Resilience – the capacity to bend with the wind, go with the flow and bounce back from adversity – has been pondered, studied, and taught in tribes and societies, in philosophical and spiritual traditions, and through literature and academies for eons. It is essential to the survival and thriving of human beings and human societies. We now also know that it is one of the behavioral outcomes of a mature, well-functioning prefrontal cortex. Whether we’re facing a series of small annoyances or utter disaster, resilience is teachable, learnable, and recoverable.
Psychotherapist Linda Graham wrote these words about resilience in her 2016 book entitled, Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster. She explains that resilience can be taught and learned – and that’s good because it is an essential part of ensuring that we can recover when life throws us curve balls.
She explains, “It’s one thing to misplace your house keys and your wallet two minutes before you have to rush out the door to catch the 6:15am bus for work. You do your best to breathe slowly and deeply, stay calm, and try to think if maybe you were wearing something else with pockets before the early morning dash… We all experience these hiccups in life.
“Occasionally we are called on to deal with greater troubles and adversities, not just hiccups but earthquakes that overwhelm our capacities to cope, at least temporarily. They include troubles like infertility… a diagnosis of lung cancer, losing a job several years out from retirement… When these bumps happen, we have to dig deeper into our inner reserves of resilience and our memories of times we have successfully coped before…
“And then there are times when too [many] disasters happen all at once: we lose a child in a car accident… at the same time that an aging parent has a stroke and a freak thunderstorm causes flood damage to half the house. When catastrophes like these strike, we are vulnerable to losing our resilience altogether, finding our world no longer makes sense or no longer exists, and we have to scramble to find any lessons or meaning at all in what we’re going through…
How in the world do we bounce back from traumas like these? By strengthening our resilience.”
So, if it is possible to learn how to be more resilient, what can you do to start teaching yourself those skills? Dr. Dennis Charney, the dean of the medical school at Mount Sinai Hospital and the co-author of the book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, suggests several ways:
Practice Optimism. It is not always easy to look on the bright side, especially if you are born into a family of people who see the cup as half empty, but approaching a difficult situation with the belief that you will recover from it, will help you gain strength. It is also helpful to surround yourself with positive people – because like pessimism, optimism is catchy.
Rewrite your story. We do a lot of talking to ourselves without even realizing it – and some of the stories that we tell ourselves can either help us bounce back or force us deeper into the struggle. A study at Harvard University found that people who view stress as a way to work harder and meet the challenge end up succeeding much more than people who choose to ignore stress. Therefore, think about the story you are telling yourself about what you are going through. Are you trying to ignore it? Are you beating yourself up about it? Or are you trying to see how you can learn from it and move forward? Obviously, this is incredibly hard to do in moments of disaster, which is why the best time to start is when you have misplaced your keys or your washing machine isn’t working.
Don’t personalize it. It’s easy to blame ourselves in the moment, to tell ourselves that it is all our fault and how come we didn’t check this or do that and if only we had made a different decision twenty years ago. While there are many times that we are dealing with a disaster that might have turned out another way had we done something differently, as Dr. Grant points out, “there is almost no failure that is totally personal.” Don’t beat yourself up, instead, remind yourself that this too shall pass and you will move forward.
Remember Your Comebacks. Think back to other hard times and think about the ways that you recovered. While it might feel helpful at first to look at others who have it worse than you, the way that you will gain inner strength is to remember all those other times you stumbled and were able to pick yourself up again.
Support Others. There’s a reason support groups exist. When we are in a crisis, we need others, but we also need to help others because that helps us feel strong and purposeful. Helping others in small ways will give you the strength you need in order to bounce back yourself.
The good news? All the research on resilience is clear that we can learn how to develop and strengthen it. The bad news? This learning and strengthening take time and energy. The real news? The more resilient you are, the better your life will be – come good or bad news!