What Makes Us Resilient? Building Resilience as We Age and Encounter Difficulties

Have you known those people in your life that encounter incredible adversity, but against all odds find ways to remain themselves and keep going? Have you known those people that seem to be weighed down by the smallest burdens and for whom life is a constant struggle? Have you ever wondered what causes such a difference in the way people respond to difficulties and what makes one person more resilient than another? By looking at the behaviors, tools, and influences of resilient people, we can learn how to build up our own resilience as we age so we will be among those that find a way to be well and bounce back from a variety of circumstances. 

The experience of tragedy, stress, difficult challenges, and loss are an inevitable part of all of our lives. We tend to give our attention to the situation at hand, but it is important to remember that our external stressors cause an internal response to the situation that is equally important to address. How we cope with those internal experiences of a situation has a greater influence on the lives we live after trauma than the details of our circumstances. So, what do we mean by resilient people? Being resilient is not about stopping or preventing bad things from happening. It’s not about asking ourselves to be unaffected by our great difficulties. On the contrary, resilient people have the flexibility to allow themselves to be impacted for a time and then return to a balanced beginning point that we might think of as homeostasis. Imagine a stress ball being squeezed. If the ball did not give and change shape, it would burst under the pressure. By the same token, if the ball didn’t return to its original shape, it would no longer be considered a ball, more closely resembling silly putty. The image of resilient person is one who can both flex with the circumstances and bounce back to their original form. The good news is resilience isn’t something we either have or don’t, but like strengthening a muscle over time, we can increase our resilience with intentionality and practice.

So what are some of the elements and tools that resilient people have that we can use? Dr. Clay Cook, who teaches on the science of resilience, stress management, and promoting well-being has a few suggestions:

  • Resilience begins with confidence that we can manage what we are feeling and what is happening to us. The important thing here is to connect to this confidence before we have all the answers or solutions to the problem. Trusting in our resourcefulness, past experience, support system, etc. gives us a sense of calm and helps us better access the intelligence, creativity, and humor that we will need to cope with the situation. 
  • Resilient people remind themselves that they have many choices. They refuse to be trapped by their circumstances and recognize the many ways they can respond to a situation.  
  • Resilient people are able to detach from things that are not important to their life and purpose. This frees up energy to focus on the things that matter most.  
  • Resilient people are connected to a purpose. This might shift as we age and change, but a sense of purpose is the foundation for not just resilience, but quality of life, identity, and connection.  
  • Resilient people adapt by allowing themselves to be reshaped by a circumstance, then when the pressure is off, find their way back to that original state. We often associate bending or giving in with weakness but it is part of the equation of adaptability and resilience.
  • Resilient people take good care of themselves and don’t abandon their self-care routines during times of stress or challenge. As the author Barbara Brown Taylor advises, “When you’ve lost your freedom, do the things you know give you life.”   
  • Resilient people are connected to a community. They have a diverse support system that they can call on and don’t face challenges or trauma alone.  
  • Resilient people have identified what matters most to them and shape their commitments around those clear values. This gives them vision to see through the current situation and stay committed to who they are and what they value.  
  • Psychologist Carol Dweck would add that resilient people have what she calls a “growth mindset”, meaning they understand that their abilities can be developed and are not static. When we believe we’re capable of adapting and learning in the situation, the meaning of our effort and difficulties are transformed. Resilient people are able to live in the freedom of “not yet” rather than being paralyzed by the unresolved nature of the present moment.

As we age, it can seem that difficulties are picking up the pace. We live with many questions: How will we pay for long-term care? How will our family cope with mom’s dementia? What will it look like to support my long-time friend through her cancer treatments? What will my life look like after this diagnosis? How will I care for my aging parents when I live so far away? At Sound Options, we help families throughout the Puget Sound be resilient during eldercare challenges and difficult decisions. By giving logistical and emotional support it is our great hope that aging adults and their loved ones will have the space and safety to flex in the challenges and find their way back to their original shape. If you are holding some of these very questions or caring for a loved one, give us a call today. Our team of RN and MSW Care Managers and caregivers are able to provide both the care for today and the expertise to plan for tomorrow. 800.628.7649.     

Published on January 2, 2015.