Mental Resilience: Bouncing Back From Adversity
"We're all more capable than we think we are." – Sel Ledermen, PhD
"The sun will come out tomorrow."
"When life hands you lemons, make lemonade."
"Put on a happy face."
Nothing is more annoying than a handful of trite clichés when you are battling adversity and would really prefer a little sympathy, but these Pollyanna-like clichés point out that it is far healthier to develop the ability to bounce back from adversity than it is to remain mired in misfortune.
The Power of Resilience
Sel Ledermen, PhD, a Manhattan psychologist, defines resilience as "the ability to decide that you want to be your best and that you can deal constructively with the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." He points out that in bouncing back from adversity, you may not get exactly where you want to be. Instead, Ledermen says that resilience is the ability to decide that no matter what happens to you, you are going to learn from it. "Resilient people accept responsibility for their lives and their choices, and they understand what's gone wrong so they can fix it."
Resilient people are better able to cope with what life dishes out because they learn to deal with present stressors as well as future adversity, adds Robin Dee Post, PhD, a Denver psychologist. They are able to bounce back from stresses in an adaptive, active, healthy way, Post explains. They feel effective and powerful, not helpless. After dealing with loss, trauma
stress, resilient people can refocus on what is ahead without feeling overwhelmed or allowing past events to have a negative impact.
A Lesson in Resilience
My husband and I learned the value of resilience first-hand when a business merger cost him his job just weeks after his company had transferred us to a new location hundreds of miles away from our friends and family.
We suddenly found ourselves alternately dazed, despairing, and panicked with three small children, a stack of bills, no health insurance, no income, and no idea how we would manage. Sleep became a desperately needed, yet elusive, escape. We alternated between a sense of dread and a sense of hopelessness as we sought ways for him to get his job back. I developed a bad case of bronchitis
; he became listless and lethargic. We were both irritable and moody.
It was not until we began to look forward rather than back that the unbearable weight began to lift. Focusing on opportunities rather than on our loss allowed us to begin moving ahead. We began setting new goals. We re-evaluated our priorities. This made things infinitely better for our entire family.
It has been a long, nerve-wracking, and sometimes frightening climb. We have taken missteps here and there, but we have learned and grown more in the last decades than we ever would have thought possible during those first, horrible months. Since then, we have waded through smaller financial setbacks and subsequent career decisions. We are currently rearranging our lives to cope with a loved one's sudden and devastating disability. Our parenting skills are constantly challenged by two teenagers and a pre-adolescent. The lessons in resilience we learned all those years ago are still helping us cope today.
Elements of Resilience
Forging ahead is just one part of resilience, Ledermen explains. Learning, religious beliefs, moral beliefs, and family beliefs are all essential elements of resilience, he explains.
Ledermen believes that resilience can be learned, although some people may be more innately resilient than others and that life experiences contribute to our innate degree of resilience. It is important not to blame ourselves for mistakes we have made along the way. "We're all more capable than we think we are," he says, "but we're also all capable of screwing up."
People Who Do Not Bounce Back
Non-resilient people tend to dwell on their problems, may be less prepared to handle future problems, and will likely be overwhelmed, perhaps to the point where they turn to escapes, like alcohol
, or develop psychiatric problems, Post says. The physical results of being unable to cope with adversity include
, passivity, and the tendency to blame others for whatever ails you.
Resilience and Relationships
Post says that resilient people may be more comfortable in their personal relationships because their resilience helps them cope with problems without dwelling on them. Those who are less resilient are more likely to stack up problems and feel resentful. However, simply being accommodating in relationships with others does not indicate resilience, she says. Truly resilient people deal with problems and then move on.
We can help our children become resilient by modeling resilience for them. "Parents who are resilient are better able to cope with problems as they arise and to be more effective as role models," Post says. "They also cope better with outside stressors, allowing them to be more effective parents."
She suggests teaching children coping skills that help them feel effective, assertive, and powerful. She adds that it is particularly important for teens to be resilient. "They are facing one of the hardest life tasks—becoming an independent adult."
The Other Shoe
The initial elation of having successfully survived and moved beyond a traumatic experience whether it be a health problem, the loss of a loved one, a job, a relationship, or other devastating event is often diminished by a feeling of "waiting for the other shoe to drop."
Indeed, my husband and I have reached the point where we are almost superstitious about enjoying or even discussing how far we have come over the last ten years. We feel that to do so would be to "tempt the fates." In fact, when we recently learned that our 11-year-old car had gasped its last breath and would have to be replaced, we wondered if the anticipated proverbial "other shoe" had finally dropped. We are still waiting and watching, only half-jokingly, for that shoe. Ledermen says this fear is a form of survivor's guilt. It is a perfectly normal fear, adds Post, but if preoccupation with it interferes with your life, professional help is available.
Hanging in There
All of us face adversity in one form or another throughout a lifetime. The ability to deal with it, process it, and get our lives back on track defines, to a large degree, who we are and who we are capable of becoming. If you find the lemons/lemonade metaphor for resilience too much of a clichés, that is okay. Perhaps you would rather post this thought on your bathroom mirror: "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger."
Mental Health America
National Institute of Mental Health
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association