Building resilience as we face challenges

"Children who are resilient are more likely to have been parented with an authoritative (rather than passive or authoritarian) style."

Imelda Ferguson & Julie O'Flaherty


Imelda Ferguson & Julie O'Flaherty

Building resilience as we face challenges

Clinical psychologists Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson write a weekly positive psychology column in the Midland Tribune and Tullamore Tribune

LIFE presents us with many challenges. Accidents, injuries, illnesses, relationship breakups and much more are common crises faced by many people.

The coronavirus pandemic is a worldwide crisis, which affects the way we live and has plunged us into uncertainty about many aspects of our lives. It is not unusual that at times we may feel we are struggling to cope, or that we are “falling apart” in the face of major life stress. Yet, some people seem to move through adversity remarkably well and return to normal functioning even stronger after a crisis.

The ability to do this is called resilience and has been of interest to psychologists for many years. Studies which explore the factors which contribute to the development of resilience generally find that early relationships play an important role. Children who are resilient are more likely to have been parented with an authoritative (rather than passive or authoritarian) style. Authoritative parenting provides the child with affection and warmth as well as boundaries and support.

Other factors which have been shown to contribute to a child developing resilience include parents’ educational level, home environment (organised vs. disorganised) and socio-economic status. Personality factors and cognitive skills also play a role.

So, a range of factors from childhood experience (over which we have no control) do seem to influence the likelihood that we will be psychologically resilient in our adult lives. However, from a psychological perspective, the really good news is that even if we have not been fortunate enough to enter adulthood with a strong natural resilience, there are skills which we can all learn to improve our capacity to cope better with life’s challenges.

American clinical psychologist Rick Hanson, in his book 'Resilient', outlines 12 psychological resources which can be developed in order to develop inner strength. Below, we will draw from his book, as well as from other psychological literature to compile a list of practical strategies which have been proven to help develop a more resilient mindset.

Connect with others who are supportive. Resilient people tend to seek out the company of family and friends who can listen and encourage when life is difficult. With social distancing, we may not always wish to meet face-to-face, but connecting remotely by phone or using online platforms is a useful alternative and many people are now getting more used to connecting remotely. Being able to ask for and accept help and support strengthens resilience.

Practise acceptance. When crises happen, we experience psychological (and often physical) pain. We may find ourselves wishing things were different and trying to keep painful emotions at bay. However, when we can accept that change (sometimes traumatic change) is an inevitable part of life and allow ourselves to feel the emotional pain rather than ignoring or repressing it, we are more likely to process the pain and recover emotionally.

Practise gratitude regularly. We tend to spend much time seeking to feel good in the future but this can actually be stressful in the present. People who regularly think about even the small things they are grateful for in their lives tend to be more resilient when dealing with hardship as they can see the balance between what is painful and positive in their lives.

Try to recognise that we cannot figure out what the future holds and that is ok. When our lives change dramatically, we can easily find ourselves trying to make sense of it all and frantically trying to figure out how we will cope going forward. We can find strength in knowing that it's ok not to have it all figured out and allowing the process to unfold over time.

Try to keep things in perspective. When stressful events happen, we may feel as though this now defines us or our lives. We may see current stressors as insurmountable. Yet, even very painful events and life situations pass so it is helpful to keep a long-term perspective.

Develop positive self-care habits. People who take the time to take care of their needs, both physically and emotionally tend to approach stress and difficulty with greater resilience. Build a practice of regular exercise that you enjoy and activities which enable you to relax.

Write down thoughts and feelings when going through great distress. Many people find that expressive writing is helpful in processing very painful emotions and research shows that writing regularly during stressful life events is helpful in reducing feelings of depression and anxiety.

Learn and practise the skills of mindfulness. Often mentioned in this column, mindfulness is learning to be in the present moment without judgement or avoidance. It takes practice, but is one of the most ancient forms of healing and resilience building.

Cultivate compassion for yourself. Being self compassionate is about treating yourself both physically and mentally with the kindness and understanding that you would use with a good friend. It is about really being there for ourselves especially when life is hard. Compassion according to Hanson, is a psychological resource, an inner strength which contributes greatly to emotional resilience.

Imelda Ferguson and Julie O’Flaherty are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and Mindfulness through the year. They can be contacted through the Psychological Society of Ireland (Find a Psychologist section) or on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.