September 3rd, 2014 by Deborah Brister
Part 1: Realistic Optimism
If you’ve worked as an animal rights activist for an organization, you’ve probably observed a vast array of your colleague’s responses and reactions to stressful, traumatic situations. How well we handle trauma and tragedy is, in part, how resilient we are, and as an animal advocate, we often undergo prolonged (chronic) levels of stress, as opposed to short-term (acute) stress. If we do not have coping mechanisms in place, chronic stress can affect the immune system, lead to illnesses such as depression, ulcers, diabetes, asthma, not to mention trigger unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse.
How resilient we are, then, is how well we function when we experience (or witness) stress in the form of trauma to ourselves, and particularly to the animals we work with or on behalf of. Stress, while generally portrayed as a bad thing, is necessary for growth. If stress can be managed through various resilience coping mechanisms, we can actually harness stress and use it as a catalyst to develop greater strength and wisdom. As animal activists, we need to develop resilience, or else our work with and for animals will be short-lived.
What is resilience? According to the American Psychological Association, it is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, or threats. Resilience is not just a simple psychological trait, however. Nor is it purely genetic. It is complex and includes genetic, psychological, biological, social, and spiritual factors. Most importantly, if you are not currently adapting well to stress (low resilience), there is good news: Resilience can be learned.
Experts and authors on the subject of resilience, Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney, have developed 10 basic “resilience factors” to improving resiliency and these are necessary if one is to continue long and productive activism in animal rights. In this multi-part series, we will look at each of these factors, some of which are intuitive and some, not so intuitive. All are necessary.
The 10 basic coping mechanisms that build resilience and are proven to be effective in dealing with stress and trauma include: 1) having realistic optimism; 2) facing fear; 3) having a moral compass; 4) maintaining some form of spirituality or meaningful activity; 5) obtaining social support; 6) having resilient role models; 7) physical fitness; 8) brain fitness; 9) cognitive and emotional flexibility; and 10) having meaning and purpose in your life. In this article, we will address the first resilience factor, having realistic optimism. Subsequent factors will be published in future articles.
Having realistic optimism means having a hopeful attitude about the future, being confident that things will turn out well. Being optimistic means you believe the future will be bright and that good things will happen. We are not referring to pollyannaish, excessive or unrealistic optimism (which can lead to an underestimation of risk, an overestimation of ability and potential inadequate preparation for the tasks at hand). Optimists, on the other hand, who are realistic don’t deny difficulties, but do look for positives.
In their recent book, “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges,” Southwick and Charney discuss optimism and state that, “positive emotions reduce physiological arousal and broaden our visual focus, our thoughts, and behavior. When people experience positive emotions and an accompanying broadening of attention and behavior, their thinking tends to become more creative, inclusive, flexible, and integrative. Inducing a positive mood increases peoples scope of attention, their ability to solve problems actively, and their interest in socializing, and in strenuous as well as leisurely activities.”
There are ways to become more optimistic according to Southwick and Charney. One is to increase positive thinking and refute negative thinking. This we can do through actively teaching ourselves to think and insert positive thoughts. We can also teach ourselves not to dwell on negative thoughts. There are two steps to this: first, we must be able to identify negative thoughts and second, we must challenge their accuracy.
At the end of the day, it is the optimist more than the pessimist who will ultimately sees the “big picture” and views experiences with more meaning. There are take-away meanings in all the work that we do as animal rights activists. When we are in the right frame of mind and maintain a degree of optimism, we are not only better able to endure the painful, stressful work that we do, but we allow and open ourselves to become stronger, wiser activists because we have developed techniques for resilience.
Southwick, S. and D. Charney. 2012. Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Deborah Brister is the founder and executive director of the International Vegan Collaborative (www.vegancollaborative.org). She also serves as an advisor and instructor for In Defense of Animals Council of Sustainable Activism (www.idausa.org/sustainable-activism). In Los Angeles, California, Deborah convenes, and welcomes you to monthly workshops for animal rights activists on dealing with compassion fatigue and developing resilience (www.meetup.com/Los-Angeles-Animal-Activist-Compassion-Fatigue-Meetup), sponsored by In Defense of Animals. She may be contacted at Deborah@vegancollaborative.org for more information.