Getting Back Up: 3 Keys to Becoming More Resilient

Young woman holds knee after bike crashThe concept of resiliency, or the ability to bounce back after a stressor or hardship, has been popping up a lot lately in articles and studies about how to be happier. But although it sounds like a buzzword, resilience is more than just a trendy idea—it’s a key factor in how we cope with the world. Over and over in trauma studies, it’s been shown that not only can people recover from brutal circumstances, they can thrive from them. It turns out what matters is not how hard or how often we fall, but whether we’re willing to get back up.

The fall we’re recovering from can range from serious trauma, such as war, to common struggles such as relationship breakups. And sometimes crises are like a trampoline: the farther down you fall, the higher you can bounce back up. In Supersurvivors, authors David B. Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravetz list people who have lived through ordeals and gone on to extraordinary accomplishments, such as man who ran a triathlon within a year of being struck by a drunk driver and losing his leg. 

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Although it’s tempting to think only exceptional people have a talent for bouncing back, it’s within all of us. As humans, we have a natural tendency toward healing. When we cut a finger, our body immediately sends platelets to clot the blood and white blood cells to fight infection. Similarly, when we go through a traumatic experience, the brain immediately begins to look for ways to make sense of it and feel better. We don’t have to be “super” survivors to be good at growing from struggle. We can just tune in to our innate predisposition for well-being, and cultivate it.

So how do we become more resilient? There are a few key conditions that help this strength grow. The first is faith. To be able to withstand something bad happening and not feel devastated and frozen by it, we have to believe in something positive. Sometimes this faith is religious, but it doesn’t have to be. My brilliant mentor talks about feeling a confidence in “a friendly future,” or a general optimistic belief that things will work out.

The fall we’re recovering from can range from serious trauma, such as war, to common struggles such as relationship breakups. And sometimes crises are like a trampoline: the farther down you fall, the higher you can bounce back up.

Feldman and Kravetz don’t adhere to the idea of optimism, which they state is not always helpful after a crisis in which it’s obvious things won’t simply work out well. Instead, they assert the concept of “grounded hope,” which combines positivity with realism. We don’t just wake up from overwhelming loss and sprinkle sunshine on it, Pollyanna-style. Instead, we can gradually learn to accept that bad things happen, come to terms with the unfairness of life, and THEN move forward, often with new skills such as better coping techniques, more frustration tolerance, and increased compassion for other people in tough circumstances. 

It turns out the majority of trauma survivors recover and recuperate. I’ve heard from people who were abused for years, conscripted into cults, or who lost not just their spouses but also their children in wars. Despite the horrors they endured—struggles I look at and wonder if I could live through—most of them pick themselves back up. They start new families. They find things to laugh about. And many of them say the same thing: “What other choice do I have?” They somehow found the strength and faith to continue forward movement, instead of giving in permanently to grief.

Another condition of resiliency is to combine thinking about it with not thinking about it. To progress from something takes both leaning in and feeling the difficult feelings from it, as well as leaning away and distracting from it. I call it “touch and release.” When anxiety or sadness or overwhelm come up, we spend a little time “touching” them, or acknowledging and experiencing them, despite how painful this can be. Then we let them go, momentarily, by focusing on things that are more pleasant or calming. What we choose to distract ourselves with can be sensory, such as a warm bath or massage, or active, such as a walk in the park or a workout. It can be large (a trip to Australia) or small (Jamoca Almond Fudge). The important thing is to find what soothes you, and practice it regularly.

A final important factor is relationships. Over and over, in research and in life experience, it has been shown that human connectedness promotes healing. Isolating ourselves, a common urge when we’re feeling lousy, and not talking things out is a quick path toward fear and pain.

Connection works best if it goes both ways—we take support from friends and family, then we give back to our community. Find activities that increase your feeling of being meaningful in the world and help you stay attached to the larger world. Volunteer activities, reaching out to others who are struggling in support groups, and nonprofit work can make us feel useful. In addition, they perform the sweet alchemy of turning emotion into empathy: I understand your pain because I’ve felt mine so acutely.

So go ahead, fall off the bike. You don’t have to learn a great lesson from it, and you don’t have to use your experience to become the greatest bike rider who ever lived. Sometimes it’s enough to just get back on the bike and pedal onward.

Reference:

Feldman, D. B., & Kravetz, L. D. (2015). Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success. New York, NY: Harper Wave.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, LMFT, therapist in Tarzana, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Cam

    Cam

    April 7th, 2016 at 2:46 PM

    It has helped me so many times in my own life when I know that there is someone there who has my back. I have been very fortunate to have a large group of both friends and family who I can rely on in a time of need, and if I needed a good talking to or jst a little moral support I know that they will be there for me.

  • Reese

    Reese

    April 7th, 2016 at 5:06 PM

    I like the reality that the more we are given then the more we should and hopefully will choose to give back to others, which they will in turn pay forward themselves.

  • Lydia

    Lydia

    April 8th, 2016 at 10:13 AM

    It was all a big puzzle for me to finally learn that I was stronger than I ever believed that I was. Once I found that I could do it and that I was indeed a strong person, I feel like I came to the greater realization that I could do this, I did not have to play the roles of meek and weak any longer.. This did not happen overnight for me; it was a long process that took a great deal of hard work and tears. But hey, I have come through to the other side whole and happy, and despite the work, it has made me such a better person in the end.

  • layla

    layla

    April 9th, 2016 at 12:21 PM

    sounds like it should be so easy to shake it off but to me it seems like it zaps all of my strength when I try to fight against it. it feels easier to allow it to swallow you

  • Vicki B

    Vicki B

    April 11th, 2016 at 8:31 AM

    Layla, I understand what you mean, it’s very hard work to fight back against despair. I encourage you to find someone to talk to, whether it’s a therapist or a friend, for support.

  • Amanda

    Amanda

    April 11th, 2016 at 11:18 AM

    I fully believe that teaching our children to be more resilient has to be one of the most important things that we as parents are not doing our best at these days. I think that we all want life to be so smooth and easy for them, and while it makes the kids feel good, what are we really teaching them? That there will always be an adult around to clean up their messes? When really they need to be taught by us how to do some of the heavy lifting for themselves.

  • Gregory

    Gregory

    April 12th, 2016 at 7:26 AM

    I tend to want to bury the thoughts that I don’t want to face up to, even though here it says that I should somehow find a way to manage both.

  • Brian S

    Brian S

    April 12th, 2016 at 10:36 AM

    Nice Article! Having recently lost my 91 year old Mother, I find your words comforting and encouraging. The part about relationships really resonates with me, being Jewish and having just experienced the process of sitting “shiva” – where I was surrounded by my siblings and family nearly constantly for a week. I understand the value of those relationships from a new perspective now.

  • Jennifer L . W.

    Jennifer L . W.

    April 16th, 2016 at 9:20 AM

    I loved your article. The goal of becoming more resilient is a wonderful goal to aspire too. I would emphasize though that grief is a process and that there is no linear progression. Who decides when it is time to get back on the bike? Loss hurts. To not go fully through the grieving process makes the feelings resurface in a more painful fashion later on. Fully dealing with the grief allows the process of becoming more resilient much easier.

  • Vicki B

    Vicki B

    April 17th, 2016 at 8:43 AM

    Brian, I’m so sorry for your loss, and glad for your experience of sitting shiva and being surrounded by both ritual and people who can honor your mother, share your memories and offer their help. Jennifer L., thanks for that reminder that there’s no one way to “do” suffering, and that it comes and goes–often when you’re least expecting it.

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