Nourishing Your Resilience in Hard Times

Being resilient during hard timesI was listening to a podcast recently where the host was talking about the state of the world as we enter a new year. At one point, he offhandedly remarked that we seem to be experiencing so many daily sources of alarm and distress that we don’t even have time to process one before we’re on to the next. This simple statement resonated with me. So many people seem to barely have a handle on one unprecedented circumstance when another is thrown their way. This can lead to a sense of disarray or feeling of perpetual anxiety

My question for 2021 is, how do we cope with a state of ongoing disorientation?  How do we pause to honor our emotions and still connect to a sense of inner peace or security? On reflection, I find the answer to this question to be deeply and appropriately personal. If there is one thing, we can do to prepare in facing a year that is sure to challenge and change us, it is to arm ourselves with our own personalized toolkit that nurtures our well-being. 

The idea here is to take note of all the things, large and small, that work for us when we’re in distress and to have these things on hand, particularly as we navigate tumultuous times. Think of it as a care package designed to help you maintain emotional balance, calm down when stressed, and make sure you experience moments of awe and joy. Here are some tips for creating this toolkit for yourself:

1. Regard yourself as you would a friend.

It’s often easier for us to foster compassion and patience when we’re talking to a friend about their struggles than when we’re thinking about our own. When a friend is in distress, we try to be there for them and guide them toward solutions that meet their needs. Try to think of yourself and your circumstances with understanding and curiosity rather than judgment. Ask yourself, “What would I tell a friend going through the same thing? What is it I need right now? What steps (even small ones) can I take to feel less stressed?” Write down the things that come to mind, be it calling a certain friend, meditating, being active, writing in a journal, taking a walk in nature, doing something creative, etc.

2. Focus on what you’re grateful for.

Sometimes, it can feel overwhelming to think about what will make us “feel better.” Part of this is because we all have a “critical inner voice” that doesn’t have our best interest at heart. This “voice” is often at the root of our self-critical thinking as well as our self-limiting or self-destructive behavior. Its commentary can undermine our wants, needs, and personal goals. It can cloud our thinking, even as we try to seek out the things that matter to us and give our days meaning. For example, it may fill our heads with thoughts like, “Nothing will make you feel better. You can’t do anything right. Why exercise? You’re too tired anyway. You shouldn’t call that person. You’re bothering them.”

Because of the intrusion of this sneaky and distorted inner critic, a better thing to ask ourselves than “what do you want right now?” may be “what are you grateful for?” Think about the simple things that bring you pleasure and add to your day: listening to a certain song, talking to someone about how you’re feeling, reading to your kid, playing with your dog, cooking a specific meal, laughing with your partner, feeling the wind on a run, watching the sunset at a certain spot, etc. Add this list to your toolkit of things that help you feel more centered or yourself. Just the act of focusing your attention on what your grateful for shifts your focus onto the positives in your life, even in stressful times.

3. Look for your own heroes.

During this pandemic, isolation has been one of people’s primary sources of struggle. As the months pass, many have felt a little less enthusiastic about virtual contact, making it even harder to reach out and connect. However, this is an area in which we must persevere. In order to ensure we’re making contact with people who matter to us, we should make a list of our “team.” This team can be made up of friends, family, a roommate, a therapist, or anyone who lifts us up and makes us feel more like ourselves.

In addition to creating a personal team of people we connect with directly, we should also list the positive voices in the world that inspire us. Who are the people you follow on social media? How do they make you feel? Are there people who cause you an unnecessary level of anxiety, stress, or self-doubt? Could you stop following these people for now? Seek out your own personal heroes who help lift you up or energize you rather than dragging you down and draining you.

4. Believe in your strength.

When facing something so big, so new, and so uncertain, it is very easy to feel outnumbered and lose touch with our personal power. Yet, when we look to the past and think about people we admire, whether in our collective or personal history, we’ll likely recognize that most of these people withstood difficulties that felt similarly daunting. Rather than seeing the events of this year as an overpowering force taking over our lives, we can reframe this period in time as our own moment of challenge. 

In many ways, we can be the resilience we’ve admired in others. This doesn’t mean burying our feelings by keeping calm and carrying on. In fact, it often means just the opposite: being brave in allowing ourselves to feel the waves of emotion that pass through us and allowing these feelings to enliven us. We gain a sense of strength and vitality when we allow ourselves to fully feel our feelings. We learn that we can handle the emotions that arise and still move forward. We can then approach the tasks of our daily lives with more clarity and empowerment. 

Being open to the full range of our emotions can enable us to be more present in our lives. We can be more attuned to a loved one or more considerate of a coworker. We may feel more awe at seeing something beautiful, laugh harder at a show, be more affectionate to a partner or more compassionate toward our crying toddler. Acknowledging that we can handle pain and sadness opens a space for us to also experience more joy and appreciation. By adding this sense of personal strength and bravery to our toolkit, we allow ourselves to process the painful things the world throws at us, but we also grow our capacity to create days that hold more personal meaning.

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About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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