Understanding resilience and why it matters
Resilience is a word we hear a lot in these tough times. But what exactly is resilience, why is it so important, and how can we develop more of it in ourselves and in each other?
I used to think when mental health experts spoke about developing resilience, they meant toughening up in the simplest sense. I was at something of a loss on how to achieve this - and more importantly, how to help my children who as well as dealing with the usual trials and tribulations of growing up, had been through the trauma of losing their father to cancer.
It is only in relatively recent times I have learned that resilience is not about becoming strong enough to deal with everything on your own.
Far from it; resilience is about learning to use every support and skill available in order to get through a difficult situation or period with as few long-term negative effects as possible.
The dictionary defines resilience as:
(of an object) the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
(of a person) the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
So how can we become resilient?
I’ve been looking into this quite a bit for various reasons. And it has been a tough truth to accept that being independent to the point of it not even occurring to me to ask for help in most areas of my life has in fact meant putting myself under no end of undue pressure.
I know I am not alone in this mindset; we Irish are stoic people. There are of course people at the other end of the scale who expect everything handed to them on a plate and who will manipulate situations and people to their own ends. But there are a lot of people who metaphorically speaking, pull tight their cloak and turn to face the latest storm head-on. That is OK for a while, but it becomes exhausting.
One of the first and most important aspects of developing resilience is becoming aware of our feelings and responses - particularly the negative and self-deprecating thoughts that can catch us unawares but that start to shape our reactions and our everyday language. Talk of ‘a positive outlook’ can seem like a cliché, but generating and fostering positive thoughts - particularly about ourselves - is crucial to mental and emotional well-being.
Physical well-being is important too, and that can be fostered through exercise and a reasonably healthy diet - we all have a fair idea what that involves.
Conversely, it is important to also acknowledge that there are times when what we need most is to rest, to enjoy our favourite comfort food in front of the tv, to lie in bed till lunchtime every now and again. The trick is to know when we are doing this out of a need to recharge, and to not let it develop into a negative habit that makes us feel bad about ourselves.
Another helpful tool in developing resilience is identifying which people in our life support us in various ways. This can be in big ways - helping out in practical, day-to-day tasks, or it can be a confidante, a shoulder to cry on, a person we can sound out our feelings with to better understand ourselves, or it can be as simple as someone we can have a good laugh with now and then, because that is important too. These people can be from across our network of family, friends, colleagues, people with whom we share common interests or they can be near-strangers whose words of wisdom help us make sense of our own lives.
If we need a particular type of support and can’t identify anyone in our network who fits that role, it is time to seek that help elsewhere. There are professional and voluntary organisations that have the expertise to help us through times when we feel at a loss on how to process trauma or make a major life change so we can move forward.
Widening our circles through trying new activities also widens our support network, even though we don’t realise it at the time. It also challenges us mentally and prepares our brains to better cope with unexpected situations.
Another important aspect of resilience that can easily be overlooked is having a sense of purpose, preferably in respect of more than one area of our lives. Parents for example are in danger of struggling to find meaning in life once their children have left home. That is because they were so invested in the child’s upbringing that they did not have any other strong purpose in their lives. The same can happen when people retire or become unemployed because their work was a huge part of their sense of self. Ways to add meaning and purpose to life are volunteering, joining a group or club, learning new skills and helping others.
Again that may sound like a cliché, but a word I mentioned earlier in this article is very much a common theme - awareness. Once we become aware of our own well-being we can start to reach out to others who need help and guidance in building their own resilience.
Our society is under huge strain at the moment, as are the individuals who make up that society. It is heart-breaking for people who have put their hearts and souls into building up their own businesses to have to close their doors yet again. Some of these businesses are among the cleanest and safest in the country because of the efforts proprietors have put into making them that way. I am thinking in particular of businesses such as hairdressers, tattoo parlours, beauticians which had strict hygiene policies long before the Covid-19 pandemic. How disheartening that must be for them.
And how tough a time it must be for people who are facing into six weeks of not being able to visit loved ones outside the area, for people who live alone, for people who work in our hospitals, and those who are undergoing medical treatment or bereavement without their usual support in place.
Extending our support, staying in touch, letting people know they are valued, looking after our vulnerable, doing what we can to keep connected in some shape or form - all of this will help us to help each other, to increase our resilience as individuals and as a society. And hopefully we will all come out the other side wiser, stronger and more aware of ourselves and our place as part of the fabric of our communities.