Adversity is everywhere. When you least expect it, trouble can show up—often accompanied by unpleasant, albeit expected, reactions such as anxiety, excessive worry, disappointment, pain, shame, frustration, and sadness.
Going from a difficult or traumatic experience and even overcoming it can be difficult, but it is possible. Surely you have already heard, read, or witnessed many inspiring stories of people who have recovered from adversity. Job loss, death of a loved one, severe physical illnesses, accidents, disasters, or wars, are all levels of hardships.
What should we do when difficulties arise? How will we cope with our pain? Can we prepare for this inevitable experience? The psychological concept of “resilience” can help answer these questions.
Given that we are all currently in the midst of an adverse situation, the COVID-19 ‘pandemic’, understandably, a level of resilience, individually and globally, is especially needed at this time. Resilience is defined as the ability to successfully navigate and recover from stressful circumstances or crises, leading to healthy functioning over time. Resilience is not just about recovering but also about experiencing some growth, such as finding meaning and purpose, self-awareness, or experiencing an improvement in interpersonal relationships.
Defining resilience may seem easy, but it’s a more complex concept than you think.
- First, many people show resilience immediately after exposure to a problematic or potentially traumatic event. In the long run, most people who have gone through traumatic experiences show no signs of depression or anxiety problems in the future. It may not seem like it right away, but you may also be able to have more resilience than you realize.
- Second, while some people seem willing to deal more effectively with stress and anxiety and better regulate their emotions, resilience is not a unique trait that you possess or not. Instead, it is a set of skills, including behaviors and thoughts that can be improved by learning and exposing themselves to new experiences.
- Third, while individual characteristics are essential for resilience, contextual factors also play a role in the general health, economic and social resources. For example, you may be predisposed to resilience, but you might not develop it if you were raised in a stressful environment and without support from abusive parents. In fact, in addition to being inaccurate, it is unfair and harmful to see resilience solely as an individual trait. People struggling to recover from an adverse life event may think that something inherently wrong with them is not valid. Access to specific external resources is an essential factor in anyone’s ability to show resilience.
- Fourth, resilience is dynamic. You may be resilient in one context, but then your strength or ability to leverage available resources might not be sufficient for another, possibly more demanding, or challenging situation. We can all be more resilient at one stage of our lives but less so at another.
- Fifth, being resilient doesn’t mean you won’t have a wound or a scar. Almost everyone suffers some adverse effects, such as emotional strain, along the journey of adversity, but resilient people manage to recover well.
- Finally, it may seem paradoxical, but resilience comes from being in touch with adversity, not from trying to maintain a positive attitude all the time or from always running away from life’s difficulties. Many people are taught to void hardship or stress from a young age. Chronic or toxic stress is a risk factor for mental health problems. However, exposure to a certain level of stress gives you the challenge needed to become stronger in the face of adversity and teaches you how to cope successfully. Conversely, if you avoid life’s challenges too much, you will limit yourself from the necessary skills to cope with them when an inevitable difficulty arises.
Understanding the complex and dynamic nature of resilience is important because it shows no magic pill or recipe that makes it resilient. Each individual will have their way of coping with distress, their own pace of recovery, and levels of learning from a crisis. It’s also okay not to recover quickly or entirely from any particular adversity. It’s okay to be hurt or lost during a difficult time.
WHAT TO DO
Science doesn’t have all the answers about how one becomes resilient, but we know that it requires learning to leverage both internal and external resources. I will touch on some fundamental processes.
Connect with others
During difficult times, it is customary to want to isolate from the world.
It can be for various reasons, such as feelings of shame, fear of being judged, or not wanting to burden others. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting solitude under challenging times, it’s also crucial that you stay in touch with people, at least to some extent.
Research shows that the risk of developing PTSD is higher for people who lack post-traumatic social support. Even if you have friends and family and void seeing or talking to them altogether, they cannot help you. People who connect with others and cultivate their relationships rather than isolate themselves tend to better cope with difficulty and grow through their experiences.
The emotional and instrumental social support you receive from your intimate relationships and communities can also motivate you to manage stress healthily. Therefore, when the difficulties are overwhelming, try to communicate with others who can provide support.
Talk about what is going on. It can be frustrating confiding in someone pretending to listen to you or judging you, so try to find someone who accepts you and knows how to listen actively. You can also inform them in advance that all you need is to listen to you.
Another approach is to specifically ask for instrumental help, such as information, advice, or help with daily tasks. The most resilient people are often aware that they can’t solve all problems on their own. You may find it especially difficult to ask for help if you are used to handling problems on your own or if you feel that relying on others is a sign of weakness. It takes courage to ask for help; being in need means you are human.
Here are a few more ideas on how to connect with others and get support:
If you exercise or are going for a walk, try inviting someone else.
Commit to calling or emailing your loved ones regularly.
Harness the power of the game: laugh with your friends, laugh at yourself.
If social groups share a common interest or hobby, join them to exchange ideas or meet new people.
Supports others informally or through voluntary organizations; helping others makes us feel happy and valued.
Don’t wait for a problem to arise to connect to people. Create supportive relationships that nurture your sense of self-worth. If you’re physically distant from your loved ones, create ways to connect socially regularly. Even the presence and support of a small number of people that you trust can make a big difference when problems arise.
Accept and focus on what you can control.
The more you accept your situation for what it is, the less inner struggle you feel. A study involving experimental pain induction in 62 men and women showed the effectiveness of acceptance: those who were taught that acceptance experienced less sensory pain than a control group that used simple distraction.
Keep in mind that acceptance is not about giving up. It’s about realizing what’s going on and allowing unpleasant experiences to exist without trying to change or deny them. You can choose to do what matters to you and follow your values more easily with acceptance.
In his book A Liberated Mind (2019), American psychologist Steven Hayes, founder of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), wonderfully explains acceptance, writing that it allows us to ‘feel and remember fully in the present’ thus acknowledging all our experiences, including painful ones, as gifts. He noted, “Not everyone reacts well; some of them cry and are afraid, but they are all precious.”
People who generally see stressors as a challenge and an opportunity to grow, rather than perceiving them as a threat, are more likely to face them better and less likely to experience adverse well-being outcomes.
You’d be surprised how many opportunities can be found in a stressful situation or even a traumatic life event; seeing things this way is formally known as “cognitive reassessment” or “cognitive reflection.” To cultivate this mindset and support your resilience, ask yourself questions like, ‘What can I learn from this situation?’ How can I grow?’ ‘Is there anything I should be grateful for from this situation?’
However, don’t confuse this approach with positive thinking. You are not denying the negative or trying to think positive.
Instead, you are turning your situation into a source of inspiration and finding significant opportunities in it.
For me, acceptance led to action. When I suffered the effects of a narcissistic bully, instead of banging my head against the wall or seeking revenge, I created an anti-bully forum and a blog addressing the problem. I chose to be proactive and redesign my life. Removing constant self-critical thoughts that I should’ve known better (being a mental health specialist), I used the situation to learn more about Narcissism and bullying traits in adults.
When adversity hits, ask yourself, “What can I do in this situation?” and redirect your energy to topics you can influence.
Of course, in the current COVID-19 Pandemic, you can’t fight its existence, but accept it with all its limitations and annoyances, use the opportunity to focus your attention on the things over which you do have control.
As one of my favorite thinkers, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning (1946): “When we can no longer change a situation… we have the challenge of changing ourselves.”
Get in touch with your emotions.
When you think about it, it can be a challenge to enjoy life if you constantly avoid feelings or stop them because you will not be able to focus on the present moment or engage in your daily tasks and activities. Sure, it’s okay to use avoidance to regulate your emotions in certain circumstances, but don’t let it become commonplace. Develop a different kind of relationship with your feelings. For example, the next time you feel complex emotions, ask yourself what exactly you think instead of pushing them away.
Avoid using generic phrases like “I feel bad” and try to be as specific as possible, such as, “I feel disappointed/guilty/frustrated.” Labeling your emotions will help identify your actual, current state. Be curious and learn more about them. What does the emotion tell you? What is its purpose? If you’re disappointed that your child has lied to you, your excitement could be pointing to the value of honesty in your life. Some emotions feel challenging, but every emotion has a function. They are excellent sources of information about yourself and your standards and realize if you want to change your life.
Be adaptable in your way of facing adversities. How do you respond or react? Is it appropriate at the given moment?
Applying coping responses and emotion regulation strategies to better adapt to the demands of a situation is arguably more critical to resilience than the individual responses or processes you use. Know your strengths, so you can nurture them and take advantage of them when you need them.
Take the VIA Character Strengths Survey, a free self-report survey that tells you about your top strengths. Alternatively, ask five or ten people who know you well to tell you a time when you were at your best. When was it? What did you do? Why was it your best? Their answers will give you insight into your strengths.
Whatever your strengths, remember to recognize them and unfold them in your daily life. I want to end by emphasizing that not being able to cope with an adverse life event or difficulty effectively does not mean that you are a failure or that you are not a resilient person. Remember, resilience is dynamic, situation-dependent, and also influenced by the environment.
You cannot be resilient all the time, and that’s fine. If you don’t find it easy to manage distress, try to master some of the coping and emotion-regulating strategies I’ve described here, but always consider seeking help from a professional, such as a mental health doctor or a psychotherapist if needed.
Above all, remember to show compassion to yourself, as you would to the people you love when faced with adversity.