By: Heidi Burmeister-Nel
Heidi Burmeister-Nel is a registered Clinical Psychologist practising in Windhoek and in Outjo. She completed both her M.A. Clinical Psychology and M.Th. Clinical Pastoral Care degrees at the University of Stellenbosch and has been in private practice for more than 16 years. Apart from her private practice she consults for corporate clients in Windhoek on employee related issues and wellness. Her professional interests and practice fields include Imago relationship therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), trauma, interpersonal neurobiology, neuropsychology and adult and adolescent psychotherapy. She currently resides in Outjo and is married with three children.
Resilience has been described as the ability to bounce or leap back from being knocked down by life’s adversities, subsequently rising stronger than what you were before. One could perhaps rather identify with more the image of someone crawling forward on hands and knees, and clumsily rising like a new-born giraffe. The words ‘bounce’ and ‘rise’ don’t do justice to the lifelong process of building resilience by way of perseverance through blood, sweat and tears.
Events in our lives have the potential to both change and shape us, for better or for worse. Developing resilience can take time and is a lifelong process. The way we interact with life events, both pleasant and unpleasant, prepares us for challenges later in life. Thus both positive and negative experiences contribute to becoming more resilient.
Many interactive factors influence our capacity to be resilient. While certain uncontrollable factors like personality, genes and the availability of support may play a role in how resilient we are in certain situations, other factors are less fixed. These can be cultivated over time. This article is about the traits and skills we can build on if we want to become more resilient. These include our awareness of what we pay attention to or focus on in life. Our attention will determine what we see in the world and how we make sense of what we see defines our ‘reality’. We all have biases in term of what we see and in how we make sense of our lives. How we evaluate and see the world is our thinking processes. Thoughts directly impact and determine our inner emotional experience. Through fascinating and complicated neurobiological processes, our thoughts determine how and what we feel, and consequently how we will act in the world.
It is therefore not as much a situation itself that impacts us most, but rather our perception about the situation. The resulting emotions from these perceptions determine how we act towards ourselves and other people as well as engage with life and the world at large. Our actions (behavioural patterns) shape how we cope and what strategies we apply during difficult and adverse times.
The evolutionist perspective shows us that humans are by nature more prone to be biased towards the negative. This is because the brain pays more attention to what is wrong and threatening, as a mechanism to ensure survival. While it is crucial to pay attention to potential threats and danger, the downside is that this tendency can result in a vicious cycle where threat becomes anticipated and focussed on.
The appraisal theorem, however, teaches us that what and how we think and ‘see’ can consciously be altered. Our awareness is shaped by a vast number of factors such as how we were raised, life events, cultural background, and parental care. Humans are the only species that can reflect on these factors and decrease the unhealthy effects of an overly negative focus by deliberately shifting perspective. This does not imply moving from pessimism to radical optimism but rather to develop our capacity for awareness and to enhance the positive experiences in our lives.
To explain our amendable traits more practically: it starts with what we feed our mind, limiting unnecessary negativity, exposure to catastrophic events, and watching alarming news. Negative thoughts trigger the fight and flight system (sympathetic nervous system). When we become aware of what we have filled our minds with and adjust our irrational thinking by gaining a more logical perspective, we lower the fight and flight system in the brain, which in turn calms the body. In this way our thoughts directly impact our physiological experience and stress responses. Similarly, mindful practices, prayer, meditation, and other self-soothing practices aid in lowering stress and facilitate self-regulation. All such methods, practices, or skills have prolonged physiological benefits.
Meaningful social / family interactions contribute to strengthening the factors needed to build resilience. As we share our life events, enjoyable moments are relived, while new memories are made. Peers are often influential in altering perspectives and offering support. When we interact in caring, and enjoyable ways, we can actively anchor the pleasurable details of a positive event in memory. This makes it easier to intentionally draw from this memory for future reference, a skill resilient people often make use of. In this way, by ‘savouring the moment,’ the senses are sharpened and attuned to the pleasant experience, making a recollection more potent. The brain reacts to these recollections similarly as it did to the original experience. With the mental picture comes the associated feeling.
Gratitude often goes hand in hand with resilience. Gratitude can be as simple as sensing the sun’s rays on our skin, noticing leaves yellowing in autumn or appreciating the smell of rain on thirsty soil. Gratitude is about shifting attention (mindfulness) to small things in our life that we can be thankful for and about responses of kindness to other people, animals or nature. Often in the act of the kindness the ripple effect generates positive feelings. Gratitude is not denial of pain and loss but seeing simple joys despite it. The shift in attention from self to other, could have just enough internal effect to make life tolerable.
The ability to self-care is another action derived from the way in which we perceive ourselves and the world. Resilient individuals understand that self-care is a necessity which can take many shapes: the way we engage in our own inner self-talk to our eating habits, our routines, our sleeping ‘hygiene’ and our physical exercise. We all know the importance of self-care and we all have our successes and failures. To care for the self is probably one of the hardest – and kindest – things we can do for ourselves.
Coping during difficult times often takes tenacity and courage, neither of which implies the absence of anxiety. It rather implies that despite fear or anxiety, or how dark and dismal things may seem, that you have the courage to step into it and face life head-on. This determination is about knowing that if I cannot get out of it, the only other way is to get into it. While discernment about what is in and out of my control is crucial, it is also about taking what is in our control, irrespective of how frivolous it may appear, and to get on with it. Taking control may be as simple as taking a shower, calling a friend, watching a sunset, or petting a dog. The power of small actions should never be underestimated.
Dealing with painful emotions is part of courage. Feeling emotions can be incredibly hard and we often ‘feel’ (or rather ‘believe’) that we are incapable of tolerating the pain, consequently, avoiding dealing with it. We often overestimate the difficulty of dealing with emotions while underestimating our ability to deal with it. Emotions need to be held, felt, and metabolised. They always carry information (not always truths) and need to be curiously explored. The brain needs to connect the dots to process and make sense of experiences. It is not time, but how we mentally put time to use, that can have a healing effect.
Cultivating our ability to be resilient is a lifelong process. Reflecting upon our life may reveal the numerous times that we have had to rely on support systems, solutions, and wisdom. The poet Mary Oliver captures something of this in a short poem entitled ‘The uses of sorrow’, written after a severe loss.
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.
Often in the midst of difficulty, pain, and loss, we have no other option but to just be present in it. Sometimes the best, or only way, to cope with adversity is to be in it and feel it. Once it has been integrated in the mind and body, we can rely on our ‘resilience chest’ to use when life and God call upon us to get into it. It is when we get into it that we often find our ‘why’, or when we have a ‘why’ it is when you get ‘into it’. As Nietzsche said, ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how’.
- The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles – Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte Ph.D.
- Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear – Elizabeth Gilbert.
- Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead – Brené Brown.
- The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child – Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.