“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.” ― Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven

We are not living in a bubble. Perhaps at times when difficult events occur we fantasise we could. The reality is that we are subject to the unforeseeable circumstance of a serious illness, a sudden death of a loved one, a terrorist attack or any other traumatic events. Some may experience an overall sense of bewilderment and anxiety and some may fall into despair with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Or you may latch onto certainty and desperately launch onto a quest for a plausible explanation.  Enduring a challenging life brings a host of difficult emotions often coming and going randomly leaving potentially people in a vulnerable position.

Yet not everyone falls into depression or heightened anxiety and over time we may recover as we adapt and rebuild our inner balance despite stressful conditions. That’s our survival ‘tool kit’ or broadly speaking it’s about our capacity for resilience. It requires people to engage with time and effort into a series of strategies to face more healthily hardship.

 

What is resilience?

Our behaviour towards adversity impacts on our ability to build and sustain a healthy approach towards resilience. Why can’t we be tougher so we can accomplish all of the goals we set for ourselves? Why can’t I carry on with my life as I used to? It is often misconceived that overstretching ourselves equals to resilience. This sounds more like enduring. Super-heroes belong to comic books and other fictions. There are no magic powers involved in resilience. Take the response of millions of American in face of September 11, 2001 and the collective effort of many individuals to rebuild their society.  Resilience is not an extra-ordinary phenomenon. It is a rather ordinary process. It implies bouncing back from personal or professional adversity. It means growing stronger.

Considerable emotional pain does accompany resilient people on their journey towards recovery. We too often take a militaristic or “tough” approach to resilience and grit. In a society overly promoting perfection and success, we tend to believe that the more we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone, the tougher we are, and therefore the more successful we will be. However, this entire conception is culturally biased.

The misconception of resilience is often bred from an early age. Parents promoting resilience through overachievement might praise their children for long nightstand revising, holidays filled with academic exercises. What a distortion of resilience! A resilient child is a well rested one and one that knows how to switch from work to leisure time. Developmental studies show that experiences on the playground have more benefit than those in the classroom. According to Sergio Pellis it is the building of new neurological connections within the prefrontal cortex during our childhood that plays a critical role in regulating our emotions and accessing problem solving and plan making abilities. Overwork and exhaustion are the opposite of resilience. And the bad habits we learn when we’re young only magnify when we hit adulthood.

What do you need to exercise and strengthen your resilience?

First of all you need to ditch the super-hero myth and surround yourself with a caring and supportive environment. Research has found that those who have access within their families, at work and within their community to encouragement, assistance or just a safe place where they feel they can talk and be heard are more likely to overcome stressful events. Relationships that promote trust and sound role model enable people to boost their resilience. It targets one’s ability to communicate effectively, to manage one’s feelings rather than enact on them, strengthen one’s self-esteem and get an ‘helicopter view’ on the present situation to establish clearer steps towards recovery.

One common behaviour that directly correlates to an increased incidence of health problems is the lack of a recovery period whether by disrupting sleep or not allowing ourselves to give us a break. People are different and may use different strategies to overcome their distress however burying ourselves in a busy schedule does not provide the necessary ‘refill’ our organism need. Put it simply, when your car’s petrol tank is nearly empty you stop at the petrol station for a refill.

You might consider looking into past experiences where you have been able to adopt a particular resilient attitude and how this has worked for you. Below are few questions you may reflect on to support you into customizing your own strategy:

  • Which type of events have been the most stressful in my life?
  • How have I usually reacted?
  • Who do I go to for support and do I find this process easy?
  • What have I learnt about myself and my way of relating with others?
  • Which obstacles were the most challenging at the time and how do I look at them now?
  • What has always been a source of hope and motivation and has it changed?

When our body is out of alignment from overstretching ourselves physically, mentally or emotionally our homeostatic balance necessary to maintain a healthy wellbeing is jeopardised. You risk a burnout, a mental breakdown. Stopping or retrieving into our cave might not ultimately restore a state of balance. Building up resilience may be achieved by looking into those various aspects of your life:

  • Maintain and cultivate relationships.
  • Looking at ‘problems’ or a crisis through a different perspective, like a different lens. Subtle changes of outlook do make a difference. Every little helps!
  • Growth involves changing. Embrace change as an agent for growth.
  • Be mindful of your goals. Keep them realistic and if too overwhelming chunk them into smaller steps. It is not the quantity that counts it’s the quality!
  • Stay congruent with yourself. Your feelings are a source of self-discovery. Staying attuned with them allows you to get a greater sense of your strength as well as your vulnerabilities. Your perspective on life might get heightened and spiritually nourished.
  • Cultivate self-care! We all have our own ways to ‘recharge’ and ‘reconnect’ with ourselves. Exercising, meditating , playing music or singing are examples of effective strategies accompanying resilience.
  • Challenge negative thinking. Maintaining a hopeful outlook on life despite tragic circumstances is key to resilience. Overgeneralising and catastrophizing is often a pitfall we fall into when we feel overwhelmed and helpless. You may keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings to help you keeping track of your emotions as well as distancing yourself from them.

In conclusion there is no miracle formula to survive and grow out of stressful situations. However the more flexibility and resources we have the more resilient we find ourselves in the face of adverse circumstances. Fighting off, avoiding painful emotions is as pointless as dwelling into them. In a similar vein accepting them is as important as having a break from them from time to time. It’s a quest into restoring a momentary disruption of our internal balance. As we move forward and step towards new horizons we also need to stop, re-assess and recharge. Sometimes a step backward is a crucial step to ensure sustainable growth.

Finally, and perhaps the most important ingredient for a healthy life, love does matter. Our relationships are the cornerstones of our wellbeing. We are dependant on them even if our society cultivates the benefit of independence. Spending quality time with others is as nourishing as having quality me-time. Resilience is the ability to rely on the others help and on one-self. A huge blow against decades of fierce individualism.