Examples of resiliency are all around us. Athletes who lost limbs but went on to compete again. Survivors of 9/11 who rebuilt from the rubble. Holocaust victims who are living out long, fulfilling lives. Look to your own community for inspiration. You likely know someone who once dealt with something terrible but has found joy again. In fact, researchers have found that resilience in the face of adversity is more common than uncommon.
So, what does it mean to be resilient? “Resilience is a measurement of one’s capacity to recover fully from an adversity,” says Charles Figley, PhD, director of the Tulane Traumatology Institute in New Orleans, where he studies traumatic stress resilience. “It’s like pressing a balloon tightly and examining how completely the balloon assumes its original position.” Psychologists say that resilience can be learned—it’s not something we either have or don’t have. So if times are tough right now, you can take steps to strengthen your resilience. Even if you’re not struggling at the moment, adopting these habits now can help you down the road when life throws you a curveball.
Expect Things to Get Better
If you fall into a rough patch, you may not feel happy the next day. Or even the next week. But eventually, with time, light will begin to peek back into your life. If you want to work on bouncing back, you must expect that good things will happen, says Phyllis Zilkha, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan. “If you’re expecting only bad things to happen, how resilient can you be? Why push on? What’s the difference?” Optimism, Zilkha says, is the single biggest factor in recovering from adversity. It’s what makes some of us seek out solutions to our troubles instead of pulling the covers over our heads.
Don’t Ignore Your Calls and Emails
There’s no shortage of reasons why having a support system helps us get through tough times. Friends and loved ones can provide an invaluable distraction from our negative thoughts. When we’re feeling isolated, they remind us that we’re attached to a group—and that we’re important to someone. They can also provide a fresh perspective: “If they’re not in the middle of the grief or the difficult period, people outside it can see a broader picture and say, ‘Yes, what’s going on now is terrible, but look at this possible positive outcome,'” Zilkha says. “Social support is among the ‘protective factors’ that increase our odds of having high resilience when faced with daunting adversity,” Figley adds. “It enables processing of the experience to focus on solutions.”
Go On a Mind Vacation
Although it’s natural for your mind to turn over events in your head, getting a break from negative thoughts can be restorative and healing, and keeping yourself busy can give you some much-needed distance from your troubles. Work is a time-honored way of recovering from pain—you’re getting paid to focus and produce, so you won’t be able to think about your problems as much. Or volunteer, which shifts your focus from yourself to others and could even help you see your troubles in a new light. One study at Vanderbilt University found that volunteering reduces depression and enhances happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, physical health and our sense of control over our lives. Try spending some time engaged in a hobby that you can lose yourself in. These moments when you’re not focused on your pain or loss can create an opportunity for joy to sprout again.
Tickle Your Funny Bone
When Figley looked at what makes emergency first responders resilient to traumatic stress, humor emerged as one of the most important protective factors. Humor dampens down our natural fight-or-flight reaction to negative events and lowers our stress hormones. It also shifts our perception of a difficult situation from an emergency to a less distressing issue, so we can calm down, look at it from different angles and cope with it better. “When you feel that you have done the best you can in addressing questions like ‘Why did this happen to me?’, take a break and experience something that makes you laugh,” Figley says. It will not only help you feel better in the moment, but allow you to adapt to the reality you’re faced with.
Count Your Blessings
Feeling grateful—something we can actively work on—improves our overall wellbeing and helps us cope with our troubles. In one study, people who created a list of five things they were grateful for over the past week felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about their expectations for the upcoming week than those who recorded hassles from the past week. The happiness-boosting benefits of thankfulness even helped people living with a difficult health condition. Study participants with a neuromuscular disease felt better about their lives and more connected to other people after they wrote a gratitude list than those who didn’t count their blessings.
Finally, Remember That This, Too, Shall Pass
Try reminding yourself of this when you’re feeling low. Because it’s true! “Everything in life has a beginning and end,” Zilkha says. These endings may not be the best outcomes you can imagine, but they can bring some relief. For example, if you’ve gotten a serious diagnosis, you’ll probably feel panicked and distraught. That feeling will subside a bit when you learn about treatments and start working toward getting better. If you’re going through a divorce, you won’t miss your ex as keenly a year or two down the line. “When something bad is happening, it’s like being in the middle of the ocean,” Zilkha says. “When you’re there you think it just goes on forever, but it doesn’t. I’m no believer that everything will turn out wonderful, but things can be better than they are now.”