Bouncing back

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated” 

Maya Angelou

A few experiences this past month have tested my ability to bounce back. To keep trying when at first (or second, or third) attempt, I didn’t succeed. It’s made me think of those large yellow boxes you sometimes see on the roadside, emblazoned with bold lettering of a four-letter word: GRIT.  At times I have found it a struggle to get back on that metaphorical horse and keep going. It’s got me wondering about our ability to bounce back from failure or disaster, and how we can cultivate grit or its shorter-term sibling, resilience. 

As an important aside, we are of course seeing true grit every day, with the tremendous courage shown by the people of Ukraine facing situations which no fellow human should ever have to contend with. Now more than ever, grit or resilience is needed in abundance. My article this month does not try to relate to the conflict in Ukraine, that would require a far more profound and delicate exploration. 

 Building resilience

The good news is that we can learn resilience, it’s not just something you have or don’t have. Plus, it’s important to realise that we may have resilience over some experiences and not over others. It’s not a permanent state. Below are some words of (hopeful) wisdom on how we can build resilience.

Know thyself – Get to understand how you typically respond to adversity (based on past events). This can tell us a lot about ourselves, our strengths and our vulnerabilities. From this knowledge, we can develop more positive and useful ways of coping and more easily identify experiences which might cause us to wobble. It’s easy to forget our strengths especially in times of stress, so it’s useful to remember that we have coped in the past with facing adversity.

Change the narrative – People who approach life with greater optimism often feel more control in their lives. Focus on what you can do in the given situation (not what you can’t) and try to avoid linking it to past setbacks. If we cling onto a narrative that “this always happens to me” or “I’m cursed”, then we’ll start looking for negative examples to support our mantra. Swap the negative script for a more open and positive one and you’ll begin to approach obstacles with greater resilience. 

Self-regulate – Add some stress reducing tools to your mental health regime, to help you remain focused in times of stress. Such tools can include mindfulness, guided imagery, grounding (body scan or focusing) and breathing techniques.  Other activities such as journaling, exercising outdoors, having good sleep hygiene and creative outlets can help us manage ourselves and our reactions to difficult situations. 

Social support – It’s an old cliché but a problem shared is a problem halved. I very recently faced my own very small wobble, and once I reached out to a good friend (who very kindly called me to support me further), I immediately felt so much better and able to face my difficulty with added resilience. It’s very easy, when we’re on our own, to see situations worse than they are.  Reaching out to others and receiving support can greatly add to our ability to cope. So, developing a stable and supportive network of connections around us, be it family, friends, communities etc. can help us with our own resilience building.

Post- traumatic growth

There is a type of positive development called “post -traumatic growth” which has gotten a fair bit of attention recently. This refers to the notion that there can be a positive outcome to experiencing trauma in the long term despite the suffering. Some psychologists have debated whether this experience actually exists and simply acts as a buffer or avoidance towards the actual pain or distress. The concept has taken on a slight cliché bumper sticker personality, “what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger” rings some bells.  

But that would be misunderstanding the concept. Post-traumatic growth is not about avoiding the negative experience, its “a gruelling, terrible, difficult process,” says Dr Jennifer Kane, a clinical psychologist who has studied post-traumatic growth. In one study, Kane found that university students who experienced severely distressing events, (for example the sudden death of a loved one or a car accident), were less likely to go through post-traumatic growth if they tried to avoid their negative feelings. The opposite also appeared true; those who engaged with their distress on a deeper level were more likely to experience positive psychological outcomes later on. 

So, if we’re after long-term growth from personal setbacks, then really engaging with the whole experience is crucial. It’s not about avoiding difficulties or resisting change, or just “getting over it”, it’s not an excuse to bypass our negative experiences. As the fabulous Brene Brown explains “Failure can become nourishment if we are willing to get curious, show up vulnerable and human, and put rising strong into practice.” 

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