Resilience: Thriving Through Challenges

Resilience: Thriving Through Challenges

At 5.45pm, I emerge from the State Library and feel relieved to see my bike where I locked it. Standing over the bike this evening however, my hands on the bars, the bike feels different, dare I say naked. That’s when I notice the neatly severed cord. The computer of my new electronic bike, which has recently replaced my last stolen bike, is no longer attached. Without the computer, my e-bike is just a particularly heavy, ordinary bicycle.

My knuckles tighten whitely around the handlebars, my heart rate quickens, and I look around frantically trying to spot the culprit. Tears well in my eyes. Looking at my handsome, computerless bike, I start to feel panic and anguish. I phone my partner and, twenty-five minutes later, watch him haul the bike into the back of his car. In the passenger seat on the way back to his house, I feel furious, incompetent, disappointed. Then I start to cry.

For several days following the theft, I struggle to pull myself out of the disillusion. It seems to have infected my interactions with those I hold dear, and spread gloom over the entire city. I finally snap out of it three evenings later when watching the World News channel. I am reminded there is a war going on, whole economies collapsing, that women’s rights in America are going backwards. With all this perspective however, I feel embarrassed about the emotional response I had to what now seemed like a trivial crisis. I start to recall all the little things that have derailed me over the years. Things like missing a flight, period pains, or getting a bad mark on an assignment. It seems I might need to work on my ability to bounce back for the next time things don’t go as planned.

What is Resilience?

The term ‘resilience’ is derived from the Latin word ‘resilio’ which means to ‘rebound’ or ‘spring back’. The American Psychological Association defines emotional resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress – in other words, bouncing back. And George Bonnano, prominent researcher in the area of psychological resilience, describes it as the capacity to continue to move forwards in the face of difficulty.

What surprised me is that emotional resilience is purported to be a personality trait which develops and fluctuates throughout our lives. Like many psychological constructs, emotional resilience isn’t a binary trait. This means it is not simply present or absent at any given time. Rather, it exists on a continuum, where every person handles environmental and life stressors in different ways, at different times of their lives. Importantly, emotional resilience is considered to be just like a muscle. If we work hard and ‘flex’ this muscle enough, less effort is required each time we need to work through an emotional crisis.

Emotional Resilience is multi-faceted

There are three central pillars of emotional resilience, which we can work on to improve our overall psychological flexibility in the face of challenging situations:

  1. Physical Elements, which include energy, physical capability, strength, wellbeing and health, and sense of vitality.
  2. Psychological Elements, including attention and rational thought, adaptability to change, self-esteem and confidence, emotion regulation skills, and mindfulness.
  3. Social Elements, involving interpersonal connections with others, group and team-based support, popularity or likeability, and communication skills.

Emotional resilience is a skill that applies to more situations than you may think. It could be a work deadline, parenting a rebellious teenager, working on an unsteady relationship, responding to a reactive sibling, or getting a positive RAT test. Possessing high emotional resilience means your distress tolerance is high, which allows you to cope with the situation at hand, as well as protect yourself from further emotional pain or devastation.

Emotional resilience can be worked on, and strengthened like a muscle

Of course, in the context of grief, one should not place too much pressure on themselves to be emotionally resilient. Rather it is important to validate our feelings in these scenarios, and flow with the waves of emotion as they come. Nevertheless, if you find you ruminate not just on disasters but also on small inconveniences, perhaps it is time to work on resilience. Here are some areas you can reflect on and try to engage in stressful times:

  • Emotional Awareness: Emotionally aware individuals are skilled at comprehending what they’re feeling, and why they are feeling it. This also extends to their perception of other people, whereby they can comprehend the motivation behind other people’s behaviours and emotions, and accordingly respond to them more appropriately. This awareness allows one to better cope and regulate strong emotions.
  • Realism: This is my favourite strategy. Recognising that whatever has happened SUCKS, but it has happened, full stop. Then remind yourself that the initial shock of the incident, and associated emotional turmoil, is temporary. Remind yourself things will improve if you remain calm and patient, and allow yourself to turn to others for support.
  • Optimism: This involves trying to see the positive in a situation, which is always a great strategy to employ. It may be helpful to remind yourself of your strengths and practice positive self-talk, such as repeating to yourself “I can handle this”, “I am choosing to be the bigger person,” or “I can grow from this experience”. Note this strategy is different from ‘toxic positivity‘.
  • Perspective: In the face of adversity, it is important not to pity yourself or think yourself as a victim of the situation (as I did). This strategy involves rethinking the situation as an obstacle and asking yourself, ‘how can I learn from this?’, rather than leaning into the typical crisis mode response of, ‘why is this happening to ME!?’.
  • Support: Resilient individuals are strong individuals, though not without the help of others. Developing emotional resilience means recognising the value of your interpersonal relationships and knowing when to reach out.

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What stayed with me closely following my research into resilience was the notion of bouncing back in the face of strong emotional responses, and the importance of practicing this over and over again. Now, when I stumble into an inconvenience or difficulty, I practice reminding myself I can respond differently to my experiences. I can choose to not let inconveniences or issues define me or dictate my week. I invite you to consider what small challenges you encounter in your day, and how you might reframe these inconveniences. Rather than being a barrier or difficulty to feel defeated by, join me in seeing them instead as opportunities to practice distress tolerance and resilience; as chances for growth.

To learn more about resilience, we recommend reading national bestseller ‘The Resilience Project’, by Hugh Van Cuylenburg. If you’d like to speak to one of our psychologists about emotional resilience, emotion regulation or distress tolerance, you can book in here.