Resilience. A flower growing on barbed wire.

Personal Resilience—Thriving During the Hard Times

The past year was challenging for many. Most of us had unprecedented circumstances that we had to deal with and adapt to. Some of us faced more dire circumstances than others, including the presence of COVID and the resulting illness and loss of loved ones; the specter of losing our livelihoods; and the stress and uncertainty related to hurricanes, wildfires, and the alarming political landscape. It was not a relaxing year. How do we cope when everything seems out of whack and there are multiple sources of anxiety and stress? How can we learn to be resilient? It’s certainly not a switch we can turn on when we need it. We have to take the time to process what we’re going through while at the same time figuring out how we can best adapt to the specific effects of what we’re experiencing. This takes reflection, perspective, and proactivity. It also takes courage—we have to face the new reality and accept the changes that are happening.

When we are struggling

What is resilience? According to this article from the American Psychological Association, it’s “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.” There’s a lot to think about here, but the key part of this definition is “adapting well,” which, in this context, means adjusting to challenging conditions. The nature of our adjustment to our challenges depends on the severity of those challenges, how much we’ve been forced to adjust in the past, and how much perspective we have. We all struggle from time to time, and we each have our own approaches to overcoming what we’re going through. We must face every challenge we have in the context of our emotional and social conditions and our own capacity for resilience.

The reciprocal nature of community and personal resilience

Each of us has a certain reliance on the communities in which we live. Our communities might include our families, our circle of friends and neighbors, and our institutional support structures (such as health care providers). In each of these, we should strive for a reciprocal relationship—one in which we’re both contributing to the community, and receiving benefits from the community. When we’re experiencing challenges or feeling stressed or anxious, we can turn to our communities to get help. This might come in the form of unemployment if we lost our jobs, therapy or other mental health support to address our emotional impacts, or a range of support we might get from our family or friends. We also should be ready and willing to serve our communities. In times of social strife, it’s important that we all find some way to contribute. We can do obvious things, like supporting our family and friends when they are in need, and we can research philanthropic or volunteer opportunities that contribute to our larger communities. It’s during times like these that we realize how much more resilient we are when we come together.

Incorporate gratitude into your approach to resilience

Gratitude must be a foundational aspect of how we think about becoming more resilient. To become more resilient, we must look for ways to adapt to changing conditions. Part of that adaptation is acknowledging the good in our lives, even while acknowledging the changes and challenges we’re experiencing. By building in time and energy to identify and reflect on everything in our lives that is healthy, connected, and beautiful, we will not only help our mental and emotional states, we will also be able to incorporate some of those positive elements into our approach to resilience. For example, if we’re struggling to cope with the ongoing pandemic and its effects (e.g. the illness or deaths of those close to us), and one of the things we’re grateful for is our connections to family and friends, we can build in the support of those communities in our approach to resilience. The parts of our lives for which we’re grateful can either be incorporated as an active part of our resilience, or used to help us build perspective—we are going through struggles, but we still have so much in our lives that is good. It’s not always easy to think about gratitude, especially if we’ve just endured a tragedy, but it must be a primary aspect of our response.

Our outlook is part of who we are

There are a lot of practical considerations when thinking about resilience, but they all depend on the nature of our outlook. If we can cultivate an open mind and a sense of optimism, we can get through almost anything. An outlook that allows us to both accept and process our emotional reactions to challenges and think rationally about our changing circumstances and how to constructively move forward will give us the capacity to adapt when we’re faced with tragedies and hurdles. It is challenging, of course, to remain optimistic and constructive when faced with ongoing adversity, and especially with circumstances related to institutionalized inequity or injustice. It’s very natural to get worn down and cynical about any efforts made toward improving one’s situation. We each have our own ability to remain resilient based on our individual circumstances, and no one should pass judgement on another’s ability to remain resilient without standing in their shoes. All this being said, the more we can maintain an outlook that is conducive to resilience, the better we will fare, no matter our circumstances.

To be resilient, we must develop the tools to adapt to whatever life throws our way.

A New Day Will Dawn

I know I’m OK.
I can just get through this.
It can’t last forever
It’s bound to get better

I’ve had tough times before,
   and I’ve always survived.
I come through it somehow.
This is only for now.

But what will it take—
   something deep in my heart?
The courage to go on,
   keep it up till the dawn.

The light of the day,
   will show me the path,
   that I must take to endure—
   that will give me the cure.

To believe I can make it
   and be thankful for,
   the people I trust,
   and to learn to adjust.

A new day will dawn
   That will prove to me,
   that I can bounce back
   from whatever attacks.

I have in my heart
   the will to survive
I will always abide
   with hope by my side.

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