Resilience: How to Flourish in Difficult Times

“Between a stimulus and a response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our
response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. The last of human freedoms is to
choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
– attributed to Viktor Frankl (psychoanalyst and cncentration camp survivor)

In the past few weeks I have heard numerous people say that they feel beat up and battered by the winter we have just journeyed through.  And, I must admit, that in recent weeks I’ve been thinking that very same thing.  And, as the days are getting warmer, bringing the promise of some respite from the cold and heaps of snow and checker board of potholes, I find myself pondering the miracle of the resilience I’ve been witnessing.  Smiles on the faces of people passing by as we walk – taking in the fresh air; feeling the warmth of the sun; smelling the moist melting earth; hearing the light, hopeful sounding songs of chirping of birds; seeing the beginnings of a plant sheepishly poking out of the soil; sensing an inner joy rooted in an awareness of Strength.

Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.”   Inherent within our human condition is this capacity to be resilient.  And, although there are many circumstances that can impair our ability to tap into this innate capacity to recover from difficulties, research also suggests that we can employ strategies to help us recover and strengthen that resilience.   And, when we practice these strategies we are actively engaging in the process of neuroplasticity – the process of growing new neurons, developing new and permanent neural networks of habit and memory.  Linda Graham, a psychotherapist and author, talks about four components of resilience: wisdom, courage, patience and perseverance.  Below I share with you some of my thoughts about how to utilize each of them to recover and/or to strengthen your own resilience.

Like a long, cold, brutal winter life can be hard.  It requires you to be your own sage, to draw on the astute insight you have within.  This insight, your sage advice, inevitably will invite you to just accept the truth that life is hard, to roll with the punches and to be flexible in your responses to the difficulties life presents.  This is what we call response flexibility.  It refers to the practice of putting some mental space between a stimulus (event, circumstance, difficulty, etc.) and your response to it.  Take time to become aware of how you respond to those life difficulties and recognize how your response impacts you in the present moment.  Give yourself the freedom to choose how you will respond rather than just reactively responding.  Viktor Frankl put it this way, “In our response lies our growth and freedom”.  This doesn’t suggest that you adopt a Pollyannaish way of thinking about things.  Rather, it suggests holding an attitude both of acceptance that life can be hard and that you can bounce back.

When life throws us some difficult punches it’s natural to flinch and to want to avoid the pain and discomfort that results.  This can feel relieving in the moment, in the short-term.  But, in the long run avoidance intensifies the negative impact of the difficulty – it can create longstanding neural networks that stifle your innate resilience.  My suggestion: lean into the discomfort – feel it, know it, seek to understand it.  And in doing so, you will begin the process of transforming how your system responds to it – choosing the route, rather than just going along for the ride!

The undertaking of rediscovering your resilient capacities and of building new neural pathways takes time.  It takes active work and it won’t happen overnight.  So, best to be patient with yourself.  Hold yourself with a kind and gentle heart – with the understanding that you are, like the rest of us, progressing on your journey one moment at a time.  It reminds me of the perennials in my backyard that day by day, season by season weather many difficulties and in doing so develop stronger roots and continue to grow and flourish.

Rediscovering, rebuilding and enhancing your innate resilience takes work.  And, let’s face it, work is work – you have to practice, to keep at it despite delays and roadblocks and despite how difficult it may be.  So, dig in, commit to your work, nurture yourself as you journey through, and allow yourself to seek support along the way.  Your resilience is yours for the claiming!

“I can bechanged by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”
– Maya Angelou