Episode 8: Resilience with Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter



Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:04

There’s no doubt that we’re all being challenged in our adjustment into a new way of life. However, as Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter puts it, building resilience in this moment will make us all more adept to face the rest of life’s challenges. Join me as I chat about the importance of perspective and optimism today with Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter, who is the UCLA distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry, and co leader of the Engage Well pod. Chris.


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  00:36

Hi, Wendy.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:36

Thank you so much for coming on to our podcast for this new series. I want to talk about one of your favorite subjects, resilience, and hear about what we can do, now, during this pandemic, and what we can do in the future to prepare for future disasters and pandemics like we’re experiencing now.


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  00:56

Sounds good!


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:57

I guess the first place to start is, what do we mean by resilience?


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  01:01

Well, resilience has been studied and written about extensively. And there are many definitions out there. I’m especially interested in resilience in tough times, ongoing crises and disasters, and chronic stress, not quick things are acute stressors. So in the context of chronic ongoing stress, like we’re experiencing now, I think you can think of it as a process. And that process involves the ability to withstand and cope with ongoing or repeated demands, and maintain healthy functioning in different life domains. And that process could take place at multiple levels: it could take place at the community level, that a community could be able to withstand and cope with the ongoing demands of the virus, for example, and then chain functioning. Or the definition I gave you might be seen as more appropriate individuals: a process whereby individuals are able to withstand in cope and maintain healthy functioning in different parts of their life.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  02:10

So, I guess parsing that out for community that’s functioning in a healthy or somewhat functional way. I could see in my neighborhood, there are grocery stores still open,  they’re still picking up the garbage, there’s still safety personnel out there, hospitals, all the basic needs are available, maybe not accessible, but at least available to all of us. And what about the individual, how do they maintain a form of health and functionality when they aren’t necessarily used to staying inside or even within the perimeter of where they live?


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  02:48

While there are lots of ways that people can maintain functioning, and they tend to be organized around different themes. So there are themes that have to do with what kind of personal characteristics you have: your personality, your dispositions, there are themes that have to do with your social approaches, your orientation and your social connections, there are themes that might have to do with your worldviews and your culture, how you view the world. And then there are skills: behavioral and cognitive skills in coping. There also are other resources that are important and not always something, there’s something we can influence, as you know, but our health, for example, is something that’s a resource that we can draw upon. Staying healthy is a resource we can develop to enable us to be more resilient. So it’s a full gamut of things that are relevant to being resilient. And one way to look at it is to look at what the American Psychological Association has said, are 10 ways to build resilience and I would boil them down into fewer. The first one they mentioned is social, and that is to make connections. That’s all they say, make connections but we could broaden that to say maintain connections, create connections, nurture those connections and so on. But being connected right now is critical and people are finding new ways to do that which is pretty exciting. In the health and well being way that Healthy Campus Initiative has already talked a lot about taking care of yourself, focus on yoursel, yourself first, and on others second. Help others when you can, but not to your own detriment. So for the Coronavirus, of course, this means social distancing, and whatever you you like to do and can do and have been encouraged to do to maintain your well being your point of view your state of mind.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:45

And I can say something, though, with social distancing is that actually that’s also helping others, right.


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  04:51

That is a way of helping others, helping the community. Exactly. You know, when you have a situation like this one where we’re part of a common group and your individual actions affect the common good, then everything you do can harm or hurt the common good. So it’s a, sometimes we think of it as the dilemma of the commons in social psychology, where it might be to your personal benefit to go out and about and do whatever you like. But it’s not to the community’s benefit. And in the end, it may not be your own.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:23

Right. So I think that’s important too, because I think that your point about taking care of yourself, and then others, if you can, really are one of both are the same, really, in this situation in a pandemic?


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  05:37

Yes. So other things we can recommend are some ways of coping. And it’s easy to say these and harder to do but three things to avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems,


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:51

How do you do that?


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  05:52

It’s a perspective, I’ll read you the other two: accept that change is a part of living. So this is one of the many changes we will experience in our life. And if we learn to avoid seeing difficult times like these as insurmountable, then we’re going to be a lot better to keep them in perspective, which is the third: keep it in perspective. Now, how do we do that? I think that takes a lot of practice, and role models and social connections that you can talk to about how to do that. And sometimes it’s also based in your personality of being someone who is more optimistic and keeps a hopeful outlook. But what we’re learning, little by little, about resilience is that optimism can be taught, hope can be encouraged and right now, the many resources are being provided like mindfulness, meditation, exercise, walking by even by yourself in nature, all the things that HCI has been promoting, and that we know are healthy can be ways to help you try to avoid seeing this as insurmountable. Understanding it as just one series of crises or changes in life. And that’s part of living, which has many positives and some negatives, and keep it in perspective. And for younger people, that’s sometimes harder than for older people. Because older people, think about it for a minute. We have World War Two vets, we have people you know, who’ve been through a lot in their lives. And if you’re in fear, or World War Two vets, but we have veterans who’ve been in combat and all kinds of other situations people have faced so that if you’ve had adversities in life, you may already be able to see this as an adversity, but like rather is one that that is part of living and that can be managed, and maybe we’ll and in this case will change.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:45

How do you teach optimism?


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  07:47

That’s a very good question. Optimism and positive expectations go hand in hand. So thinking about expecting some positive things, having positive expectations, for example, that you will be able to take live classes again with professors that you and your friends will be able to socialize, that you as a faculty member will be able to teach in the classroom and get the enjoyment of that that you’ve had. And these sorts of things are ways to think of the positive expectations as well as the negative. Optimists have more meaningful lives. Meaning is something we also know we create through certain interventions like mindfulness. So there are a lot of different aspects to being an optimist, and, and consequences of it that we can cultivate. And there’s even some neuroscience in that area. It’s a very, very good topic. But what we know is that optimists and pessimists see the world differently, interpret events differently. And here are four little tips. I’m not big on little tips right now in the crisis, because it’s just giving people more stuff to be upset about. But a lot of scientific evidence would point to four ways to increase your optimism. Focus attention on the positive things around you. Go outside, I do in the morning and listen to the birds. Appreciate the wonderful family and friends you have that are connecting with you and that you maybe didn’t talk to as often. The second thing is to intentionally think positive thoughts and not dwell on the negative. This is something most people have probably either done well or not done well. And if you don’t do it, well, it’s something that can be treated in therapy. It is something that therapeutic resources may be needed for unhelpful for now in the past or in the future, but intentionally tried to think positive thoughts and not dwell on the negative–that would be a second way. The third is reframing negative and interpreting events in a more positive light. So I’ve already heard friends of mine who are quite resilient people saying, now every day I talk with my family, and I didn’t before this, and it’s so wonderful that we’re more connected. It could be that you have an entirely different kind of life as a student or grad student, one of my grad students might say, being home with my family is great and I’m getting more done on my I research than I would be if I was going to classes on campus. So reframe the negative and interpret events in a positive light. That’s a real hallmark of resilient person. Long, long ago, I did work on cancer. And at that time, Shelly Taylor and Mary Tele from UCLA was a person who studied women with breast cancer and found that the women with breast cancer who did the best were people who found ways to reinterpret the cancer in a positive light. They did exactly the kinds of things I’m talking about. Now they said things like, compared to other people with cancer, I’m so much better off. I feel really fortunate. Even in situations that we often might have thought of as quite dire. And we have lots of great evidence over many years that people can reframe things, and interpret events in a positive light. And that’s again, a hallmark. One of the books on resilience is called “Trauma and Transformation.” Great book by Tedeschi and Calhoun that I’ve used in classes, and transformation is referring to how you can let crises transform you and make your life different in a positive way. And Holocaust survivors. Virtually every group that trends with serious war combat and PTSD experiences, all of the groups we’ve studied, show the ability to reframe, reinterpret, look for benefits, find meaning, the Finally, the fourth way is behave and take action and ways to build positive feelings. So if you’d like to cook, go cook in the kitchen. If you love to walk, use your extra time to do more walking. Those are a few of the ways I’m seeing that people can creatively invent a whole lot more. So focus attention on the positive things around you intentionally think positive thoughts and don’t dwell on the negative, reframe the negative and interpret events in a more positive light and behave and take action in ways that build positive feelings. These are insights from two of the top resilience researchers Steven Southwick, and Dennis Charney, from their book “Resilience, The Signs of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.”


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:07

Well, you know, I have to say that those tips are really useful, because right now you can implement them and build your resilience. Because often I think of resilience as something that you build, and then you’re confronted with a challenge, and then you get through it more easily. But in fact, what you’re offering us is something that you can do now, probably in a little bit of a different way, and in a more a simpler way. Because you’re more in your own space, wherever you’re living. So this is really useful. Very!


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  12:43

Well, I think our social connection are opportunities for social connection are different, and sometimes in some ways richer right now. But in addition, I think you were alluding to that this is an opportunity to develop your coping skills to grow in your resilience capacity. Exactly. So many of us might say, we can’t come out of this, or we could hope to come out of this stronger, more resilient with a stronger capacity for the next thing. And there’s evidence of that, too, that people who go through difficulties often become more resilient and more capable for the next things they face in life.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:20

One of the things that you mentioned about this tendency that many might be catastrophizing, right? That people are thinking this is the end of life as we know it and and concerned about the future. It related to that during our life skills course that we teach our students is one of the many sort of cognitive distortions that many of us practice on a regular basis. In our life skills course, we have weekly logs where people will identify behaviors that are related to cognitive distortions, like catastrophizing, or what ifs or should have, or mind reading, like people aren’t responding to my texts, which might be happening more right now. Because people are only communicating electronically. And they might think, Oh, this person doesn’t like me, because they’re not getting back to me in 10 minutes, or whatever it might be. We create a list of these cognitive distortions that people that are commonly practiced by most of us in our lifetime. And then we have a table where they, people can say, so what can you do to make yourself feel better related to that cognitive distortion? So are you suggesting that for this situation, this catastrophizing-like behavior or distortion of thinking of the future, that some of these other resilient tips could help you get through it? Is that partly what you’re saying?


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  14:54

I think that that what you described is of a version of, a portion of, what cognitive behavioral therapy is. It’s identifying cognitions that are not adaptive and trying to examine them, identify them, reframe them. And doing that in a class is a very interesting and good idea. We also have web-based programs that help people with cognitive behavioral therapy techniques like that.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:23

So those resources are available right now and can be used and tapped into by our students and staff. Right? The Grand Challenge.


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  15:34

Yes, I, if I’m not mistaken, available through CAPS to students, and through HR would be connections to the Grand Challenge and to other methods, other methodologies for adult for getting this kind of help.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:48

That’s really helpful. So for those that are listening, practicing some of the resilient steps that Chris has suggested, can you repeat them one more time, so everyone can…


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  16:02

So you asked me about ways to become optimistic, but the ways to build resilience are to make social connections, take care of yourself, cope by avoiding seeing a crisis is insurmountable. Instead, accept that change is part of living and keep things in perspective. I don’t know if I mentioned it. But it is a good idea in this crisis to move toward your goals and take decisive actions that would, in the case we’re going through now, it would be a stay involved in your classes, decisively sign up for office hours, show up for those live classes, do your reading, take decisive actions in the direction of your goals. If you’re looking for the job after you graduate, keep doing it. If you’re looking for a summer job, keep working on it. Don’t give up on that. So goal orientation is real important. Self view is another area look for opportunities for self-discovery and nurture a positive view of yourself. So again, think about, what can I do to learn about myself in this situation? And what can I look at that’s really good about how I’m doing, how am I fortunate? How am I coping well. And then we talked about maintaining a hopeful outlook or optimism.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:16

Incredibly helpful, Chris. So before we end this podcast, I’d love to hear from you. What are you doing to to get through this as a faculty member and leader of one of the Engage Well pod Healthy Campus Initiative, and as a mother


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  17:37

Many things, many things. I’m busier than usual, somehow, when I gave up commuting, I filled every minute of commuting, and I can barely get out to take my daily walk. But some of it is relaxing. It’s not all work.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:50

Fantastic. Well, those are, I think that you know, wearing my pediatric hat, I think that that’s something that parents really have to be cognizant of instituting at home now that there’s no school in session. So I think that for all the parents that might be listening as well, be sure to keep those routines going, because they’re not only important for your physical health, but they’re really comforting for people and make people feel like there’s some normalcy in life. So.


Dr. Chris Dunkel Schetter  18:21

Very good for kids.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  18:23

Incredibly good for kids, no matter what situation you’re in. Exactly. So thank you again, Chris, you’re just the best. You’ve got so much to contribute. And I look forward to learning more about this, the building of resilience in light of the pandemic but also how we can make sure we nurture our community as we recover from this pandemic as well. Thanks so much.  Thank you for tuning in to “Six Feet Apart,” a special series of the Live Well Podcast. Today’s episode was brought to you by UCLA Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. To stay up to date with the rest of the episodes in this special series and to get more information on maintaining your emotional, physical and social well-being during COVID-19. Please visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcasts. Thank you and stay remote.

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