Personal Qualities of Resilience: Accurate Risk Assessment

Author: Charles P. Bosmajian, Jr., Ph.D. is a psychologist at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology.

Did you know that scanning for danger is not limited to those who have been deployed?  It’s actually a fairly common world view held by many anxious people based on the assumption that the non-combat world is dangerous.  Hyper-vigilance can affect anyone.

As we discuss qualities of personal resilience, this week’s blog will focus on those who have been deployed.  Have you ever asked yourself “Just how much vigilance is required to stay safe once you have returned home?”  In theater, staying on high alert makes sense.  At home, however, it interferes with living the kind of life we want to live because we are scanning for danger which doesn’t actually exist.  Learning to turn down the degree to which we scan for danger after a deployment can be difficult and sometimes even requires professional help.

So how much vigilance does it take to stay safe?  On a psychological level, vigilance is associated with anxiety.  Resilient individuals don’t tend to scan for threats on a regular basis because they deal with the world as it is.  They understand that while bad things can and do happen they are rarely catastrophic.  Therefore they can be assured of being reasonably safe with minimal vigilance allowing themselves to relax their minds and bodies.  In addition, resilient individuals don’t view everyday situations as risky or dangerous.  As a result, resilient individuals are adventurous and are willing to try new things.  This doesn’t mean that they throw caution to the wind but that they pay attention and make decisions based on observations of what actually does happen in their day to day experience and base risk assessments on that analysis. Resilient individuals don’t focus on what could happen, what might happen or what almost happened, but rather on what does happen in their everyday experience.

The opposite of a resilient individual is someone who tends to see the world as ‘risky’.  These individuals will stay on high alert and assume the only thing protecting them from bad things is their high level of vigilance.  This is the foundation of anxiety – where individuals view the world through a lens of “what if.”  The fact that the vast majority of their daily experience is not associated with bad events is ignored or is written off as luck.  As a result, these individuals have no  memory of the many life experiences in which nothing bad actually happened.  They are not able to say, “The last time I was in this situation, it was safe.”  Each new experience is viewed through the lens of what could happenor what might happen.  In some cases anxious individuals focus exclusively on a memory of the one time when something bad did happen or even focus on a news report of a disastrous event that occurred somewhere else.  This anxious lens supports catastrophic thinking where worst case scenarios are considered to be plausible.  Anxious thinking fails to make the distinction between events that are possible and those that are probable.  In this world view, if something is possible, no matter how unlikely, it should be considered when making a decision about a course of action.

Think about it this way: it’s certainly possible that if you were to buy a lottery ticket, you could win the lottery.  You know this because thousands and thousands of people actually do win the lottery, and their good luck is reported all over the news.  Does all of that information make it any more likely that you are going to win the lottery?  Should you make decisions in your life, like quitting your job, because it’spossible you could be the big winner?  Doesn’t it make more sense to live your life and make your decisions as if you won’t win?  Even though it’s possible?  That’s a realistic and resilient view of the world.