Resilience–A Gift From Hard Times

In 1978, M. Scott Peck (American psychiatrist) published his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled in which the first sentence reads:  “Life is difficult.”  Dr. Peck wasn’t kidding!  On a daily basis we deal with problems large and small–ranging from not being able to find our car keys to dealing with a difficult co-worker.  Usually, we’re able to cope with these challenges with the help of our friends, family and self-care practices.

However, what happens when we are hit with something really big?  A loved one dies. A marriage ends. A job is lost. We’re not the only ones trying to keep it together. On a global scale, the problems appear to be insurmountable. We only have to hear the local, national or international news to realize that, to put it very mildly, “Life is difficult”… and many of us are able to move past the challenges.  Why?  The answer is resilience.

The Concept of Resilience 

While the term ‘resilience’ was first the object of research in the 1970’s, it has now become somewhat of a buzzword.  A google search provides over 10,600,000 sites to explore–everything from physical resilience to the for resiliency in the work-place and why companies should encourage this trait in their employees.  The resilience that I’m focusing on is psychological resilience.

What is psychological resilience?  The American Psychological Association (2017) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”  It’s our ability to pick ourselves up after hard times and carry on–often wiser and more resourceful.

What Does Resilience Look Like?

Resilience doesn’t look the same from one person to another.  However, it does allow individuals to bounce back from a stressful or traumatic situation with “competent functioning”–i.e. the ability to ‘carry on’.   Like a piece of bamboo, we bend, we don’t break.

A common misconception is that resilient people are free from negative emotions or thoughts, and remain optimistic in most or all situations. Instead, a sign of being resilient is the ability to use proper coping techniques that allow them to effectively and relatively easily navigate around or through crises.  But what are these coping techniques?  How do we develop them?

Developing Resilience

Ideally, resilience is something that we learn in childhood through the key adults in our lives.  We were able to grow up in stable-enough homes and become securely attached to our primary caregivers.  Perhaps we were able to watch adults in our lives practice resilience. We were encouraged to develop our ability to self-sooth when we are emotionally upset  and taught self-efficacy (confident that we were able to take care of ourselves).  Our physical, emotional and spiritual needs were adequately met. Unfortunately, not everyone was fortunate enough to grow up in such an ideal nesting ground for resilience.  But it’s never too late to develop resilience.

The American Psychological Association suggests “10 Ways to Build Resilience”, which are:

  • maintain good relationships with close family members, friends and others;
  • avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems;
  • accept circumstances that cannot be changed;
  • develop realistic goals and move towards them;
  • take decisive actions in adverse situations;
  • look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with loss;
  • develop self-confidence;
  • keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context;
  • maintain a hopeful outlook, expecting good things and visualizing what is wished;
  • take care of one’s mind and body, exercising regularly, paying attention to one’s own needs and feelings.
There’s No Time Like the Present

Just like it’s important to have a support system in place before it’s needed, resilience is the same.  If you have decided that the ability to bounce back from adversity is a skill you would like to improve, then start now–before a major life event calls for its use.

Resilience and Mental Health

Sometimes mental health challenges get in the way of increasing our level of resilience.

Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté in their book The Resilience Factor:  7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles, identify the five typical emotions that are associated with a lack of resilience, namely;

  1. anger
  2. sadness or depression
  3. guilt
  4. anxiety or fear
  5. embarrassment

While it’s normal to experience these emotions, the key to recognizing them as indicators of a lower level of resilience is whether they are disproportionate to the event (looking back you might catch yourself thinking, “I really over-reacted”), or if the same event triggers the same emotion repeatedly.  If this is the case, speaking to a therapist may be helpful.

Resilience and Gratitude

I’ve spoken to many people who have been able to successfully live through hard times and are grateful for the experience.  A common theme that runs through their description of the events is that, while they wouldn’t choose to repeat the experience, they are thankful for what they learned–a recognition of their strength, the creation of new relationships, or an increased sense of self-efficacy.

Hard times come to everyone, and we can choose how we respond and find meaning in them.

Now, here’s a very inspiring Ted Talk about trauma and resilience…Enjoy!

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