Rising Through Resilience: Dr. Jacqueline Cahalan On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Find Opportunities for Rest and Recovery — Rest and recovery is a crucial component of building resilience that is often overlooked. This pertains to both finding opportunities for breaks in the midst of a stressful situation, such as a good night’s sleep or a way to step away from stressful circumstances periodically and also to allowing yourself a chance to recover once a stressful situation has been resolved. Much like it is beneficial to have a rest day after working out at the gym so that your muscles can recover, it is the same with challenge. Rest periods allow you time and space to process all of the novel or difficult circumstances you were faced with during your period of stress. That processing also allows deeper learning to occur. People work best under moderate amounts of stress and challenge. When conditions are too stressful for too long a period of time, the stress can become toxic and can contribute to both physical and emotional difficulties. Making time for rest and recovery can be the difference between developing resilience instead of burnout.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jacqueline Cahalan.
Dr. Jacqueline Cahalan is a licensed psychologist in New York with a Ph.D. in School Psychology. Her work focuses on building connections and fostering support within families and communities. Dr. Cahalan is a mom of two elementary-aged kids, operates an online private practice offering research-based guidance to parents and caregivers, and also takes on public service roles through her school district to help build a stronger community.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Thank you for having me. My story has not followed a traditional career trajectory. Instead, my roles of psychologist, mother, and community builder/volunteer are constantly evolving based on my changing needs and goals. I believe that we need a shift in how we conceptualize one’s “career” to a broader view that includes all of the spaces one occupies in life, including family, career, and self.
I currently reside with my family on Long Island, NY where I have an online private practice focused on helping parents and caregivers navigate the challenges of raising kids. I also participate in a Mental Health Consortium through my school district and am a current Co-President of the PTA at my children’s school. All of these pieces fit together in a very cohesive, values-based way that is consistent with my priorities regarding family, community, and mental health and wellness.
I think that our social relationships are tremendously important and I have always had an interest in helping people find the support and resources they need to feel empowered in their lives. My appreciation for this began when I was completing my undergraduate work in Human Development at Cornell University, and it has continued to guide many of the choices that I have made in my life. After receiving my undergraduate degree, I spent two years assisting with research looking at how family relationships and early childhood education can help mitigate the negative impact of early trauma and poverty. This work inspired my decision to pursue a Ph.D. in School Psychology. The research and clinical experiences that I received during my doctoral education continued to develop my interest in how parents, children, and community organizations can best collaborate to help promote growth and resilience. During my training and career, I have had the opportunity to work in a variety of mental health and community settings. This has given me an understanding of the interplay between child and adolescent development, mental health and wellness, family systems, and community supports. I apply this integrative perspective to all of my work.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One of the most powerful lessons I have learned, which is constantly being reinforced in my life, is the power of connection. This is true at every level including our connections to our family and friends, to our schools and workplaces, to our greater communities, and to our world at large. We live in a society that doesn’t always value the role of caregivers or encourage us to prioritize our relationships. However, research shows us over and over again that social support is extremely important to one’s well-being.
In my career, I often work with individuals and families who have faced a lot of adversity. I have stood with many of them through some dark moments and helped provide space for them to just “be” in whatever capacity they need it. Showing people that they are not alone and allowing them to feel authentically seen and heard can be very powerful. This support has helped them to process their experiences in adaptive ways, and multiple times has helped them shift their worldview towards something more hopeful. Sharing these moments with them is always deeply meaningful to us both.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My work is rooted in the philosophy that every individual and every family is unique, and therefore the type of support and guidance the type of support and guidance that will be helpful is also unique. I encourage the families that I work with to take a values-based approach to parenting and decision-making by thinking through what is important to them. We then work together to build a framework that will help support these values in a sustainable way.
I start with families where they are at regarding their specific challenges, priorities, and goals, and am flexible about how we move forward from there. Often we begin by talking about a specific concern that is manifesting itself at home and end up having a much broader conversation. For example, if a parent asks about developing a sticker chart to address something happening in the home, we discuss ways they can co-create a tool like this with their children. This provides an opportunity for parent and child to build connection and creates a structure for them to have a more in-depth discussion. It gives their child space to express their thoughts and feelings on the issue and also provides an opportunity to figure out what might be underlying the problem (e.g., Is there something the child is afraid of? Is it something the child needs more support with? Is a behavior providing relief from something? Is the issue something that the child shares the parent’s concern over?), which can help align the parent and child in addressing the concern. So now we’ve moved the conversation from a one-dimensional, parent-driven sticker chart regarding a specific behavior to something far more collaborative and meaningful. And this has the opportunity to not only address sources of conflict occurring within the household but also deepen the level of understanding, empathy, and connection among family members.
Another priority of mine is helping develop strong support networks. If parents are able to find the connection and resources they need within their communities, including their schools, workplaces, and other institutions they engage with, it will help them to better nurture and care for their families. Happy, well-supported caregivers make for happy, well-supported kids.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My greatest source of strength has definitely come from my close personal relationships. My husband, friends, and close family members mean the world to me and consistently lift me up and inspire me. One specific example is when I first went away to college. This was a hard transition for me. It was my first time away from home and I stumbled a little trying to navigate my new independence and emergence into adulthood. It was an overwhelming time and in an attempt to gain a sense of control, I coped by becoming pretty rigid and developing a lot of strict routines that made things difficult for some of the people in my life. However, I was so fortunate to have the most amazing freshman roommate. We shared a dorm room the size of a shoebox, so the only options were for us to become best friends or to completely resent each other. Lucky for me, it was the former. She completely accepted me as I was, even with all of my quirks. With that unconditional support, I was able to find more balance. We graduated from Cornell together in 2000, and my college roommate is still one of my closest confidants. I am in contact with her and a small group of college friends on an almost daily basis and at this point in our lives we have supported each other through career choices, growing families, health issues, and so much more. My friendship with this small group is deeply meaningful to me and has been extremely impactful to me throughout my life.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I define resiliency as the ability to successfully negotiate challenges and bounce back from stressful situations. Resilient people are able to adapt to changing or unexpected circumstances. They are able to stay balanced by managing the demands of the moment while also being mindful of their values and priorities. Allowing yourself to evolve and grow as you go through life and accepting that things are always changing are key components of resilience.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage and resilience both involve facing challenge. However, courage contains an element of choice and control. Courage is having the fortitude to move forward in situations that may seem scary or uncertain because what one wants to achieve is consistent with their values or goals. You can decide whether to move towards something, despite the inherent fear and risk, because that thing is important to you.
Resiliency is the ability to bounce back after a set-back and to find ways to be okay even in the face of crisis or adversity. It is about the ability to roll with unexpected set-backs and keep going. The challenges associated with resiliency aren’t necessarily optional because you can’t always choose or control what life will throw at you. Sometimes things are just hard and you have to find your way through the best that you can. You can utilize skills and strategies to help you through and cultivate resilience but you don’t necessarily know when it will be required. Courage is a component of resilience because you must be brave to confront challenges, but resiliency is a broader construct.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I am a big fan of the author, writer, and philanthropist Glennon Doyle. Her writing is extremely personal and fully embodies resilience. She frequently talks about her battles with anxiety, depression, addiction, and disordered eating. Glennon is constantly adapting and evolving such that her life fits her values and priorities and allows her to live authentically. She is now a best-selling author, is president of Together Rising (a philanthropic organization that aims to “transform collective heartbreak into effective action”) and advocate who works to amplify voices and perspectives that often get overlooked. Glennon is an example of someone who has learned to lean into her pain and experience and use them as fuel to try to make the world a better place.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
If by “someone told you something was impossible” you include something I told myself, then yes! I think that one of the biggest personal challenges I have taken on was completing my doctoral program at New York University. When I enrolled, I honestly had a hard time envisioning what it would be like to make it all the way through. I knew that the process would be long, expensive, and an incredible amount of work and I wasn’t actually sure I would be able to accomplish my goal. However, I was inspired by the things I would be learning, and the skills I would be cultivating, so I decided to take a leap of faith and to see where it would take me.
Both my new home in New York City and my studies were simultaneously both as stimulating and also as challenging as I had imagined. Along with coursework, every year I had new training placements, which was exciting but also required constant adaptation. I was always at the bottom of a new learning curve. I also had to work through the arduous process of conceptualizing, writing, and defending a dissertation. As challenging as it was, I stuck with it. I found mentors and had excellent supervisors along the way. I took breaks where I went to baseball games and read novels and spent time with my friends and family. But I stayed focused on my goal and kept moving towards it, slowly meeting all of the benchmarks.
When I finally graduated, I was so proud of myself. I had shown myself that I could do really hard things, including those that I had previously thought were “impossible.” The process also helped me to personally evolve: I was more confident and centered and self-assured. Challenges weren’t as daunting. I developed trust in myself that even if I didn’t always know the end result of something, I could lean-in when I felt inspired, follow the path I was laying out for myself, and have faith that it would take me someplace very worthwhile.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
The current pandemic has been a very challenging period for me and my family, as I know it has been for most people. We are living in a moment that is universally testing everyone’s resiliency. Especially in the spring of 2020, every day was a balancing act. My family and I were constantly asking ourselves: What is most important here? What are our biggest needs? And in contrast to that: What can I let go of? What is less important right now? This phase of the pandemic required a tremendous amount of adaptation.
During this time, when I got overwhelmed, I would break things into small, manageable pieces. Most often, I wouldn’t let myself think about the long-term trajectory or impact of the pandemic. Instead, I would just focus on getting through the specific day or unique challenge that I was in. And when I got through it, I would appreciate that small victory. I tried to stay mindful of the fact that everything is temporary and that while things were bad in that moment, things are always changing. My family became very deliberate with our boundaries and what we said “yes” or “no” to. I knew that for our mental health, we couldn’t stay isolated, so we began socializing outdoors with a cluster of neighbors, which allowed us to balance the importance of social contact while also mitigating the risk of the virus.
Things are still very different than they were before March, 2020, but I am optimistic that we have made it through the worst. And now we look back at this time period, which wasn’t that long ago, and say “Woah- that was really stressful! How did we do that?” At times, I still feel like I’m living on pins and needles, but things definitely are stabilizing. And while I am still grieving over everything that was lost, I also feel relieved about having (mostly) come through the other side. It feels like weathering a storm and recognizing that the sea may get rocky again, but if we just stay in the boat, the water will eventually calm.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
We are constantly cultivating resilience with every challenge that we face. As a parent, I am developing my own resiliency alongside that of my children. One example of this was several years ago when my oldest child was then two. My husband, son, and I were traveling home to New York from Florida in the middle of January when a big snowstorm hit the Northeast. After several hours of delays, our flight finally departed, only to be diverted to Boston after attempts to land in New York were determined to be unsafe. Boston was also snowy with extremely limited flight options, so we opted to take the train back to NYC. The situation required a lot of waiting and maneuvering around in freezing cold weather, which none of us were suitably dressed for as this scenario had caught us completely off-guard. By the time we finally boarded our train home, our son had withstood as much stress, disruption, and discomfort as he could handle. He was cold, tired, and in completely unfamiliar circumstances. He began to scream and cry inconsolably, which despite our best efforts to soothe him, continued for most of the three and a half hour train ride. The situation was hard on all of us. I just kept reminding myself things like “this is a hard moment but it is temporary,” and “we are all doing our best here,” and “we will get through this.” I just focused on getting through minute by minute. We tried to control what we could by offering comfort, taking breaks, and trying to walk around. The goal for these few hours became just making it through. We eventually made it home, warmed ourselves, and got some sleep. And then we spent the next day resting and recovering, and giving our son lots of extra snuggles. The rest and restoration phase that comes after a stressful ordeal is an important piece of building resilience that often gets overlooked.
When raising kids, caregivers face situations like this every day. And it is our job to keep showing up and riding out these experiences with our children. This is why I feel like parenting is probably the hardest thing that I have ever done. And it is also a big reason that I have chosen to focus on working with parents in my practice. Social support is also an important component of resiliency. They say that “it takes a village to raise a child,” and I experience that every single day, which is why I want to use my skills and experience to help provide parents with the tools they need to feel empowered and supported.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
There are lots of things that people can do to develop resiliency. Here are a few concepts that people can adapt in ways that work best for them:
- Incorporate Challenge into Your Everyday Life — To be able to bounce back when life gets crazy, it is helpful to have had practice managing challenging circumstances. Learn to get comfortable being uncomfortable and don’t be afraid to set goals for yourself that will make you struggle. Also, don’t worry about making mistakes. Allowing yourself to take the risks that might sometimes lead to failure and learning how to pick yourself up when you are feeling down will help you grow and make you stronger.
One strategy that can help you get through tough periods is by breaking larger challenges into smaller ones, setting multiple mini-goals that culminate into a larger goal. For example, if you want to run 3 miles but aren’t sure you will be able to do it, first tell yourself that you are just going to run down the block, then when you get there, find another near-ish landmark to focus on, and so on until you have completed the entire distance. You can break up time in a similar way. If a day seems particularly overwhelming, don’t focus on the whole thing. Instead, just focus on the next hour. And if an hour is still too big a timeframe, focus on just getting through the next minute. Break it down however small you need to. Stay focused on effort and progress. One tiny step at a time in the right direction will get you to your destination.
- Clarify your Goals, Values and Priorities — Take time to figure out what is important to you and why. Being aware of your goals, values, and priorities can help you stay focused when things get tough. Making it through challenges often requires one to be flexible, prioritize, and let go of things that are not serving them. And knowing what your values are will help you stay true to what is most important to you even in the midst of big change. For example, during the beginning of the Covid pandemic, my children had to pivot to remote schooling for several months. It required a tremendous amount of adaptation to new learning styles, technology, and schedules, which inevitably led to a lot of frustration. My children’s education is important but in my mind, this was a moment where their mental health needed to take priority. So when things would go awry, we would take breaks, adapt assignments, or ask the teacher for an extension. A math lesson was something we could circle back to much more readily than their emotional needs and sense of security.
- Cultivate your Social Support — Getting through stressful situations is hard. It is even harder to do alone. Develop a network of friends, family, and professionals who can support you in your challenges. Choose to be in relationship with people who make you feel nurtured and can provide positive mentorship in different areas of your life. Again and again, research shows that having even just one significant, supportive relationship in your life can help you in successfully navigating periods of difficulty.
- Embrace Mindfulness and Self-Care Practices — Practicing mindfulness can help ground you in the present when you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious. It helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows you down when your nervous system is highly activated due to acute stress or a perceived threat crisis. Here is a quick, simple exercise that you can try to help bring your awareness to the hear-and-now:
Stop what you are doing, take 5 slow deep breaths, and try to identify
5 things that you can see
4 things that you can feel
3 things that you can hear
2 things that you can smell
1 thing that you can taste
In addition to mindfulness, developing good habits regarding sleep, nutrition, and exercise can help you build strength and stamina that can help you sustain yourself through hard times.
5. Find Opportunities for Rest and Recovery — Rest and recovery is a crucial component of building resilience that is often overlooked. This pertains to both finding opportunities for breaks in the midst of a stressful situation, such as a good night’s sleep or a way to step away from stressful circumstances periodically and also to allowing yourself a chance to recover once a stressful situation has been resolved. Much like it is beneficial to have a rest day after working out at the gym so that your muscles can recover, it is the same with challenge. Rest periods allow you time and space to process all of the novel or difficult circumstances you were faced with during your period of stress. That processing also allows deeper learning to occur. People work best under moderate amounts of stress and challenge. When conditions are too stressful for too long a period of time, the stress can become toxic and can contribute to both physical and emotional difficulties. Making time for rest and recovery can be the difference between developing resilience instead of burnout.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Any movement I would want to start would be grounded in helping people find more meaningful ways to connect to each other. We are in such a difficult, divisive time and in many situations, this polarized dynamic can be very toxic and destructive. I want to help people develop a greater capacity to listen to each other. We are more alike than we are different and we need to find ways to tune in to that common ground. Recognizing our commonalities will also help us appreciate our differences. This includes culture, politics, and all the other ways that we vary in our beliefs, ideas, and lifestyles. Diversity in groups is a good thing that can make us stronger and enable better decision making, but only if we learn how to listen open-mindedly and with respect. When we only engage with like-minded people, it can contribute to problems like groupthink, and lead to gross errors in judgment. Engaging with only a limited range of perspectives can also breed fear and intolerance, which doesn’t serve anyone well.
It takes significant courage to listen to other people’s stories and viewpoints openly and without judgment. But I think that if we can be brave and put ourselves out there in this manner, it can also lead to a tremendous amount of understanding and healing. And that is something that I believe our world could use a lot more of right now.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)
One person that I am consistently inspired by is Michelle Obama. She has used her platforms and influence to educate and advocate for many aspects of health and well-being. Ms. Obama had the difficult responsibility of raising two daughters on the world’s stage and she has written about steps she took to address these challenges in ways that would help her family stay connected and also that would enable her daughters to become grounded, caring, productive citizens. In her book, Becoming, she tells stories that portray these values, such as the importance that her kids make their own beds while living in the White House, and negotiating with secret service so that they could could socialize more freely with their friends. She also talks about her mom coming to live with them in the White House to add extra support because she understood how valuable that close family presence would be.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Sure! You can find a lot of information about me and my work at my website: drjacquelinecahalan.com, and follow me on Instagram @drjcahalan, Facebook at Dr. Jacqueline Cahalan, or LinkedIn.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
About The Interviewer: Savio P. Clemente coaches cancer survivors to overcome the confusion and gain the clarity needed to get busy living in mind, body, and spirit. He inspires health and wellness seekers to find meaning in the “why” and to cultivate resilience in their mindset. Savio is a Board Certified wellness coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), stage 3 cancer survivor, podcaster, writer, and founder of The Human Resolve LLC.
Savio pens a weekly newsletter at thehumanresolve.com where he delves into secrets from living smarter to feeding your “three brains” — head 🧠, heart 💓, and gut 🤰 — in hopes of connecting the dots to those sticky parts in our nature that matter.
He has been featured on Fox News, and has collaborated with Authority Magazine, Thrive Global, Food Network, WW, and Bloomberg. His mission is to offer clients, listeners, and viewers alike tangible takeaways in living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle.
Savio lives in the suburbs of Westchester County, New York and continues to follow his boundless curiosity. He hopes to one day live out a childhood fantasy and explore outer space.