In the Midst of Loss, Look for Opportunities in Self-Discovery

“That which does not kill us…” Few of us have a life completely free of hardship and tragedy. According to Nietzsche’s maxim, surviving adversity makes us stronger. What is this ability of humans to bounce back from difficulty? Why do some people seem to better deal with crisis and loss than others? We turned to Jeff Borchers, Licensed Professional Counselor in Medford, Oregon, to explain the concept of resilience.

What is resilience?

“As a psychological concept,” says Borchers, “resilience has been in use since the 19th Century.” It describes “… objects and systems that are elastic and have a tendency to rebound.” Borcher views resiliency as ways of thinking and behaving the enable someone faced with adversity to “quickly regain a sense of emotional and physical well-being and social functioning.” He notes the difference between resilience and resistance. While resiliency is the ability to “bounce back’ from a traumatic event, resistance is the “capacity to not get too ‘bent out of shape’ in the first place.”

Is the ability to cope, and grow, in your DNA?

Our level of resiliency can be attributed to both nature and nurture. Genetic make-up is part of the equation, as is the thinking and behavior patterns that rise out of cultural and family history. Life experiences play a role. A childhood filled with adverse experiences, says Borchers, can make an individual less resilient and more prone to conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The tragedies that don’t kill us can weaken us, but we can take action to counter this effect.

Strengthening your psychological muscles

The good news is that resilience can be learned. “In my clinical experience,” says Borchers, “individuals who are inherently more sensitive to life’s tragedies (i.e., less resistant) are in greatest need of resilience training.” He points to the methods and goals of cognitive behavioral therapy as a type of resilience training. CBT, developed by Aaron T. Beck, is premised on the belief that our thoughts create our emotional state. CBT teaches us to be aware of, and control, how we think about ourselves and our environment so we may heal emotionally. Integral to this is the practice of mindfulness, observing one’s own thoughts and feelings.  

Bad things will happen

Despite all our planning and worrying, tragedy can blindside us.  Kelly G. Wilson, Ph.D., author of Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong, writes, “… embracing life — all of life — is ultimately more rewarding than trying to weed out those experiences that we would rather avoid.” By shutting out negative experiences, we shut out the positive as well. This is a central idea of Wilson’s Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). By dealing with hardship and tragedy in the present moment, we open ourselves up to all life has to offer and, through this process, come to better know our strengths and ourselves. This self-knowledge is the underpinnings of a vibrant, values-driven life. Learning to emotionally handle adversity, and recognizing our own capability to do so, does make us stronger.