Getting through life challenges requires a certain level of resiliency, but for some of us getting through the day can be too much. This article examines how resiliency is formed and what we can do to increase it.
Every person’s life experience is a combination of good, joyful, painful and hard. This is very normal, and all of us experience each to some extent. Challenges that we face or have faced may be extreme, dangerous, complicated or painful. And yet many of us take it for granted that we will be able to withstand or recover from such difficulties. Some of us however find ourselves overwhelmed and afraid of life challenges, and can be impacted by events far longer and more intensely than the actual situation seems to merit. Or else, you may find that in some situations you can use the challenge and commit more determinedly to your goals, and yet in others there may be a sense of fear or hurt that holds you back, leaving you despondent and ready to give up. If so, know that you are not alone.
Getting over it.
There are two systems in the brain that determine the quality of our response to situations around us. On the one hand we have a defensive, safety-seeking approach, and on the other a creative, play-focused approach. Which one we habitually use usually depends on which one was activated most in our early years. Those who suffered abuse, neglect or trauma typically had their defensive system regularly activated and will likely respond similarly to situations throughout their life. Unfortunately, our society tends to expect us to get over painful experiences quickly, leading to a distinct lack of understanding and feeling of isolation for the individual who is deeply affected by daily events. This impatience stems from the reality that dealing with other people’s fear is often terrifying, especially if our own pain and need for safety has not been addressed. Unfortunately experiencing others’ hostility when in a defensive state can create a negative feedback loop, from which it is difficult to escape.
Weathering the storm.
Thankfully, there are a number of things you can do when your own defensive system is activated. First, is accepting that you feel the way you do. This is much harder than it sounds, as our natural tendency is to avoid those feelings of pain and discomfort, to deny their reality, and to hide away in coping mechanisms and self-soothing behaviours that may not actually be helpful in the long run. However naming what is happening in the moment, using neutral observations such as ‘My feet are pressing down on the floor’ ‘My breathing is shallow’ ‘There is a pain in my head’ ‘There is a tightness in my stomach’ and so on allows a safe pathway to the discomfort. It also provides an opportunity for you to recognise that you can tolerate this experience, you can exist with this pain and still survive. Our culture seems to teach us that life should not be painful, that things should always be pleasant, and that feeling negatively is a bad thing. In fact, it is very normal to experience pain in response to undesirable circumstances, especially when we are carrying unresolved trauma. Understanding that challenges are inevitable, and having a safe way to experience yourself surviving even with the pain, builds the belief in your capacity to tolerate what is going wrong. It also increases your ability to stay calm and wait until the challenging situation has passed.
Reframing your experience can also help. Our attitudes about our ability to cope with challenge can determine how we experience it. If we believe ourselves weak for being affected by difficulties, then we will fight, hide from and avoid the very normal, temporary response to negative situations. However, if we reconsider what it is to be strong or resilient, it can be possible to recognise that you are doing amazingly well even in difficult times. The dictionary defines ‘resilience’ as being strong, tough, hardy, durable, hard-wearing and irrepressible. The image that comes to mind for me is a mighty oak that bears the brunt of the storms and hardly moves at all. However, the secondary meaning of ‘resilient’ is supple, flexible and pliable. I prefer this definition better when talking about resilience, as it contains a sense of movement, of being pushed against, and yet somehow remaining untouched. The image that occurs to me here is that of the flexible willow that bends and gives in a fierce wind and yet bounces back once the storm has passed. Perhaps, then, it is possible for us to regard ourselves as resilient simply for weathering the storm and bouncing back, no matter how long that takes.
Finding safety in relationship.
Our habitual patterns of responding to challenges are often defined in childhood in relation to our caregivers’ attitudes and reactions. This means that we learn how to be in the world within the context of a relationship. Those of us lucky enough to have had mainly loving and attentive caregivers would have learned that the world is mostly safe and so typically operate from a position of adventure and discovery. For the rest of us, however, there is still hope. Relationships in later life can enable the brain to make that switch from safety-seeking to creativity and play, especially when the relationship is mutually supportive and nurturing. Therapy can often provide that experience of what it is like to be in a supportive relationship, giving you a taste of what a healthy and nurturing relationship is like. Being with someone who recognises your strengths even when you don’t, and who carefully listens to your fears and concerns rather than expecting you to have everything all sorted out, is deeply healing in itself and can allow an experience of calm and safety to emerge. Combined with hypnotherapy, the ways in which you think about yourself and your own capabilities can start to change. When you are with someone who believes in you, and when you start to discover other ways of thinking about challenges, something almost indefinable begins to shift. It is a little like waking up, and realising that you are – and always have been – much stronger, and much more resilient, than you ever believed possible before.
Take some time to consider the following questions for yourself. Take care of yourself as you do so, as uncomfortable issues may arise. If you would like some support in sorting through your discoveries please feel free to get in touch.
- How did you learn to deal with challenges as a child? Do you habitually respond in the same way to current difficulties?
- Have you ever taken time to notice what the physical experience of being challenged is like? What avoiding tactics do you use?
- Do you feel comfortable thinking of yourself as ‘resilient’? What image would make you feel more resilient – the oak or the willow?
- What relationships do you have that create a sense of safety and play in your life? What would you like to see more of in your relationships?
If you liked this article, please feel free to comment or ask questions on Inner Joy’s facebook page. If you have your own burning question that you would like answered in a future article you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org