When it comes to trauma, why do people who start out with the same injury end up with different responses? Why are some people more resilient?
Two women are molested as teenagers; one is a survivor who confronts her abuser with purpose and conviction. The other remains stuck as a victim thirty-six years after the incident. One sends a powerful message to her abuser on the witness stand; the other crumbles into a puddle of tears.
We know some people are more resilient to trauma and adversity than others. How and why?
Mindsets like positive thinking, self-compassion, and gratitude can all be developed when things are going good. They can also be developed when things go bad. Resilience is different, though, because we need challenges to develop it. It’s essential to get knocked down so we can learn how to pick ourselves up and move ahead.
One of the eternal facts of life is that setbacks, challenges, and obstacles are part of every endeavor. So, we have plenty of opportunities to make ourselves more resilient. We truly can learn as we go.
Here are 4 powerful ways you can make yourself more resilient — now:
1. Gain Control Over Negative Thoughts
I watched as my Grandmother’s cranky horse stretched out his neck, bared his teeth, and bit down on her left breast so hard that she had to have a mastectomy. But she was resilient—she knew while she couldn’t control everything that came her way, she could absolutely control her response to it.
And that changes everything.
One of the most common reactions to a negative event is to ask, Why me? While it’s a logical question to ask, it gets me nowhere.
Nip that sorry-ass response as soon as it rears its ugly head. People who feel sorry for themselves tend to catastrophize their situation as if they are the only ones who’s been dealt a bad hand.
When we gain control over our negative thoughts, they no longer have power. We can observe them, develop the mental toughness to change them, and move through our challenge. Resilience happens when we learn how to survive well when confronted with adversity, which actually produces psychological growth. Whether a person hangs in or gives up during tough times depends on their ability to bounce back.
How To Make It Work For You: If you’re a parent, don’t coddle your kids. Let them fend for themselves because you won’t always be there to “make it all better.” If you’ve already developed a mentality of victimhood, shift your attitude. In her book “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger,” Maxine Schnall compares the two mentalities this way (paraphrased):
A victim asks how long it will take to feel good — a survivor decides to feel good even if things are not so great.
A victim doesn’t move past the hurt — a survivor puts one foot in front of the other and moves on.
A victim wallows in self-pity — a survivor comforts others who have experienced the same trauma.
A victim is jealous of someone else’s success — a survivor is inspired by it.
A victim focuses on the pain of loss — a survivor remembers the joys in life.
A victim seeks retribution — a survivor seeks redemption.
And most of all, a victim argues with life — a survivor embraces it.
2. Examine The Deeper Wound
While no one welcomes trauma, adversity, or setbacks, we all need to learn how to cope with them. Many look at negative events as a reminder of personal failures from the past and let those memories hijack their best efforts to be resilient and successful.
Self-awareness will allow you to identify the original injury so you can gain proper perspective on your reaction to your current situation. Often, we do not realize how a failure can awaken tender memories from our past that unconsciously take us all the way back to our devastation when we didn’t get to play with the red ball in the playground. It might be necessary to examine those deeper wounds to understand why it’s hard to move forward with resilience and the right attitude.
It takes courage to look inwardly into the darkest part of your personality. We all contain bits of light and dark; we all contain bits of gold and lead.
How To Make It Work For You: Get to know who you are, what makes you tick, and what pushes your buttons. Not all childhood memories will be pleasant, but toughen up. Resilient people don’t allow painful past emotions and experiences to influence how they respond to today’s stressors. If you can’t move past the memory of a negative event on your own, see a counselor.
3. Find The Benefits Of Past Challenges And Failures
It’s easy to say, “learn from your failures,” but it can be very difficult to see the benefits of past trauma and adversity. It’s hard work, so you’ll need to dig deep to find them. No one gets a pass on life.
Shit happens. Life is hard. Pain is inevitable. Growth is optional.
We’ve all had to learn how to turn shit into sugar. Scars from life’s battles are the places where we are the toughest and our skin is the thickest. Do not let those experiences slip away before you’ve had the chance to learn all they have to teach you.
How To Make It Work For You: If the emotions are still tender, you may need to let them sit for a while. Otherwise, write a list of all you learned from past negative events. Remember, the benefit may be a deeper appreciation for another person or what you learned about yourself. Don’t shy away from listing the discovery of a personal weakness (or strength) as a benefit learned from a past challenge. Ask questions like:
Were there, or will there be, any positive outcomes that result from this situation?
What did you learn about yourself? Is there something you need to work on?
In what ways are you better off than when you started?
What did you learn about how to be smarter the next time?
How did you grow and develop as a result of this situation?
4. Nurture Spirituality And Important Relationships
Resilience is something that is built over time. People who are more open to change and have a more positive outlook on life tend to be more resilient. The World Health Organization has found that religion, personal beliefs, and spirituality give people a sense of purpose and value. Trauma can take us deeper into the spiritual world, and in turn, spirituality has been found to produce post-traumatic growth.
Research with Army National Guard Special-Forces used the Headington Institute Resilience Inventory in a recent test. They discovered that people who responded with statements like “My life is enriched by my spiritual beliefs” produced biomarkers (DHEA) that counter the effects of stress and trauma.
This research was complimented by the work of Seeman, Dubin, and Seeman who found that meditation also enhanced biomarkers that would lead a Special Forces member to have an increased level of physiological and psychological resilience.
Other research confirms that it is critical to stay close to people who will support and encourage you. If you do not have strong connections with a core group of friends or family, take the time to do so.
Important relationships with honest friends remind us that we’re not alone and that all of us struggle. Talk out your fears and concerns. Once you do, you may find that people who exude the outward appearance of confidence and success have the same fears and concerns that you do.
How To Make It Work For You: Take the time to develop spiritual, physical, and social support. Do it now. Don’t wait for trauma, setbacks, or adversity to show up before you start. This includes developing a proper relationship with yourself—make healthy lifestyle choices that remind you that you’re a priority.