Job loss, foreclosures, sinking savings, rising costs for just about everything—sometimes it seems as if everywhere we turn these days we see dark clouds of difficulty settling in for the long haul.
It's natural to feel overloaded by the weight of worries that multiply during hard times, whether those tough periods come from financial problems, personal loss, medical challenges or other stresses. Yet some women seem able to handle even very tough situations and come out OK, even stronger, than before. For others, the passage through tough times takes longer and may leave more scars.
Is the first group of women just luckier than the second? In a sense, yes, but it is "luck" that anyone can make for herself, says Froma Walsh, PhD, co-director of the Chicago Center for Family Health, professor emerita at the University of Chicago and author of Strengthening Family Resilience.
Resilience is the ability to rebound from crisis and weather prolonged adversity, Dr. Walsh says. It doesn't mean that you simply bounce right back or put on a phony "happy face" when trouble hits. Resilient people also suffer and struggle, and they may have days or weeks when they are discouraged—but then they take a deep breath and rally to master their challenges. “You balance out the dread and struggle with an appreciation for what you have and a strong belief that, with effort, you can turn your life around,” she says.
“Beyond coping, a resilient response can yield positive growth out of adversity,” says Dr. Walsh. “When we tap more deeply into our inner potential, we often find strengths we didn’t know we had and we build new competencies.” In the wake of hard times, many develop new priorities and purpose for their lives.
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst
Resilience can be developed and strengthened, even if you haven't been highly resilient before or have struggled with resilience-sapping anxiety, depression or stress. One way to increase your resilience is to think about how you could respond to "what ifs" before they happen. Less resilient people put off thinking about potential difficulties until they arise. Dr. Walsh suggests thinking about resilience as a "psychosocial and emotional insurance policy" that helps you land on your feet—and more.
"You have to be prepared ahead of time," says Michelle M. Fleig-Palmer, PhD, assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, who has studied how to develop resiliency for finding employment after losing a job.
Because job loss, searching for a new job and the repeated rejections you might encounter can feel very personal, Dr. Fleig-Palmer says, "the natural inclination is to think about things negatively."
Instead of doing that, she says, it's important to look at your assumptions about your situation accurately, identify correctly what barriers you might face and strategize what to do about them. Also, consider what you do at work that contributes value. That builds your internal knowledge of what you do well—providing a good tool for resilient action.
Dr. Fleig-Palmer advises asking yourself, "If I'm laid off, what do I need when I walk out the door?" You might want to brush up on your negotiating skills (to get a better severance package) or interviewing savvy, to be ready, just in case.
Such planning is "not being disloyal to your employer," she says. "It's being loyal to yourself" and improves your resilience if job loss happens.
Whether you're in the midst of tough times or worrying about encountering them, here are several other important ways to become more resilient:
- View difficulties as challenges that are meaningful to take on and master, says Dr. Walsh. Feel the negative emotions, but don't get paralyzed by adversity. Accept what is beyond your control, focus on taking initiative and making the best of the options you have. Research shows that more resilient people adjust their emotional responses to suit the actual demands of the situation. Those who are less resilient show prolonged emotional response to all events, regardless of whether the situations are threatening or not.
- Evaluate your strengths and resources. Think about what you do well and about other challenges you've faced and handled, as well as who you can count on to be on your side. (If you're stuck in a negative zone, speaking with a counselor or therapist can help you sort these out.) Identify others who've handled similar crises, take inspiration from them and talk with them, if possible, about the actions they took.
- Adopt an attitude of hope, even when things appear bleak. Look into the future with "positive illusions" that foster healthy resilience. Keeping a forward focus may take persistence through frequent setbacks or irrevocable losses, but it helps you see how to build a beneficial outcome. "Maybe there's no way to go back to the life we had before, and we have to envision and create a new life for ourselves," Dr. Walsh says.
- Strengthen your body. Become more active, whether by walking more, lifting small hand weights or doing exercises in a chair. Improving your physical strength helps your emotions and sustains your resilience. If you've been eating a lot of high-fat or sugary foods as a way of dealing with tough times, start replacing those foods with more vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. Healthful food choices improve brain function and mood, support your resilience and give you vital fuel for taking on challenges.
- Reach out for support from your "lifelines"—your friends, children, relatives, faith or activities that give you spiritual satisfaction, Dr. Walsh says. Don't think you should be able to handle bad events on your own. "All the research shows that we're stronger by reaching out," she notes. Join with others facing similar situations and become lifelines for each other. Pets can provide support that is as strong as many human bonds and also aid resilient healing.
- Create connections with others. Find purpose in something beyond yourself. Dr. Fleig-Palmer advises doing volunteer work. Studies show that helping others gives strength and healing to those doing the work. "When you are out of a job, you are feeling helpless. When you volunteer, you are in a giving position. It boosts your self-esteem and resiliency," she says.
- Discover the power of the positive. Although it's important to share sadness and negative feelings when facing tough times, you need to then focus on what you can do next. Choose to be with people who take a positive approach to life. Pause every day to think about the good things you have, no matter how simple—the view from your window, a helpful neighbor or music you enjoy listening to. Thinking about the good in your life summons up positive emotions, which increase resilience and life satisfaction.
- Add humor by joking with your friends, watching comedies and reading funny books, articles and online postings. Take needed breaks from your daily concerns, even if all you can manage is a 10- or 20-minute walk. Balancing your thoughts and activities helps keep you resilient and flexible.
Click here to read more about how optimism can improve your health.