Some call it ‘mental toughness’, others will talk about ‘emotional resilience’. These words describe our capacity to face adversity and to cope with stress, and our ability to bounce back to our usual state of balance after some severe or emotionally challenging events.
“What doesn’t kill you makes your stronger” said Nietzsche.
In other words, each time we experience a stressful event and we successfully go back to a state of balance , our tolerance, or resilience threshold, shifts upward, toward strength and increased ability to cope with difficult events in the future.
It also means that we develop our ability to handle greater complexity: what seemed insurmountable yesterday was lived through, and hence an experience will become more manageable, though still painful, tomorrow. We’ve learned something from the experience, from its context and intensity, and we’ve shown ability to adapt, learn and grow.
Resilience is dynamic, and built over time; it is not something we are born with. It defines our ability to positively adapt to and recover from circumstances such as deprivation, trauma, loss, threats, illness, accidents, and so on. It allows us to show and build life skills competences.
Some of us get caught in a loop and experience delays in adapting to and growing out of a crisis. For instance, if a negative circumstance is far too overwhelming for our current capabilities, psychological distress involving grief, fear, rage, frustration and other emotions, or mental injury, can occur. This results in symptoms such as victimization, overwhelm, fatigue, substance abuse, and mental health problems in the form of depression, post traumatic disorders, phobias, anxieties, obsessive-compulsive disorders, etc.
This in turn marks the difference between survivors, who grow out of challenges and transform a situation into one of personal growth and development, and persons who sustain mental injury and may take longer, to adapt and grow out of their challenge.
Everyone has a different threshold of resilience overall, and resilience levels differ in any one person according to the type of crisis they meet. This in lay terms distinguishes between who is ‘weak’ and who is ‘strong’ and how a person is very ‘strong’ in one situation and ‘weak’ in another.
Since we all react differently to an identical trauma, these words do not account for the severity of circumstances a person must live through. While all of us will experience the loss of a loved one at least once in our life, not all of us experience accidents, tragedies, abuse, natural disasters or war. Our age too makes a difference. 2/3 of children who sustain trauma in early childhood may have all kinds of issues later in life such as social maladjustment and violence* , while an adult may suffer from depression only or simply rebound quickly.
Resilience is also affected by our moods and our physical health at the time of the crisis, and by the length of exposure to the event.
Finally, resilience is not about ‘toughening up’, ‘bearing it like a man’, or ‘chin up, stiff lips’. It requires acknowledging feelings, grief, anger, pain, and allowing those to be ‘felt’ as opposed to boxed in and ignored or controlled.
Building up/recovering your natural resilience
Your personality traits and your environment are major factors in your ability to deal with stressful situations. This makes it important for you to know what situations you can easily cope with, and the ones you have problems handling.
Support groups, associations of psychologists and other professionals all recommend the following, to implement as a priority, in any order:
- Commit to recovery from the situation and make it your priority for a while.
- Delay making life decisions (change of job or residence, separation or marriage etc, until you feel your emotional stability has returned, whether this takes days, weeks or months after the event)
- Spend time developing, improving, maintaining relationship with partner, kids, family members, friends and other acquaintances. The closer and more meaningful your relationships are, the better your ability to cope when distressed or stressed.
- Talk about your feelings with people who are close to you. Let some steam off in safe settings. Vent it out, in safety. You may find that people around you have lived similar circumstances and they can guide you and support you as they share your burden.
- Gain understanding, seek knowledge about the situation. This helps you view the crisis not as an unbearable problem, but as a situation you can act upon decisively, because you know the facts. It also helps reduce fear, which tends to exaggerate as stress levels rise.
- Accept that circumstances sometimes can’t be changed; in this case, walk out of the situation if you can, or develop your other coping skills if you can’t.
- As you come out and recover from the event, develop a set of recovery goals (e.g., spending time with close friends) and carry them out, slowly. Delay making big decisions.
- Improve your physical health, with nutritional choices, physical exercise, relaxation, and enough sleep. These steps will ease the stress you are under.
- Implement a daily routine and stick to it – show the world that you are stating that life goes on as usual, regardless of whatever scare comes your way.
- Develop a hobby, an interest which can absorb you, something you enjoy doing.
- Help others, volunteer to help. Being a support to others is documented to increase ability to cope with difficulties. It makes you feel more capable.
- Look at learning from the past, review how you handled the events, as this becomes an opportunity for self discovery and acceptance, and will help you develop confidence in your ability to handle future events.
- Keep a long-term perspective on the events; see them in the broader context of your life, and life span.
- Cultivate hopefulness and optimism. Visualize what positive outcome you expect further down the line. As the saying goes, ‘there’s light at the end of the tunnel’
- Wonder what the meaning of your life is, in this situation and in your future.
- Call for professional assistance, medical doctors for medication, and therapists for counselling and psychological support, pastoral counsel for spiritual support.
If you wish to discuss some troublesome event and find ways to move forward, please contact me to schedule your obligation free, 30 minute consultation.
Sources and Resources:
An excellent book is “Man’s Search for Meaning “by Viktor Frankl, the father of Logotherapy. Various printed and online resources are available on topics such as trauma, PTSD, depression, OCD, etc, with coping tips and strategies.
*see online references on the work of Emmy E. Werner, Developmental Psychologist