting boundaries in the current job or perhaps looking for a different position that offers more autonomy.

Cooper has also worked with numerous teachers who feel they are never really off the clock. Responding to parent phone calls and email inquiries extends their workdays well into the evening, leaving them little time to spend with their spouse, partner or children. When these clients identify family time as one of their primary values, Cooper helps them explore whether they can engage in more family activities on the weekends or whether they might benefit from improving their time-management skills.

“Once we can name [our] values, we’re more apt to seek them out and improve our quality of life,” she says.

Cooper asserts that being connected to others is also essential to building and maintaining resilience. “Connectedness is important [because] we are social beings and need some meaningful relationship to others,” she says. She adds that depression, isolation and loneliness often accompany each other.

Cooper points out that life phase changes are one common cause for social disconnectedness. Relocating for a new job or graduating from college or high school may be exciting life events, but they often result in the dissolution of previously established social circles. “We have to learn how to connect with new people,” she says.

One way that counselors can assist clients in building resilience is to help them find ways of establishing new connections. This might involve encouraging clients to explore their interests and engage in activities. “Do what you love and you are likely to encounter others who are like-minded,” Cooper advises. She adds that religious or spiritual connections and volunteer work can also lead to rewarding social contact.

In fact, resilience is not limited to the personal level. It is also manifested at the relationship level and the community level, says American Counseling Association member Matthew Fullen, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech who studies resilience in aging adults.

He explains that the counseling relationship itself can be a source of resilience for clients because of its supportive nature. It also helps demonstrate that resilience is developed with the help of relationships that lift people up and support them. Likewise, communities such as cultural or faith-based groups not only surround people with support but derive resilience
from their shared histories, traditions and experiences.

Fullen, a licensed professional clinical counselor in Ohio, believes that group therapy is particularly effective for building resilience precisely because of this community effect. As part of a study, Fullen ran a program at a day facility that offered support and rehabilitation for people 55 and older with disabilities that severely curtailed their functioning. The group spent a substantial amount of its time discussing resilience. Members not only shared times when they had been personally resilient but also pointed out examples of resiliency demonstrated by other group members.

“I remember someone saying, ‘Every day I have this physical therapy. It’s excruciating and it’s really hard, and there are times when I feel like I can’t take one more step. When that happens, I think about this group,’” Fullen recounts. He points out that the group member was able to call on the collective resilience of the group as a source of support and inspiration that increased the group member’s personal level of resilience.

Another incident had a particularly profound effect on the group, according to Fullen. One day, he asked group members to name someone who exemplified resilience to them. Fullen was expecting people to name family members or celebrities. Instead, a soft-spoken group member shyly raised her hand and said, “Judy. Judy is who I think of,” pointing to one of the people in the room. The woman explained that Judy came in daily for difficult physical therapy and never complained.

“I know she has a lot going on at home,” the woman continued. “Her kids are having problems, and it weighs on her, but she is still able to come in and be nice and helpful.”

It was a moment of revelation for everyone in the room, Fullen says, because it drove home the point that resilience isn’t something possessed only by people who are outwardly “successful.” It can also be embodied by those who are marginalized. In fact, participants in the group showed significantly increased levels of resilience at the end of Fullen’s study.

Counselor, heal thyself

As counselors attend to clients’ resilience, they must also make sure to build and maintain their own. “What we do as clinicians impacts others,” says ACA member Robert J. Wicks, an expert on secondary stress in clinicians and the author of books such as The Resilient Clinician, Bounce: Living the Resilient Life and Night Call: Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Troubled World.

“There is a Chinese proverb that says, ‘When the tide rises, the boats in the water do as well,’” he continues. “I think this is true, but as clinicians, that doesn’t mean that raising the psychological tide is easy.”

The primary risk to counselors’ resilience is bound up in an essential paradox: The seeds of therapeutic compassion and the seeds of secondary stress are the same. Therapy is performed through reaching out to others, but the pressure caused by the therapeutic connection puts practitioners at risk for compassion fatigue, Wicks explains.

Those in the helping professions need to recognize that no matter how prepared they are, the pain of those they serve is so omnipresent that it can catch practitioners off guard and drain them, he continues.

When working with physicians and nurses, Wicks gives them a reminder of their epidemiology studies: For every case of poisoning, there are at least a dozen cases of subclinical toxicity. The parallel to counseling? He believes that for every impaired clinician, there are a least a dozen cases of practitioners who are on the edge of compassion fatigue.

“The reality is that — and this is important — clinician impairment is most often a developmental process … not a cataclysmic event,” he asserts. He adds that clinicians must learn to recognize, and lean back, when their stress is high.

Wicks says that counselors can build and maintain their resiliency by:

  • Gaining skills in regulation of emotions
  • Decreasing maladaptive behavior patterns that result from poor self-awareness
  • Improving their ability to balance their personal and professional lives
  • Developing a willingness to honestly assess their own coping patterns
  • Taking responsibility for managing personality-based coping tendencies and attitudes that drive them
  • Uncovering disruptive maladaptive coping habits, including workaholism and other compulsions
  • Treating their body/mind/spirit with respect
  • Counteracting toxic emotions
  • Learning to self-nurture with healthy pleasures
  • Using positive interpersonal skills such as assertiveness, anger management and principled conflict negotiation
  • Employing realistic work and family balancing strategies

Wicks also stresses the importance of counselors regularly setting aside time to be alone and reflect. Practitioners may be able to give themselves this necessary breathing room by modifying their habits and practice style. For instance, Wicks suggests that practitioners make it a habit of arriving early to their offices so they have time to center themselves rather than rushing in with only minutes to spare. He also advises against counselors putting client sessions back-to-back, which can cause client issues and details to run together.

Setting aside this time can assist counselors in recognizing their own foibles, protecting their “inner fire” and accepting change and loss. “We all need time to adjust and grieve,” Wicks says.

Rodney Dieser, a professor of health, recreation and community services and affiliated faculty member in the Department of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at the University of Northern Iowa, has centered his research, practice and teaching on the importance of leisure to overall well-being. He is a proponent of sociologist Robert Stebbins’ “serious leisure perspective.” Dieser, a licensed mental health counselor, believes that leisure is an essential component of maintaining counselor resilience by helping to prevent burnout.

Summarizing Stebbins’ research, Dieser explains that leisure has three categories:

1) Serious leisure involves spending a large amount of time mastering certain skills as a hobby. An example would be learning to play an instrument over time and participating in the community orchestra.

2) Casual leisure is what most people think of as leisure. It requires little in the way of special training to enjoy. Examples include relaxing, going to a restaurant, reading, engaging in social conversations, resting on a hammock or going to the beach.

3) Project-based leisure involves taking on a project that is somewhat complicated but that doesn’t involve more “serious skills.” Examples include planning a family vacation, engaging in fundraising for a local community project or participating in other kinds of volunteer efforts.

Research has shown that leisure can relieve stress, provide healthy coping methods and offer protection from the negative health effects of extreme and prolonged stress, says Dieser, a member of ACA. With that in mind, Dieser has students in his introductory counseling classes design self-care plans that include one serious leisure, one casual leisure and one project-based leisure activity. 

“Leisure programs can minimize the impact of stress through enjoyable distractions that create psychological breathers or regrouping,” he explains. “Leisure pursuits serve as a source of protection against stress because they enable coping through social support and the application of self-determination. During a stressful event, groups of similar people or acquaintances, including [those based on leisure activities], can provide a source of relief, instill hope, serve as a catharsis in expressing feelings and help a person not to feel alone. Application of self-determination through leisure allows a person to feel they have some control in their lives when other parts of their lives are out of control. … [Finally], leisure experiences can create or restore a sense of optimism through pleasant experiences in the face of intense stress.”

Cooper reminds counselors that they are their own best instrument of practice when it comes to resilience. “Practice some of the things you try to teach clients,” she urges. “Take care of your physical health, take time for yourself [and] get enough sleep.”

 

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The science of resilience

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat.” According to the October 2012 Science article “The science of resilience: Implications for the prevention and treatment of depression,” genetics play an important part in people’s responses to stress and trauma, but there are also important psychosocial factors that contribute to resilience. These factors include:

  • Positive emotion and optimism
  • Loving caretakers and solid role models
  • A history of mastering challenges
  • Cognitive flexibility, including the ability to reframe adversity in a more positive light
  • The ability to regulate emotions
  • High coping self-efficacy
  • Strong social support
  • Disciplined focus on skill development
  • Altruism
  • Commitment to a valued cause or purpose
  • The capacity to extract meaning from adverse situations
  • Support from religion and spirituality
  • Attention to health and good cardiovascular fitness
  • The capacity to rapidly recover from stress

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Neurocounseling: Brain-Based Clinical Approaches, edited by Thomas A. Field, Laura K. Jones and Lori A. Russell-Chapin
  • Counselor Self-Care by Gerald Corey, Michelle Muratori, Jude T. Austin II and Julius A. Austin

ACA Mental Health Resources (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/self-care-resources)

  • Self-care Resources for Professional Counselors

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

2 Comments

  1. Dr. Robert J. Wicks

    Very nicely done. I am always amazed at how you can take such a breadth of information from the interview and hone it down in a way that serves the reader. As the young people say today, “You got this!”

    Reply
  2. Rima

    Congratulations Laurie! Brilliant article, covers almost all aspects of resilience that we counselors deal with. Thanks for doing it.

    Reply

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