Resilience may be defined as ‘the capacity to adapt to and recover from adversities and difficult situations’ and it suggests ‘the presence of flexibility and elasticity that allows for an adjustment to misfortune and challenge’.
Resilience may be understood as a dynamic process that is the opposite of the rigid brittle response we can sometimes adopt when plunged into the uncertainty of an unexpected and painful life event. There can be a tendency to retreat, to withdraw and close down. Feeling under-resourced to cope we can lapse into feelings of despair and hopelessness. But resilience can be encouraged and nurtured and is in fact a skill that can grow and develop.
Covid-19 has reminded us that, of course, we do not have a crystal ball and we cannot predict the future and life challenges that lurk around the corner. But we have been particularly blindsided by the unexpected turmoil caused by the pandemic and we have had to adjust to abrupt changes in plans and lifestyle. The virus itself, and the restrictions imposed by the lockdowns, have left us facing loss at every turn. Tragically, some people are grief-stricken by the death or illness of a loved one. Some have been confronted by the panic of redundancy and financial insecurity. There has been the separation from family, friends, colleagues and our communities. Some are exhausted and worn down by their work in the NHS and other key-worker occupations. We have been side-swiped by ferocious nature and impact of the virus and can feel left without a road map to navigate our way through.
We might be varyingly predisposed for resilience – depending on life history, family background, past events and traumas. We have varying degrees of sensitivity to change, uncertainty and crisis. We can be disorientated and challenged at different points and in different ways. Trying to deal with the problems associated with the pandemic can be exhausting.
However, when buffeted by daily demands, we all need intentionality and constant effort to maintain a steady emotional centre of gravity. We need to temper ideas of mastery and control and, to avoid feeling overwhelmed, focus instead on managing stress and anxiety. The resilience that is necessary to help us deal with present events does not come from mental toughness but is developed by daily strategies that encourage mental flexibility. We need to pay attention to, and allocate time to, taking care of the three branches of human resilience: psychological resilience, emotional resilience, physical resilience
I am not advocating an abdication of responsibilities, but I want to challenge the idea that self-care is selfish. I try to encourage self-compassion in my clients, as well as self-awareness, acceptance and mindfulness, and try to prioritise strategies that will strengthen well-being.
SarahDiGiulio & Elizabeth Millard’s article is worth reading for its 53 tips:
Selda Koydemir in ‘How to be Resilient’ says that ‘When you have more than one coping and emotion-regulation tool in your pocket, and you’re willing to switch strategies according to what works, you’re more likely to deal well with adversity and grow through it… It’s about identifying your situation, the effect it’s having on you and your emotions, and being creative about how to deal with it.’ Discovering the most effective methods for the regulation of difficult emotions is a step towards maintaining emotional stability and agency when faced with adversity. A ‘pick-and-mix’ resource bank of strategies to manage stress may prove more useful than attempting to eliminate any negative feelings.
Very often we turn to the quick fix of self-medicating with alcohol, drugs or junk food to blunt a low mood but this can end up eroding, not encouraging, confidence and control. One healthier alternative can be recording and reflecting on our values and personal strengths. What are the qualities which have allowed us to overcome problems in the past? When were we our best selves? Remembering the times when we showed grit, determination and courage. The times we were generous, kind, loving and supportive. We can undervalue our strengths and minimise our own capacity to live well.
Try taking the VIA Character Strengths Survey (take the survey here) which is a free assessment of your top strengths and pin the results proudly on your fridge. Or ask a partner or friend to list the qualities they value in you as a person. Do those parts of you lie hidden and feel hard to access at the moment? What will allow them to emerge and be of use?
They may feel insignificant but start a list of those things that are in your control today. Set a goal for the next hour, the next half a day. What feels manageable? Accept and focus on what is within your control and what is not.
Resilience is not about being bulletproof and it is important to practice self-acceptance and learn to call on external resources as well as our inner strengths. Our levels of energy and achievement may vary daily and we are not failing if we do not meet an arbitrary goal in the face of ever-changing restrictions and set-backs. We might not recover quickly and we might need to lean on others and that is fine. We might hurt and need support and that is fine too. No one shoe fits all. Quieten the harsh critical inner voice, the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘oughts’, and allow the gentler more hopeful parts of you to be heard.
Selda Koydemir again: ‘Understanding the complex dynamic nature of resilience is important because it shows that there is no magic pill to make you resilient.’ It is not a single trait but a set of behaviours, thoughts, and beliefs uniquely shaped by each person. Each individual has their own method of coping with distress and will travel at their own pace of recovery from an adversity. Compassion!