The secret sauce of survival: Resilience
The number of Adverse or Traumatic Childhood Events (ACE’s) can be predictive of the future health status of adults. It’s not terribly surprising. The more unfavorable the events a child experiences, the more likely they'll struggle with physical and mental illnesses throughout life. These events include emotional, physical or sexual abuse, feeling unloved, substance abuse in the family, poverty, or abandonment.
But, some kids, despite all of the challenges they face, turn into healthy and successful adults. In a 30-year longitudinal study of children in Hawaii, one-third of the children suffered from many of these ACE’s. Two-thirds of those children struggled with chronic mental, behavioral, and emotional problems as adults. But one-third of the group overcame these challenges. The were able to forge a successful life despite all of the misery they experienced. What was the secret sauce that helped them surmount these traumas?
Resilience—It’s the ability to bounce back from life’s challenges. Some folks, who get knocked down, can’t seem to get up. But others, despite getting knocked down over and over again, keep getting up—even if it takes them years. There is no doubt, with enough repeated trauma over many years, anyone can be beaten down permanently. As a psychologist, I see many of these adults who valiantly try to forge a life after so much adversity.
For some individuals, good fortune provides them with a mentor, neighbor, coach, family friend or role model who is able to inspire and support them through difficult times. This can be enormously helpful.
But others, who are not so lucky, are still able to meet the world on their own terms. They have, what psychologists call, an “internal locus of control”—they believe that they can influence and impact the world around them. They see themselves as the masters of their own fate rather than as victims of a cruel world. In fact in the Hawaii study, resilient children scored at the far end of the curve on this dimension.
The researchers also found that resilience could dissolve when the going got too tough, when children and adults are seemingly overwhelmed by events. And, that previously less resilient children can become more durable when challenges arise. It’s a skill that can be learned.
How we experience tough times is widely influenced by how we interpret those events. Is losing my job a new opportunity? Or am I a victim of an uncaring corporate bureaucracy? Whether we “frame” an incident as a task or as a disaster has a huge impact on how we experience the event. And it impacts how we rise to the occasion.
So how can we become more resilient?
- Focus on what you can do, rather than what’s outside of your control. Thinking about what you can do is much more useful than considering what you can’t do. I can’t jog anymore because of my major foot surgery, but I can walk. Reflecting on my ability rather than my disability keeps me in the game.
- Cultivate a positive, can do attitude. Easier said than done when the chips are down. Notice when your attitude becomes negative and give yourself an “attitude check” and make a conscious effort to change it.
- Difficult times are temporary. Nothing stays the same. Inevitably, what looks permanent is often fleeting.
- Seek solutions. When adversity strikes, it’s natural to feel sorry for yourself. As a patient of mine noted, “its okay to visit Pity city, just don’t move there!” Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get to work on resolving the problem.