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Building resilience in uncertain times



We have all experienced challenging times in our lives. An abusive childhood, a pandemic, loosing loved ones, being faced with illness, the list goes on and on. Whatever shape or form it may be - resilience is what will help us overcome and maybe even flourish through these circumstances.




Well-known psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, wrote in his book titled Man's Search for Meaning that "man's inner strength may raise him above his outward fate". Frankl was essentially referring to resilience in the midst of the most impossible of circumstances, applying this to his own personal experiences of one of the most gruesome times our world has ever seen. During the Holocaust, he was imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp and lost everything, and everyone close to him. Not only did he survive this terrible tragedy, but somehow also thrived thereafter, becoming one of psychiatry's most highly respected practitioners and theorists. Frankl embodied resilience like few I have ever heard of before and provides an alternative view of suffering and pain in uncertain times.


We may not have all experienced hardships to such a degree, but everybody experiences suffering. Often it is of the sort that flips our lives upside down and leaves us feeling completely vulnerable and hopeless. With the disequilibrium and uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a near-universal experience of hardship right now that is unlike anything we have experienced in modern times. Uncertainty, such as those we currently face, exposes our vulnerability and may leave us feeling fragile and the furthest thing from "strong". If you are currently feeling this way, regardless of whether it is due to the pandemic or another set of circumstances, chances are you would give anything to tap into this inner strength Frankl talks about.


The concept of resilience is both interesting and hopeful when we consider the turmoil that hardships often throw us in. Just like Frankl, many researchers and theorists have explored our ability to survive during (and even thrive after) adversity. Resilience is a rather broad concept with many different descriptions but can generally be thought of as our ability to emotionally endure, cope with, and bounce back from hardship. Research has indicated that resilient people have a kind of a "mental reservoir" from which they can draw in times of need. Frankl noted in his book that "man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress". He also added that "everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way".


One thing is for sure, none of us can entirely escape troubling circumstances, but we can indeed choose our way of dealing with them. Resilient people are believed to cope well because they face life's hardships head-on, but this does not necessarily mean that they experience less suffering and pain than others. This mainly suggests that they are able to remain standing in the face of events that may seem wholly un-survivable and are able to draw on an inner strength to not only endure it, but sometimes even prosper after it.


Resilient people tend to (among other things):


  • possess an internal locus of control

  • have self-awareness and insight

  • have good emotional regulation and high emotional intelligence

  • have confidence in their strengths and their abilities

  • make realistic plans and carry them out

  • think of themselves as capable and competent

  • practice acceptance and self-care

  • perceive bad circumstances as temporary and changeable



If you are starting to feel like you are not a resilient person at all, do not fear. Resilience is not something that only the few "lucky ones" among us have. In fact, we can all develop and practice resilience. Think about it as a muscle that everyone has but not everyone uses. Fortunately, you can become more resilient, and cultivate this inner muscle that is available to you. Here are a few ideas that you might find useful in practicing resilience during uncertain times:


1. NURTURE SELF-COMPASSION

You know that sense of care and empathy you have for others when they are going through something terrible? Do you ever turn that inward or direct it to yourself? Self-compassion does not come as easy as compassion we have for others, but it is vitally important if we are to foster greater resilience.



2. REFRAME YOUR THOUGHTS

Challenge yourself to find new ways of thinking about your situation. Practicing resilience in this way does not necessarily mean you need to think "positive". It is thinking realistically in a way that does not brood on all the negatives. Our thoughts can often run away with us. Try to remember that you have the thoughts, the thoughts don't have you.



3. PRACTICE MINDFULNESS/MEDITATION

Mindfulness and meditation are crucial in times of uncertainty. Not only is it proven to reduce stress, but it has other benefits too (such as helping relieve sleeplessness and depression). It definitely requires commitment on your end but will be one of the best investments you will make with your time. There are loads of resources on the internet, go explore them and find what works for you. You can also have a look at Apps on your phone such as Headspace or Calm.



4. AVOID AVOIDANCE

One of the worst things we can do for ourselves in times of trouble, is to try and avoid or "check-out" from the situation or our feelings. Aside from delaying the inevitable, avoidance behaviors can actually lead to even higher levels of anxiety or helplessness. Avoidance is just a temporary relief and trains your brain to become increasingly afraid of the thing you are avoiding. The best way to start tackling this is recognize your areas of avoidance and to accumulate coping techniques so that you can face the things that you fear.



5. FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL, LET GO OF WHAT YOU CAN'T

It is a fact that there will be many things that you simply cannot control. Getting lost in those things will make you feel entirely hopeless, even if you are not hopeless at all. Rather try focus on only the things that are in your control, no matter how small or meaningless they may appear. Focus on what realistic steps you can indeed take. It is important to take accountability for yourself and reinforce an internal locus of control.



6. CONNECT WITH OTHERS

Connecting with people who you can trust and confide in will not only provide a sense of support but can also help you with gaining insight or new ways of thinking. We don't all have hundreds of people to connect with in this time, but we can definitely all still reach out for help to at least one person who is able to listen. If you are far away from family and friends, don't forget that therapy, too, is indeed a great option for connection and support.



7. INJECT MEANING INTO YOUR DAYS

Frankl sees life as a journey toward meaning. Research has shown that finding meaning in what you keep yourself busy with can enhance your resilience and lower your stress levels. This definitely does not mean that you should be doing anything ground-breaking with your days. Start small and use your time wisely. Try to spend at least a tiny portion of your day on something you find meaningful.



As you continue to navigate whatever unchartered territory you are finding yourself in right now, don't forget one last key insight from Frankl:


"when we are no longer able to change a situation,

we are challenged to change ourselves".




Lauré Coulter

Clinical Psychologist

Psych Central Rivonia

View her profile

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