On a recent Sunday, our 7 month old puppy, Lola, suddenly left the garden.
My puppy has disappeared. Resilience training helped me find it.
Then came the rain. Lots and lots of rain. We ventured out with flashlights but came home empty handed and wet. I thought of our pup – a rescue – shivering with cold but stopped. These thoughts wouldn’t help me make constructive choices and could lead to a spiral of negativity that would keep me up all night. My resilience training began and I knew my ability to find it hinged on controlling my thought patterns. Looking back, three resilience techniques guided me that night and throughout our search.
In the dark, I couldn’t look for my dog. And while it was tempting to worry and worry, we all needed to be alert and well rested in the morning. So I accepted my physical limitations for the time being. In this calm state, my mind was more creative. Searching online for tips on finding a lost dog, we discovered a wealth of helpful checklists and suggestions. Moments later, we were designing a lost dog poster and planning to distribute flyers to mailboxes the next day. We posted online dog loss notices, triggered his microchip recovery system, and built a call list.
There are times when thinking far into the future helps us prepare for change. Moments of crisis are not one of them. Under stress, the mind can ruminate and catastrophize. By focusing on the present moment, my family and I channeled our energy into creating a plan for the next morning. And once this plan was in place, we were able to fall asleep.
Immerse yourself in positive emotions
The next morning, I put on my high boots and walked back to search while my husband contacted shelters and vets, and my son put flyers in neighbors’ mailboxes. I searched apple orchards, open fields, and neighbors’ vast country backyards. For hours of walking and calling my dog, the beauty around me lifted my spirits. It was a sunny early fall day and the lush farmland was beautiful.
At first it felt like a betrayal to appreciate beauty while my dog was lost, but then I remembered that positive emotions develop attention and help us think more creatively about a challenge. Being grateful for the splendor around me didn’t negate my biggest problem. Instead, feeling grateful reminded me of benevolent forces in the world that protected me from despair.
In the late afternoon, people started calling me after seeing my phone number on the flyers. A woman called me while I was in the middle of an orchard to ask if we had found our dog. She had spoken to my husband earlier and wanted an update. Another woman called with a tip: her neighbor’s dog had run away and was found two days later by the creek. The dogs will go to a water source, she said. Try walking along the creek, she advised. As I hung up the phone, I thought to myself: It’s kindness.
Acknowledging and receiving kindness is a lesser-known resilience practice. Consciously receiving kindness from others creates a sense of belonging that is central to the human experience and at the base of well-being. Acts of kindness make us feel like we matter, which is especially valuable when we feel alone with our worries.
Set realistic expectations
During this long day of walking, I became aware of my impatience. I had put all my energy into an urgent response. As the sun moved across the sky, I realized it was time to prepare for a longer process.
Expecting things to be easy can lead us to disappointment, which undermines resilience. But research on defensive pessimism shows that preparing for difficulty can lead to actions that help us maintain our well-being during challenges. Defensive pessimism is a way to lower our expectations to prolong motivation. Unlike rumination, in which intrusive thoughts lower energy and stoke fear, defensive pessimism prevents anxiety from becoming debilitating.
By lowering my expectations of finding her before sunset, I was able to look to the difficult days ahead with more hope. I could visualize my husband, my son, and I developing a daily research routine that was incorporated into our work schedules. We would adjust our lives while continuing to seek out and contact animal shelters. It was comforting to realize that we could manage another night without our dog.
And then my phone rang again. It was around 5 p.m. and dusk was falling. This time the caller was a man, and his voice was cheerful. “Are you Kellie?” ” He asked. When I confirmed it was me, he said, “I have your dog. My daughter found it in the barn. Come get her.
As I drove to her house, I didn’t know if I should trust this sudden burst of good news. As I turned into his driveway, I saw him, smiling and proud, with his daughter and my dog. He was happy and complimentary. “When we found your dog, we knew who to call from the flyer in our mailbox,” he said.
In total, it had been a little over 24 hours since she had disappeared. The hardest part had been falling asleep without her and getting ready later for a long process. Resilience education provides tools for making tough choices, and those tough decisions – coupled with action and positive emotions – give people the best chance possible to overcome adversity.
One last thing I learned the hard way: our dog is now equipped with a tracking collar, which I highly recommend.
Kelly Cummings is a 2022 Fellow of the Project on Positive Leadership, Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Founder of Well-being Wisdom.