Building Resilience: Coping with Trauma, Adversity, and More

Over the years, we’ve worked with thousands of people coping with varying degrees of stress, trauma, and adversity. With this, comes an organic study of how people come to handle life’s challenges and how they come upon resilience.

Some erroneously believe that being resilient means that you don’t struggle  or have difficult emotions or experiences, but that’s not true. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from these struggles and experiences. It’s the process, when distressed, of returning to regulation, safety, and connection. While some of us might be born with greater capacity for resilience, and this is likely just a physiological difference, we do know that there are certain practices that can help us flex our coping muscles, fostering resilience over time. Let’s take a look at some of these practices together.

Practice acceptance: One thing that resilient folks are able to do is accept what is happening, no matter how difficult, in the current moment. This might look like acknowledging their circumstances and accepting their emotions. They don’t necessarily have to like what’s happening, but they do accept it. They’ve dropped the rope and are no longer resisting reality, working with what is versus how they believe things should be.

Practice self-compassion: Resilient folks give themselves a break. They recognize and validate their struggles and approach themselves with kindness and compassion, rather than judgment and attack. They remind themselves that suffering isn’t unique to them. They conjure up the most caring responses they can think of when struggling and then they offer these responses to themselves. For help with self-compassion, check out the important work of Dr. Kristen Neff.

Take care of your body: We’re more likely to weather emotional storms when we’re taking care of our bodies. This looks like nourishing ourselves, eating enough food and finding satisfaction in what we consume. It looks like getting enough sleep, as best we can. Allowing our bodies time to rest and recover can help us manage difficult circumstances more effectively. It also involves attending to pain and illness, moving our bodies to the best of our ability, and being mindful of our use of alcohol and other substances.

Attend to values and goals: Resilience is easier to come by when our lives are experienced as meaningful. Typically, this means living according to our values and setting and working toward goals in various domains. While values-based living will vary by individual (e.g., for some, it might mean the pursuit of close relationships, for others the pursuit of adventure or creativity), knowing our values and trying to live by them can buffer us against some of our more difficult experiences. The same goes for goal-setting. While establishing and achieving goals doesn’t reduce the pain and struggle inevitable in life, it can mitigate it by creating rewarding experiences of competence and self-confidence.

Seek out positive experiences and emotions: There’s a lot of difficulty and heartache in life. Unchecked, it can be too much. This is why it’s important to seek out positive experiences, events, and emotions to help balance things out. We like to think of life experiences as a bank account of sorts. If you consistently make deposits (in the form of events that bring you joy, pleasure, satisfaction), then you’ll actually have something to withdraw when things get tough. For many of us, positive events don’t just come automatically. We must create them with careful attention to how we spend our time and energy. And they don’t have to be monumental; they can be the “small joys,” whose positive impact accumulates over time.

Find gratitude: One consistent way that people are able to navigate life’s difficulties is to focus on gratitude for what they have versus dwelling on what they don’t. It sounds simple, but in practice, it can be incredibly challenging. And yet, it’s still so important. In an episode of the Netflix reality show, Lenox Hill, Dr. Mitchell Levine, diagnosed with neck cancer, is asked by a colleague how he’s doing while on a beach retreat. Levine replies “. . . I’m not gonna let the worry about my future destroy my present. That’s the key. . .  You know something? The bottom line. Takeaway point, it’s a really nice day today.” We all could use a little of this mentality. 

Create meaning: Resilience often takes the form of creating meaning out of suffering. We’ve seen a number of nonprofits founded out of tragedy, with folks channeling their suffering into action. Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded by Candace Lightener, whose daughter was killed by an impaired driver. The Anna Westin Act is eating disorder legislation powered by Kitty Weston and the memory of her daughter, Anna, taken by anorexia. A local mother who lost her toddler to a drowning accident became a champion for water safety. This isn’t a call to start a nonprofit if that doesn’t feel right for you, but note that it can be a pathway to healing. None of these endeavors  bring back loved ones, but they do help survivors move forward, doing something with their heartbreak, making meaning out of suffering. The same can be said for less tragic events that still cause pain. Can you find a way to create meaning out of them?

Engage support: Humans are social creatures. We need other people to survive and thrive. Those who are able to find support and validation from others, to be seen in their struggles, to find community – are likely to do better than those who don’t. Social connection seems to be a powerful predictor of physical and mental health. Whatever our struggles, they are more tolerable when witnessed and more challenging in isolation. That’s why so many support groups exist around common struggles, such as drinking, gambling, and anxiety. As the founder of Somatic Experiencing, Dr. Peter Levine, says, “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” Having access to an empathic witness (or witnesses) can represent a significant part of resilience.

Maintain hope: This one might be the most challenging for many, as it’s a tough ask to hold hope through difficult times. And yet, it also seems to be important. For some, maintaining hope looks like faith, a trust in a higher power. For others, it looks like a wish for things to  improve. For some, it just looks like an openness or curiosity about the future, instead of a tight and unrelenting commitment to knowing how things will continue to be.

Together, these practices can help build resilience over time. You might find that some work better than others or that some are just more accessible to you. You might have found alternative ways of coping and healing. There’s no right way to move through difficulties and suffering. Whatever allows you, most basically, to survive and, more profoundly, to recover and to heal is your individual recipe for resilience.

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