Last week we considered how we can become increasingly resilient in the face of adversity. For those of us who are not naturally resilient it can be crucial to know what will assist us in responding to stress, hardship, loss and crisis. We want confidence in being able to weather the storms of life; we don’t want to break; instead we want to know how we can bounce back.
Meredith, Sherbourne and Gaillot set out to list the factors that promote psychological resilience in the U.S. Military via a comprehensive review. They analysed nine years of published scientific findings, which they rated and grouped. They then had eight academic experts on resilience rate the various factors in importance and submit general recommendations. There was little variation in the experts’ ratings, meaning that all the factors Meredith and colleagues listed are valid and effective elements in responding resiliently to stress. Below I will discuss them at the level at which they occur, i.e. individual, family and community. We will begin with the individual level.
An important resilience factor is positive thinking. This is about applying our knowledge: our ability to process information and endeavour to make sense out of our experiences. It means having a positive outlook and expecting a good outcome. Thinking positively includes changing our preferences as we review, re-frame, re-appraise and re-focus in difficult times. It’s about mental flexibility. It is also about preparing ourselves psychologically.1 For example, some people like to stick affirmations on their fridge, others become experts in the field that presents the challenge (like my friends who have a daughter suffering from anorexia), others make a conscious decision to be positive. Recently, I met a widow whose husband had been a super-fit and passionate runner. Out of the blue he died of a massive heart attack, only weeks before his retirement. They had been married for 35 years, and planning for their retirement life had been in full swing. Chris was devastated; she felt cheated out of her future. But she is a resilient type who eventually said to herself: “Life is to be enjoyed. My husband would not have wanted me to lose the plot. I have to get up and make the best out of this situation.” She made a decision to live as well as she could.
Another crucial resilience factor is positive affect: It means feeling hopeful, optimistic, enthusiastic, alert and active, and experiencing positive emotions, as discussed last week. It includes being flexible toward changes and having a sense of humour about one’s challenge(s).2 Naturally, we are not all comedians like Steve Hughes, who turned his relationship break-up into a hilarious stand-up routine. When misfortune befalls us there is often a great deal to cry about and seemingly nothing to laugh about. The advice to respond to a significant blow with optimism and hopefulness can seem impossible to follow. Shattered, confused and hurt, we are more likely to want to hide, despair, give up or bellow about the injustice of life. However, if we wish to bounce back and not break, we need to do our best to muster some positive affect.
In Blog Post 3 we learned that negative thoughts and negative feelings will call each other forth, that they attract and feed on each other. Remember that they always want to boogie together. Also keep in mind that in order to feel positive emotions we need to engage in actions that allow us to sincerely feel them. For our psychological wellbeing, a dedication to experiencing positive emotions and thinking positively during crisis is crucial.
Another factor contributing to resilience is behavioural control, our commitment to be the master of our reactions to the stressful event. It is about monitoring, evaluating and changing our reactions in order to achieve a goal.3 That goal might be, for example, to remain true to a personal aspiration to be calm, fair, and loving in a separation (something I set out to do of late), or to look after oneself really well in times of sickness. It is about managing our response, seeking to grow with the challenge and meeting it with a wish to keep our composure.
Another factor that supports resilience is realism. This is about having a clear perception of what can be controlled, and accepting what cannot be controlled. It includes mastering our expectations and being realistic in what can be achieved. It means retaining our self-worth and confidence despite the adverse event.4 For example, we might be tempted to feel like a looser if we lose our job. It is important to remind ourselves that having been made redundant does not translate to us having been bad at the job. Our redundancy might simply be the result of the company targeting our age group or department. And in the job hunting that follows, the rejections we are subjected to might simply be a sign of the economy, not our credentials.
Then there is also altruism, which makes us feel good about ourselves. It is the selfless concern for others’ welfare and the motivation to be of assistance to other people.5 I have a friend who lost his job some time ago, who has been helping me selflessly and tirelessly in the last months. Sometimes I feel guilty about accepting his awesome help, yet this piece of research makes it a little bit easier to receive it. May the help given translate into bucketfuls of resilience for my generous friend!
Lastly, there is physical fitness. It supports our body’s ability to function well in the various areas of our lives.6 I said it before but I will say it again: exercise is a happiness pill. When life is being mean, make exercise a regular feature of your life.
All of the above will help you cope with and bounce back from trauma, hardship and crisis. Use them all and use them often, and you will find they help you get through your hard patch.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2016