Psychological resilience is the ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis or to return to pre-crisis status quickly. Resilience exists when the person uses "mental processes and behaviours in promoting personal assets and protecting self from the potential negative effects of stressors"
Why do some people cope better in difficult situations than others? Are they just born differently? Are some people just "stronger" than others? Contrary to conventional wisdom, resilience is not a fixed quality that we have or don't have. Rather, it's a set of coping strategies and mental processes that can be developed, cultivated and fostered.
"Resilience is not a characteristic gifted to some individuals and not others. The key here is that resilience is not a passive quality, but an active process. How we approach life, and everything it can throw at us, has a massive impact on our experience."
So the good news is that resilience is a muscle that can be exercised, strengthened and consciously cultivated, just like most emotional intelligence skills. Anyone can learn to develop their sense of resilience. I've spent the last 20 + years working on strengthening my capacity to handle fear, navigate change, be more adaptive and respond to challenges and adversity more resourcefully. In the process I've learned how to be braver, bounce back quicker and to change the way I interpret what happens to me for the better.
Let me tell you what I have learnt in a nutshell about cultivating resilience:
1.) The Stories We Tell Ourselves Matter
As we go through the minutes, hours and days of our life we are silently curating a constant internal narrative. This internal narrator commentates on everything that happens to us. It interprets events, it jumps to conclusions, it "catastrophises", it assumes, it over-estimates, it-underestimates, it distorts, it deletes, it amplifies...you get the picture. We all possess this internal narrator/commentary service yet it is mostly unconscious, sitting in the background silently assessing everything that happens to us. Cognitive therapy invites us to pay attention to this inner voice and examine how it is interpreting what happens to us and what particular language we use to express it. The words matter.
Thought diaries are a good way to start noticing your thoughts and determining whether they are helpful or unhelpful. Often we can make small tweaks to our stories to significantly change the way we experience life.
The stories we tell about what happens to us matter! It's important to write an empowering narrative to your life, to notice the good stuff and to choose how you interpret what happens to you. It takes some conscious effort initially, but like any habit, after a while it can become unconscious and natural.
It is not what happens to us that affects our experience, it is what we think about what happens to us
that affects our experience
(9 Year Old Ezra Frech discusses in this video how he focuses on what he does have, rather than what he doesn't).
2.) Be Willing to Experience Discomfort/Distress
Emotional distress is a part of life. "Negative" emotions such as sadness, frustration, discomfort, anger and fear are an inevitable part of being human. Being willing to, and learning how to tolerate discomfort is an important skill to develop in order to cultivate a more full and positive life.
"Distress intolerance is a perceived inability to fully experience unpleasant, aversive or uncomfortable emotions, and is accompanied by a desperate need to escape the uncomfortable emotions. We begin to feel distressed when we evaluate our emotional experience as aversive. Distress intolerant beliefs are central to this problem, as people commonly hold beliefs that experiencing negative emotional will be unbearable or lead to disastrous consequences." - Centre for Clinical Interventions
Examples of distress intolerant beliefs include the following types of statements:
I can't handle feeling distressed or upset - I must get rid of this feeling
I would do anything to stop feeling distressed or upset - I can't stand this
My feelings of distress are so intense they completely take over - I can't cope with this
Feeling uncomfortable, anxious, scared or nervous is unbearable
When working with clients around handling difficult situations or adverse conditions, a key intervention strategy is installing more resourceful beliefs and thought patterns so that the individual can approach the situation differently and build their capacity to cope/endure. This can include assessing expectations of how people think things "should" be, as opposed to allowing themselves to experience how they are.
When faced with potentially distressing or uncomfortable situations we are also granted with a choice of how we respond. We can choose to:
b) Ignore/Numb (e.g. alcohol, drugs, binge eating)
c) Seek Reassurance / Freeze / Over-Analyse
d) Confront the situation
When we recognise that we have choice, this empowers us to feel stronger in the face of adversity. I provide clients with cognitive strategies to change their thinking, which in turn helps them change how they feel and how they behave. Building distress tolerance and leaning into discomfort is a core life skill for all of us.
3.) Develop a Range of Coping Strategies
There are many ways that people can build mental, physical and emotional resilience. Other strategies can include:
Adopting a "Growth Mindset"
Maintaining healthy physical, mental and emotional health
Permitting vulnerability and leaning into emotional discomfort
Asking for help
Maintaining social connections/community
Living with purpose and meaning
Having a sense of humour
Practicing optimism and gratitude
Building resilience is like developing any other skill, it just takes a little deliberate action, practice/repetition, discipline and the conscious choice to form more helpful habits.