When I was working in a Children’s Protective Services Shelter I met children who were scared from being whipped with extension cords, had suffered broken bones from being hit and who lived on the streets, surviving as best they could. I also met a young man, a former medical student, who volunteered at the shelter. He had hit his head when he dove into a swimming pool and was paralyzed from the neck down. Like this young man, some of the children exhibited an admirable ability to find joy and meaning despite the traumas and stress they had suffered. Those children shared similar qualities as this young man: they were resilient. Not only did they survive, but they were able to become passionate thrivers. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and stress, a key quality for your emotional and physical health.
Resilience is important for everyday stresses too. In a recent article in Scientific Mind, the authors cite this 2002 quote by Dean Becker, a founder of a resilience-training firm: “More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s’ true in the Olympics and it’s true in the boardroom.”
Emotionally sensitive people are especially sensitive to stress. The good news is that resiliency skills can be strengthened according to authors Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney who wrote Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.
The first key is to be able to regulate your emotions. One effective way to manage painful emotions is through cognitive reappraisal, which means changing the way you think about a situation in order to change your emotional response. The strategy involves observing your thoughts and behaviors, challenging negative assessments of stressful situations and yourself, and replacing negative assessments with more factual statements. Ask yourself questions such as, “Am I thinking in black and white categories? What would be the gray or plaid way of viewing this situation?”
A second way to bolster your resiliency is to practice mindfulness. Staying in the present lowers your stress levels. Much of the stress you experience is due to worrying about the future or being upset about the past.
Increasing your positive emotions also will help you increase your resiliency. Creating joy in your life and creating positive experiences will add to your ability to cope well with stress. Developing realistic optimism, which means filtering out unnecessary negative information but paying attention to important negative information that is relevant to coping, will strengthen your ability to bounce back from stress and disappointment.
Avoiding stress may diminish your ability to cope. Using stress inoculation works to build your coping skills. Stress inoculation means taking on increasingly difficult challenges, much like gradually lifting heavier weights. If being out of your house is stressful for you, you might practice going to a small store a mile away before attempting to shop at the mall in the next town.
Exercise is always listed as a way to cope with stress and to improve your physical health. Walking is a simple way to start. Having strong social support, and using that support, also decreases your vulnerability to stress. Having friends to talk with, friends to play with, and friends who would help you out in a tough situation will lower your stress levels. Finally, having role modelswho manage stress well can give you inspiration and hope.
These ideas are not new. Sometimes when we hear suggestions that aren’t new we discount them when actually the fact that these ideas have been around for a while, been researched with many different groups, gives them credibility. Putting these strategies into practice will be difficult. Most of us would prefer an easier answer to being more content. But what if you practiced these suggestions for six months? Give it your all and do them to the best of your ability. If you need help, ask for it. Maybe you will be in a better place.
Starting January 1, 2015 Dr. Hall’s self-help tool, Creating the Life You Want to Live, will be available. Dr. Hall will email subscribers daily coaching tips and ideas about research-based skills to help in your recovery. See the details on this website (see the page for Creating the Life You Want to Live.