Responding to Life’s Challenges with Resilience and Strength
By Mary Kendrick Moore
Each of us faces challenges in life. Being human takes us on a journey through extraordinary times of happiness and also through devastating experiences of loss and fear. Have you ever found yourself wondering why some people seem to bounce back with stamina and courage after trauma and loss, and why others sink into an ongoing place of fear or mourning?
The word “resilience” is used in a number of different ways. I can find myself feeling resilient and refreshed after facing a particularly difficult few months at work. You might find yourself feeling resilient after coping with a car accident or a life-threatening illness. Or you might find yourself feeling as if you will never be the same again after being the victim of a violent crime or sudden traumatic injury. In organizations where we work and in our own personal lives, change occurs at a rapid pace in today’s society, leaving us vulnerable to life’s uncertainties, but learning to be resilient during difficult times is something that is possible for everyone.
Working your way through
When we experience a loss or disaster, we return life to what it was before. When a job is lost, we must move in a new direction. When a city is flooded, belongings must be replaced and houses rebuilt. When a plane crashes, the loss and death are irreversible. Forces large and small can compel you in a new direction. Events like these require strength, courage, and the ability to imagine a new way forward. This is what we mean by resilience.
Resilience comes from two essential life skills—the ability to resist being pushed away from the kind of life we want to live (including our homes and goals) and the ability to embrace something different when we need to. And so, when you know a flood is coming, you are resilient when you fill and place as many sand bags as your physical strength allows; and when the flood comes despite all efforts, you are resilient when you start rebuilding. You will become resilient as you adapt to your changed circumstances without losing your desire to fulfill your purpose in life. This CareNote offers you some practices to aid you along your journey.
Acknowledge your loss and fear.
Grief is always a part of sudden loss or trauma, whether it’s brought on by a natural disaster, an accident, or someone else’s harmful actions. Numbness and shock will probably be a strong part of your early response. This can be followed by intense bouts of sadness and, sometimes, depression. The beginning of healing comes with accepting your own pain and loss and, in some cases, the reality of how close you came to death.
After a traumatic experience, fear and anxiety are common. You may have thoughts like I will never go back into that house; I can’t drive down that street; I don’t think I can ever go deep sea diving again; I am afraid to fly now; I’m not sure I want to work in this profession any longer. These thoughts give voice to your fear about placing yourself in harm’s way again. We naturally want to avoid recreating or reliving a painful experience. Pay attention and learn what triggers your fear and anxiety. Is it a bell that sounds like the monitor in the emergency room, a train whistle, a gunshot, a thunderstorm with strong wind, police sirens? Initially, sounds and places, even images, can take you right into the depth of your fear.
Our memories are strong and your brain will remember the sights and sounds that preceded your traumatic event. After a job loss, the trigger can be as simple as your next supervisor calling you into their office. For one woman who survived an alligator attack, her fear escalated every time she saw an image of a marsh. Our brains have to relearn that most appointments with supervisors are purposeful and provide direction for our work. Our brains have to accept once again that not all airplanes crash.
Believe in your ability to foster resilience. New research suggests that resilience is more widespread and teachable than previously thought. “That’s because our resilience is rooted not only in our beliefs and values, in our character, experiences…and genes, but critically in our habits of mind—habits we can cultivate and change,” says Andrew Zolli in his book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. In communities, following a disaster, far more people display resilience than those who settle into chronic stress and grief.
You are created in a way that you can find strength to heal and flourish. This is why author Steve Goodier could write: “My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present.”
Exercise your brain.
Being resilient isn’t just about working through loss, with its accompanying fear and grief. You might say, “I don’t want to get up today and go to work.” When those times come, let your brain and your thoughts be a balance for your feelings, replying, “I will get up and go to work today because that is what will help me heal.” In my own research and work with caring ministry, I found numerous stories about people who reported that engaging their brain became an important part of their journey toward resilience. One woman who survived a shark attack found her salvation in learning to knit.
The repetitive brain activity of knitting not only calmed her but helped her not to be consumed by her trauma. When a friend of hers then experienced a similar crisis and called her in emotional turmoil, she at first wanted to retreat and sink into her own despair once again. She wanted to run, not knowing how to help her friend. Instead, she paused, took a deep breath and said, “Come over to my house; and I’ll teach you how to knit.” Research suggests that keeping your brain busy holds a key to working through trauma and loss. From word games to carpentry or crafts to new learning through education, an active brain contributes to a resilient spirit.
Find support among those you trust. Find friends or a support group where you can meet with others who have had a similar experience. Not everyone will understand why you still feel anxious or depressed months after a traumatic event. After all, you survived and everyone wants to celebrate. Even so, you can foster your healing and your return to a “new normal” when you have a few people you can trust with all of your feelings, and a good friend or mental health provider that can push you to step back into your life. Remember that trust can also be an important part of your spirituality as you voice your story, with all of your feelings and questions, before God.
The great poet E. E. Cummings wrote, “Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” Your spirit is created to respond to life with resilience and strength. When you face a difficult circumstance in your life, stay in touch with your gifts and abilities and what you are passionate about. A journey through pain and uncertainty can deepen your understanding of your purpose in life in ways you never imagined.
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