As a psychologist, I often see people in the midst of life’s biggest traumas: divorce, death of a loved one, life-threatening illnesses or losing a job. During these times, people fear they won’t survive the pain they are experiencing, or that they will never be happy again. Most of us will experience times like this in life, and it is resilience, or lack of resilience, that will largely determine how we adapt.
Resilience is the process of adapting positively in the face of hardship, or “bouncing back” from tragedy. The concept has recently been the focus of several national research studies. Research studies are finding that those who do not have good resilience are much more likely to suffer long-term depression and anxiety, major health issues, increased drug and alcohol use and diminished life functioning after traumatic events. Conversely, those who do have good resilience eventually feel happy and stable again, and often feeling stronger, wiser, and more compassionate than ever.
Mental health professionals used to believe that resilience was in innate trait. In recent years, research has shown that resilience is learned and can be taught.
People often confuse resilience with “a stiff upper lip.” To the contrary, those with good resilience let themselves experience and express emotional distress and often falter for a time. During this time, though, resilient people rely on certain behaviors, thoughts and actions that eventually lead to healing.
Research indicates that the main factor in effective resilience is having supportive and caring relationships. It is important that the relationships are with a loving and trustworthy person. These types of relationships offer encouragement, role-modeling and nurturance. Research shows that children who are abused and have a loving and supportive adult relationship outside of their family do much better as adults than those who have no support. This is why programs such as The Mentor Center, CASA and Boys & Girls Club are so essential.
To improve your resilience, during difficult times, reach out to your close friends and accept their help and support. If you do not have these types of relationships, join civic groups, faith-based organizations or other groups that focus on positive and hopeful endeavors.
During tragedy, we often fear we will never surmount what has happened. It is normal to have thoughts like this, and, often, it is true that life will never be the same. When you are ready, focus on the idea that change is part of life and that in time, you will heal. Spend time focusing on what you can learn from the event; usually we grow in some way. Try to see the tragedy in the broader context of life; that most people experience some major tragedy in their life. Take good care of yourself: talk, cry, journal, eat healthy, exercise, don’t drink or smoke.
There are many self-help groups and support groups; it is helpful to be surrounded by people with similar experiences who can offer support and share information and ideas. Reading books can help you find what helped others and can be motivational. Therapy can be incredibly helpful by offering individualized support and insights. As your children grow up, as you watch them face challenges and hardships, teach them how to develop their own resilience.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.