At some point we all have to face challenges and difficulties in our lives. Some of these might be relatively small, such as failing an exam or driving test. Others can have a major impact on our lives both individually (bereavement or childhood trauma) or on a much larger scale (hurricanes, terrorist attacks). How we deal with these problems can play a major role in not only the outcome, but also the long-term psychological and physical consequences. Some people seem to have the ability to remain calm in the face of disaster, while others seem to fall apart.
What is resilience?
It’s mental toughness or good old-fashioned “grit”. It doesn’t eliminate stress or magically erase life’s difficulties but it does give people the strength to tackle problems head on and move on with their lives. Research carried out after Hurricane Katrina and the events of 9/11 has shown that even after unimaginable loss and horror, people are still able to find the strength to not just survive, but to prosper.
So resilience means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences. And the really good news is that it is actually very common – most of us respond in a healthy way to stress most of the time.
Even better – we can learn to increase our levels as we go through life as it involves particular behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone. Things like having a positive outlook and a sense of control over events and over ourselves. Having caring and supportive relationships with friends and family plays a big part. As does being able to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out, a positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities, skills in communication and problem solving and being able to manage strong feelings and impulses.
So step by step, how can we become more resilient?
It seems that having positive relationships whether it’s with family, friends, partner or colleagues is the single most critical factor in handling stress and fostering high levels of resilience. It’s important that we accept help and support from those who care about us when we need it and in turn offer help to others when they need it. Getting involved in local community groups and clubs is also a way of boosting the resilience of both individuals and communities.
Set realistic goals
Another important factor is our ability to set realistic goals and to motivate oneself to work towards them – even if it it’s only a very small accomplishment. Ask ourselves: “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?” Sometimes certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations but accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help us focus on circumstances that we can alter.
Have confidence on your abilities: I CAN do this!
Having confidence in one’s strengths and abilities and trusting one’s own instincts even when things seem to be going wrong is important, as is the ability to manage strong impulses and feelings. It can be tempting to detach completely from problems and stresses and wish they would just go away, but taking positive action is often much more productive. Even when facing very difficult situations, it can be useful to try to stand back and look at the wider perspective. Try not to see things in black and white and as far as possible, maintain an optimistic outlook. If we visualise what we would like to happen rather than worry about what we fear might happen, we will be much better able to cope and keep focussed. (More about visualisation in my next blog.) Resilient people have the ability to re-frame and re-appraise situations and switch into goal-directed problem-focused coping.
A sense of humour can often help!
We shouldn’t forget our sense of humour – it has been proven to reduce overall length of stay hospital stays. We can sometimes feel that we have grown as a result of going through hard times, perhaps by discovering inner strength and purpose, a more developed spirituality and a heightened appreciation for life.
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with traumatic stress, anxiety or depression and would like to talk it over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
See also Resilience after trauma, Transformation after trauma