Monday 24 July 2017

Bouncing back: Emotionally resilient people share many traits

Well being with Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

There's always a buzzword in self-development circles and, right now at least, 'resilience' is having a moment.

Resilience labs are mushrooming up around the world, resilience training has been introduced in the workplace and countless books on the subject have topped the charts.

More recently, Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg talked about resilience in her commencement keynote speech at UC Berkley. "Like a muscle, you can build it up [and] draw on it when you need it," she said.

The concept of resilience entered common parlance at the tail-end of the recession and quickly became the antidote to an age of uncertainty and anxiety.

Nevertheless, there are still many misconceptions around what exactly resilience is. Some think of it as an impenetrable defensive armour. However, resilient people don't deflect trauma - they simply integrate it differently. Some think of it as a form of fearlessness. Yet resilient people feel the fear - they just do it anyway.

Philosopher Alain de Botton describes resilience as: "Keeping going when things are looking dark; accepting that reversals are normal; accepting that human nature is, in the end, tough; not frightening others with your fears."

In other words, resilience is built day by day, and honed when our backs are to the wall.

Developmental psychologist Emmy Werner was one of the first people to study resilience in great depth. In 1989, she published the results of a 32-year study of a group of 698 children that she had followed from before birth all the way to their thirties.

One-third of the children came from what she described as "at risk backgrounds" - poverty, parental discord, perinatal stress - yet one-third of this group went on to achieve personal success as adults. Why?

Werner believed it was because they had an "internal locus of control" - ie they knew that their actions rather than their circumstances shaped their lives. Those with an external locus of control blame their circumstances.

Resilient people know that they have a simple choice when adversity strikes - sink or swim. More to the point, they don't play the blame game or get trapped in the 'shoulda, woulda coulda' remorse cycle.

Yet resilience isn't an endurance test. On the contrary, resilient people take recovery seriously. They have support systems in place and they know how to ask for help. Similarly, they talk things through instead of bottling them up.

The result, says George Bonanno, a resilience researcher and professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, is that traumatic events don't have the same psychological and physiological effects on them.

Interestingly, Bonanno coined the term Potentially Traumatic Event (PTE), because he believes that resilient people have the ability to bounce back from adversities that others would experience as deeply traumatic.

Of course, those who bounce back have to know where to land. As Eric Greitens writes in Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, "One of the reasons you are suffering right now is precisely because the purpose of your struggle is unclear. What are you working toward? What are you fighting for?"

Resilient people always know their next step - even if it's just one foot in front of the other. Similarly, they practice realistic optimism and avoid catastrophising and black-and-white thinking.

They also know that adversity is the best teacher just as they trust in the counterpoints of life - one door will open as another closes, and a peak will, invariably, follow a trough.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it best in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience: "Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge."

While we hone resilience in the midst of adversity, we can strengthen it by learning how to get comfortable with the small discomforts of daily life.

If you're a pack animal by nature, try spending some time on your own. Better still, go to the cinema solo, or book a table for one. If you're a lone wolf, try reconnecting with old friends or taking part in a social activity that pushes you out of your comfort zone.

Learning how to keep things in perspective also builds resilience. If you miss the bus, it doesn't mean your day ahead is doomed. If your boss criticises your work, it doesn't mean you're going to get fired. Take a moment to consider these scenarios objectively or, better still, ask how you would judge these situations if they were happening to someone else.

If you're a forensically routine-oriented person whose schedule runs like clockwork, try leaving a little wiggle-room - if only to notice that things can fall into place when they're not on your to-do list.

Elsewhere, endurance sports, martial arts and cold showers (yes, really) build both physical and mental resilience.

Resilience might be the latest buzzword, but those who take it seriously know that it's a lifelong - and life-changing - process.

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