Building Resilience in the Face of Life Adversity and Challenge
The year was 1942. For three years, my father hid from the Nazis, constantly experiencing daily fear, hunger, and uncertainty about his own fate and those of his parents and extended family -- all of whom perished in concentration camps.
Luckily, he escaped from France and was able to immigrate to the United States where he was sent to an orphanage in San Francisco to live the remainder of his teenage years learning another language, catching up on school, and starting his life over in a new and unfamiliar country.
I am sure my father’s story has been the impetus for my own research about how we all cope with life’s difficulties and challenges. In fact, I have spent over 20 years trying to understand why some people who experience challenges and remain physically and psychologically healthy, and others tend to suffer negative consequences in well-being immediately or following such circumstances.
I would like you to answer this question: “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered at this moment?”
Use a 0 (totally unsatisfied) to 10 (totally satisfied) rating scale.
Next, ask a second question: “Looking back at the beginning of COVID, how satisfied were you with your life, all things considered then?”
For many of us, we are likely to notice that we are less satisfied today than in years past; however, we eventually tend to drift back to our “happiness set-point” as we adapt to this type of crisis. Recent research suggests that this adaptation follows at least three identifiable trajectories:
The Three Common Trajectories Following Life Challenge and Adversity
There is no “one size fits all” set of recommendations of responding to challenges with Growth, Resilience, or Harm. But there is evidence that the suggestions can help during tough times. In addition, check out all the wonderful resources at the Can Do MS popular topics and resources page!
1. Practice Mental and Physical Relaxation Exercises
Our research and others suggests that the practice of relaxation techniques is associated with significant and important changes at the brain level and with our inflammatory responses to stress that are protective of health and well-being both at work and at home.
2. Strengthen and Use Your Social Support Network
Research suggests that the influence of social relationships are comparable with well-established risk factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, and obesity. Additionally, a social or emotional support network has direct effects on physical health and buffers the negative effects of stress. Find support groups and connect with people who share common life experiences for support, education, and mutual aid at the National Multiple Sclerosis website.
3. Obtain Adequate Rest, Recovery and Sleep
Across an 85-year lifespan, an individual may sleep nearly 250,000 hours, or more than 10,000 full days. Yet, many of us in the “always on” world of work report being chronically fatigued and sleep deprived. In the past 50 years, the average amount of sleep we get on work nights has decreased by an hour and a half, to a little less than 7 hours from 8.5 hours. Getting adequate sleep and detachment from work each day helps to facilitate resilience and well-being.
4. Hope, Purpose, and Meaning in Life
Deborah Danner and her colleagues published a study rating the autobiographies of 180 Catholic nuns for the expression of optimism, life purpose, and positive emotional content and related this to their survival from the ages of 75 to 95. The happiest nuns lived 10 years longer than the least-happiest nuns, and by the age of 90, the most optimistic, purposeful, and cheerful nuns survived 66 percent of the time, while the least cheerful sisters only survived 30 percent of the time.
However, living long and healthy appears to be more than just being happy and cheerful. Growing evidence suggests that clarifying and finding purpose in life helps people cope and even flourish in the face of challenges and adversity.
Each of the three trajectories (harm, resilience, and growth) following life challenges and adversity are unique to each of us. For my father, he found the woman of his dreams in the same orphanage that he was raised. My mother and father raised a loving family and were married for 63 years before his passing a few years ago.
Through my father’s experience, the saying “Things turn out best for the people who make the best out of the way things turn out” is one that resonates strongly with me and may indeed be a good mantra for all of us during these trying times as well as future life challenges.
Kenneth M. Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and Chief Research Officer of Envisia Learning, Inc. (www.envisialearning.com). Dr. Nowack received his doctorate degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles and has published extensively in the areas of 360-degree feedback, assessment, health psychology, and behavioral medicine. Ken serves on Daniel Goleman’s Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations and serves as Editor-in-Chief for the APA journal Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice & Research.