Resilience - 5 key ways you can cope with the stresses and adversities of life


Once upon a time, a large and beautiful oak stood near a river. In its shade were some water reeds. Compared to the oak they were small and inconsequential. 

When the wind blew, the oak was proud and upright whereas the reeds swayed according to the ebb and flow of the wind.

"You're so weak and puny," said the oak. "You bow at the slightest rustle, while I remain strong."

One day, a great hurricane came. The oak was resolute against the onslaught - confident that with its might it would withstand the worst.

In the end, however, it was this stiffness that proved its undoing. The raging winds destroyed the oak's branches and ripped off its boughs. 

Finally the storm passed and calm was restored. The small reeds, which had twisted and swayed throughout were still upright, while the oak's branches were strewn across the river. Destroyed by the ferocity of the storm.


Aesop's Fable


Life will always throw us curveballs. We can't be prepared for every eventuality all the time. 

Some of us are like the oak. We can withstand so much, but when the winds of life keep blowing, we find ourselves crashing -  broken - into the river. 

Other people are like water reeds. When faced with unexpected challenges they find a way to cope and finally adapt. That's resilience.

The wind blows where it will,  but they've discovered how to adjust to the trials of life, and bend without breaking.

Thankfully, resilience is a skill that can be learned.

Researchers have found that more resilient people have greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain - the part of the brain responsible for the "feel good factor".  The good news is that we can actually train our brains to strengthen this prefrontal cortex and develop key skills like being more resilient.

So if you want to develop your ability to overcome adversity, here are five tools that can help:


1. Accept that struggles are Part of Life

Photo: Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

Photo: Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

Those of us in the West have largely become used to a comfortable lifestyle whereas those from other backgrounds tend to accept struggle as an inevitable part of the human existence.

For instance, my mother grew up in the Caribbean.

Every morning before school she had a list of chores to complete:  

  • wash the dishes
  • feed pigs
  • move goats to fresh pasture
  • collect water from nearby pond
  • and, if the pond was dry, go further and collect water from the river and take it home

Then she would walk five miles to school under the blazing Caribbean sun. 

If she didn't reach there by nine, the teacher would be waiting outside the gate with a belt in his hand, ready to administer punishment. 

By the time I went to school, I'd get up, have breakfast and then either walk or take the bus.

My nephews and nieces, born and raised in 21st century London, just have to grab breakfast, jump into their parents' car and be driven straight to the school gates.

So it's easier for someone of my mother's background to accept struggles because they were always used to life being a challenge. 

So next time you're facing adversity, try and have a conversation with someone from a completely different culture. It can serve as a timely reminder that for most of humanity, struggles are a part of their everyday life.



2. Remember your strengths/ positive reflection


The situation you're in right now might feel insurmountable, but never forget, you were born with many strengths and qualities.

And I'm willing to guess that you've already used these qualities to overcome battles and adversities in your past.

Excellence is not a gift but a skill that takes practice. We do not act rightly because we are excellent. We achieve excellence by acting rightly...
— Plato

When we're going through difficult times, we can be so consumed by it that it can be hard to recall any strengths that we previously drew upon.  But if we look back closely, we're sure to discover resources that helped us face previous challenging situations.

So take some time for positive reflection. Remember a challenge you've overcome and ask yourself:

  • What strategies did I use - what practical things did I do to help?"
  • What are the strengths that I drew on within myself?
  • What resources did I turn to for nourishment, guidance or support?
  • What insights did I use - what sayings or perspectives were helpful to me?



3. Realise we are not our thoughts


Every day, thousands of thoughts pass through our minds. 

Thoughts like:

  • "Life isn't going the way I planned it..."
  • "I just can't get things together..."
  • "I'll finish that project tonight..."
  • "What am I having for dinner this evening"

As you see, some of them are good. Some inconsequential, and others are judgemental or irrational. 

If we're going through adversity, it's perfectly understandable for some of our thoughts to be more negative and judgemental than normal. The best thing to do is to allow them to pass through, and move on.

So we might think:

  • "I can't get through this.
  • "It's getting the better of me..."

But is this really true? Or are we merely thinking that it is?

Psychologists say that the best thing to do at those times is to hold the distressing thought for a minute, then let it pass on by. Recognise it's there, then let it go.

When it passes, replace it with another thought for a minute:

  • "I am having the thought that I can't get through this..."
  • "I am having the thought that it's getting the better of me..." 

The addition of these five key words at the start of the sentence reminds us that we are not our thoughts. In fact, we are greater than them. And while it is natural to have negative thoughts from time to time, we don't need to let them overwhelm us.

  • So today, if you catch yourself having a negative thought don't try to fight it. But add those words to the start of the sentence, "I am having the thought..." and realise that you are far more than the thoughts you are having at that precise moment.

4. belief in something bigger than yourself

Photo: Nick Scheerbart, Unsplash

Photo: Nick Scheerbart, Unsplash


My mother's advice for adversity has remained the same over the years. "Take it to the Lord in prayer," she says.

Having a strong faith to draw on, has helped her through many difficult times.  When she faced situations that looked bleak, her prayers and trust in God gave her hope that things would eventually change. 

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
— 2 Corinthians 4.8-9

To my mother, resilience didn't necessarily mean bouncing back or restoring things to how they were before.

Instead, she used it as a process to help her feel closer to God. She did not expect that things would always work out exactly as she had hoped, but she certainly believed that she would overcome.

So today why not see resilience as part of the process of growth - a necessary tool in developing spiritual and emotional maturity.


5. Set Small, Achievable Goals


Most self-help tools emphasise the importance of dreaming BIIIGGGG!! After all, huge goals lead to big accomplishments. Right? 

Not necessarily.

One thing I learned in dealing with long-term health issues is that it was better for me to have goals that were small, manageable and achievable. They need to stretch you enough so you feel a sense of growth, yet not so much that they become unattainable.

When my goals were too big, I ran the risk of setting myself up for failure rather than success. And to develop our resilience skills, we really need to be able to look back on a series of small successes.

For instance, suppose you decide it's high time to live a healthier lifestyle, so you add a ten minute morning walk to your routine. 

You might say, "I will go for a ten minute walk every morning this week at 9.30 am."

Now on the surface, this seems like a great goal. The problem is you haven't given yourself any leeway in case you have a bad day, or some other emergency happens which leaves you with less energy to go for your walk than expected.

A more achievable target would be, "I will go for a ten minute walk four mornings this week by 10.30 am."

This stretches you while providing that all important flexibility. 

Small goals which encourage us to move forward are better than bigger goals which leave us feeling overwhelmed.

So this week, why not think about a goal you can set yourself? Remember to keep it small enough to be doable, yet just big enough to stretch yourself slightly.