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Resilience comes from the Latin word resilio meaning “to go back”, and in engineering, it refers to the memory capacity of a material to return to its initial state. But what about people? And, above all, is it possible to increase our own resilience? This article gives us some clues.

At the beginning of a year that generates many hopes and perhaps too many expectations, everything seems to indicate that resilience will continue to be a trendy concept. This term that began to be used in very specific fields (engineering, psychology, ecology, or social sciences) has reached the public as one of the finalist words of last year according to Fundéu (a Foundation whose main objective is to promote the correct use of Spanish in the media).

In the context that interests us here, that of people, resilience is defined as “the capacity to overcome, to recover after an adverse stimulus”. While the objective seems clear, the heart of the matter lies in how to achieve it.

When an adverse situation affects us in a significant and prolonged way, the first reactions are often not the best ones.

Many people want to go back to the situation before the problem arose, as if trying to wake up from a bad dream. They spend a lot of time regretting the situation or longing for the past instead of facing reality.

Other people imagine themselves leaping into the future, until they have overcome what they anticipate being a difficult period. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, a widespread idea was that we should wait 3 or 4 months, and “hold on” until the summer when the situation would supposedly be better. But this fantasy again leads us to adopt a passive attitude, that of mere spectators of a disaster movie waiting for a happy ending.

Both reactions are aimed at escaping from problems and associated suffering, but unlike resilience, they are neither adequate nor healthy coping strategies.

Some people think that resilience is an intrinsic quality of being human, and that one is either resilient or not. While it is true that a naturally positive attitude (a mix of optimism and realism) helps to cope with difficult situations, we can also develop different actions and behaviours to this end.

I have selected here five guidelines for action that I believe are key to fostering resilience.

  1. Accept the situation.It should be stressed that acceptance does not mean “resignation” (which would lead us to adopt a passive attitude) but simply acknowledging the difficulties we are going through in the present and letting go of the past so as not to fall into the trap of nostalgia or escapism. Verbalising the problem and expressing how we feel about it is often beneficial to overcome this phase of acceptance.
  2. Define the factors over which we have control and identify those that are beyond our reach. It is time to move away from the role of “victim of circumstances” and focus our time and energy on situations within our sphere of influence. And while we may not always be able to change a situation, we can at least change our perception of events and our way of thinking.
  3. Ask others for help.Many people are reluctant to take this step for different reasons: shyness or pride, fear of appearing weak or getting a no for an answer, or simply not wanting to intrude. There is also the risk of becoming self-absorbed in reaction to a painful event, when it has been shown that reaching out to others and feeling their support is particularly important in recovering from an adverse situation.
  4. Use a sense of humour.Laughing at oneself or at the situation that affects us can be a way to distance ourselves from our worries, to see things with greater perspective and to relativise their true importance, which we tend to exaggerate at first. In addition to humour, the practice of certain activities also helps to lower the level of anxiety and channel our frustration: sport, meditation, any hobby, or task that requires concentration will take our minds off the source of stress. In the face of loss, it is essential to consider the things that we still have, and on which we can rely.
  5. Learning from experience.Difficult situations are often life-learning opportunities, but at first, we only perceive the pain of loss. With the passage of time, we can reflect on the adversity and find meaning in it. In this way, we build up a repository of experiences that will help us in the future, when another upsetting event occurs.

In short, and as the fable of the oak and the reed illustrates, resilience is not a question of strength but of flexibility and adaptability. To return to the initial state “before the storm” we must be able to move towards a new state, the result of the experience lived, and the learning acquired.

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