Becoming resilient and learning to cope with stress are essential to learning how to flourish in life. Managing tough situations allows us to handle stress and supports us as we overcome obstacles along the way. Join us as we review what it means to be resilient and explore some techniques that can help.
We are often sold the idea that resilience is simply about ‘bouncing back.’ And yet, for those of us who have suffered loss or witnessed difficult times, we know that even the most resilient don’t quickly and effortlessly return to the path they were on.
Instead, the resilient person is able to ‘weather the adversity,’ grow and find meaning in what has happened. After all, as positive psychologist Martin Seligman points out, our beliefs about the event, not the adversity itself, are what count. The difference may be subtle, yet it is vital in understanding and building our resilience – perception is everything.
As a result, positive psychology doesn’t only focus on our strengths and virtues rather than our weaknesses and deficits; it looks at how we can overcome difficult times and find ways to create our best life. And it recognizes that resilience is something we can learn [1, 4].
Our ancestors, fear, stress, and anxiety
Our bodies and minds result from millions of years of evolutionary adaptations that enabled our ancestors to survive long enough to pass on their genetic code to the next generation. For much of that time, life was very different from how it is now.
In fact, the human species has evolved for environments unlike those in which most of us currently live. Indeed, in the last few hundred generations we have witnessed massive social upheavals that have impacted how we eat, sleep, survive, and communicate. And while agricultural, industrial, and technological revolutions have changed our environments, our bodies and minds have not kept up.
Scientists, such as paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman, now believe that many of our present-day ailments result from ‘mismatch diseases.’ Much of our stress, fear, and anxiety arise from our lack of fit to our environment and no longer living the life we evolved for – ‘hunter-gathering.’
However, it’s not all bad news – evolution has also provided us with the intellectual capacity to learn the skills needed to survive and flourish! [5, 6, 13]
The effects of stress
For our ancestors, fear and stress would have been helpful ‘red flags,’ warning them of danger and prompting them to act. And yet, for many of us now, feelings of stress leave us unable to cope and negatively impact our wellbeing.
Typically, we experience our stress in three ways. ‘Physically’ – our heart rate increases, we begin to sweat, and our hands feel clammy. ‘Cognitively’ – thinking becomes less clear, even irrational, and we become powerless to make good decisions. ‘Behaviorally’ – unable to sit still, we pace or move around and shift location to avoid uncomfortable situations.
However, there are things we can do. ‘Preparing’ for what is to come can help us maintain our perception of control and improve our confidence in our abilities. And ‘relaxation,’ whether through mindfulness or deep breathing, offers us the chance to regain focus and reduce anxiety [5, 6, 7].
Stress doesn’t have to own and control us. We can reframe it. Rather than something unwelcome, even feared, we can recognize its potential to sharpen our focus and see it as an opportunity for learning and growth.
Amazingly, performance and exam results improved in studies where students were taught to reframe stress. Seeing stress as something enhancing rather than negative helped them manage how they reacted to their feeling and thoughts. Their ability to handle stress more successfully was present even three months later.
Dr. Alia Crum, psychologist and TEDx speaker, suggests viewing stress as something enhancing, advocating the following three steps: ‘See it and label it’ – “I am stressed about presenting to management”; ‘Own it’ – “This is part of my new role, I am stressed because I want to prove myself”; ‘Use it’ – “I can use this stress to motivate me to prepare well and become energized when I present”.
Reframing stress changes our relationship with present and future concerns [7, 8, 14]
Types of coping
There are many ways to manage the stress in our lives, some positive and healthy, and others less so. It’s helpful to understand the types of coping mechanisms we use.
Psychology recognizes two main types of coping strategies. ‘Problem-focused coping’ involves identifying the stressor and taking steps to address it directly. For example, ‘I have a tough exam next week; I’ll check out past papers and set up a study group with my classmates.’ ‘Emotion-focused coping’ is more indirect and can include ‘avoidance.’ Rather than tackling the issue head-on or attempting to change the situation, we seek social support from those we trust. When our relationship takes a difficult turn, it’s often a case of ‘I’ll call up my friend and get their advice.’
Being resilient is about finding what works best for us in the situation in which we find ourselves. After all, there are times when direct action is necessary to resolve an issue, yet on other occasions, especially after trauma, finding a distraction may work better [2, 7].
Resilience and post-traumatic growth
Psychological research suggests that our ‘subjective reality’ is vital to how we understand and experience trauma. The narrative we create about ourselves, our environment, and what has happened shapes how we view events and our relationships to them.
Indeed, some survivors of personal tragedies such as bereavement, military combat, cancer, and shootings report positive changes having been through adversity – known as post-traumatic growth. Many describe themselves as being a ‘better person’ after what has happened, experiencing stronger connections with loved ones, and having a greater appreciation for life.
An innovative 2016 study engaged eight Danish war-veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and found that nature-based therapy, including mindfulness, therapy sessions, and even chopping wood and planting trees, led to a reduction in symptoms.
Psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, having witnessed terrible ordeals, proposed that those with something to live for are the most likely to survive and grow [2, 9, 15].
Replacing unhelpful beliefs
According to cognitive behavioral therapy and the work of psychologist Albert Ellis, which began in the 1950s, it is our beliefs about an event, rather than the event itself, that causes our emotional and behavioral responses.
The ‘ABCDE model’ provides a valuable framework to replace unhelpful and irrational beliefs with more useful ones that help us cope better and become more resilient.
Let’s give it a try by considering an (A) adversity or activating event – ‘I failed my driving test last month’ and the (B) irrational belief associated with it – ‘I’m useless; I can’t do anything right.’ Next, consider the (C) consequence – ‘I gave up on lessons; it’s a waste of time.’
Then, ask yourself, how can I (D) dispute this irrational belief by replacing it with a rational one – ‘So I failed, but it was my first go. I’m sure I’ll pass next time if I get some practice in.’
Finally, we consider the (E) effect of this new belief – ‘I’m going to start my lessons again and ask the instructor to focus on where I went wrong.’
And it works. The approach is backed up by thousands of case studies where people have been able to overcome what’s holding them back from leading a better life and improve their psychological wellbeing [7, 10].
Resilience built on past experiences
Resilience is often about finding approaches to managing emotions rather than suppressing them and identifying techniques for overcoming obstacles and getting through difficult times.
While learning methods for how to cope better helps us navigate the stormy waters of life, so too does reflecting on the past difficulties we have overcome. A change in mindset where we find the ‘silver lining’ when something has gone wrong can build resilience and confidence in our ability to overcome challenging times.
A 2020 study focused on healthcare workers experiencing burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic. The introduction of gratitude journals for capturing ‘three good things’ or silver linings from an otherwise tough workday led to improved perceived work-life balance and reduced burnout.
Even in the most difficult and sometimes tragic situations, it seems it is possible to focus on the goodness in your world and move forward with positivity [4, 17].
Accepting how we feel
It’s easy to forget that stress can have purpose and value – allowing us to prepare for what is to come and grow from what we experience. But how do we do that if we are overwhelmed by what we are up against?
While it is possible to attempt to ignore or replace our negative thinking, another way is to accept it. A relatively recent approach called ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ helps clients become more willing to experience uncomfortable emotions.
Rather than struggle with feelings of stress and fear, we mindfully accept them as part of who we are and how we deal with situations. We can think of these emotions as Apps running in the background on our phones. We needn’t shut them down; we know they are there. When ready, we turn our attention to what we do want. We focus on working toward our goals and those activities that bring us positive emotions like joy and gratitude.
A simple change in mindset and appropriate planning for change can dramatically impact our resilience and how we cope when things go wrong .
Control the controllable
We can all benefit from recognizing what we can and cannot control. If we buy a gift for someone we care about, we cannot control if they like it. But we can control the effort we put into finding out what they enjoy or already have.
Let’s work through a real-life example. Think of something that happened that left you feeling anxious or disappointed. Perhaps a difficult meeting. Create a table with two columns labeled ‘can control’ and ‘can’t control.’ Divide it by two rows marked ‘what went well’ and ‘not so well,” creating a two-by-two grid.
Now, reflect on everything that happened, writing each point in the appropriate box. For example, ‘the opening of the meeting was up to me, and it was a success’ is placed in the box on the grid identified as ‘can control’ and ‘what went well.’ On the other hand, ‘my agenda was all over the place as I didn’t take charge of the meeting’ is written in the box marked as ‘can’t control’ and went ‘not so well.’
As you review each point, think about how you could gain more control? Can you also recognize there are limits and that sometimes you must accept that you cannot manage all outcomes?
Resilience is often about acting on what you can change and accepting what you cannot .