By: Jennifer Yen, MD
For many of us, 2016 was one of the most challenging years of our lives, if not the most challenging. We faced political, financial, professional, and personal hurdles, and not all of us made it through unscathed. Sadly, though 2016 ended and we switched to a new calendar, our troubles have continued to follow us into the New Year. Many of my patients have been talking with me about how difficult it is just to wake up every morning and get through the day. They feel beat up, torn down, stepped on, and shoved aside by life, and can no longer see a reason to continue pushing forward. I have had multiple conversations with them about the concept of resilience, and I wanted to share some of those thoughts with you.
We talk a lot about resilience, especially when it comes to children, but let’s break it down for a moment. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines resilience as “the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” While it is easy to focus solely on the part involving recovery, it is in fact the adjustment part that I feel is the most important. As wonderful as it is to bounce back like a rubber band after something terrible has happened, it often isn’t realistic. Much of what we go through is not only stressful but uncontrollable, so it’s a better approach to consider how to manage when you’re confronted with change. Think of a tree in the middle of a hurricane. When the wind picks up, if the tree is stiff and resistant, it could break and fall over. However, if the tree is flexible and bends, it’s more likely to survive the storm.
Isn’t Resilience Something You Just Have?
Whether it seems like it or not, resilience is in fact a skill you can develop. If this is the case, then why are children resilient, you may ask? They don’t have the maturity or mental capacity to learn such a complex idea. Well, there are definitely some personality traits that may contribute to resilience, such as positivity and an easygoing nature. However, research has shown that two key factors are most crucial for developing resilience. For children, since we know their mastery of life is not complete, social support is the one that decides who does well and who does not. Those who show the most resilience have had at least one stable and committed relationship with an adult. For adults, there is also the additional need for mastery. Since both are so important to being resilient, we will discuss each in more detail.
Social Support and Positive Relationships
Think back to when you learned to ride a bike for the first time. All of us were taught to do so with the help of a family member, right? They showed us the correct way to mount the bike, push the pedals, and steer the handles. Some of us may even have ridden with that person on their bike before giving it a try on our own. When it came to our turn, this person stayed close, shouting encouragement, and promising to keep us safe.
Learning to ride a bike is a simple but easy to understand example of how social support can help build resilience. Our family’s belief that we could learn how to ride, coupled with their help and support, kept us trying until we got the hang of it, even if we fell a few dozen times. So, it’s not really surprising that the individuals most capable of resilience have stable, loving relationships in their lives. Whether it was a parent, grandparent, or close family friend, everything started with them. They taught you how to interact with others and express your emotions and they showed you the difference between right and wrong. They also provided you with the security to try new things and get back up if you stumbled.
The Concept of Mastery
Let’s go back to the bike riding. While all of us started out with the help of an adult, that didn’t remain the case. As we became more confident in our ability to control the bicycle, our caregivers would step back and let us go off on our own. Starting with just going a little farther, we eventually experimented with riding a little too fast, trying to jump over a hole, and for a select few, popping wheelies. We didn’t need others to tell us we could do it—we believed it was possible, and we trusted our bodies to carry us through.
This second stage of riding a bike represents how we achieve mastery. In the context of what we’re covering today, mastery is perceived control over yourself and the circumstances around you. It also refers to trusting in yourself and your abilities in times of difficulty. This is done by maintaining areas that help you respond and adapt to what comes your way, such as having good physical fitness, mental health, and emotional stability. Now, keep in mind that having mastery is not the same as optimism; the former implies directly influencing events in your favor, while the latter is expecting a good outcome from elsewhere.
Building Social Supports
Now that we know social support is a key factor for resilience, we can see the answer is straightforward. First, while it’s tempting during hard times to isolate yourself from your family and friends, it does more harm than good. Seeking help and support is better than keeping everything inside until you burst and have a meltdown. Expressing your thoughts and feelings allows you to process what is on your mind, and hearing the perspective of someone you trust can lend you clarity. If you find it uncomfortable or are not yet able to talk about things, then try something easier. The mere act of spending time with those who love and care for you is restorative. A weekly dinner, a movie outing, or even a girls’ or boys’ night out can recharge your emotional batteries. The main thing is to stay connected to those who are going to strengthen your resolve, rather than try to tough it out alone.
Gaining Personal Mastery
Mastery, on the other hand, is a little more complicated to achieve in times of stress—at least, that’s how it seems. For example, maybe you’re having conflict with your boss or coworker or feel trapped in a dead-end job. While quitting is the easy way to gain control, it also means you will struggle financially. Maybe you have been dealing with relationship drama, but breaking up results in having to move out of the shared home. So, with all of these factors in your life, how do you achieve mastery? Well, remember that the definition of mastery includes perceived control over ourselves. Basically, you “fake it until you make it” and control what you can.
Start with small things like a daily routine, regular exercise, and healthy eating, as that will help you feel your best physically. If you feel overwhelmed, try writing things down and prioritizing which are the most urgent items to address. It might sound silly, but make a list of all your strengths, and try to think of examples of when you demonstrated each trait. The idea is to bolster your confidence and remind yourself that you have all the skills you need to survive the tough times, and soon you’ll notice that feeling of helplessness or hopelessness fade away.
The Last Resort
Maybe you feel as though you have exhausted all your options, done all the work, and tried everything. Then, it’s time to consider engaging someone professionally. Perhaps you just don’t feel like you have what it takes to be resilient. Speaking to a licensed therapist or psychiatrist can help them determine if there are other, hidden reasons you’re not improving. Perhaps you don’t have the proper tools to deal with what’s going on. Maybe you don’t have great social support and need an ear to bend. It could even be that your level of stress has led to a mental illness. No matter what the cause, there are effective treatments (both pharmacological and non-pharmacological) to address what is going on.
I leave you with this quote I saw recently from author J. K. Rowling, who has demonstrated great resilience herself. Remember it and say it to yourself when you feel like the world is against you.
“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Never give up, always be open, and most of all, keep moving forward!
Jennifer Yen, MD
Graduated from the University of Texas Medical School in Houston, and went on to complete residency training in general psychiatry at UT Medical School. She then completed fellowship training in child and adolescent psychiatry from Baylor College of Medicine. She is currently splitting her time between her private practice, Serenity Behavioral Health, and academics as Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine.
Dr. Yen is also the author of a young adult novel series entitled The Avalon Relics. The series follows a teenage girl named Sophia as she discovers a realm of magic, intrigue, and romance. She writes stories with realistic portrayals of emotion and mental health, with the intent of using books to teach healthy self-esteem and self-worth. She hopes to send a message of empowerment and acceptance through her writing, while entertaining her readers with the fantastical worlds from her imagination.