Mental Resilience: The Art Of Getting Back Up

“You can’t always control what life throws at you, but you can control how you react to it.” How often have we heard this mantra? But what does it really mean to have a capacity to manage the challenges that arise in your life? Many people will tell you this capacity is called emotional intelligence. While this may be true to some extent, an important quality in controlling your reaction to adversity – a quality that is often overlooked – is mental resilience.

Marilyn Davis-Shulman, a clinical psychologist in Johannesburg, explains that mental resilience is the defining variable that distinguishes people who can go through very stressful episodes, experience the consequent/appropriate emotions, are still able to make meaning of what they have been through, and emerge stronger and wiser. “Moreover, afterwards they are not likely to adopt a victim-like view of the world, or see their world through a lens which renders every experience as threatening and problematic,” she says.

We all know someone like that – they are the people in our lives who have seen hardship and trouble, emotional pain and deep loss. Yet they get through it, without retaining bitterness or anger, and today they are still standing, inspiring us to keep going too. Resilient individuals are able to rise above their situation and can place what has happened in perspective; they have the capacity to not take the situation personally, and to eventually find a solution.

At some point in life, everyone experiences some form of trauma, setback or adversity. When this happens, there are four general responses: fight, flight, freeze or submit. Having mental resilience doesn’t mean you react differently to adversity; it simply means that afterwards you are able to better manage your emotions, and therefore deal with challenges more effectively – in the way you think, act and feel.

“No one is immune to things happening that create internal feelings of overwhelm. The secret is to get up, regroup, ground yourself and keep going,” says Davis-Shulman.

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Where does mental resilience start?

Younger brain

In Invictus, which captures the essence of resilience, the poet William Ernest Henley states: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

Every mentally sound, able person has the responsibility of managing their inner being, and that starts in the brain. A resilient person understands that their thoughts create their reality, and this is where it all begins – you need to learn how to govern your thoughts. By finetuning how you think about and view challenges and adversity, you are more equipped to find a solution to those challenges.

From there you can go on to how you manage your emotions, which is the second piece of the puzzle.

It’s evident that self-regulation, emotional intelligence and mental resilience all flow together. Therefore, it’s important to understand that emotions are part of what makes us human. Moreover, feeling upset, anxious or angry is a natural human response.

“All emotions serve a function, and they are a part of everyday life, but what are you going to do with what you feel? This is a part of what we deal with in therapy, because a lot of people cannot acknowledge their emotions, so we help them to become aware of what they’re feeling,” says Davis-Shulman. “By understanding and accepting your emotions, you can start to regulate them.”

And as with so many things, it starts at home.

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The parents’ responsibility

Today, more than ever, parents have a responsibility to raise children who are able to survive and thrive in an ever-changing world.

Epigenetics has an important role in the development of mental resilience. Because certain genes can be switched on or off with specific mindsets, children need to acquire qualities that will enable them to be more adaptable to challenges, and an awareness of their emotions. In other words, they need to be raised with a mentally resilient mindset. A big part of that is the nature of the environment that parents create for their children, because this will greatly contribute to the development of their mental resilience.

The different brains and mental resilience

The human brain has a vital influence on how mental resilience develops or doesn’t, and understanding how this works can help us to better understand why this comes more naturally to some people than others.

“At the time of birth, the only brain the infant is equipped with is the reptilian brain,” explains Davis-Shulman. “This part of our brain is also known as the trauma brain, and it is responsible for our survival. The other parts of the brain develop in direct relation to what the infant or young child experiences in their own environment. For example, if the mom is triggered due to a highly stressful environment, her emotions will transfer to the baby, whether the mother is aware of it or not.”

When someone experiences a traumatic event, they automatically go out of their thinking brain, back into their trauma brain, and they react by fighting, fleeing from, freezing or submitting to the challenge.

If, therefore, we can help parents to regulate their own emotions, we can make it easier to raise mentally resilient children. Parenting that is either “frightened” or “frightening” will make the child less resilient, because they have to learn how to adapt to this kind of environment, rather than feel as if they are in a safe space.

Emotional stability starts at home

And it starts off very young, because this is where children need to feel safe and protected. If a child is constantly waiting for one or both of their parents to become triggered, because there is no self-regulation, it will be that much harder.

On the other hand, children who are able to grow up in a home where the parents model self-regulation – where there are appropriate boundaries and healthy routines, and where the children feel emotionally safe – will be given a distinct advantage in life. For this reason, parents need to be self-aware, to be able to think about what their emotions mean and how to regulate them.

There is a balance to this, however. Studies have shown that when children are too well protected from problems, mental resilience can’t develop as it should. Therefore, the home environment should also be one where problem-solving is encouraged, so that their brains can be exposed to challenges. Individuals who have been raised to believe that there is a solution to every problem are more likely to find one, because their brain has been wired in a way that accommodates this.

Can resilience be taught?

Thankfully, it can. If you weren’t raised in a home that encouraged a positive mindset and provided a safe environment for developing resilience, it is possible to acquire it later in life – and make a success of it.

Some of the most successful people in the world come from a less-than-ideal background, but they were able to rise above that. In order to do so, they had to learn which steps to take when life feels chaotic and unmanageable, and kept on bouncing back until they achieved their goals. An important quality in their success is their confidence in the fact that they will eventually succeed – even if at first they don’t.

It may not be easy, and developing mental resilience isn’t something you learn overnight. But it’s important that you don’t become despondent, and don’t give up trying.

The role of perseverance and self-discipline

Malcolm Gladwell’s extensive research highlights that success doesn’t just happen. He showed that people experience the breakthrough they have been wanting after 10 000 hours of activity dedicated to realizing their goals. As Henry Ford said: “Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you are right.”

The challenge is never to give up, to keep persevering, to keep trying, to learn from the experiences of others – both positive and negative – and to commend yourself for the small victories along the way.

The recipe for mental resilience

  • A positive mindset and a firm belief that a constructive solution can be found;
  • Healthy awareness of your thoughts and self-regulation of your emotions;
  • A determination to keep going through hardship;
  • A healthy self-awareness – listening to your body and de-stressing regularly;
  • Understanding your own personal critical limit – this is when you need a time-out; and
  • Being kind to yourself.

While the human spirit is inherently resilient, it is important that we are aware of what our mind can achieve, and believe in the fact that we will emerge from the challenge stronger and more able to withstand adversity. Click on the link to find out how to maintain good cognitive health – according to Harvard Health.

A parting thought: we are all born with a measure of mental resilience; it just requires motivation to keep it going. If you still have doubts, take a look at a baby learning to walk – because they really want to move forward, they will keep on getting back up until falling is no longer a problem.

Want to know more?

Click on the link to find out which foods should be avoided to maintain a healthy mind.

1 Comment

  1. Lois Carol Wessels
    11 April 2019 at 2:05 pm

    Very informative!