Those of us who have suffered significant childhood trauma, research has clearly indicated, tend to be, on average, less well equiped to deal with stress in adult life (this can be, in certain cases, due to the adverse impact the experience of trauma in early life has had upon the physical development of vital brain structures involved in responding to stress – click here to read my article on this).
However, all is not lost because research is now beginning to show that PSYCHOLOGICAL RESILIENCE is something that can be learned.
Individuals who are resilient are more able to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties, and, in some cases, not only survive very traumatic experiences but actually develop as human beings, grow and flourish in response to them (in fact, this is a new area of psychological study called POSTTRAUMATIC GROWTH – click here to read my article about this).
Benefits of being a resilient individual include :
– being better able to manage emotions arising from experiencing negative events
– being more able to cope with traumatic events
– being more able to cope with everyday stress
– are more likely to regard problems as manageable
– are more able to turn negative events to their advantage
– are more likely to think of ways in which negative events may actually sometimes give rise to new opportunities
– are more likely to perceive problems as challenges and take positive action to solve them, or at least to limit the damage that they might do
– experience fewer adverse physical effects of stress (e.g. in relation to blood pressure)
STRATEGIES TO IMPROVE OUR PSYCHOLOGICAL RESILIENCE :
1) KEEPING A DIARY – research has demonstrated that people who write about their negative experiences (eg in a diary or journal) are, on average, more able to cope with them than those who do not. This is thought to be due to the fact that organizing and structuring one’s thoughts ALLOWS US TO MENTALLY PROCESS THEM MORE THOROUGHLY which, in turn, is believed to diminish the negative emotional impact that they may have on us.
2) DISTRACT, DISTANCE AND DISPUTE :
a) DISTRACT – it is known that doing nothing but sit and ruminate about a negative event almost invariably makes us feel worse. It is usually better, therefore, to distract our thoughts away from the negative event (although, of course, it is never possible to be completely successful at this and we need to accept that thoughts of the negative event will continue to drift in and out of our consciousness).
Very simple techniques can be used to mentally distract ourselves, such as concentrating on an external physical object (this technique is often used in the meditative practice known as ‘MINDFULNESS’ – click here to read one of my articles on this), counting backwards in 3s down from 100, playing computer chess etc. It is important for us to use these distraction techniques as soon as possible because, in general, the longer we ruminate over a particular problem the harder it becomes to stop doing so.
Distraction works because it is all but impossible to think about two different things at once.
b) DISTANCE – this technique refers to keeping in mind that just because we interpret a situation in a particular way by no means implies the interpretation is accurate and reflects objective reality. In other words, just because we believe the interpretation is true, does NOT mean it is true.
Clinically depressed people, for instance, tend to interpret events far more negatively than would generally be considered to be objectively warranted.
In order for us to help ourselves to distance ourselves from the effects of negative events we can also pose certain questions to ourselves such as the following :
a) What things happen that are worse than my situation?
b) Who is worse off than me?
c) How can I interpret what has happened to me in a more positive way?
d) Despite the situation I am in now, what are the good things that still exist in my life?
e) Will what has happened matter in 10 days/10 weeks/10 months/10 years?
As well as asking ourselves the above questions, it can also be very helpful to think of someone we know who is resilient and good at dealing with life’s problems. We can then ask ourselves how s/he might manage a situation similar to the one we are in and then try to do likewise. Psychologists call this technique MODELLING.
c) DISPUTE – I have already stated that when we are depressed we tend to interpret events more negatively than is reasonably warranted. Psychologists sometimes refer to this tendency as suffering from AUTOMATIC NEGATIVE THOUGHTS (ANTs).
When we have such negative thoughts about certain situations we need to start getting into the habit of disputing/challenging them and trying to think of more positive ways of interpreting whatever it is that we are having negative thoughts about (this technique underpins a therapy known as cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT – click here to read my article about how CBT can help us to overcome our negative thinking patterns).
The term ‘BENEFIT-FINDING’, in this context, is used by psychologists to refer to how resilient individuals are sometimes able to identify new, positive opportunities that can arise when a seemingly negative event occurs. An example might be losing a job, but, in response to this, starting a business which becomes very successful.
In fact, it is definitely worth remembering that positive opportunities can arise from the most unpromising set of circumstances and doing so will help us to manage difficult periods in our lives.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).