Adversity impacts the world around us. Few of us will make it through life unscathed. Personal tragedies, traumatic injuries, loss of health, chaotic relationships and financial reversals are just a few of the near normal events that can shake us to our foundation. However, we also hear of individuals who seem to take life’s difficulties in stride, and “bounce back” unexpectedly well with attitudes of determination and perseverance. Often these people become heroes of sorts in our families or culture — for example, think of Lance Armstrong, Rick Hansen, Christopher Reeve — and we identify them as “resilient”. Resilient people not only recover from their trauma but also exceed expectations by actually improving their mental or physical condition. Revich and Shatte (2002) state that it is the level of our resilience — the ability to persevere and adapt when things go awry — that determines the happiness and longevity of our relationships, our success at work, and the quality of our health.
Researchers in the field of psychology suggest most resilient individuals have a number of protective factors contributing to their resilience. They include:
- Supportive connections: Studies have shown that even in the most adverse conditions for young children, those who emerge as “resilient” have had the common factor of having at least one supportive person in their lives who accepts them unconditionally, regardless of temperamental idiosyncrasies, physical attractiveness or intelligence. We need to accept help and obtain support to build resilience.
- Good cognitive and reasoning skills: Irrational thinking contributes to maladaptive functioning. Aaron Beck concluded that any individual who has a continual stream of negative thought would be depressed. We need to dispense with illogical, negative thinking and learn to think accurately about our life stressors.
- Positive anticipation: To be resilient, we need confidence that problems can be solved. We may have to wade through chaos and conflict to get there, but eventually we expect a resolution that we can accept and adapt to. By doing so, we create hope for ourselves.
- Having a sense of personal control: We need to believe that if we set out to change something, we will succeed. We also need to learn self-soothing strategies such as relaxation techniques and calming self-talk in order to increase our ability to stay calm under pressure.
- Knowing your life purpose: Resilient people believe they have a purpose for life and for facing their difficulties. It may be to become stronger, to empathize with others or to implement change in their community. Chronically ill persons who impact others most positively often do so because their illness has evoked changes in themselves that provide examples of perseverance, strength and humour to their family and others that could be achieved in no other way than through their difficulties.
Resilience is also fostered through appropriate self-care. This is often the most neglected set of skills; it is the simplest and most important ones in surviving resilient. Self-care includes receiving adequate rest, good nutrition and exercise; carefully following through on physician care and treatment recommendations; putting safety plans and security in place after traumatizing events. Journaling about events and one’s emotional and physical reactions to them also provides self-care. The very act of putting pen to paper to write about adversity both validates the experience and provides the opportunity to place it outside of ourselves, providing opportunity to reflect and react most effectively.
It is important to learn what skills can enhance our resilience and how to cope most effectively with adversity. As we learn how to build resilience, we will be better prepared when adversity strikes us, and more prepared to help others feel less like victims and more capable of resuming life in ways that exceed their expectations.
Daylen, J., van Tongeren Harvey, W., & O’Toole, D. ( 2006). Trauma, Trials and Transformation. Irwin Law, Toronto, Ontario.
Reivich, K. & Shatte, A. ( 2002). The Resilience Factor. Broadway Books, New York.