Persevering through Pain and Loss: How to Promote Resilience
Justin Less, LICSW
Caring Path Counseling, LLC
Throughout our lives we are challenged to face difficult (at times devastating) circumstances and life events. What allows some people to survive and persevere while others languish and fall into hopeless and helpless patterns?
Resilience is defined as "an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change." (Merriam Webster). The American Psychological Association defines resilience as "the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat." Resilience is associated with one's adaptability, flexibility, and ability to move forward and "bounce back" when encountering the pain of life. These choices and action points promote hope, when hope is amplified the desired action increases. Hopelessness on the other hand, feeds off of inaction. But what can a person do when facing profoundly difficult life experiences and a drive to be resilient feels out of reach?
All human beings, by virtue of nature and nurture, contain a unique combination of personality traits, behavioral predispositions, strengths, and weaknesses. Resilience is a complex combination of genetic, psychological, biological, social and spiritual factors (Charney).
Resilience isn't about expected oneself to do "wonderfully" within the context of adversity, it's more about continuing to live life and allow one's life to unfold, even when the unimaginable as occurred. It isn't denial of pain, we still acknowledge and experience the pain we are in, as this is an important human need and life opportunity---to feel the full range of human emotions and experiences. But with resilience, there is an ability to contain the pain in a way that doesn't allow it to overtake what we have built and are continuing to build to create the lives we desire.
How to promote one's resilience is an important scientific and humanitarian question. The research thus far as shown some key factors that we can all keep in mind when facing the inevitable pain of life. It is important to engage the prefrontal cortex (the executive region of the brain) as much as possible during adverse periods in our lives. This is because when facing stress the lower more primitive areas of the brain (the limbic system) are more active and can cause a flood of hormonal and neurochemical reactions that increase the stress response. It is important to activate the relaxation response as much as possible---this is where self-care practices come in (finding joy, opportunities to relax, and maintaining structure and some sense of control in one's day-to-day life).
Mindfulness practices and meditation can decrease the activation of the stress response in the brain and body. When facing stress through mindfulness, we notice and observe the stressful thoughts, sensations, and emotions without extrapolating or projecting them into the future. We are able to stay with the moment as it is through a lens of acceptance, compassion and non-judgment. Contrast this with common approach to stress which involves non-acceptance, judgment, and trying to get rid of it (thereby amplifying its presence).
We can promote our resilience through maintaining and strengthening our social connections and support. It is also important to recognize that although life is hard and you may be lacking clarity and direction right now, in time you will feel good again. Resilient people are able to keep their pain in perspective by considering a long-term perspective: "although life hurts now, good things are in my future." It is important to trust in our innate drive for survival and self-realization.
Spiritual practices and traditions are soothing and provide opportunities for finding meaning in pain. Our belief in a higher power can strengthen our sense of purpose, support, and inspiration to persevere. People who are resilient focus on action instead of allowing emotions to control their action. They identify small steps each day that will allow them to move forward even while they are still experiencing pain and despair. Each day they give themselves permission to feel the pain they experience, offering themselves compassion, and simultaneously recognize what steps them can take to promote hope and healing.