The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My puppy went missing. Resilience training helped me find her.

I knew I had to sidestep a negativity spiral that would keep me up all night

Kellie Cummings' puppy Lola, who went missing recently. (Paulo Vieiradias )

On a recent Sunday, our 7-month-old puppy Lola was suddenly gone from the backyard.

It was late afternoon with only a few hours of daylight left when we set out to find her. Living in the country in Solebury, Pa., meant that we had to search on foot, climbing over horse fences, wiggling around deer barriers and navigating large stands of trees. My husband and I split up to look, but when darkness descended our puppy was still missing.

Then came the rain. Lots and lots of rain. We ventured out with flashlights but returned home empty-handed and wet. I thought about our puppy — a rescue — shivering in the cold but stopped myself. Those thoughts wouldn’t help me make constructive choices and they could lead to a negativity spiral that would keep me up all night. My resilience training kicked in and I knew that my ability to find her rested on controlling my thought patterns. Looking back, three resilience techniques guided me that night and throughout our search.

Stay in the moment

In the dark, I couldn’t search for my dog. And while it was tempting to fret and worry, we all needed to be alert and well-rested in the morning. So I accepted my physical limitations for the moment. In this calm state, my mind was more creative. Looking online for advice on finding a lost dog, we discovered a trove of useful checklists and suggestions. Moments later, we were designing a lost dog poster and planning to distribute fliers in mailboxes the following day. We posted lost-dog notices online, triggered her microchip recovery system and assembled a call list.

There are times when thinking far into the future helps us prepare for change. Crisis moments are not one of those times. 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.

Take in positive emotions

The next morning, I slipped on my tall boots and headed back out to search on foot while my husband contacted shelters and veterinarians, and my son put fliers in neighbor’s mailboxes. I searched through apple orchards, across open fields and in neighbors’ massive country backyards. During hours of walking and calling for my dog, the beauty around me lifted my spirits. It was a sunny, early autumn day and the lush farmland was magnificent.

At first, it felt like a betrayal to appreciate beauty while my dog was lost, but then I remembered that positive emotions expand attention and help us think more creatively about a challenge. Being grateful for the splendor around me didn’t deny my larger problem. Instead, feeling grateful reminded me of benevolent forces in the world, which protected me from despair.

By late afternoon, people started to call me after seeing my phone number on the fliers. One woman called while I was in the middle of an orchard to ask if we’d found our dog. She’d talked 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 near the stream. Dogs will go to a water source, she said. Try walking along the stream, she advised. As I hung up the phone, I said to myself: This is kindness.

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Acknowledging and receiving kindness is a less well-known resilience practice. Consciously receiving kindness from others creates a sense of belonging that is core to the human experience and foundational to well-being. Acts of kindness make us feel that we matter, which is especially valuable when we feel alone with our worries.

Set realistic expectations

During that long day of walking, I became aware of my impatience. I’d thrown all my energy into an urgent response. As the sun moved across the sky, I realized it was time to brace for a longer process.

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Expecting things to be easy can set us up for disappointment, which undermines resilience. But research into 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 of lowering our expectations to prolong motivation. Unlike rumination, in which intrusive thoughts diminish energy and stoke fear, defensive pessimism prevents anxiety from becoming debilitating.

By lowering my expectations for finding her before sunset, I was able to consider the difficult days ahead more hopefully. I could visualize my husband, son and I developing a daily search routine that was integrated into our work schedules. We would adjust our lives while continuing to search and contact animal shelters. It was comforting to realize we could handle another night without our dog.

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And then my phone rang again. It was about 5 p.m. and dusk was falling. This time the caller was a man, and his voice sounded buoyant. “Are you Kellie?” he asked. When I confirmed it was me, he said: “I’ve got your dog. My daughter found her in the barn. Come on over and get her.”

As I drove to his house, I was unsure if I should trust this sudden burst of good news. Turning into his driveway I saw him, smiling and proud, along with his daughter and my dog. He was happy and complimentary. “When we found your dog, we knew who to call thanks to the flier in our mailbox,” he said.

All told, it had been just over 24 hours since she disappeared. The hardest part had been going to sleep without her and later bracing for a long process. Resilience education provides tools for making hard choices, and these hard decisions — coupled with action and positive emotions — give people the best possible chance of overcoming adversity.

One last thing I learned the hard way: Our dog is now outfitted with a tracking collar, which I highly recommend.

Kellie Cummings is a 2022 Fellow with the Project on Positive Leadership, a Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and founder of Wellbeing Wisdom.