Need to know
Adversity is everywhere. It can strike when you’re least expecting it, and it might be accompanied by unpleasant, albeit normal, reactions such as anxiety, excessive worry, disappointment, grief, shame, frustration and sadness. Moving on from, and even growing through, a difficult or traumatic experience can be hard, but it is possible.
I’m sure you’ve already heard, read or witnessed many inspiring stories of people who have bounced back from adversity, such as the death of a loved one, losing a job, serious physical illnesses, accidents, disasters or wars. But what should we do when we’re faced with hardship ourselves? How will we deal with our pain? Can we prepare ourselves for this inevitable experience?
The answers to these questions are not straightforward, but the psychological concept of ‘resilience’ can help. Given that we’re all currently in the midst of an adverse situation – the COVID-19 pandemic – understanding resilience is especially pertinent. Resilience is defined as the ability to navigate successfully through, and recover from, stressful circumstances or crisis situations, and to do so in a way that leads to healthy functioning over time. That is, resilience is not only about bouncing back, but also about experiencing some sort of growth, such as finding meaning and purpose, self-awareness or experiencing improvement in interpersonal relationships.
Defining resilience might sound easy, but it’s a more complex concept than you might think. First, many people display resilience immediately following exposure to a hardship or potentially traumatic event. And in the long term, most people who have gone through traumatic experiences don’t show signs of depression or anxiety problems later in life. Consider the study of New York residents in the wake of the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001: the researchers found that 65 per cent of those questioned had returned to their normal level of functioning within six months. You too might be capable of more resilience than you realise.
Second, although some people seem disposed to deal more effectively with stress and anxiety, and to better regulate their emotions, resilience is not a single trait that you either possess or you don’t. Rather, it’s a set of skills, including behaviours and thoughts that can be improved through learning and exposure to new experiences.
Third, although individual characteristics matter for resilience, contextual factors also have an influence, such as the social, health and economic resources available to you. For instance, you might be predisposed for resilience but, if you were brought up in an unsupportive and stressful environment by abusive parents, you might not develop it. In fact, as well as being inaccurate, it is unfair and harmful to see resilience purely as an individual trait – people who struggle to recover from a negative life event might think that there’s something inherently wrong with them, which isn’t true. Access to certain external resources is a major factor in anyone’s ability to display resilience.
Fourth, resilience is dynamic. You can be resilient in one context but then your capacity for resilience, or your ability to draw on available resources, might not be enough for another, possibly more demanding or difficult, situation. All of us can be more resilient at one stage in our lives but less so in another.
Fifth, being resilient doesn’t mean that you won’t have a wound or a scar. For example, in one study of more than 200 people who had experienced the death of their spouse, even those identified as the most resilient reported having at least some grief symptoms. Almost everyone suffers some negative effects, such as emotional strain, throughout the journey of adversity but resilient individuals manage to recover well.
Lastly, it might sound paradoxical, but resilience comes from being in touch with adversity, not from trying to stay positive all the time, or from always running away from difficulties in life. Many of us are taught from an early age that we should avoid difficulties or stress, and it’s true that toxic chronic stress is a risk factor for mental health problems. But exposure to some level of stress provides you with the necessary challenge to become stronger in the face of hardship, as long as you learn to cope successfully. By contrast, if you’re overly avoidant of challenges in life then, when an unavoidable hardship arises, you won’t have developed the necessary skills to cope.
Understanding the complex, dynamic nature of resilience is important because it shows that there is no magic pill or a recipe that will make you resilient. Each individual will have their own way of coping with distress, their own pace of recovery, and levels of learning from a crisis. It is also totally fine to fail to recover quickly or entirely from a particular adversity. It’s okay to get hurt or lost during a difficult time.
What to do
Science doesn’t have all the answers on how one becomes resilient, but what we do know is that it requires learning to tap into both inner and external resources. I’ll touch on some of the most fundamental ones.
Connect with others
During difficult times, it is common to want to withdraw from the world. This can be for varied reasons, such as feelings of shame, the fear of being judged, or not wishing to be a drain on others. Although there is nothing wrong with wanting solitude during difficult times, it is also important that you stay in touch with people, at least to an extent. Research shows that the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder is higher for people who lack post-trauma social support (bear in mind that, even if you have friends and family, if you avoid seeing or talking to them entirely, then it will be impossible for them to help you).
People who choose to connect with others and nurture their relationships, as opposed to isolating themselves, tend to become better at coping with a hardship and growing through their experience. The emotional and instrumental social support you get from your intimate relationships, and from your communities, can also give you the motivation to handle stress in a healthy way.
So, when difficulties are overwhelming, try reaching out to others who can provide support. There are a few different ways you could do this. One is simply by talking about what you’re going through. It can be frustrating to talk to someone who just pretends that they’re listening or who is judgmental, so try to find someone who is accepting and good at listening. You could also try letting them know in advance that all you need is to be listened to. Another approach is to ask specifically for instrumental help, such as information, advice or help with daily tasks. More resilient people are usually aware that they can’t solve every problem on their own. You might find it especially difficult to ask for help if you’re used to handling problems on your own, or if you see relying on others as a sign of weakness. Try to remember that it takes courage to ask for help, and being in need simply means that you’re human.
Here are a few more ideas for how to connect with others and get support: if you exercise or go for a walk, try inviting someone else along. Make a commitment to call or email loved ones regularly. Make use of the power of play – laugh with friends or get silly. If there are social groups that share a common interest or hobby of yours, join them to exchange ideas or to get to know new people. Support others informally or through volunteer organisations; helping others makes us feel happy and valued.
Most importantly, don’t wait for a disaster to occur to connect; make sure you have supportive relationships that nurture your sense of self-worth and need for intimacy, which in turn can contribute to resilience. If you’re physically distant from your loved ones, look for ways to socially connect on a regular basis. Even the presence and support of a small number of people you can rely on can make a huge difference when adversity strikes.
Accept and focus on what you can control
About seven years ago, I was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, which is a type of nerve damage. For me, this chronic condition manifests itself as a constant sharp pain and burning sensation on my feet. My life was miserable for six months before the diagnosis, and the pain was unbearable. I could barely walk for five minutes at a time. Upon the diagnosis, I was prescribed medication that eased my pain. Although it’s manageable now, the pain is always there, and I’ll probably be on medication for the rest of my life. For the first few months, I had difficulty accepting this. Back then, I was 35 and had been physically very active before developing this illness. At least a hundred times I asked myself how it was possible. Rejecting and blaming myself, others or the world seemed to provide some relief but it didn’t get me anywhere.
Then one day I decided to stop wrestling with my pain and to start acknowledging it. This didn’t mean that I liked the situation – I hated it – but it provided me with the space to start being proactive and to find effective coping strategies. The more I accepted my situation and my pain, the less pain I felt. A study that involved experimentally inducing pain in 62 men and women showed the effectiveness of acceptance – those taught acceptance experienced less sensory pain compared with a control group who used simple distraction.
Note that acceptance is not about giving up or quitting. It’s about gently noticing what’s going on, and allowing unpleasant experiences to exist, without attempting to change or deny them. With acceptance, you can choose to do what really matters to you and follow your values more easily. In his book A Liberated Mind (2019), the American psychologist Steven Hayes, the founder of ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy), explains acceptance wonderfully, writing that it allows us to ‘feel and remember fully in the present’ thereby recognising all our experiences, including the painful ones, as gifts. He adds: ‘They are not all sweet smelling – some of them are tearful and fearful – but they are all precious.’
For me, acceptance led to action. Instead of banging my head against the wall, I chose to be proactive and redesigned my life: running was impossible, but I could swim, walk for half hour, or work out with weights as long as I was seated. As a lecturer, I loved standing and moving around, but I learned to be seated in the classroom for at least some of the time. I planned my travels and holidays in a way that would not vastly increase my pain, such as taking shorter walks in the city or avoiding long queues.
When adversity strikes, ask yourself ‘What am I able to do in this situation?’ and redirect your energy towards issues that you can influence. In the case of the current pandemic, of course you can’t fight its existence, but by gently accepting it with all its limitations and unpleasantness, you’ll have the opportunity to turn your attention to the things over which you do have control. As one of my favourite thinkers, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning (1946): ‘When we are no longer able to change a situation … we are challenged to change ourselves.’
Practise staying with the discomfort of certain emotions
If you’re like many people, you might try to avoid your uncomfortable emotions by pushing them away. You might think that this gives you control. The trouble is, even if you have temporary success in regulating the discomfort this way, when you use avoidance as a default coping strategy, it will become counterproductive and keep you from becoming resilient to life’s stressors. A diary study involving dozens of volunteers showed how, the more that people tried to avoid or control their emotions on a given day, the less they tended to enjoy their activities that day, and the more negative emotions they felt. When you think about it, this is intuitive – of course it will be a challenge to enjoy life if you constantly avoid emotions or try to stop them, because you won’t be able to focus on the present moment, nor will you have the resources you need to truly engage in your daily tasks and activities.
Sure, it’s okay to use avoidance in certain circumstances to regulate your emotions, but don’t let it become habitual. Instead, try to establish a different kind of relationship with your emotions. For example, the next time you feel tough emotions, rather than pushing them away, ask yourself what exactly you’re feeling. Avoid using generic phrases such as ‘I’m feeling bad’ and try to be as specific as possible, such as ‘I’m feeling disappointed/guilty/frustrated’. Labelling your emotions will help decrease their intensity. Be curious and learn more about them. What’s the emotion telling you? What’s its purpose? If you’re feeling disappointed because your son has lied to you, your emotion might be pointing to the value of honesty in your life. Some emotions do feel difficult, but every emotion has a function. They are great sources of information about you, your values, and whether there are things that you want to change in your life.
Distance yourself from your thoughts
As a career coach and psychotherapist, I’ve seen many clients over the years who have become stuck in the destructive stories they tell themselves about a situation or event in their lives. We constantly tell ourselves stories about what kind of a person we are, about our relationships or our lives in general. Although this is a useful process to make sense of our thoughts, some of them aren’t helpful. For example, after a divorce, some of my clients believe that they are a failure, that they will never have a loving relationship again, or that they will always make poor choices. However, these thoughts are just thoughts, they don’t necessarily reflect the complete truth. When people believe these kinds of self-related thoughts, they often either avoid or withdraw, both unhelpful coping strategies in the long term.
In these kinds of situations, I help my clients separate from their thoughts; that is, to put a distance between themselves and their thoughts. In ACT, this is referred to as defusion. When we defuse, we look at our thoughts, not from them. This doesn’t mean that a particular thought will disappear, but it does mean that you’re choosing not to be driven by its unhelpful content. You simply step back and observe your thoughts as they come and go. Going back to the divorce example, when my clients think that they’re a failure or that they’ll always make poor choices, I ask them to see if they can look at these thoughts just as words, not as facts.
One technique I find particularly helpful is thanking the mind. Your mind might be telling you all sorts of stories, but you can literally thank your mind by saying ‘Thank you for your opinion, but I’m good,’ or ‘Thanks, I hear you. I think I’ll pass,’ or ‘That’s fine, thank you. Anything else?’ This exercise will show you that you have a choice, to either believe your thoughts and go where they want you to go (for example, withdrawing from social life), or to recognise them, but not get caught up with their content, and instead go where you want.
When you face a hardship, step out of your story by observing it and seeing your thoughts merely as thoughts, not facts. Remember, you don’t have to believe in every story you tell yourself.
Reframe difficulties as a challenge
Another strategy for building resilience is to find growth opportunities in adversity. Many people have told me they’ve found this especially useful for coping with unpleasant emotions and negative thoughts during the pandemic. For instance, I have a colleague with two kids who said he is grateful for the extra time with his children, now that he’s working from home. A client told me that, despite being isolated from family for a long time and feeling frustrated and scared, she is looking at the pandemic as an opportunity to do some inner reflection and to learn to be more comfortable with discomfort.
People who generally view stressors as a challenge and an opportunity to grow, as opposed to perceiving them as a threat, are indeed likely to cope better with them and less likely to experience negative wellbeing outcomes. You would be surprised how many opportunities one can find in a stressful situation, or even a traumatic life event – looking at things this way is known formally as ‘cognitive reappraisal’ or ‘cognitive reframing’. To help cultivate this mindset and support your resilience, try asking yourself questions such as ‘What can I learn from this situation?’, ‘What opportunity is there for me to grow?’, ‘What could be beneficial about this negative event?’, and ‘Is there anything I can be grateful for?’
Don’t mistake this approach for positive thinking, though. You’re not denying the negative or trying to make yourself think positively. Rather, you’re turning your situation into a source of inspiration and finding meaningful opportunities in it.
Key points – How to be resilient
- Resilience isn’t about being bulletproof. Resilient people do experience pain and suffer, but they eventually recover and grow.
- Rather than isolate, connect with others during times of crises, especially your friends, family, support groups and communities.
- Acceptance can be liberating. When you accept the inevitable, you can more easily turn your attention to what you can control and become proactive about problem-solving.
- Avoiding inner experiences, such as unpleasant emotions and thoughts, is detrimental to wellbeing in the long term.
- Resilience requires us to tap into our inner strengths and resources, as well as our external resources, such as social support from others.
- Try to perceive hardship as a growth opportunity that can help you better cope with distress.
I already mentioned the importance of emotional flexibility (being prepared to sit with uncomfortable feelings) and flexibility in thinking (changing perspectives to see the opportunities in adversity), but there is another kind of overarching flexibility that’s also key to resilience, and that is about being adaptable in how you cope.
Having the ability to apply coping responses and emotion-regulation strategies to best match the demands of a situation is arguably more important for resilience than what particular responses or strategies you happen to use. Imagine you’re told by your boss that you’ve been made redundant. Considering your financial situation and the difficulty of finding another job in the middle of the pandemic, you feel sad, scared and maybe hopeless. What coping strategies would you use at that moment? You might want to take some time to calm down first, distract yourself or talk to a loved one to express how you’re feeling. After some time, though, you might use reappraisal to find opportunities in this upsetting situation and apply problem-solving.
When you have more than one coping and emotion-regulation tool in your pocket, and you’re willing to switch strategies according to what works, you’re more likely to deal well with adversity and grow through it. If one approach doesn’t work, try something else. For example, I have noticed that, as long as distraction doesn’t become a habitual way of running away from emotions, it is an effective strategy in situations that are negative and upsetting. Reappraisal, on the other hand, is especially effective in situations that are uncontrollable, such as losing a job. It’s all about identifying your situation, the effect it’s having on you and your emotions, and then being creative about how to deal with it.
One further inner resource that I haven’t touched on, but that’s also important for becoming resilient, is capitalising on your psychological strengths. Strengths are positive qualities you possess that facilitate your wellbeing and ability to adapt, such as optimism, hope, courage, grit, persistence, humility, forgiveness, love, humour and spirituality. In a recent meta-analysis I conducted with colleagues, we found that strengths-based interventions, such as deliberately using one’s own strengths in daily life, and practising gratitude and acts of kindness, are effective in facilitating wellbeing.
Get to know your strengths so that you can nurture them and draw upon them when you need them. To do this, you could take the VIA Character Strengths Survey, which is a free self-report survey that informs you of your top strengths. Alternatively, ask five to 10 people who know you well to tell you a time when you were at your best. When was it? What did you do? Why do they think you were at your best? Their answers will give you clues about your strengths.
A study of hundreds of volunteers across 42 countries found ‘hope’ to be one of the psychological strengths most strongly associated with resilience. Hopeful people perceive adversity in a more positive way, set goals, make plans, and put their plans into action to manage obstacles. Humour can also be helpful in coping with adversity, especially because it provides us with positive emotions that can act as buffers against stress. For instance, research with emergency service professionals shows that one of the ways they cope with the daily stress of life-and-death situations is through cynical or ‘black’ humour. Whatever your own strengths happen to be, remember to acknowledge them and deploy them in your daily life.
I would like to end by emphasising that not being able to cope effectively with a negative life event or a difficulty doesn’t mean that you’re a failure, or that you’re not a resilient person. Remember, resilience is dynamic, situation-dependent and influenced by environment too. You can’t be resilient all the time, and that’s perfectly fine. If it doesn’t feel easy to handle the distress, try to master some of the coping and emotion-regulation strategies I’ve outlined here, but always consider seeking help from a professional such as a mental health practitioner or a psychotherapist if you need to. Above all, don’t forget to show compassion to yourself, just as you would to people you love when they’re facing an adversity.
Links & books
Listen to the podcast The One You Feed, which covers a range of topics such as psychological flexibility, resilience, mindfulness, understanding emotions, healing trauma and self-compassion, which are discussed by renowned researchers and practitioners.
Watch the video ‘How to Build Your Resilience’ by the American psychologist Susan David, who is also the author of the bestselling book Emotional Agility (2017). David is an advocate for being flexible in our thinking and the way we experience our emotions. I also recommend her short podcast series ‘Checking In’, in which she discusses strategies to cope with the current pandemic.
The latest book by the founder of ACT, Steven Hayes – A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters (2019) – is a valuable resource to learn the necessary skills to become more flexible psychologically. Apart from his own powerful story, Hayes shares many simple exercises that can help us practise acceptance, emotional and cognitive flexibility, mindfulness and identification of values.
Harnessing brain science and empirical work on positive psychology, the book Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness (2018) by the American psychologist Rick Hanson, together with the writer Forrest Hanson, offers a practical guide to becoming more resilient and leading a more fulfilling life.