These are rough times. We’ve been waiting for good news from Wall Street or Washington. It doesn’t come. The problems are so complicated they defy solution. It has been a very long economic winter and we wonder, will spring ever come?
How do you handle adversity?
Do bad times bring you down, leave you untouched, or make you stronger?
We have all heard stories about remarkable people whose strengths are forged in the fire of challenge. One friend has lived a remarkable life of contribution despite a spinal cord injury from a diving accident as a teenager. Though he must use a wheelchair, it hasn’t stopped him from working, socializing, traveling solo, and being part of a rock band in his limited spare time. Another friend, raised by alcoholic parents in severe poverty, became a successful businessman and philanthropist.
Both are classic examples of what it means to be resilient. They faced significant obstacles and hardships from an early age. They have lived good, even excellent, lives. They radiate positivity. They are loving, content, successful, respected and admired. Their lives have meaning and purpose. If they can do it, can’t we?
How do they do it?
Resilience is a component of flourishing that becomes relevant when we encounter adversity and challenge. It is the capacity to bounce back from hardship, to have a good outcome despite threats to our well-being. At one time, the general understanding was that there was something extraordinary about resilient people.
The great surprise of the resiliency research is the ordinariness of the phenomena. It turns out that resilience is a common human response that results from the operation of basic human systems. If those systems are protected and in good working order, people can survive and even grow in the face of severe adversity. If those major systems are impaired before, during or after the event, the risk for damage is increased.
It can be helpful to identify those human qualities associated with resiliency. A few might be considered “givens.” There is not much one can do to achieve them. They are a gift, so to speak, of biology and genetics. These include our physical attractiveness, intelligence, talents, and physical abilities.
But most qualities of resilience are better understood as competencies that are developed within a particular setting. Often these characteristics are the result of what one does with the “gifts” that one is given. We may be very bright, but if we spend our days watching television, playing video games, smoking pot or trying to master the lottery system, there is not much that will come of that intelligence. If we are physically attractive but don’t care for our bodies with proper hygiene, nutrition, sleep, and exercise, we will squander that innate potential.
The characteristics that lead to resilience are also highly dependent upon the opportunity to express them. For example, someone with a talent for music will not get far without a teacher, an instrument, and some encouragement. A person with a talent for swimming or diving can’t get far unless there is a pool and coach available to them. Good schools, mentors, and opportunities for meaningful work are important aspects of context that lead to successful resiliency.
Keeping in mind then, that qualities of individuals are rarely due solely to individual forces, what are those dimensions that characterize resilient people? They can be summed up pretty easily: health, social support, competence and spirituality.
Here are four foundational ways to build your resiliency:
1. Get Healthy.
Having a healthy body is the first and best line of defense against stress and adversity. Sleep, regular exercise, deep regular breathing, good nutrition, and a good balance between work and relaxation are all foundational. These are so simple and obvious that they are often overlooked as solutions for people who are languishing. If you don’t feel well but you aren’t really sick, if you feel chronically tired or a bit down, chances are you are not getting enough of something basic; oxygen, exercise, sleep, nutritious food, or water. The advantages of being physically healthy when confronted with adversity are obvious. We want to be at the top of our game. We need a reserve of energy, sharpness of thought, and well-developed habits of restoration.
2. Spend Time with People.
It’s pretty clear that the old song is true: people who need people are in fact the luckiest people in the world—or at least they are the healthiest. There is something absolutely basic about the social nature of being human. Over and over again, the research demonstrates that people who have healthy relationships are better able to withstand stress, adversity, and trauma. In fact, social support is doubly weighted. We depend on our social systems for support when we are stressed. When our relationships are in trouble, we are in double jeopardy. Our stress goes up significantly and we lose one of our most important means of coping. So do all that you can to strengthen your core relationships!
3. Build Your Strengths.
Self-regulation is the process of how we manage our behavior to achieve positive results. It depends on three things:
Our belief that we can do something to change our situation for the better.
Our ability to envision desired future events creates incentive or motivations that guide our actions.
Goals or standards are essential in defining the outcomes we wish to achieve.
Our realistic self-evaluation.
Self-evaluation leads to an emotional reaction that in turn can enhance or disrupt our goal directed activity. When people see themselves successfully coping with difficult situations, their sense of mastery and competence increases.
4. Practice your Beliefs.
Whether we rebound with a sense of hope will be in part determined by our ability to make sense of the suffering that we have witnessed and endured. Our traditional sources of wisdom, religion and philosophy, have been studying these questions for millennia. Today, in part due to the ascendency of science and technology, people are generally less literate in these areas. Even those believers who regularly attend religious services can be scripturally and theologically impoverished. Although we may be highly educated, we can find ourselves ill-prepared to deal with the difficult questions of existence.
Those who thrive in the face of adversity are high in their capacity for love, hope, joy and faith; the fruit of a positive spirituality. Adversity and even trauma can be transformative. It can change the way we think about our self and our place in the world. Through challenge we may find new meaning, re-set our priorities, and renew our belief. Our connections and community may deepen and dysfunctional systems may heal. We may be given the gifts of increased gratitude, compassion and commitment to others.
Is your community resilient?
It is hard to fight against the overriding trends of your community. Look around you. Are your friends, family, and co-workers building resilience? If not, you will need to begin to build yourself a resilient community. Start with your partner, your friends and family. Commit to caring better for something in the areas we have outlined: your health, relationships, competencies, and spirituality.
Whether or not Washington or Wall Street rebound, you can not only survive, but thrive. Resiliency is something within your reach. Bounce back, baby!
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