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Are You Wired for Resilience?

An interview with George Bonanno.

Source: istock

If you knew you had the resilience to recover from almost any challenge or experience, what might you do differently? Would you go after your dream job, even if you weren’t sure you were good enough? Would you tell someone you loved them, even if you weren’t sure of their response? Would you finally start living the life you most want?

Your brain is wired to avoid pain, and as you process emotional and social pain in the same way as physical pain, you may find that you generally shy away from experiences that can expose you to emotional challenges and the negative judgements of others. But could you be overestimating the long-term harm of these experiences and underestimating your natural ability to cope and grow?

“When we experience adversity it’s difficult because it causes us pain and it hurts,” explained Professor George Bonanno, Director of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and author of The Other Side of Sadness when I interviewed him recently. “However, most of us have a psychological immune system that allows us to be naturally resilient and recover pretty quickly from these experiences.”

George’s modelling has found that the most common response to the difficulties you might experience is resilience. In fact, it seems that approximately sixty-five per cent of people who experience a traumatic event in their lives are able to return to their normal level of functioning shortly after the event and stay there, with another twenty-five percent taking a year or two to recover and a minority of people suffering more greatly and struggling for a much longer period of time, or have a delayed reaction to the event.

This doesn’t mean that you’ll no longer feel hurt, regret or grief about what has happened, but that the intensity will fade, and you will be able to function again day-to-day. Although, of course, when you’re in the midst or aftermath of an adversity it can be hard to believe that the feelings of fear, sadness or anger that you’re experiencing won’t last forever, so how can you enhance your coping strategies?

George suggests developing a broad suite of skills and practices that can enhance your overall wellbeing and bolster your natural resilience. Not only do these skills help you to better navigate your day-to-day stressors, but you’ll also be able to draw on them to help you cope if you experience extreme events.

They may include:

  • Reading the situation – not all situations are the same, and they can each stir different emotional reactions within you and require different responses. So it’s important to be able to read the demands of your context, and understand what it’s asking of you. If you are being threatened by someone this can arouse fear and anxiety; however, the loss of a loved one or colleague will leave you feeling intense sadness. Being able to identify your emotions clearly can help you tap into your intuit understanding and be more flexible in your response.
  • Deciding on your best response – when you already have a broad repertoire of skills you use to look after your everyday wellbeing, you can select the best ones to help you cope with life’s difficulties. Or sometimes you may need to trust your instincts and even try a little ‘coping ugly’ - coping in ways that appear awkward or unhealthy on the surface, but actually do work for you. For example, this might mean choosing to simply hide away from the world for a few days, and while others may be skeptical it could be just what you need.

    Keep monitoring your responses by asking yourself if what you are doing to cope that is working for you? And be prepared to be flexible to change what you are doing when you need to.

  • Finding moments of joy – it’s easy to think if you’re laughing and enjoying yourself during times of fear or sadness that this is somehow wrong or inappropriate. But George has found that laughter is extremely adaptive. Engaging in genuine heartfelt laughter when you are grieving deeply can help you connect better to others, and gives you a little respite from the difficulties you are going through.

George also recognizes that there are some who suffer much more greatly and struggle for a much longer period of time, or have a delayed reaction to the event. And if this happens to you, you may need to seek professional help to cope with your situation.

What could you achieve knowing you have the resilience to bounce back from adversities?

This interview was produced with the support of the International Positive Psychology Association’s 5th World Congress on Positive Psychology.

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