You may have heard the expression “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” In fact, the ability to recover from life’s inevitable problems is a quality worth nurturing.
Always look on the bright side of life. Keep on the sunny side. Lyrics like these hold more than a grain of truth for people who want to recover from difficult times.
Psychological resilience — the ability to bounce back relatively successfully from negative situations — is an important tool to have when you are faced with unpleasant events, mild stressors, or challenging relationships.
“There is no single definition of resilience, but generally it refers to the capacity of an individual to adapt to difficult circumstances; in other words, to maintain functioning in the face of adversity,” says Colin A. Depp, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the school of medicine and a researcher at the Stein Institute for Research on Aging at the University of California, San Diego.
Depp recently surveyed 1,395 women over age 60 to find out what characteristics accompanied greater resilience during aging. He and his colleagues found that women who scored high in resilience also reported:
- A greater sense of self-control over their lives
- Greater tolerance of negative emotions
- Trust of their own instincts
- Use of spiritual practices to cope
Studies of people who are facing difficult situations — for example, their own illness or that of a loved one — clearly demonstrate that a positive outlook makes a difference in their emotional health.
Here’s why: negative emotions — the ones that drag you down — can trigger a physical “fight or flight” response and keep you narrowly focused on the source of your distress.
But positive emotions, even the ones you have to work at, actually have a calming effect on your physical response, boost your immunity, and ultimately broaden your perspective so that you can see more recovery options than you thought you had.
Resilience: Building Some in Your Life
Depp says that while you’re striving for the four outcomes found in his study, there are other steps you can take to become resilient.
“In general, the best things to do would be to limit exposure to chronic uncontrollable stress to the extent you can; build a resilient body through nutrition, good sleep, and physical activity; and engage in activities that help you either feel more in control or help you tolerate negative emotions,” says Depp.
Here are some proven techniques that can increase your positive emotions and the belief that you can cope:
- Build positive relationships. Depp’s survey demonstrates that people who are socially engaged often are also more resilient.
- Count your blessings. Trite, but true: Taking time at least once a week to write down sources of gratitude increases positive emotions.
- Explore a spiritual path. Finding or deepening your spiritual practices can help build resilience.
- Focus on the positive in a journal. People who use more words expressing positive emotion when keeping a journal have better outcomes.
- Laugh more. Build humor into your life.
- Make a plan and take action. Planning active steps to solve a problem or some aspect of a problem in your life is essential to resilience and recovery.
- Pat yourself on the back. Knowing you have skills and abilities in certain areas of your life can balance a sense of inadequacy in other areas.
While it is true that there are some people who seem to have a natural gift for resilience, it is possible to learn how to sail through difficult times.