Resilience: never give up. Fall down seven times; get up eight

~ Japanese Proverb

Resilience is our ability to recover from adverse circumstances.

It is our capacity to bounce back from difficult conditions, but I would argue that rather like an elastic band that is overstretched once too often, we never quite return to our original state. Something in us has changed: we have learned and grown from the challenge. A good friend of mine, Shirley Blanch of the Mindfulness Cafe podcast, terms this process “bouncing forward”, which is an extremely positive way of looking at it, since it suggests progress has been made.

But why is resilience important?

According to Darwin, resilience is a key factor in determining the survival of a species:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, 

nor the most intelligent, 

but the once most responsive to change”

The good news is we are all resilient, although this may vary in degrees. Adversity does not discriminate: we have all faced challenges in our lives, such as bereavement, divorce, mental illness, abuse, and so on, and we have all survived.

I first learned about resilience at the age of 4, when my older brother, Simon, died suddenly at the age of 7. My parents were completely stunned by the loss, but had to continue to navigate life if only for the sake of my sister, then aged 6 and I. What they went through is hard to comprehend. Many would agree that losing a child is the worst loss a human being can endure. But it is remarkable the number that do it, including my parents.  They somehow found the strength within themselves to come to terms with the loss and go on with life.

As a 4 year old, I did not comprehend the loss, but I accepted it, as infants often do, and went on with life relatively unscathed. My parents crafted a new normal and, apart from the occasional angry outburst from either one of them, an outsider would not have known anything had changed. They banded together and put on the proverbial brave face.

It was only years later that my mother confided in me some details of the hell she had been through. She told me she had , on more than one occasion, contemplated suicide while driving. She had imagined letting go of the steering wheel whilst driving at speed, but had been stopped by the image of my sister and I in the rear view mirror. It was us that kept her going.

Now, I realise that my parents built their own resilience using a number of different strategies. Most remarkably, they had faith and they clung to the notion that what had happened was for some divine purpose beyond their reach or understanding. They also had each other. In building resilience, it is important to develop strong relationships and support networks. Having at least one person you can rely on in tough times, increases your ability to cope. My mother was also very good at seeing the positive in everything. Around the same time as Simon died, a neighbour’s son died of leukaemia. I distinctly recall my mother saying we were lucky as Simon simply fell asleep (he died under anaesthetic) and didn’t suffer. Looking for positive aspects is a really effective strategy in overcoming adversity. Expressing gratitude, in spite of the overall circumstances, can help you maintain a more balanced perspective and recover more quickly.

We all have a degree of resilience within us, which we have built up over the years.

Here are my tips to building resilience further:

  1. Look after yourself – pay attention to the quantity and quality of your sleep, eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly, outside if possible.
  2. Practice thought awareness and cognitive restructuring – try to reframe what you think about a situation more positively. Challenge your thoughts as they come and go.
  3. Learn from your mistakes – try to break any repeat patterns.
  4. Choose your response – avoid knee-jerk responses. Pause and contemplate your reaction.
  5. Develop strong relationships and support networks. Seek out friends and relatives that can help you, or mentor, coach or counsellor.
  6. Maintain perspective. Try not to overreact. Consider what you have already been through – how does it compare?

Adversity does not discriminate, but it also doesn’t last forever.

“This too shall pass”

If you accept that change is inevitable, you know that everything is temporary: good times and bad times will come and go. Celebrate when times are good; endure when times are bad. Look to all that you have already overcome and take comfort. You are stronger than you think.

I talk more about resilience on the Mindfulness Cafe podcast: