Resilience: How to bounce back from setbacks

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Resilience: How to bounce back from setbacks

“On the other side of a storm is the strength that comes from having navigated through it. Raise your sail and begin.”
– Gregory S. Williams

Life is tough – all of us experience difficult events that we struggle to cope with: The death of a loved one, loss of a job, serious illness, failing of subjects, unemployment, financial burdens, rape and other traumatic events. These are all examples of very challenging life experiences.  Many people react to such circumstances with a flood of strong emotions and a sense of uncertainty.

What enables some people to bear such burdens and rise again despite immense challenges? It involves resilience, the ability to adapt to a highly stressful situation or crisis. Resilient people know how to cope despite setbacks, or barriers, or limited resources


“A good half of the art of living is resilience.”
–  Alain de Botton


The bounce-back can be explained by comparing it to an elastic piece, which can be stretched and bend and returns to its standard size after being let go. A person with a back injury that learns to walk again is an example of resilience. (American Psychological Association)

Resilience is a psychological strength. We are not born with it – we learn it.

It involves the

  • capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
  • A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
  • Skills in communication and problem-solving.
  • the capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

How do you know if you have resilience?

You believe in yourself. You have a clear sense of your ability and potential without being overconfident. You are a self-efficient person who can access resources to get the help you need when you need it.

If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. Thich Nhat Hanh


You can see what is possible. You have an optimistic outlook on life and expect good things to come from the world and other people. If you genuinely believe that there are nothing and no one good left, you won’t be able to function, let alone thrive.

Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny. C.S. Lewis

You have control over your impulses and feelings. You can allow yourself to experience intense emotions, yet you also know when you may need to avoid experiencing emotions to continue functioning. Resilient persons don’t combust efficiently – they can keep their cool. If you lose your cool and give in to emotions like despair or anger, you have switched to your reptilian brain that puts you into a fight, flight or freeze mode. The part of the brain that helps you being resilient is your frontal lobe. Thinking, logic, language, intuition and self-awareness are centred in the frontal lobe or cortex.

You aim high and reach out.  It is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of resilience. You can step forward and take action to deal with your problems and meet daily living demands, and you can also step back to rest and re-energize yourself. A resilient person doesn’t curl up and die when facing significant issues.


How can I build and develop my resilience

Make connections. Many studies show that the primary factor instability is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Make sure to connect with family, friends, support groups, faith-based organisations or society and accept their help to get through your tough time. It is challenging to get through adversity alone.

Resilient people view difficulty as a challenge, not as a paralysing event. Avoid seeing crises as overwhelming problems. You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. It helps to look at the bigger picture, the future and how circumstances can change. Often in a crisis, we get stuck in the issue and can’t make plans around it. Other people might be of help – to help us see what is possible if we take a step back from the problem.

There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its seed, its lesson on how to improve your performance the next time. Og Mandino

Resilient people accept that change is a part of living and that they cannot control everything. It means we need to focus on the events and situations that we can control. It is empowering and builds confidence. Some goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse conditions. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter. On the contrary, those who spend time worrying about uncontrollable events can often feel lost, helpless, and powerless to take action.

Resilient people are committed to their lives and goals, and they have a compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning. Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward your goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?” Resilient people commit to their relationships, their friendships, the causes they care about, and their religious or spiritual beliefs.

Take decisive actions. Get up and decide one step-at-a-time what you can do on this day to head towards a solution and a better future.  Take decisive steps, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would go away.

Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in respect due to their struggle with loss. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship have reported better relationships, a greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, increased self-worth, a more developed spirituality and heightened appreciation for life.

“Sometimes life takes you into a dark place where you feel it’s impossible to breathe. You think you’ve been buried, but don’t give up, because if truth be told, you’ve actually been planted.”

Karen Gibbs


Nurture a positive view of yourself. Resilient people never think of themselves as victims. Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems, and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.

Keep things in perspective. Even when facing harrowing events, consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.

Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good thing will happen in your life. Try visualising what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear. Remember: ‘’This too shall pass.’’

Take care of yourself by being kind to yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations requiring resilience.


There are more ways in which you could strengthen your resilience. It differs from individual to individual. What works for you?

You can write about your trauma and share your deepest feelings and emotions on paper.

Meditation and spiritual practices help some people build connections and restore hope.

You can seek help beyond family and friends, for example.

  • Join self-help or community groups
  • Read books about your issues.
  • Online resources – websites can be a valuable source of ideas.

How can I stop my negative thoughts and thinking patterns?

People with little or no resilience will often think up the worst-case scenario possible. They believe everything is their fault. It can become a way of thinking that paralyses you. These negative messages we create in our heads are also called cognitive distortions.  Cognitive distortions are inaccurate thoughts that reinforce negative thought patterns or emotions. They are wrong ways of thinking that convince us of a reality that is not true, and that drags us down.

There are a few central cognitive distortions that you need to know about and perhaps recognise in yourself:

Filtering: it refers to how many of us can somehow ignore all of the positive and good things in our life and focus solely on the negative. It can be far too easy to dwell on a single negative aspect and ignore many good things.

‘’Black and White Thinking’’: is all about seeing black and white only, with no grey shades. It is all-or-nothing thinking, with no room for complexity or nuance. If you don’t perform correctly in one area, you may see yourself as a total failure instead of merely unskilled in one spot.

Over-generalization: is taking a single incident or point in time and using it as the sole piece of evidence for a broad general conclusion. For example – you went for a job interview. It was a bad interview, and you didn’t get the job. Now you assume you are bad at talks – period.

Jumping to conclusions: refers to the tendency to be sure of something without any evidence at all. For example, you belief someone dislikes you without the flimsiest of proof.

Blaming: is when we assign our responsibility for an outcome by blaming others for what goes wrong.

Crazy-making: When confronted by others, they tell them they are wrong and off-track with their observation – thereby telling them they can’t trust their perceptions.

Compartmentalising: The person divides life in compartments, where one has nothing to do with the rest. It is a way of keeping thoughts, feelings and behaviours separate from others’ parts of your life.

Hopeless & helplessness: The person believes nothing can improve the situation and feels all is lost.

The beliefs people have about themselves and the world around them come in 2 categories

1.            Sensible or rational thoughts: they are right; they make sense or are helpful.

2.            Foolish or irrational thoughts: these are untrue; don’t make sense or are not useful.

It is essential to become aware of these in your own life and question these thoughts and beliefs. Learn to separate them. It requires thinking before speaking. Your goal is to stop negative thinking and practice positive rational thinking. To counter negative thoughts, you can turn them into a question. Here are a few examples

Irrational thought: My boss never liked my work

Question: Has my boss never liked my work?

Rational Answer: My boss is okay with most of my work, but didn’t like the work I did on that project.

Resilient people don’t see themselves as total failures just because they performed poorly in one area.


Irrational thought: I am no good at anything because I can’t do my job.

Question: Am I not good at anything?

Rational Answer: I can do many things, but I messed that project up because I didn’t get the support I needed to finish that project successfully.

Resilient people don’t let setbacks or bad events affect other unrelated areas of their lives.


Irrational thought: I am useless

Question: Am I useless?

Rational Answer: I value my family and friends in things I do and mean to them and therefore cannot say that I am useless.

Resilient people do not focus on the negative aspects solely – they also see the good and positive in their lives.


Exercise for you:

Start to write down your negative thoughts. Question every thought. Write down the rational review and re-read them if the idea pops up again. Practice to banish negative thoughts and to instead think positive thoughts that will help you get ahead.


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Resources: 

https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience

https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-know-if-youre-truly-resilient/

https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/resilience.htm

https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/cognitive-distortion-thinking-that-drags-you-down/

 

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