Adversity and Resilience

“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

This week marks the second anniversary of our COVID-19 quarantine. We’d heard rumblings of a global pandemic the prior month, but the news hit home when a nearby community choir sustained an 87% infection rate from the presence of a lone COVID-positive singer. That could easily have been one of my choral groups!

Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about the virus and had the benefit of a double-dose of vaccine and a booster shot. But we remain well aware of its impact on senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions. We’ve hosted a few socially distanced gatherings and ventured forth from our home judiciously to run errands, enjoy fellowship, and take in a noteworthy cultural event. Yet our lives have been altered radically from their pre-pandemic rhythms. We may never reclaim the “old normal.”

supportive friendI take heart from a lecture I viewed recently by psychologist Catherine A. Sanderson of Amherst College. She began by noting that people have tremendous ability to adapt to negative events. Once the initial shock of it wears off, we can pull together our resources and find a new way of being in the world. We can challenge ourselves to find positive aspects of the event or condition – new inner strengths to tap, renewed depth to relationships, new perspectives on life, heightened spirituality, increased capacity for empathy, altruism. We may even find ways to enjoy simple pleasures.

Adaptation takes time. The greater the challenge, the more difficult the recovery. It doesn’t happen by accident. It is a discipline that must be cultivated through practice. Admittedly, those who excel in self-esteem, emotional intelligence, and optimism have an easier time of it. It also helps to have a strong base of support through family, friends, colleagues, and faith community. Yet no matter what our circumstances, Dr. Sanderson encourages us to think about loss within the context of a positive frame. Here are 5 strategies that help:

  1. Take care of yourself. Eat healthy food, get some exercise (preferably in the fresh air), and make a habit of getting a good night’s sleep. These practices support our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
  2. Find meaning in the experience. Making sense of a loss or sustained drama helps us cope with it. It supports recovery.
  3. Build and maintain connection. You are not alone. Others have gone through a similar ordeal, experience it now, or will encounter it in the future. Take solace in the shared experience and encourage one another to soldier on.
  4. Write about it. When we commit our experience and feelings about it to paper, it forces us to confront our circumstances, gain perspective, and exercise a modicum of control. It’s a venue for moving forward rather than get stuck in an endless cycle of rumination.
  5. Practice positive thinking. Zero in on the good things that happen daily and commit them to memory. Capture them in a gratitude journal.

When adversity strikes us in measured doses, it can bolster our resiliency. We gain the sense that we can cope with challenges. It increases confidence that we can manage future stressors. And we learn that we can pull together with others to find a way through difficult times.

Finally, as a bookend to the opening quote, all of the foregoing presumes that one is not dealing with catastrophic loss or multiple crippling circumstances concurrently. We need not burden those of us who are profoundly broken with the admonition to find silver linings unless and until some form of restorative healing can take place.