I was recently visiting with my 82-year-old mother and she said she was surprised at how even the simplest things have become hard to do. We have talked about her difficulty moving around and how the more she sits, the weaker her muscles get. However, on that day, she was talking about something else. She noticed that just thinking about doing something, whether it was making her bed or going out for coffee with me, felt overwhelming to her. Over time she has gone to fewer places and is doing fewer things. Although she has gracefully accepted this as a part of growing older, she wondered if there was something else making even the simplest tasks difficult.
I started thinking about resilience. We know that people who face adversity develop the ability to handle future adversity. We talk with our clients about their need to build resilience by doing challenging tasks or exposures. I tell the kids who see me for therapy that we are building our “I can handle it” muscle.
But what happens when people don’t have to work hard anymore? Maybe they retire and decide to just relax for awhile. Maybe someone is ill and has to stay home for a period of time. Maybe someone just likes to binge watch Netflix. Do we also lose our psychological resilience when we give in to not challenging ourselves?
As I shared this with my mother, the idea of losing psychological resilience really resonated with her. She has been grateful that she doesn’t really have to do anything but sit in her chair and take care of basic needs in her small apartment. However, the downside has been that doing anything else now “feels” very stressful which has led her to do fewer challenging things.
One of my 8-year-old clients just texted me to tell me that she rode a roller coaster all by herself…to “challenge my anxiety!” She was so proud of herself even though she said it was very scary.
I hope we can continue to teach our clients that doing challenging things that make us feel uncomfortable or even scared is just the thing we need to develop and maintain resilience because resilience promotes psychological well being.