Resilience is the reservoir of strength that people can call upon in difficult times to carry them through adversity without falling apart. It gives people the psychological power to cope with stress and hardship.
Psychologists believe that the more resilient the individual, the better they can handle adversity and rebuild after a catastrophe.
Logically, we all accept that dealing with adversity as well as change or loss is an inevitable part of life. We will all experience varying degrees of setbacks.
Some of these setbacks might be slight (not getting tickets to the concert you wanted to attend), while others are horrendous (death of a loved one).
How we deal with these setbacks plays a significant role in the long-term psychological consequences and may also affect the outcome as well.
Why We Avoid Adversity
You may have heard of The Pleasure Principle. That as human beings we seek to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. But it goes deeper than that.
On a deep biological level we are designed to avoid pain, and discomfort, and anything of the sort. Our nervous system is wired to see it as a threat which could lead to death. Whether it be vigorous exercise, awkward social encounters, public speaking or even waking up early.
So we tend to seek comfort as opposed to being uncomfortable. It is easier, feels better, and it is our standard operating procedure unless we actively choose to experience hardship and adversity.
What Is Resilience?
People that keep their cool in the face of adversity and disaster have what psychologists call resilience. This is an ability to cope with setbacks and problems.
People who are resilient utilise their strengths to cope and recover from challenges and problems. These challenges may include financial issues, job loss, illness, medical emergencies, natural disasters, the death of a loved one, or divorce.
Instead of hiding from their problems with unhealthy coping strategies or falling into despair, resilient people choose to face life’s difficulties head on. Don’t kid yourself that this means they experience less anxiety, distress, or grief than other people do.
They handle these difficulties in ways that foster growth and strength. Quite frequently, they emerge stronger than they were before. Not only do they survive in the face of adversity, they thrive.
Those who lack resilience dwell on problems and use unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with life’s challenges. Failure and disappointment drive them to destructive, unhealthy, or even dangerous behaviours.
Individuals who lack resilience experience more psychological distress and are slower to recover from setbacks.
Resilience does not erase life’s difficulties or eliminate stress. Resilient people don’t see life through rose-tinted lenses. They understand and accept that adversity and setbacks happen and that sometimes life can be hard and painful.
They experience the emotional pain, grief, and sense of loss that is associated with a tragedy. But their mindset allows them to work through such feelings and recover.
Resilience gives people the strength to tackle problems head-on, overcome adversity, and move on with their lives.
Talk Through Setbacks
The odds dictate that at some point in your life, you are going to have to deal with a crisis or disaster. A few lucky people never experience this.
However, the majority of people will. And when it does happen, it may seem like it’s never going to end. But resiliency will help you get through it.
When a crisis hits, it is never a good idea to tackle it on your own. Keep in touch with everyone who is affected, especially if they are family members. Talk it through and commit to being there for each other.
Don’t bottle your feelings up and keep them to yourself. It’s only going to increase the pressure on you, so you explode with emotions later.
By discussing your feelings in a frank and open manner, you are more able to manage them.
If you feel that you can’t share with those close to you, there are outside groups who deal with crises. There are hotlines and websites set up specifically for this cause.
Getting an external view can offer new perspectives. The chances are that these people have dealt with situations similar to yours. Even if they have not, they are trained to deal with crises and can still help.
The key is to use the resources available to you as soon as possible.
People pull together and help each other during times like this. When you are in a crisis, don’t be overly proud and refuse the help. That little bit of support can be the difference in you staying resilient.
Science demonstrates that we don’t develop resilience when we are younger, but we can also boost resilience in middle age. And that is important because that is often the time we need it most.
Aside from the challenges I mentioned earlier midlife could bring a host of extra stressors. These including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries.
So it is surprising that many of us fail to build the coping skills we need to meet these stressors.
I will introduce you to Dr Dennis Charney. He is the dean of the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City. And he is a resilience researcher.
As he was leaving a delicatessen, he was shot by a worker who was involved in a dispute with his employer. The Doctor spent five days in intensive care and then faced a challenging recovery.
Be Resilient Myself
He said, “After 25 years of studying resilience, I had to be resilient myself.”
Dr Charney, who co-authored the book “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges” went on to say, “It’s good to be prepared for it, but it’s not too late once you’ve been traumatised to build the capability to move forward in a resilient way.”
The good news is that many of the qualities developed through experience – concern for future generations, the ability to regulate emotions, and a broader perspective gained from life experiences – give us more mature people an advantage when it comes to developing resilience.
Let’s think of resilience as a muscle. And like other muscles, it can be strengthened at any time. Except resilience is an emotional muscle that is waiting for you to strengthen it.
Here are a few ways you can strengthen your resilience.
■ Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone
You don’t build resilience just from negative experiences. You can also build it by placing yourself in challenging situations.
Run a half marathon. Share your secret comedic skills with strangers at an open mike night.
When you place yourself in challenging situations, your stress hormone systems will become less responsive to stress. In turn, you will handle stress better.
Choose to live your life in such a way that you get the experiences that enable you to handle stress.
■ Reframe The Story
Reframe the situation, focusing on the opportunity the setback presents. Here is Dr Charney again, “Once you are a trauma victim it stays with you, but I knew I could be a role model. I have thousands of students watching my recovery. This gives me a chance to utilise what I’ve learned.”
Many studies show the benefits to reframing the personal narrative of a setback. The personal narrative is the story that you tell yourself about the event. And this shapes our view of the world and ourselves.
A Harvard University study looked at people who were taught to reframe stress. The ones who reframed stress as a way to fuel better performance managed their stress better physiologically and did better on tests than those taught to merely ignore stress.
First learn to recognise the story that you tend to use to explain the events in your life. Then you can observe what you are saying to yourself and question it.
■ Depersonalise It
Everyone one of us tends to blame ourselves for life’s setbacks. And then we engage in the mental gymnastics of turning over in our mind what we should have done differently.
When you are stuck in a difficult situation, it feels as if it will never end.
And that is the perfect time to remind yourself that even if you made a mistake, other factors contributed to the problem and then adjust your focus to what you need to do to get out of the problem.
Pessimists believe that adverse situations are personal, pervasive and permanent. Reminding yourself that NO situation is personal, pervasive or permanent is extremely useful.
No adversity or failure is entirely personal.
■ Remember Your Comebacks
When the going gets tough, we often look at those less fortunate than ourselves. And that is a boost to our resilience. But you will get a bigger boost to your resilience by reminding yourself of the previous challenges that you have overcome.
Reflect on your previous experiences and say, ‘I have gone through worse things in the past. This is so by no means the most horrible thing I have faced or will ever face in my life. I can deal with it.’
■ Support Others
Studies show that higher levels of gratitude, altruism and a sense of purpose predict resiliency.
Put simply, the stronger the support networks of friends and family to help cope with a crisis, then the more resilient you will be.
However, there is an even bigger resilience boost to be gained by giving support.
When you reach out and help other people, you move outside of yourself. And this enhances your strength.
A large part of resilience centres on being responsible for your own life. And for creating a life that is meaningful to you.
It doesn’t have to change the world, as long as what you’re involved in has meaning, you can push you through all sorts of adversity.
■ Take Stress Breaks
What if we were to change the way we look at stress? A human being needs stress. The body and the mind want stress. So it might be time to invite stress into your life.
The key is to recognise that no matter how hard you try you will never eliminate stress from your life. So the plan should be to create regular opportunities for the body to recover from stress.
If you were training, you would rest between sets of weightlifting repetitions to give your muscles an opportunity to recover.
Taking five minutes to meditate or having lunch with a friend are two ways to give your body and mind a break from stress.
Stress is a stimulus for growth, and recovery is when the growth occurs. That’s how we build the resilience muscle.
While optimism is thought to be part genetic and part learned you can still practice being more optimistic. Being optimistic doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of a difficult situation.
If you were to lose your job, many people would think that they could never recover from this hardship. Practising optimism, you would acknowledge the challenge more positively. You might say, “This is going to be tough, but it’s an opportunity to rethink my goals and find something that makes me happy.”
While it sounds too simple to really work, thinking positive thoughts and surrounding yourself with positive people can help. Optimism, is similar to pessimism, in that it can be infectious. Simple advice: hang out with like-minded optimistic people.
Use these seven tips to build your resilience muscle, so you are better able to handle adversity and rebuild after a catastrophe. So when you face challenges you just don’t get through them but you get stronger.