Managing adversity

We all hit periods in our life where we are struck with varying degrees of adversity and stress.  I have just had my own personal ‘annus horribilis’ with a set of highly demanding challenges to negotiate.  We increasingly hear the word ‘resilient’ used to describe that capacity to manage ourselves during these periods. Though some people seem to be born with the ability to overcome setbacks with relative ease, it is increasingly seen to be much more of a learned trait.  Children learn about this quality in primary school and it is often seen to be an integral contributor towards success and positive well-being.  To make it through the tough times requires that we pay attention to the complexities of our own experiences, listen to our emotions, and be willing to learn from disappointment and failure as well as success and motivation.

We all have the capacity or trait of resilience which helps us endure changes as well as learning, growing and thriving in it.  We do, however, have to work against our natural predisposition to resist change.  Resilience is multilayered and is about more than believing in oneself. It is made up of behaviours, thoughts and actions that are learned and developed.

Resilience word on wooden table

We can learn to be more resilient when we are confronted with challenging times.  Here are some tips.

A             Accepting reality
Resilient people will always ensure that they recognise the difficulty that they are confronted with.  Our natural tendency when faced with a tough challenge may be one of denial, anger or other defences.  As soon as we start to recognise, acknowledge and accept a situation for what it is, we may be able to manage it better and move forwards.

B             Managing emotions
Resilient people hold a positive outlook and will be supportive towards themselves, realising that their feelings are temporary and linked to the ‘stressor’. In most cases, we can remind ourselves we have often overcome setbacks in the past and so can do the same again. Resilient people are able to appreciate difficult situations, stay calm and evaluate rationally so they can plan and respond appropriately. Of course, we are human and this is often not realistic but Al Siebert in his book ‘The Survivor Personality’ reflected how the best survivors spend almost no time, particularly in emergencies, getting upset or feeling distressed.

C             Mental fortitude
Resilient people are focused on dealing with the ‘problem’ and even when difficulties are intense and things may appear not to be working out, they remain creative and thoughtful in planning for recovering from the challenges.  Resilient people have to find that tough inner strength even when stresses are high.  They almost need to create an attitude that will only get stronger as the problems appear more taxing. I always think back to the Billy Ocean song from the mid 1980s ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’.  I am sure I am not the only person who somehow returns to the song’s clichéd yet potent lyrical message.

D             Keeping busy    
Resilient people find that staying busy not only allows one to get closer to one’s goals but it’s also the best way to stay calm.  If we are met with struggles in life, we can either wallow in negative feelings or we can distract ourselves and by doing so quell the emotions. Studies on traumatised people throughout the world show that work and keeping busy are important.

E              Giving
Resilient people will in tough times find the ways to care for others, given that sometimes being selfless is the best way to realise one’s strength. By taking on the role of caretaker we increase the feeling of  meaning in our lives. This helps people in the worst situations succeed.  A wonderful illustration of this comes from Leon Weliczker who survived the Holocaust and though his resourcefulness was a strong factor, he also believed that his need to protect his brother played a large role in ensuring his own survival. When we adopt this position, we remove ourselves from ourselves and become the ‘rescuer’ rather than the ‘victim’.

F            Managing strong relationships
Resilient people maintain strong and supportive relationships, both personal and professional ones. As a result, they have caring, nurturing people around them in times of crisis. Though our natural inclination may be withdraw from people, connecting with others and accepting help is another key ingredient of resilience.

G             Making a sense of meaning
Resilient people search for meaning. They have a clear sense of purpose, which helps them view setbacks from a broader perspective.  A positive, optimistic outlook will make you much more resilient. Remember that many of the problems you’ll face in life are temporary, and that you have overcome setbacks in the past.

H             Playful
Resilient people often find that a playful attitude can again make a painful challenge more bearable. One of the secrets of a painful challenge may paradoxically be to make the struggle into a game or puzzle. If the game or puzzle has repeated patterns, this can itself be powerful and end up stimulating neurochemicals in the brain.  Interestingly, neuroscience tells us that a structure within the basal ganglia in the brain is activated during feelings of safety, reward and positivity.

I             Letting go
Resilient people have outlets to express their emotions and let go of tension. There are countless possibilities including writing a journal, drawing, meditation, exercise and talking to a counsellor. It is easy to adopt a mindset that we have to channel all of our resources into the stress or challenge, when it is essential that we find ways to defuse and refuel.  It goes without saying that resilient people focus on their own physical health and ensure they eat a balanced diet, rest/sleep and exercise.


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