“If you’re a pine, growth seems to have a lot to do with making the best of where you get started. Sometimes that’s just a bare-bones blustery, rocky outcrop of a place, inhospitable, with little soil or shelter, nurturing or encouragement. It may take a long time, but you somehow come to grips with it—this starting place. You reach and reach, stretching needy roots over naked granite, through tiny cracks, down into crevices. Until you finally find the footholds, the stability and sustenance you need.” –Douglas Wood
What do you do when you have chronic pain in your life? This can come in many forms; maybe it’s finicky mental health, maybe you just went through a break-up or maybe a family member recently died. How do you keep going when you’ve just tried your fourth anti-depressant and you are still crippled by panic attacks? How do you get through the day when all you can feel is the hole in your heart, left by a loved one who is no longer here.
Let’s be honest, a lot of people turn to negative coping mechanisms when faced with pain that has no end in sight. Look up the statistics and you will find a high percentage of those who have experienced trauma or have mental health issues also cope with addiction. In this article, however, I want to talk about a much healthier alternative: exercising your resilience.
What is resilience, you ask? According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, resilience is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” Organizations, researchers, and trauma survivors alike cite resilience as a key component in dealing with and recovering from both chronic and acute life pains. This makes a lot of sense, based on the definition, but I think it often gets swept up under the jargon rug and rarely gets put into a context that non-psychologists and non-researchers understand.
So, let’s talk about resilience in a way that doesn’t refer to dictionaries or scientific articles. Here are the most important parts of defining resilience:
1. Resilience is getting through and growing from pain. It is taking a punch in the gut and then making the most of where you end up falling, even if where you land seems bleak and bleary. Though the dictionary defines resilience as a quick recovery, the reality is often quite the opposite.
2. Resilience is not the absence of pain. This is really important to remember. You might think that if someone is good at recovering from misfortune, then they must manage to do it with a skin of steel. Once again, the complete opposite is true. As the American Psychological Association says, “being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress… In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.”
3. Resilience is not some intrinsic trait. You can’t be or not be resilient. It is a practice of actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Every day and every hardship is a new opportunity to try exercising resilience. Similarly, just because you have demonstrated resilience before doesn’t mean that it’ll be any easier the next time adversity comes your way. You have to earn your resilience shield, every time.
In the real world, it’s hard to remember all these textbook definitions and reminders. You’re having a shitty day and it doesn’t matter what fancy concept your therapist might throw at you: this moment is shit and many moments preceding it have been shit. What do you do? What are these legendary “actions, thoughts, and behaviors” that are supposed to get you through the gut wrenching pain.
Here are a few things that help me:
1. Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and listen to music. At some point when you’re feeling better, make a playlist of the songs that soothe your soul most. These don’t all have to be super serene songs… My panic attack playlist includes “Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men, “The Chain” by Ingrid Michaelson, and “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj.
2. Do something to pamper yourself. Take a hot bath, scoop a huge bowl of ice cream, or indulge in a 3-hour nap. We all deserve more care and special treatment than we give ourselves.
3. Take a step towards nature, even if the best you can find are the trees along the sidewalk. Spend a few minutes noticing only beauty.
My list could go on, but the thing about practicing resilience is that it looks differently for everyone. Strategies that work for me may not work for you. The strategies that we each use may not be the same, but the central theme of exercising resilience is. Don’t push the pain away, but instead lean into it and ride its wave. This may seem counterintuitive, but as Andrew Solomon said in his famous TED talk, “the people who deny their experience… those are the people who are most enslaved by what they have.”
There’s no taking away the pains of life, especially when you are dealt a hand that includes chronic mental health issues. However, with practice and resilience, not only does pain become more bearable, but you may even find the rest of your life shining with more light.