Resilience: Bouncing Back
In stressful times, people respond in a variety of ways. We certainly live in a time where stress is hitting many of us from multiple angles. How well we do in the face of hardship depends on our resilience, our ability to bounce back from stress rather quickly, and to be able to adapt, change, and move on. When you have resilience, you are able to harness inner resources and rebound quickly from a setback, whether it’s an illness, loss of a job, or death of a loved one. Some people bounce back, and others become overwhelmed and fall apart.
Resilience is defined as: 1) the ability to bounce back into shape, or position; 2) the ability to recover strength, spirits, and good health quickly; 3) buoyancy; 4) the ability to remain calm, energized, engaged, focused and purposeful in the face of stressful challenges.
Resilience is a concept that has been studied by medicine and psychology for some time. Those with lower levels of resilience feel overwhelmed, victimized, and turn to unhealthy ways of coping, such as alcohol or drug abuse. Resilience gives you the ability to see a crisis or challenge with a new and broad perspective, and have the ability to see beyond the immediate stress. Resilient people continue to function.
Resilience is not about “toughing it out” or ignoring your feelings. It implies the ability to truly feel your emotions, be aware of your thoughts, and remain in the moment—even when the moment feels like the last place you want to be. It is, however, the only time and place you can ever be. Resilient people do not tend to be loners. When they recognize a problem, or recognize that they’re in real trouble, they reach out for help. Those who tough it out tend to be loners without much social support; they generally don’t reach out to others for help.
We know that in times of crisis or challenge, resilient people are going to do better. That does not mean that less resilient people are doomed. If that were the case, there would be no point in writing this article. Once people understand this issue, they usually know if they are the resilient type or not. Those who need to become more resilient can do a number of things to do just that.
Our core beliefs are the source of our strength and resilience or lack of it. See how you relate to the following belief statements:
1. I can’t do it. I can’t do “this.”
2. I can handle this challenge.
3. I can handle anything.
4. Things don’t generally go well for me.
5. My life seems like an endless stream of stress and trauma. It’s enough to crush anyone.
6. This looks difficult, but if I take a deep breath, become open to new solutions and new ways of looking at things, I’m sure I’ll be fine.
7. Things just happen. Life is full of random accidents.
8. Everything happens for a reason.
9. There is a lesson in this painful situation. I may not know the lesson until I come through to the other side, but I try to maintain an attitude of gratitude, even in tough, unpleasant situations.
10. I’m a lucky and optimistic person.
11. I’m not lucky. If something bad is about to happen, I’m the one it will probably happen to.
12. I’ve endured, survived, and thrived through lots of stress. I know I can cope, not only with the “possible,” but I’m able to deal with the “impossible.”
In reading these 12 beliefs, which ones do you resonate with? If you are someone who feels unlucky and gets overwhelmed by stress, reading this list might make you feel depressed, because a number of the answers imply that there are healthy ways to handle stress, and you might not be one of those people — yet!
It is important that you are honest with yourself about who you are and how you react to what life brings you (or throws at you). It’s also important not to compare yourself to others. Comparing is one of the most common things that our minds do, but it’s a strategy that fails. If you compare yourself unfavorably to another, you’ll feel depressed, envious, or jealous. If you compare yourself favorably, believing that you’re just better at most things than others, the act of comparing will often lead to guilt or arrogance.
Learning from Masters of Resilience
You may wonder about the 12th belief, namely, “I’m able to deal with the impossible.” Let me share an example or two. Most of our character and personality are formed in the first five years of life, making parenting the most important job on earth. If you frequently saw or experienced a parent falling into the pit of victimhood, feeling overwhelmed by stress, that is what you will have picked up, both through osmosis and direct teaching by your parents.
Vinny is a friend of mine who shared a childhood story I’ll never forget. Vinny, his brother, and dad were doing some heavy lifting, related to construction work. Vinny was in his late teens at the time. His dad asked Vinny and his brothers to move a rather large boulder (more than 500 pounds) out of the way. The boys were unable to move the rock at all. Vinny’s dad gave the boys a bit of a crusty look, and said, “I’ll take care of it.” His dad walked over, yanked the huge stone off the ground, picked it up in his arms and carried it off. Vinny was stunned at that impossible feat, but his dad didn’t relate to the word “impossible.” There were a few other amazing feats Vinny saw his dad accomplish. His dad was truly nonchalant. He felt he didn’t have time for the boys not to get the job done, and he wanted to just help out and “do it.” Vinny grew up to be a successful businessman, starting small, and then expanding his successes in all arenas of life. As I’ve watched how he handles life’s challenges and stresses, I often think of that big stone. His dad had conveyed the message to Vinny, “Anything is possible…even if it looks impossible.” So, Vinny’s parenting provided a terrific level of lifelong resilience.
Christopher Reeves is another example of enormous resilience, surviving a horse accident that left him paralyzed, unable to move, and only able to breathe with the help of a machine. Nobody expected the enormous progress that Reeves made in life. While having a lot of money to fund every aspect of his recovery was a big help, it was not the determining factor. He had played Superman, and that identity suited Reeves. He did accomplish the impossible — through great resilience, an unstoppable will, the support of his wife (in particular), and the ability to reach out anywhere for assistance. Reeves was able to let go of a major part of his life and personality. He’d been an athlete. After the accident, he could not walk, talk, move, or breathe. But he maintained the core essence of his identity. I think that his wife’s love and support was a huge part of his success.
Who in your life reminds you of Vinny or Christopher? If you have a role model, simply by thinking about and visualizing that person, you begin to bring their resilience into your life. If you cannot think of anybody, look for a role model who is a fictional character in a book or movie. If you’ve never seen someone handle stress easily and gracefully, you will find it difficult to summon up an image of resilience. Whether, at this moment in time, you are resilient or not, you do have the inner resources to survive and thrive anything life sends you.
Lessons from War
A strong sense of purpose and meaning in life makes you a resilient person. If life is meaningful, then you perceive life’s stresses as events that you can grow from . . . or shrink from. The issue of meaning and resilience was illustrated in an amazing way through the writings of holocaust survivor, Dr. Victor Frankl, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl was trained in the early years of psychoanalysis. He was a survivor of 4 concentration camps including Auschwitz in which he saw how some people had incredible resilience, and others lost their will rather quickly. Frankl observed that one particular, tight-knit religious group did very well. I’m not positive of the particular religious group but it was one that mainstream psychiatry (and society) might consider “religious fanatics.” The power of their shared religious belief and deep sense of meaning helped the members of that group remain healthier, happier, and more resilient in the face of impossible odds.
There is an important lesson to learn from former POW’s. When a military man or woman is captured, what they are facing is the enemy’s desire to break their will. Almost everyone in the military, when captured, has believed that they can out-last what they have to endure . . . even though military SERE training (survival resistance evasion escape) provides a reality check. Everybody has a breaking point.
A POW endures sleep deprivation, pain, hunger, thirst, and disorientation to day or night. A point comes when something breaks, and the POW falls back on inner resources, perhaps untapped, to develop a long-term survival strategy.
Resilience does not mean that a soldier won’t break, but it does mean s/he is able to mentally regroup, after some period of time, in order to develop an internal “fall-back position” to mentally and physically survive an uncertain future. In the Vietnam War’s POW camps, our POW’s developed complex ways of communicating with each other, even when totally isolated. They developed patterns of tapping on bars and pipes. They found ways of coping, through their social ties. They relied on resilience.
Boredom is a painful part of being a POW. There were two men (Joe and Tom) who shared a cell in North Vietnam for years. Joe decided to build his future dream home in his head. Over the span of several years, he had laid out every single inch of his two-story dream home. This survival mechanism was so powerful that both men had a very clear image of the dream house.
A number of years after they were released from prison, had returned to the United States, and built a new life, Tom got a phone call from Joe, inviting him to his dream home in the Midwest. Tom was rather in awe when he walked into the dream home. Every inch of the house was identical to what Joe had worked out in his head . . . as a POW. That’s Resilience. The only tool Joe or Tom had was the creativity of their minds.
By the way, in order to pass time, Tom practiced sailing in his mind. He got very good at his mental imagery sailing, and was able to create a wide variety of ocean conditions to test his sailing skills. Upon his return to America, his sailing abilities had improved dramatically. Prison is a painful, lonely place. Joe and Tom had the resilience to develop a plan, like building his dream home in his mind, maintaining that focus for several years, and maintaining the belief that one day they would be free.
The Body, Mind, and Spirit of Resilience
Most of the research on resilience has focused on the mental side of it, but resilience also involves body and spirit. Resilience can be compared to the bamboo, which is strong, yet capable of bending with the strongest winds – without breaking. That’s easy to understand from the mental side, but we can’t ignore the physical aspect.
Optimizing every aspect of physical health improves overall resilience. If you have been chronically ill and debilitated, and you are dealing with a lot of stress, the task is much more difficult for you than for someone facing the same stress who is physically strong and healthy.
Just the physical basics — diet, exercise, deep breathing, and drinking enough water — will go a long way to strengthening your body. A strong body makes for a much stronger and more flexible mind. In looking at the physical side of resilience, the philosophy and practice of yoga comes to mind. When you go to a yoga class, you’ll learn practices that develop flexibility, strength, and balance. You’ll also learn to relax and the practice will help with mental tranquility and flexibility.
The spiritual component of resilience involves: meaning, faith, hope, connection and purpose. A strong connection to God/Goddess/Higher Power helps develop and secure a strong foundation and core. The spiritual connection is like providing someone a lifeline, an additional support without which many people get overwhelmed by stress. “Faith” is not simply the belief that God will arrive at the last second with a miracle to bail us out. Faith is defined as, “Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing. A belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.” A person can be an atheist and still have faith that, “Somehow I always make it through.” That’s a person with strong faith in himself, perhaps in deeper or higher levels of himself he is not aware of. From the springs of faith arises hope. If a person is basically hopeful, he is optimistic that things will work out. Spiritual connection leads to faith . . . which leads to hope, and results in resilience.
Resilience is one of the most important predictors of success in life and work, and in recovery from crisis and sudden change. We can assess our own level of resilience and then decide what we can implement at the mental, physical, and spiritual levels in order to become more resilient.