A Formula for Resilience Can Keep Us Going in Increasingly Tough Times
Updated: Apr 17
“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” ― Helen Keller
There’s been so much tragedy and human loss in the news recently – and more than the usual-shameful amount.
Persistent headlines of violent crime: so many victims and families destroyed and the rest of us also afflicted as we watch helplessly from the sidelines.
Worse yet is just the sheer relentlessness. Future tragedy simmers in basements, likely unstoppable. This new unwelcome reality, all the trauma and inhumanity on the daily – it’s taking its toll.
Is it possible to adapt to the societal chaos, this new normal that shows no signs of slowing? This is when the behaviors, thoughts and strategies of resiliency can be a big advantage.
Pain is part of life
Built into the human experience are going to be challenging, stressful and traumatic events. Even without the evening news, there is plenty in our own lives that throw us into chaos and uncertainty: be it a loss of a job or loved one, serious health or relationship problems, or stress over finances.
Part of our life is spent dealing with the unplanned and upsetting. There’s no way to escape it. Traumatic experiences bring uncertainty and emotional pain.
Our most distressing experiences come in a few flavors. What generally determines the long-term impact is how long and how intense the trauma.
Some stressors are acute: sudden, single-incidents that are short in duration but intense. Being a victim of a violent encounter or in a car accident are examples.
Others are chronic. Long-term suffering and periods of stress like an abusive childhood or relationship or exposure to war, have a durable effect on the internal resources required, over time, to adapt in order to survive.
Complex trauma often involves “invasive interpersonal events” and often over a long period of time.
Next to senseless violence, “invasive interpersonal events” just about cover the remaining headlines, featuring such exotic locales as churches to scout meetings, and executive offices to private islands.
How can we stay hopeful and keep moving in the face of all the pain and bullshit?
“Sometimes, carrying on, just carrying on, is the superhuman achievement.” ― Albert Camus
Resilience: skills of adapting and rebounding
Resilience is the ability to recover or bounce back after difficulties. It involves flexibility, calm and an optimistic outlook to see beyond the crisis at hand. These are the keys to getting back up after a singular loss or a series of failures.
The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of risk”, not only avoiding a long-term negative impact of a singular event, but also managing and adapting to ongoing stress or disappointments and being able to hold up well under pressure.
Resiliency is anything but special. Throughout history and all around us today, person after person, story after story show evidence of the ability to rebound from whatever life brings. It’s part of who we are as a species. Humans are great at adapting to, and sometimes even thriving, under adverse conditions.
But where does it develop from? And why are some of us better at it than others? Research has identified certain environmental factors in childhood, combined with individual characteristics, that can predict our resilience as adults.
Strong, supportive mentor relationship
According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, the main factor that resilient adults had in common as children was a strong and supportive relationship with at least one stable, committed parent, teacher or another mentor-like adult. An invested, positive influence served as protection and a buffer from the negative impact of adverse experiences.
This works for adults as well. If your own childhood lacked a supportive mentor, go find someone now. It’s not too late - just check references. Solid relationships, connections and social groups can provide the support that creates the foundation for resilience in adults as well.
Early resilience practice builds confidence
Another childhood factor that helped to develop later resilience was the ability to be independent and in control their own lives from an early age.
Resilience is a learned behavior. It doesn’t just happen and it takes practice. We must experience situations that give us the opportunity to build this muscle, otherwise it won’t develop. We have to get knocked down and get back up under our own power.
This “positive stress”, especially when coupled with supportive people, can promote growth in managing stressful situations and events and helps us cope successfully with adversity later on. It also helps power self-esteem and confidence in one’s own problem-solving abilities and in trusting one’s own instincts.
Locus of control
Psychologist Emmy Werner (1989) followed nearly 700 disadvantaged children over 32 years and found that one of the most important traits related to resilience was the belief that it was their own action that drove accomplishments rather than their circumstances. Children with resiliency viewed themselves in control of their own destiny and not a victim of their conditions.
This “internal locus” of control was found to benefit adults as well. Better work performance, less stress and well-being have been associated with believing in the power to take control and direct one’s own life.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves.” ― Viktor E. Frankl
Perception is key to resilience
Other factors had to do with how the children responded to the adversity they were faced with.
Clinical psychologist George Bonanno (Colombia University), has studied resilience for over 25 years. His findings show that perception is a key aspect of resilience. The impact of a negative experience all comes down to how one defines the event.
Meaning, it wasn’t actually the exposure to trauma that predicted whether or not it was a traumatic experience resulting in psychological harm. Instead, what mattered was whether they perceived it as distressing or not. This is why people can experience the same exact situation and come through it very differently.
The power is in how we define events
If we did not get these resilience building-blocks early in life, we’re still in luck. Resilience is a combination of learned behaviors, thoughts and actions that have been shown to build resiliency no matter our age.
It can be developed from where there was none through defining events and reacting in ways that serve our best interest. Stressful situations are inevitable but we can choose how we interpret painful experiences in our life.
Psychologist and educator, Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania), has shown that shifting how we think and respond to difficult events can make all the difference in the impact. Accepting that change and challenge is just a part of life is key; focusing efforts on things we can change while learning to accept and create a Plan B instead for those things that we cannot.
Specifically, Seligman has shown people are “more psychologically successful” when trained to define an upsetting event as singular, temporary and something they have individual control in moving past; rather than individuals who see problems as permanent or reflecting an underlying problem they feel helpless to improve.
When we define adversity as the end of the world, ruminate or blow it out of proportion, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, the more negatively we respond to a crisis, the more inflexible and less resilient moving forward we become.
It may be an objectively horrible situation. The absolute worst. But we still choose to focus our attention in one direction or the other.
Optimism is important for resilience
“Someone I once loved gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” ― Mary Oliver
Having a long-term view also helps keep things in perspective. What seems suffocating in this moment might bring something new, positive and unexpected later on.
It is possible to define even the worst experiences as something that helped you grow, made you wiser and was a necessary part of your journey.
All of us can use a few proven strategies to develop our resilience during times of confusion, anxiety and when the worst of humanity is on display.
Indeed, that is when we need them most.
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