Resilience: Bouncing Back from Life Challenges

Stuff happens.  As we travel down the river of life, we inevitably hit some rapids.  Sometimes we see them coming, but sometimes they’re around a sharp bend, and they take us by surprise. Many rapids are unavoidable, such as the death of a loved one, and we have to adjust and rebalance in the boat as best we can.  Other types of rapids, such as mistakes in our parenting, are avoidable, and even if we weren’t able to steer clear of them this time, we can learn to avoid them in the future. The ability to stay in the boat and deal with the rapids is called resilience, which has become a buzzword in the field of psychology.  The psych world is into resilience big time, and the research has shown something very interesting: It turns out that resilience is not one of those “you-either-got-it-or-you-don’t” deals: It can be learned. This is great news, since resilience is linked to high levels of success and life satisfaction.

Here are some tips to being more resilient:

  • Look for a positive meaning in crisis and challenge.  Ask “What am I to learn from this?” or “Now that I’ve experienced this, how can I use my knowledge to help others or get closer to my goal?”  If a door has closed, look for doors that may have opened as a result.  It may help you to think of another psychology concept, that of “post-traumatic growth,” a term that refers to the fact that crises and setbacks often lead to learning, clarity, and growth.  In the same way that scar tissue is stronger than tissue that has never been damaged, crises often make us stronger and set us on a clearer path.
  • Remind yourself of past challenges you have coped with – and what has worked for you in the past.  Consider what helped you be resilient at other times – and do more of that.
  • Gather a support system.  Approaching a challenge as part of a team boosts resiliency.  Your support system can help you to manage strong feelings and impulses and help you make a plan.  Researchers found faith to be an extremely effective team member.  Role models can be very helpful, too: Look for people who have experienced the same set of rapids you are navigating, who believe in you, or who view challenges as growth opportunities.  Other excellent teammates include psychotherapists, pets, and books.
  • Make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.  Making a realistic plan helps you to view the challenge as more manageable, and every time you complete a step, your confidence in your ability to deal with the challenge will grow.
  • Look for joy!  Celebrate birthdays and achievements, share humor, and revel in any respite you find.
  • When steering around the rapids is not an option, make a short list of your most important values and try to live them as you ride the waves.

Hope is also a key component to resilience.  How convenient that psychological research gives us reason to hope: We often can’t control or predict the rapids, but we now know we can get better at managing them – no matter how old we are.

Living a Values-based Life
Forgiveness, Part 2: Forgiving Ourselves
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