During this pandemic, I’ve read many ridiculous articles about how resilience means “bouncing through” our obstacles—as though riding out a pandemic is life on a trampoline. These Band-Aids of advice do nothing to encourage people to look for the deep healing they will need if they truly want to be resilient.
To say we bounce back from adversity implies we ping back and forth until we return to the person we were before. But once we find ourselves on solid ground after experiencing a crisis, we know that we are different. We have been through something significant; we’ve seen battle and have survived. We have the scars to prove it.
We don’t bounce back; we move through.
Resilience is the ability to adapt to our circumstances. When creatures adapt to their environment, it’s because they can leave something behind as well as learn something new. In short, they change.
We’ve seen a lot of adversity over the past few years, and it has begun to beat us down. It’s no secret that we are becoming less psychologically resilient. We are facing a growing mental health problem. Stress levels are through the roof—rates of anxiety and depression are at all-time highs.
While this may sound grim, it’s also important to remember that studies show a significant number of people have found ways to thrive and grow during hard times. These people found ways to become stronger because of a crisis, not despite it.
People can change how they see themselves when they explore feelings about life and find significance in relationships. This is called post-traumatic growth.
Resilience is not something that’s handed down at birth, like a crown or a trust fund. Psychologists have learned that resilience can be cultivated and grown, no matter your age, and it often thrives in the middle of a crisis. It’s something that is uniquely earned through courage and hard work.
1. Build a strong social network
A recent study on the stress of COVID-19 suggests that, when people are going through a crisis, many begin to wonder if life has lost some of its meaning. But, with social support, many experience markers of post-traumatic growth—a sense that they have helped others.
Other research suggests that it is critical to stay close to people who will support and encourage you. You need strong connections with others because when life knocks you on your butt—because if it’s not COVID-19, it will be something else—you’ll need an emotional safety net of people who can share the burden with you.
How to make it work for you: If life is great now, this is the time to build important relationships with honest friends. Because good times never last, and a strong social network reminds you that you’re not alone, that everyone struggles. When you talk out your fears and concerns, you’ll find that people who appear to exude the outward appearance of confidence and success often have the same fears and concerns that you do.
2. Rise to the higher cause
Selfish people who pursue hedonistic goals are the first to fall apart when a crisis hits because their lives are not tethered to anything of value. Maturity implies that we’ve discovered what we value, that we’ve developed an appreciation for the “why” behind the choices we make in life.
“He who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how’” —Friedrich Nietzsche
Adulthood means we understand what it means to rise to a higher cause. Mark Manson says, “When we’re focused on ourselves in a crisis, we become overwhelmed, and we panic. When we’re focused on others, we rise above our fear and act.”
In other words, we’ve finally realized that we are not our own God.
A study by the World Health Organization has found that religion, personal beliefs, and spirituality can give people a sense of purpose and value. Trauma can take us deeper into the spiritual world, and in turn, spirituality has been found to produce post-traumatic growth.
Similarly, research with Army National Guard Special Forces used the Headington Institute Resilience Inventory. They discovered that people who responded with statements like “My life is enriched by my spiritual beliefs” produced biomarkers that counter the effects of stress and trauma.
This research was complemented by a study of biological processes linking religiosity or spirituality to health, with the authors finding that meditation also enhanced biomarkers that would lead a Special Forces member to have an increased level of physiological and psychological resilience.
How to make it work for you: Take the time to develop spiritual, physical, and social support. Do it now. Don’t wait for trauma, setbacks, or adversity to show up before you start.
3. Control negative thoughts
I watched as my grandmother’s cranky horse stretched out his neck, bared his teeth, and bit down on her left breast so hard that she had to have a mastectomy. But she was resilient—she knew while she couldn’t control everything that came her way, she could control her response to it.
And that changes everything. When we gain control over our negative thoughts, they no longer have power.
One of the most common reactions to a negative event is to ask, “Why me?” While this is a logical question to ask, it gets us nowhere.
Nip that sorry-ass response as soon as it rears its ugly head. People who feel sorry for themselves tend to catastrophize their situation as if they are the only ones who have been dealt a bad hand.
It’s very fashionable right now to be a victim because we’ve become so coddled and spoiled that even the slightest inconvenience is enough to make us cry and dissolve into a pity puddle. Everything becomes a catastrophe, and we believe we should be compensated for our grievances if life is not easy.
Like lemmings led into the sea, we’ve been lulled into believing that we are not responsible for the outcomes of our behavior. Instead, others should be held responsible.
Immaturity has become a big problem in our society, but here’s the truth: If we control our thoughts, we control our behavior and, in turn, control the outcome. This, in sum, is the definition of mental toughness.
Resilience happens when we learn how to survive well when confronted with adversity. This produces psychological growth.
How to make it work for you: If you’re a parent, don’t coddle your kids. Let them fend for themselves because you won’t always be there to “make it all better.” If you’ve already developed a mentality of victimhood, shift your attitude. In her book What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger, Maxine Schnall compares the two mentalities this way (paraphrased):
4. Take mental breaks
It’s not always possible to take vacations in the middle of a crisis, so do the next best thing—take a mental break from your situation. When I’m stressed, I pull out my paints and find a large canvas. For me, the bigger the canvas, the more healing I feel.
We are all different. Some retreat into movies or books, while others spend more time in physical exercise. None of these Band-Aids will cure your situation, but they can help you from feeling overwhelmed by it. Then you can be more resilient when faced with adversity.
There are other benefits to giving your brain time off during a crisis. The brain is normally protected from the inflammation caused by stress, but under constant stress, the barrier breaks down. Inflammatory proteins can leak into the learning and memory regions of the brain (hippocampus). Resilience becomes much harder because this inflammation can adversely affect brain systems that lead to motivation and mental agility.
How to make it work for you: Regular exercise increases neurogenesis—the production of new brain cells—in the hippocampus. This will not only improve your brain health, but it will also improve your mood. Learn something new because it can lead to a cognitive reserve, a secret brain stash that helps to keep neural networks resilient. This can counter the negative effects of stress. Practice mindfulness because this allows you to take notice of and be curious about the world around you. Give your brain a break by spending time in the moment.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She is the author of Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles and Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.