While many of us wish for a life that is free of stress, harm and bad feelings, the reality is that over the course of our lives we will all encounter difficulties. It is how we cope with life’s challenges that determine our overall mental health and sense of well-being. As a psychologist, I continually witness the resilience of the human spirit, as clients I work with overcome tragedy, trauma, and adversity. They learn skills that allow them to create lives that are valuable, joyful and enriching. In life there is suffering. How we approach suffering will affect our overall happiness, mental health and experience in the world.
Resilience is not an in born quality, but something we can develop over time. It is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress -- such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. It’s the ability to “bounce back" from difficult experiences. Being resilient does not provide immunity from distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common when we experience major adversity or trauma in our lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress. It is through developing our emotional “muscles” that we become more able to face difficulties, manage our feelings, strengthen our relationships and live more mindfully and happily, in the present moment.
There are many ways to build resilience. The American Psychological Association identifies 10 factors which increase resilience including:
1. Making connections with others. When people talk about what got them through difficult times, they often identify the support of family and friends as an essential factor. Asking for and accepting help from others builds our internal strengths and helping others in times of need contributes to our self-esteem and sense of well-being. Some people also find strength in faith-based groups which help them to re-claim hope.
2. Avoiding seeing crises as insurmountable problems. We can’t change the fact that stressful events occur, but if we learn to define these events as manageable, we are less overwhelmed by them and they become easier to navigate.
3. Accepting that change is a part of life. While many of us would prefer that things stay the same, this is just not the reality. Accepting that things will and do change, prepares us for a future that is at times unpredictable. When change happens, we are more ready, less shocked, and able to muster our resources.
4. Moving toward one’s goals. Even in the face of difficult times, it is important to maintain a longer term perspective as to how we want to live our lives. Difficulties present themselves on the path to achieving our goals, but focusing on what it is we really want can motivate us to learn from this experience and move into the future with a hardiness that was not there before. Focusing on what we wanted, or our positive intention, rather than staying bitter and angry about what we did not get, helps us move forward.
5. Taking decisive action. In the face of crisis we can either flee, fight or freeze. Many of us become paralyzed and unable to take action to protect ourselves from further harm. It is important to take a stance, inorder to change the situation as best we can. A decisive action helps re-build self-esteem and self-confidence,
6. Learning about yourself. One can use adversity to discover things about themselves. Increased awareness of how we feel, how we act, and how we respond provides us with valuable information that we can use in the future.
7. Nurturing a positive view of yourself. It is all too easy to be hard on ourselves following a difficult time. Being kind and compassionate towards oneself goes a long way, as you learn new coping strategies. Self-criticism and self-attack only diminish our sense of self-worth and contribute to despair and feelings of hopelessness. Looking for the positives in oneself provides an “I can’t do this” feeling necessary to move forward.
8. Keeping things in perspective. When tough times hit, it is easy to focus on the devastating effects. Putting the current difficulty into a larger context by reflecting on what might be going well can provide the energy needed to tackle the difficulty in front of you.
9. Maintaining a hopeful outlook. Optimism goes a long way in building resilience. Some of us are more naturally optimistic, others of us need to really work on this. Being hopeful is a great antidote to stress.
10. Taking good care of yourself. Self-care is so important each day, but particularly when we are struggling. Yet it is often the first thing to go. A daily practice of self-care which includes eating well, exercising, relying on supports, recreation/down time and getting enough sleep helps prepare our mind and our body for stressful life events. Additionally, mind-body practices such as meditation, journaling, yoga, and massage all nurture our well being. We need to embrace on-going self-care as a form of preventative mental health.
Learning to be resilient is an on-going life process. Some of these skills are learned in childhood, others develop with age, experience and time. When stress hits, as it invariably will, taking to someone who can help may be important. Sometimes this is a friend, sometimes it is a mentor or teacher and other times it may be a psychologist. No matter what, you don’t need to go it alone.