When life knocks you down, what do you do? Do you let it get you down and give up, or do you stand back up and keep going? You stand back up! You keep going. Because you are a resilient human being.
Whether you’re facing a global or personal crisis—or a mix of both—building resilience can help you cope with stress, overcome adversity, and enjoy the better days to come.
Whether the source of disruption in your life is a global emergency or a personal tragedy—or both—living through difficult times can take a heavy toll on your mood, health, and outlook. It can leave you feeling helpless and overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. You may be painfully grieving all that you’ve lost and are not sure how to move on with your life.
While there’s no way to avoid adversity, there are ways to help smooth the rough waters and regain a sense of control. Resilience is the ability to cope with the loss, change, and trauma that have been inevitable parts of life even before these extraordinary times. Building resilience can help you better adapt to life-changing events, cope with turbulent times, and bounce back from hardship and tragedy.
Why do some people seem to be better able to cope in these troubling times than others? While everyone’s situation is different, it is true that people with resilience tend to have a higher tolerance for the emotional distress generated by hard times. The more resilient you are, the better you’re able to tolerate the feelings of stress, anxiety, and sadness that accompany trauma and adversity—and find a way to rebound from setbacks.
If you’re more sensitive to emotional distress and are finding it difficult to cope with hardship or adversity, it’s important not to think of it as some kind of character flaw. Resilience isn’t a macho quality and it isn’t fixed; it’s an ongoing process that requires effort to build and maintain over time.
Drawing on past experiences can help you cope with the challenges you’re facing today. Even if you’ve struggled to cope with adversity in the past, you may at least be able to recognize some of the ways of coping that DON’T help, such as trying to numb your feelings with drugs or alcohol. While it’s often difficult to imagine anything good coming out of traumatic experiences, building resilience can help you find any positives in the difficulties you’ve faced. Surviving hardships can teach you important things about yourself and the world around you, strengthen your resolve, deepen your empathy, and in time enable you to evolve and grow as a human being.
Change is an inevitable part of life and many aspects of the changing world are outside your individual control. You can’t control the spread of a virus, for example, the pace of social change, or how the economy will recover. While it can be tough to acknowledge, railing against events or circumstances outside your control will only drain you of energy and leave you feeling anxious and hopeless. Accepting your situation, on the other hand, can free you up to devote your energy to the things that you do have control over.
Focus on things within your control. Make a list of all the things you can’t control and give yourself permission to stop worrying about them. Instead, focus on the action that you can take. If you’re unemployed, you can’t control whether the ideal job appears in the wants ads or whether an employer will grant you an interview. But you can control how much time and effort you put into searching for work or brushing up on your skills. Similarly, if a loved one is facing a life-threatening illness, you may have to relinquish control to the medical experts, but you can still focus on providing your loved one with as much emotional support as possible.
Accept change by looking to your past. Looking back at examples where you’ve coped with uncertainty and change before can help you accept your current situation. Perhaps you suffered a painful breakup in the past and were eventually able to move on with your life, or you lost a job and ended up finding a better one? Examining your past successes can also help you see past the current crisis and derive some confidence that you’ll be able to pull through again.
It’s tempting to believe that the best way to get through hard times is by ignoring painful emotions and “putting on a brave face”. But unpleasant emotions exist whether you choose to acknowledge them or not. Trying to prevent your emotions from surfacing will only fuel your stress, delay acceptance of your new situation, and prevent you from moving on.
By allowing yourself to feel your emotions, you’ll find that even the most intense, upsetting feelings will pass, the trauma of these tough times will start to fade, and you’ll be able to find a path forward. Undergoing tough times usually involves some kind of loss. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or the loss of your old life, it’s important you allow yourself the opportunity to grieve. Only by facing your grief—acknowledging and mourning your losses—will you be able to heal and eventually move on with your life.
One of the reasons why the coronavirus pandemic hit many of us so hard is that lockdown and quarantine isolated us from other people, often forcing us to bottle up how we’re feeling. Connecting with friends and family when you’re going through tough times can help ease stress, boost your mood, and make sense of all the change and disruption. Instead of feeling like you’re facing your problems alone, you can draw strength and build resilience from having others to lean on.
The people you reach out to don’t need to have answers to the problems you’re facing; they just need to be willing to listen to you without judging. In fact, what you talk about or the words used are often unimportant. It’s the human connection—eye contact, a smile, or a hug—that can make all the difference to how you’re feeling.
Prioritize relationships, even in times of social distancing. Nothing carries the same health benefits as connecting face-to-face with someone who is caring and empathetic. These days, however, it’s not always possible to see friends and loved ones in person. If you’re kept apart by quarantine, social distancing, or travel restrictions, reach out to others via phone, video chat, or social media.
Living through tough times can be both mentally and physically draining. Constantly being in a heightened state of stress can lead to serious health problems, impact your immune and digestive systems, increase your risk of heart attack and stroke, and lead to burnout, a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion.
Since the body and mind are so closely linked, investing in self-care is an important part of building resilience and getting through times of great stress. When your body feels strong and healthy so, too, will your mind. While circumstances may limit some of your usual healthy habits, there are still plenty of ways to care for yourself.
Get enough exercise. When you’re dealing with chronic stress, you likely carry it somewhere in your body. Maybe your muscles are tense, you have back or neck pain, frequent headaches, insomnia, heartburn, or an upset stomach? Getting regular exercise not only releases powerful endorphins in the brain to improve your mood, but it can also help to ease tension in the body and counteract the physical symptoms of stress. Even if you can’t go to a gym or exercise in public, there are effective ways to stay active at home.
Eat well. There are no specific foods that can help build resilience and weather tough times. Rather, it’s your overall dietary pattern that’s important. Eating lots of processed and takeout food can take a toll on your brain and mood, sapping your energy, and weakening your immune system. A healthy diet, on the other hand—one that’s low in sugar and rich in healthy fats—can give you the energy and focus to tackle the challenges you’re facing.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by frightening headlines or consumed by the crisis you’re facing. But whatever your circumstances, it doesn’t have to define you as a person. You’re not your crisis. By pursuing activities that bring purpose and meaning to your life, you can keep your problems in perspective, prevent them from overwhelming you, and maintain your identity.
Everyone is different so we all have different ways of experiencing purpose and meaning. Don’t limit yourself by others’ expectations; pursue activities that are important to you and add satisfaction to your life. Give help to others. When you’re in the midst of a crisis, it’s common to feel powerless and helpless. By proactively helping others, you can regain a sense of control as well as find purpose in your life. In fact, giving support can be just as beneficial as receiving support. Try volunteering, helping others in your neighborhood, giving blood, donating to a charity, or marching for a cause that’s important to you.
Be kind to yourself. We’re all going through a lot at the moment and everyone adjusts to change and upheaval differently. Don’t criticize your coping skills or beat yourself up for every mistake you make. Self-compassion is an important part of building resilience, so be good to yourself.
“Sometimes carrying on, just carrying on, is the superhuman achievement.” –Albert Camus