Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
"Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps forward . . ."
If you are facing the challenges of a chronic condition, this phrase most likely has special meaning to you. It gets at the successes, the frustrations, and those unexpected curveballs that can come your way.
But, you keep yourself going, one step at a time. How do you do it? Psychologists call that resilience. The ability to recover or adjust to misfortune or change. In other words, picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and getting back on the path.
How’s your resilience these days?
People who are facing chronic conditions often talk about how their diagnosis has helped them to recognize their own resilience. They were able to tap into sources of strength, and to be resourceful, in ways they never thought possible. Yet, at the same time, one of those curveballs, or a series of curveballs, can leave anyone feeling pretty depleted.
So you might be wondering: Are some people more resilient than others? In other words, is resilience a gift that some of us are given while others aren’t so lucky? Actually, no. The good news is resilience can be learned by following some basic guidelines for developing a more resilient mindset and practicing resilience-building skills.
First, take an inventory. Use the past as a teacher. Think about the rough spots that you have hit in the past. What’s gone well for you? And not so well? Life’s tough lessons can leave us with a gift: experience. Review how you have dealt with challenges in the past. Use that learning to take an inventory of what’s in your resilience toolbox. This will help you to identify your strengths as well as better understand what tools you want to add.
Then, decide to believe in yourself. Being a resilient person starts with believing in your own potential. Bolster your own self-esteem by giving yourself a daily pep talk, with messages like, “I can do it,” and, “I’m ready to handle whatever comes my way.” Intention leads to action.
More steps toward greater resiliency
Stay hopeful. Decide to focus on what’s going right in your life. Take the time to recognize the simple pleasures that exist all around you. Remind yourself of everything that is good in your life. Tell that bleak voice of negativity to be quiet, while you pay more attention to what’s possible.
Stay connected to your support network. Who’s in your court? Make a list of the people in your life who you count on to stand by your side when you need a listening ear, and who count on you in return. Stay in touch with them on a regular basis, including regular check-ins with each other. Schedule time together. Reach out when you’re feeling alone. Be supported and give support in return. We are all in this together!
Laugh—or at least smile. Having a sense of humor is a great antidote for stress. And let’s face it, sometimes you just gotta stand back, shake your head, and laugh. Better yet, find someone who can have a laugh along with you. Humor helps you to maintain your perspective and avoid getting caught up in the downward spiral of helplessness. Humor and resilience go hand in hand.
Maintain your self-care. It (almost) goes without saying that, to be resilient, you need to feel your best. That means staying on top of your health by getting regular check-ups, staying in touch with your healthcare team between visits, being compliant with medications, and watching your diet and activity levels. Just had to throw that in.
Update your knowledge—continuously. Learn how to monitor your own symptoms, including any new developments you may want to talk to your doctor about. Stay abreast of the newest thinking about what you can do to take the best possible care of yourself. And medical science is constantly on the move, so keep up with what’s new in treating your condition. Be your own expert. Knowledge is power.
Keep your problem-solving muscles exercised. When you bump up against a new challenge, go off by yourself and do some brainstorming. Define the challenge. Review your strengths, as well as the resources that you have to draw upon to solve it. Come up with a potential solution. By going through this process, you will have a clearer idea of what you can do, including what’s under your control, what you can’t control, and where you need help. This is resilience in action.
Accept that life is always changing. Humans are hardwired to avoid change. But we know that life keeps moving, and that means that nothing stays the same forever. In other words, we aren’t in control of everything that occurs in our lives, even if we think we should be. Fighting change is like fighting against yourself, and your own potential for growth. So give up the battle and go with the flow. You’ll be surprised at how much more energy and optimism you will have.
Know who to ask for help, and then ask. Keep your resource list up to date. Part of being resilient is keeping track of the resources you can draw up when you need them. People who are willing and able to step in and lend you a hand or give you some guidance. Services and organizations you can enlist. Information sources you can tap into. Resilience doesn’t mean going it alone, it means asking for help when you need it.
Have a vision for the future. Now, back to the hope thing. Adapting to new circumstances in your life may mean the future looks different than it did before you were diagnosed. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have a future. Take time to create a vision for the person you want to be in life—how you want to live, what you want to accomplish, what you can do to be there for the people you care about. Having a vision for our future motivates you to be more resilient. Think optimistic. Realistic. Flexible.
Getting additional help
And when the going gets tough, remember: the tough go shopping. Shrink shopping, that is. If you need some additional help in strengthening those resilience muscles, then talking with a mental health professional can give you some additional perspective and help you develop new resilience skills as you face life’s challenges.
Two steps forward, one step back. But two steps forward again. Look how far you’ve come in the face of a lot of challenges. Celebrate your own resilience! And challenge yourself to build even more resilience into your life!