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May 26, 2020

Resilience in Uncertain Times: Tips from Judy Sorum Brown

It may not seem like it, but a pandemic is a great time to build your resilience. Kendal at Home recently hosted a virtual coffee hour with educator, speaker and poet Judy Sorum Brown. She holds a Ph.D. from Michigan State University and has served as a White House Fellow, Special Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Labor, chief financial officer, assistant dean and director of executive programs of the College of Business and Management at the University of Maryland.

Resilience isn’t just something you’re born with, says Sorum Brown. It can be learned and strengthened throughout your life. She shared her tips for creating and strengthening your resilience during times of uncertainty.

Acknowledge the Situation

“Know that suffering is part of life,” Sorum Brown says. 

Don’t expect to be exempt from life’s difficulties, she notes. Simply being human means there will be suffering in our lives in one form or another. 

“Resilient people knowing that and having suffered, carefully choose where they direct their attention and that what they do is they orient their attention toward the good in the situation, no matter how challenging the situation is,” she says.

Sorum Brown was able to put that into practice after her husband died. 

“Meg was really missing her stepdad a lot and said to me, ‘This time we have together, this is the upside of the downside,’ and I keep thinking about that. There's a certain orientation to being able to place our attention on the good, even the smallest good, in the circumstance.”

Tending to Yourself and the Power of a Non-Anxious Presence

When you go through the safety procedures on an airplane, the airline staff always instruct you to put your own oxygen mask on first and then help others around you. That’s because you’re of little use to yourself or others if you don’t tend to your needs. 

“I think that for many of us working in this field and just growing up, we always put others first. That's what we were raised to do. For most of us, it seems inherently selfish to begin with ourselves. But it's such an important principle in life for us to remember, especially at times like this,” said Lynne Giacobbe, Kendal at Home’s executive director.

In times of high anxiety, it can be profoundly helpful to have a non-anxious presence in your life, says Sorum Brown.

“A colleague asked me last week, have you ever gone through anything like this? And I thought, now that's a silly question. Of course not. And then I had an immediate other thought because my stomach tightened up and I felt the fear and I realized it took me straight back to a time when I was 20 and I had just started as a flight attendant with Pan-Am. I'd been maybe on seven flights at that point. I was about six weeks into this work. And the captain came on, we were coming out of London and headed for JFK,” she explained. “And the captain came on the PA system and just said very calmly, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have lost one of our engines. You shouldn't worry about this because it will fly easily on three, but it won't fly all the way to JFK. So we're going to need to turn around and go back to Heathrow, to London.’

In order to land, Sorum Brown said the captain had to dump fuel from the plane. On the plane’s approach back to Heathrow, the captain came on the PA and began pointing out various landmarks to passengers. 

“I thought to myself, what in the world is he doing running a travelog as he comes in for a landing? And the answer was he was keeping our eyes off to the side so we wouldn't look ahead and see that the runway was lined with every bit of emergency equipment that Heathrow had to offer,” she said. “I took from that a lesson that I've never forgotten, which is the power of a non-anxious presence.”

How Judy Sorum Brown Practices Resilience

During a particularly rough patch 40 years ago, Sorum Brown began the daily practicing of journaling to help her focus on the present moment. 

“Every morning, I sit down with a journal and I do three things in that journal that have turned out to be really helpful. The first thing I do is notice what I can observe about myself and my surroundings in this particular moment. So I might write in my journal that my right knee hurts and I'm feeling kind of sad and there's a bird outside singing and the heater in this house is clunking again,” she explained.

“The second is I turn back to yesterday and I do what the military calls an after-action review, which is I look at yesterday and take notes on what happened and what I might want to take away from that. So what stood out for me from yesterday?”

“And then the third is I list at least three intentions. And intentions are things that nobody can take away from me. It's not a goal because I might not achieve a goal, but an intention is something that I want to make part of this day in my life. So today, it would have been to connect with people I care about. Nobody can stop me from doing that.”

In addition to journaling, Sorum Brown recommends doing something creative. She enjoys sketching or playing the piano. 

“Anything at all that gives you a chance to turn to something creative and artistic because that gets us out of the part of our mind that's going, now what? Then what? How am I going to do this?” she said.

She also recommends taking time to get out in nature. 

“All these things have restorative power for us and help us stay centered and a little less knocked back and forth by all the things that we're going through these days. It's not that we don't get knocked off-center, but we return to center more quickly, more easily when we have these kinds of practices,” she explained.

How have you been coping during this time? Tell us in the comments below.

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