In a world where change is inevitable, challenges plentiful and chaos is not just a theory, resilience is a quality worth cultivating. As a psychologist I often ponder the many reasons why people experience and cope with circumstances, and in particular uncertainty, in very different ways. Some are able to laugh in the face of adversity, thrive under pressure and move on swiftly from any setbacks, while others struggle to adapt and shift gears, feeling helpless and unable to cope.
In today’s world where redundancy is no longer news and the economy along with the oil price are once again trying to find their feet, those who are best able to respond to changes and challenges are those most likely to succeed and weather the storm. Many oil industry workers in particualr are having to adjust to change and deal with uncertainty because of an industry slowdown. It follows then that a helpful approach to take would be to build upon our capacity for resilience, giving ourselves the best chance in today’s increasingly accelerated, competitive and pressure-laden world.
Getting on the road to resilience
The psychology of resilience isn’t particularly new, but it is perhaps more topical and relevant now than it has ever been. Resilience is the capacity to deal with uncertainty and change. It is the ability to adapt to stress and adversity and emerge stronger than you were before. Resilience is not the avoidance of difficult emotions or situations, but rather quite the opposite. Resilience is the ability to confront and manage challenging experiences that we encounter throughout our lives, using a variety of healthy and adaptive coping systems. It was Helen Keller, one of the world’s most resilient people, who managed to capture the essence of resilience when she wrote “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved” (Helen Keller). The good news is that resilience is most commonly understood as a dynamic quality, not a permanent capacity. It is not a trait that we either possess or we don’t. It is a process. Wherever you might find yourself in this process of cultivating resilience today, you are never too old or too set in your ways to build upon your ability to deal with life’s challenges more effectively. With practice we can all build resilience in ourselves that will help us cope better when the difficult times come.
There are numerous factors which cumulatively contribute to a person’s resilience. Psychologists agree that while resilience is genetic to some extent, it can also be learned and developed throughout our lifetime. Research shows that the single most critical means of handling both ordinary and extraordinary levels of stress is having positive relationships. Living and working as an expat myself, I know only too well that this is not always very easy to do. But fear not, as there are several other factors that also contribute to resilience. Here are some of the best ways to bolster your own:
Get Connected: Positive relationships are the primary factor in bolstering resilience. These relationships don’t have to be in the traditional form of friends and family, but can come in many guises including colleagues, neighbours, the extended community, and of course therapists. Positive and healthy relationships can help to build love and trust, offer encouragement, reassurance and support when it is needed. They can also help to provide a sense of belonging. Talking about your difficulties can also help you to better understand your own situation and distress. It gives you the opportunity to reflect on your anxieties and worries, and potentially receive valuable feedback from others. These connections can also provide advice, a new perspective and specific expertise as and when it is required. Sometimes we can be reluctant to reach out to others believing that we are burdening them with our own problems and complaining about our lives, telling ourselves that we should be able to manage on our own. It is important to note, though, that asking for help and complaining are two different things. Habitual complainers tend to dwell on the problem and what is going wrong. Asking for help on the other hand focuses on the positive, finding solutions and overcoming difficulties. It can also be helpful to ask yourself if you would expect someone else to manage a similar situation on their own. Typically my clients would never expect this of others and yet do so of themselves. As Daniel Amen notes “Normal people have problems. The smart ones get help.” If you are still in doubt about reaching out, keep in mind that seeking support from those around us not only helps build resilience in ourselves, it also strengthens those relationships. According to Psychologist Christina Hibbert “Families and friends who can be there for each other, who can listen, talk about things, and openly feel together, not only help the individuals heal, but protect and strengthen the relationships that, in times of stress, are otherwise too often neglected.”
See The Silver Lining: We cannot change the fact that misfortune happens and hardship comes to us all. What we can do, however, is change our perspective on things and take control over how we respond to the situation. Avoid blowing things out of proportion by reminding yourself that these difficulties are temporary, and try to keep the long-term perspective in mind as well as the short term one. Research also shows that resoundingly resilient people actually see challenges differently than those who are less resilient. Resilient people are characterized by an ability to experience both negative and positive emotions even in difficult or painful situations. While they are able to mourn and endure their frustrations, they are also able to experience gratitude, find potential and a silver lining in most situations, too. When resilient people experience a problem they tend to ask themselves “What is the solution to that? What is this trying to teach me?” They see an opportunity to grow and learn. They do not avoid the problem but are able to invite it in with an open curiosity. When people who are not so resilient face the same situations, their emotions tend to turn overwhelmingly negative. It is important to be aware that a resilient person doesn’t deny the negative and see only the good in any situation, their skill is in being able to experience the negative with the positive and therefore have a more balanced and realistic view of the difficulties. But what if you are not naturally predisposed to seeing the silver lining? Well, the good news is that you can change this behavior with a little bit of work. The first step is to notice and challenge those reflexive and habitual patterns of thought and negative self-talk. For example say you find yourself thinking “I am never going to be able to get though this” in relation to an upcoming job interview, ask yourself “What’s the evidence that I will never be able to get through it?” You might then be able to reflect and say “Well I have been to a handful of interviews and I have managed to put myself across in a positive light in the majority of them and I have always gotten through it. So how is it that I have come to think I will never get through it?” Try approaching the problem with open curiosity and ask questions which are empowering and promote acceptance such as “What is useful here? What are my available choices?” or “How can I learn from this experience?” as opposed to questions loaded with judgment and blame, for example, “What is wrong?” or “Who’s fault is this?” It is a matter of noticing the roads our thoughts habitually travel and the things we say to ourselves. The truth is, we are all naturally predisposed to noticing more of the negative than the positive, it’s an old survival mechanism that lives on in our brains even today. While we notice negative events, more often we actually experience positive ones with greater frequency, and it is up to us to start bringing our awareness and focus to the positive and being grateful for even the smallest of things. So let me practice what I preach … right now I am grateful for the space and peace to be able to sit down and string together a few meaningful sentences!
Accept Change and Uncertainty: Change is an inevitable part of life and those who demonstrate higher resilience are able to better tolerate greater levels of uncertainty and ambiguity. All too often we get caught up in unhelpful cycles of thought which try to control those things we cannot control. We wish we were in a different situation, or that something hadn’t happened. We daydream about another time and place and we miss the present moment and an opportunity to respond to what is happening in the here and now. Try to refocus your attention on those things that you are able to control, such as your reaction to the situation, rather than focusing on the situation itself. This subtle shift can have a great effect on your emotional and psychological response to the situation and help to alleviate some of the anxiety and stress. In the words of Thomas Edison, “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”
Manage Rather Than Avoid Strong Feelings: Facing and feeling our emotions is a real skill. Sometimes it is easier to bury our heads in the sand and try to ignore our feelings and reactions. In the short term this might be an effective solution but in the long term it is likely to exacerbate and escalate a flood of negative emotions that we are ill-prepared to manage. Giving ourselves the opportunity to really feel our emotions is important, as it helps us to better understand what we are feeling and potentially why we are feeling this way. This can allow us an opportunity to reflect and respond in a way which is helpful rather than habitual. “If you don’t have the capacity to change yourself and your own attitudes, then nothing around you can be changed.” Anwar Sadat
Nurture your body and mind: A regular routine of healthy habits is the foundation on which resilience is built. Your mind and body share an important connection. If you make positive changes in one area, then other area will also be affected. When you take the time to nurture your body with a nutritional diet, adequate sleep and regular exercise, having a positive outlook and a more balanced view of yourself is much easier. When both the physical and emotional aspects of ourselves have healthy habits we are primed to face any difficult situations that may come our way, and are less likely to fall into any unhealthy patterns following a setback. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience. Two other key self-care aspects of nurturing your resilience is to spend time outdoors and to be in the company of people you enjoy. The science of resilience suggests that simply spending time in the outdoors helps combat anxiety and depression and improves immunity. A similarly convincing body of evidence shows that strong social connections increase our resilience in the face of illness. “The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.” – Helen Keller
Remember Your Strengths and Seek Out Opportunities for Self-Discovery: We each have certain dispositions in which we naturally excel. Some of us are naturally gifted in making social connections, while the strengths of others lie in intellectual or practical fields. When we are facing challenges, however, it becomes all too easy to forget our strengths and focus on the negative. In order to develop your resilience, you need to thrive on your strengths while exploring areas for new potential. We are all good at something and need development in other areas. Harness those areas of strength and use them as best you can, while asking for assistance in those areas which don’t come naturally. View those aspects which need developing as areas for further potential.
Understanding the key qualities of highly resilient people is the first step in starting to harness those qualities in yourself. These techniques are the way to develop our resiliency and become more effective at coping with hardships and unexpected obstacles. Practice these skills and you will become a stronger, happier and more focused individual in the face of adversity. Let’s face it: In the current climate we could all do with a little more in the way of our abilities to accept those changes that are to come and bounce back from the hard times.
(This article was features in News In English in June 2015)