Build Resilience to Stressful Life Events

by Gary Gilles

resilienceEvery person faces difficult, sometimes life-altering, events at various points in their life. These events might include the loss of a job, a serious illness, the death of a loved one, a natural disaster or other situations that bring unwanted changes. Some can even be traumatic. Your ability to cope with these stressful life events has much to do with how resilient you are.

What is resilience?

Resilience is your ability to adapt to adversity or unexpected changes that occur in your life. For example, say you have an accident that puts you in a leg cast and keeps you from driving for three months. Some people might respond to this unfortunate event with despair and focus on all the things they won’t be able to do. Others would acknowledge the inconveniences that go along with this situation but put their energy toward finding ways around the obstacles put in their path by the accident. What’s the difference between these two responses? The first group is overwhelmed by the stress they feel and paralyzed by the changes they must make. The latter group doesn’t like the outcome any more than the former group but these people focus on finding ways to adapt. They have the ability to bounce back reasonably soon after a setback. This ability to flex and find solutions to life’s challenges is what we call resilience.

Contrary to what many believe, resilience is not an inborn personality trait that some people naturally have and others lack. It’s a learned skill. And that’s good news because being resilient is one of the best ways to protect against the effects of stress. Since we can’t completely avoid stress the goal of effective stress management is two-fold: exercise good decision-making over the things you can control in order to minimize self-imposed stress, while being resilient toward the stressors you can’t control, such as sickness, accidents and losses.

Here are five ways you can begin to build resilience to the stressful life events you might encounter.

  1. Seek out support

One of best ways to adapt to life’s challenges is to build and maintain positive and loving relationships. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this type of support. When you’re feeling stressed, discouraged or overwhelmed, turning to trusted people in your life can give you a renewed sense of strength and cut through any distorted thoughts you might have about your situation.

But don’t expect those around you, even those you see on a daily basis, to read your mind. You have to be willing to make your needs known. Think of the recovering alcoholic or drug user who calls their sponsor or a good friend when they feel prone to relapsing. They call this person to get perspective and be reminded of what’s true and healthy. The encouragement of a loving person in your life can multiply your resiliency to stress far beyond what you can muster on your own.

  1. Build up your protective reserves

Your ability to be resilient under stress requires you to have emotional and physical reserves to draw upon. One of the most important ways to build these reserves is by practicing good self-care. Think of the stressors you encounter on a daily basis as different types of balls being hurled at you from all sides. Some of these balls are soft and small; others are hard and large. Now, think of self-care as a suit of armor that you wear to deflect the impact of those balls when they hit you. With the armor on, you easily deflect the small stressors that come your way and to some extent the large ones as well. Even when a big stressor knocks you down, you are more able to get up and keep going. Without the armor you are much more vulnerable and the accrued effects of stress can knock you down and keep you down.

How do you build up these reserves as a protective means against stress? Start with getting an adequate amount of sleep, eating nutritious food, making time for recreation and investing energy into people and activities that are in line with your values. The better you care for yourself, the more equipped you are to manage stress.

  1. Be proactive

When you are proactive you create or cause something to happen rather than responding to it after it has happened. You strengthen your resiliency when you are proactive but you weaken it when you become passive and reactionary. Just like resiliency, being passive and reactionary is a learned response and one that you can change with practice. Instead of resigning yourself to fate when life throws you a curve, figure out what needs to be done to move through it, make a concrete and realistic plan and take action. Continually set goals for the future will help propel you toward more action. It may take some time to recover from a setback or loss, but your situation will improve if you continue to deliberately work at it.

  1. Build on your experience

Up to this point in your life, what have you learned about your familiar stress triggers and how to manage them? Most people know when they feel stress but have not spent much time reflecting on how they can specifically build on what they’ve learned. It’s as if they start all over again each time they bump into the stress monster. But why not take advantage of what you’ve already learned about yourself to build resiliency. You know more than you think. How have you coped with hardship in the past? What skills and strategies have helped you through tough times? What approaches have not worked well? Write these down and make a conscious effort to apply what you know about yourself as you navigate future life challenges.

  1. View adversity as normal

Even though virtually no likes the fact that hardship, trauma, sorrow and pain are part of our lives, the question isn’t whether we will experience adversity but how we will manage it. When you brace yourself against the winds of adversity in an effort to fight it, you can end up broken. The gale force winds are simply too strong at times. But, if like a tree in the wind, you learn to bend, become flexible and adapt to the new challenges that emerge, you can find ways to not only survive but thrive. And when you can learn to do that, you know that you have learned resilience.

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