Resilience is the ability to bounce-back from an adverse event. The more resilient a person is, the better his or her coping mechanisms will be in the face of a challenging situation.
Not everyone copes with disturbing events in the same way. Some people suffer to such an extent that are unable to recover. Others suffer as well but recover quickly. Some seem to recover quickly but then have a relapse. And others manage to endure the temporary crisis and are able to move on to new challenges with apparent ease.
What you will be glad to know is that there is plenty of evidence that suggests that resilience is not for exceptionally healthy or strong people but rather that it is common and can potentially be reached by a variety of different pathways.
The inner strength
Since the beginning of the nineties, the bulky-sounding concept of resilience has caused a stir in behavioural research.
The word, derived from the Latin resilio (rebound, jumping back), actually comes from physics and refers to “the property of a material that enables it to resume its original shape or position after being bent, stretched, or compressed.”
Behavioural researchers have adapted the concept and transferred it to the human being: resilient is the one who creates the psychologically emotional resistance and is able to “bounce back” from difficult experiences. This resistance does not mean, though, that a person does not experience distress – in fact, some emotional distress may be needed in the process of becoming resilient.
The good news is that, according to the American Psychological Association, resilience can be learnt and developed through changes in our behaviour, thoughts and actions.
Resilience: The immune system of the soul
Whether you are resilient or not can’t be said in advance because it depends mainly on how life unfolds. It’s only when you are pushed to face a difficult situation that your resilience (or, on the contrary, your vulnerability) will emerge.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”, said Friedrich Nietzsche, which implies that resilience is based on personal experiences or misfortunes, meaning the harder our life has been, the stronger or more resilient we become.
“A Smooth Sea Never Made a Skillful Sailor”
But there are those who disagree with that vision and argue that misfortunes do not make you stronger, that love and care do. Research shows, for example, that traumatized children are more likely to be traumatized again, proving Nietzsche’s saying wrong (or, at least, not totally accurate); and kids who grew up in tough conditions became weaker, not stronger.
Misfortunes do not make you stronger; love and care do.
The fact is, a serious illness, a car accident, the death of a loved one, the loss of job or any other fatality can also crush the strongest. Sociologist Bruno Hildenbrand found that crisis in human life were “not the exception, but rather the norm.”
So if negative events are not exceptional but a reality in most people’s life, then the focus should be on how we react to them: we can either respond with fight, flight… or we can freeze.
In the face of an adverse or challenging situation which we assess we can defeat or overcome, we go into fight mode. Our brain releases adrenaline and pushes us to fight – and potentially succeed – against that negative situation.
On the contrary, if we assess the situation as too dangerous and significantly stronger than us, we go into flight mode and try to escape as quickly as possible for the sake of our own survival.
But it can also happen that we may conclude that we can’t either defeat the situation or run from it. We feel utterly helpless and freeze.
“Paralyzing psychological phenomena as phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and various anxiety states can frequently be understood as symptoms of a freeze response that never had the chance to “let go” or “thaw out” once the original experience was over”, explains Leon F Seltzer, PhD.
The more we go over our feelings of anger, sadness or fear, the more anger, sadness or fear we will feel. This is when mindfulness comes in handy. According to research, the more mindful a person is and the more mindfulness meditation the person practices, the more resilient the brain becomes.
Researchers Badri Bajaj and Neerja Pande concluded that “Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally)”. “Pausing and observing the mind may (help us) resist getting drawn into wallowing in a setback.”
But how can I become more resilient?
More and more evidence shows that resilient people have three common traits: they are committed to find meaning in their life, they believe that they can influence their surroundings and the outcomes of events, and that they can learn and grow from both positive or negative events. These three beliefs makes them more confident, which consequently helps them to cope better with distress.
Resilient people have 3 common traits: they have a sense of purpose, they believe that they can influence their surroundings and that they can grow from both positive and negative events.
Learn from life’s setbacks
Take difficulties as a chance for growth and avoid self-pity.
We grow with experience, and self-reflection helps us see what challenges we have already faced and mastered, reinforcing our belief that we can do it.
Accept and Adapt
Things do not always go the way we plan. Resilient people know it and accept it and are able and open to adapt. The sooner you accept changes in your environment or situation, the more likely you are to see defeats as chances for personal improvement.
See what you can do to make your situation at least a little bit better and do it. Do not let yourself be paralyzed by negativity. Find things to do to keep you active and to help you release tension, like drawing, writing, meditation, or exercising.
Build stable relationships
We are social creatures and relationships are crucial for our well-being. Having positive and supportive people in our social circle will always make a difference. In times of hardship, having someone to laugh with makes a big difference.
Write down your feelings
Writing down our problems and thoughts can help in the healing process as we become more conscious or aware of them and are able to see things more clearly.