Every now and then, when we’re not paying attention, life throws us a curve ball that leaves us reeling. It’s like being hit with a juggernaut, one we never saw coming. Events such as job loss, serious illness and bereavement are often sudden and beyond our control. Feelings of shock, injustice and anger are common as we wonder what we did to deserve this.
When we’re hit with a crisis it can feel like our world has collapsed. Our psyche has no way of consciously preparing us for it, says author and resilience expert Maggie Dent. We all have a map in our heads of how we think life will turn out, she explains. For example, you might get married and envisage having children. “If your husband runs off with the secretary he blows up the map,” she says. “The unconscious mind has to try and build a new one for you.”
“I never say, ‘why me’,” says Jan Antony*, 65, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year. “I think that’s silly. I’ve always been resilient. If a boyfriend dumped me that I really cared about, I’d say to myself, this is going to take a week of misery. It rarely took longer. A week later I’d have my dancing shoes ready.” She says people need to allow themselves to have ‘down days’ when they’re trying to cope with a traumatic event. “You can’t sail through it. Do whatever it takes. Take the phone off the hook, play Bob Dylan really loud, take the dog for a walk – whatever works for you. The storm clouds will clear and the sun will come out again.”
Being resilient doesn’t mean you won’t suffer. When Antony was first diagnosed and told she needed major surgery within days, she was in shock. “Nothing can help you during that period.” But once the surgery was over and the chemotherapy lined up, she felt better. “You can form a plan. And once you a have a plan you feel more in control. Everything is so dependent on your attitude.”
One of Antony’s coping strategies was to give herself ‘mini-rewards’ during her treatment, like dinner at a fancy restaurant when she was feeling stronger. “I also meditate and I have an amazing acupuncturist.” She began sorting friends and acquaintances into the ones who were fun to be around and those who were draining. “The last thing you want is someone saying, ‘oh dear how terrible’. You want the ones who say, ‘that’s really shit let’s have a drink’.” Antony is in good health but lives with the knowledge that her illness might return. “I live more in the day than I ever believed I could have. That’s the crucial thing, not to get paranoid about tomorrow or next week. When it happens you make a new plan and deal with it.”
During their lifetime, most people will experience a crisis traumatic enough to trigger a stress-related disorder, but only about 8 per cent will go on to develop one. Are we made of tougher stuff than we realise? There are some incredible examples of resilience among people in the public eye, from Lance Armstrong who went on to win the Tour de France after a battle with cancer, to the late Christopher Reeve who remained positive when he was left a quadriplegic after a horse riding accident.
A 30-year study by Dr Emmy Werner at the University of California revealed more than a third of ‘at risk’ kids who grew up in grinding poverty or with abusive, alcoholic parents, acquired the confidence and skills to do well in life, despite their backgrounds. Of the remaining two-thirds, many turned to petty crime as teenagers, but by their 30s and 40s, most had turned their lives around, determined not to make the same mistakes as their parents.
Psychologists define resilience as the ability to overcome setbacks, disappointments, and even extreme trauma such as war, violence or abuse. Resilient individuals grow strong through their struggles. They still bear the scars but their lives are not defined by them, and for many the experience is ultimately enriching rather than damaging.
In April last year, Shane* was fired from his job as an education planner without any warning. “It had never happened to me before. One day I had a job and the next I didn’t.” Within weeks his partner also lost part of her income thanks to the financial crisis. On top of his financial worries, Shane says his confidence took a knock. “There’s an immense sense of embarrassment. I still avoid a lot of people I know.” At first, the 44-year-old felt shocked and angry but this was soon followed by the thought that maybe this could be an opportunity for him to do things differently.
Psychologists say confidence and optimism are important traits when it comes to dealing with adversity. Forensic psychologist David Mutton, an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder, says some people are born resilient. “They’re the ones who, when faced with a trauma, might say, ‘well I didn’t like going through that but I’ve learnt something about myself’, or ‘I’ve learnt that I can cope’.” Dent says resilience is linked with creative flexible thinking. For example, resilient people are the ones who, after losing their home in a bush fire, would start imagining how they might rebuild it. A sense of humour is also important. “We know that resilient people make light of things. Human relationships are what get us through,” adds Dent.
When you’re hit with an unexpected challenge or loss, it’s important to keep some structure and routine in your life. In the days and weeks following his redundancy, Shane started a long-planned renovation on a holiday home he owned with his partner. Although he was spending money during a time of financial stress, he says the project was a sanity saver. “It gave me something to do each week. I’d start the day with a bike ride and then I’d meditate. It helped stop the clamour in my head.”
Shane says his decision to get career coaching turned out to be a good move. “It allowed me to keep a sense of discipline about what I wanted to do. I researched my options and decided to get re-registered as a teacher.” Six months down the track, Shane is working as a casual teacher, and he’s aiming to be principal of his own school one day. He says getting fired gave him the opportunity to re-evaluate his career choices. “Sometimes it’s only by being thrown off the horse that you can see the job wasn’t right for you. I was part of the problem even though I wasn’t treated fairly. You’ve got to own it and that’s not very pleasant at times.” It’s also important to maintain a sense of your own identity. “You are not your job and you have to keep hold of that thought.”
Career coach Kate James says it’s common for people to pursue a dream, such as owning their own business, after being laid off. “It can be a real positive. They might not have been courageous enough to do it before.” No matter how resilient you are, if you lose your job out of the blue, you will experience a period of challenging emotions. “It can leave people feeling vulnerable.” Depression, anxiety and the inability to sleep are also common reactions. “Often people feel very unclear about what to do next. Some people implode,” James says. It’s wise to take a step back and not allow what’s happened to totally consume you. “You need to keep some perspective,” she adds.
For most people, a catastrophic loss such as death or divorce is like “falling into a pit”, says Dent. Three months after a major loss can be worse than the immediate aftermath. “My mum put a stubby of beer out for my dad for a long time after she realised he wasn’t coming home. That’s when the mind is starting to rebuild, but you don’t want to build a picture without that person.” Getting through a crisis is a bit like climbing a mountain. “We can get a bit better and then all of a sudden we’ll have a bad day. People struggle with that. But eventually we regain a sense of control and everything is different. We look back and see that we’ve grown.”
If you have a meltdown every time the car won’t start, take heart. You can improve your resilience with a little effort and awareness.
Make social links
Developing authentic relationships is one of the most important factors in building resilience, according to Maggie Dent. When we’re confronted with a life-altering event, many of us fly into panic mode. “If we don’t have sensible people around us who won’t buy into our fears, we’ll go backwards. Only deal with what is actually happening. Find someone who is honest and who will listen and explore what’s happening to you,” she says.
Trust your inner wisdom
Have faith in yourself. Often people around us feel they have to fix things for us in a crisis. “When we’re exploring our thoughts, we’ll eventually get to a new reality by ourselves,” says Dent.
Accept that change is part of living
You may have had goals that are no longer feasible as a result of a crisis or sudden loss. Accepting the circumstances you can’t alter can help you focus on the things you do have control over.
Keep it in perspective
Kate James recommends writing down three positive thoughts about each day. “Human beings have a natural instinct to look for things that haven’t gone well. The mind doesn’t always look for the positive.” The exercise can make you include more positive elements in your day, such as going for a walk in the park or having coffee with a friend. “It really helps shift your mindset.”
Take care of yourself
Make time for activities you enjoy. Meditate, go for a walk or engage in a hobby you love. And make sure you exercise regularly. A healthy body and mind are important for improving resilience.