Whether you're dealing with medical or emotional difficulties, here's how to cultivate resilience.
When we are treading through life’s sewers — like dealing with a difficult health situation, or helping a loved one touched by illness — it becomes necessary to tap into deeper resources than we might be used to. Our typical escapes, like socializing, Facebook and Netflix might not hold the cure. Becoming more resilient by tapping into our innermost powerful resources will allow us to bounce back from hard times quicker.
Here are five ways to cultivate resilience when you face a crisis, whether its a medical or emotional one:
Lean on More Than One Person – spread the needs around
When we encounter a medical crisis it’s important to save our closest friends and family (our A Team) for the big stuff like emotional support, decision-making about treatments and close family needs. So, if others want to help too and are good at cooking meals, driving you to appointments and available for some help with childcare (B Team) let them in. In doing this you save your trusted core team (and yourself) from burnout, especially if this becomes a long road. You’ll need help with the tough stuff like long nights in the hospital and vulnerable phases like financial needs and out of town travel. Strong people know who is on their A List and their B List and lean into each accordingly. PS: Make sure (if at all possible) that you have more than one person you lean on.
Let People off the Hook – stop holding on to resentment
When we face hard times, it’s not unusual to feel exposed and vulnerable. People around us might be well-meaning but miss the mark (so to speak) and might say and do the wrong things (or not say and not do the right things) and it lodges in us like a personal attack. The longtime friend who didn’t call during your treatments, the family member who avoided you at the reunion after your divorce, the new parents who gloated about their baby right in front of you when they know you lost a child… it all adds up. And it hurts. But rather than keeping a Bitter List of wrongs that have been done to you, consider re-directing the resentful energy into recovery energy.
Strong people learn how to limit the amount of time their mind spins on payback scenarios and future conversations where they’ll finally say what they wish they would have said long ago. Instead, try this: Rehearse scenes in your mind where you are getting back on your feet and helping others like you do the same thing. Changing the channels on your thoughts will do wonders for your energy and also tells your mind you’ve settled the fight. And guess what? You win when The Bitter List gets dropped and energy flows back into you for healing and life.
Stop the Denial – radical acceptance
When everything is going from bad to worse in life, it’s a dark day. We get fired, our spouse leaves us, someone we care about is killed in a car accident, the test results come back with terrible news. Whatever the catastrophe is, it’s tempting to act like it’s not real or be so angry at someone else that we never really experience the pain of our situation. By dodging the truth of what’s happening we might fall prey to further pain.
You can tell this is happening when separating partners drag out a divorce for months or years and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars talking and fighting through lawyers. Or when a person dies and families start suing anyone and everyone who was near the incident — whether they were at fault or not. Or when people have a traumatic life event and they drink heavily every night for months on end rather than face what’s happening, patterns of denial are in place. And while there’s no problem with a healthy dose of denial to get through tough times, it becomes a problem when it starts causing other problems.
Radical Acceptance, the process of accepting things as they really are and not as I wish they were, is the remedy for moving out of denial. Radical Acceptance is not agreeing with the problem, saying anyone else is right or giving permission for what happened. It just means I stop arguing with reality and begin to move into problem solving rather than staying stuck in blame. Strong people move out of a victim stance, stop blaming and start solving the problem.
Give Permission – to yourself to grieve
Once we have begun to accept what the truth of our situation really is, it’s important to allow ourselves to grieve what we have lost. Oftentimes, encountering a dark night of the soul through loss and pain means some of what we had hoped and dreamed for in life is not going to happen. Who we thought we would be, how we thought life would go is… lost. Our dreams of how life could have been have died.
When Death of the Dream occurs, many people want to rush through this phase and just “fix” it or move on and get busy with something else. Months later they may fall into a depression or repeat their previous patterns and find themselves in hot water again. What’s often missing in these cases is taking the time to grieve and feel the loss. When loss and grief are expressed they produce a type of healing and growth in us. As the sadness moves through and cleans us out, it actually opens up a new space inside. A maturity about life can emerge and we can move on stronger and wiser from our experiences.
Tap into Things That Grow – faith, music, art and mindfulness
A deep dive into your faith traditions, creating a soulful soundtrack, taking up an art medium that helps you express your struggle and learning to be in just this one moment can keep you steady through this hard time. What’s more, these things can take on a life of their own and help you with yours. The playlist of your current favorite songs can go with you to the doctor’s office and steady you while you wait while your art project can keep growing as you add new layers of your own story to it. A mindful garden can busy you as you pull weeds and tend to new growth and your faith can hold you tight when the nights are long, sleep is low or news is bad. Resilience and strength will begin to anchor you as you deepen your connections to things that can hold - things that grow.
Cindy Finch, LCSW is a clinical therapist, writer and professor who trained at Mayo Clinic. She works closely with those in the margins and is a survivor of an undiagnosed disease that turned out to be cancer while she was pregnant. Treatments for her cancer led to heart, liver and lung failure which she survived. She now lives in Orange County, CA and enjoys her life with her husband Darin and their three children. Along with other young survivors, her story is a part of a new documentary film called Vincible.