Three ways to build resilience

Three ways to build resilience

Three ways to build resilience

Updated 15 June 2017, 5:25 AEST

When life doesn't go exactly the way you had hoped, what is it that helps some of us cope through adversity?

"Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising up, every time we fall." — Confucius

When life doesn't go exactly the way you had hoped, what is it that helps some of us cope better, be resilient or even grow as a person through adversity?

As a journalist focusing on health and medicine, much of my time is spent with patients, some of whom have been deeply traumatised. They may be living with a chronic illness or recovering from a life-threatening condition, or dealing with the loss of a loved one.

Recently, I spent time with three women who had unimaginable tragedy in their lives.

They had all lost someone they loved to suicide through an eating disorder.

I travelled interstate to spend time with one of the mothers, Fiona.

Her young daughter Tess was diagnosed with anorexia at 11 and died at 16.

What struck me was Fiona's quiet determination that her daughter's death would not be in vain.

"I don't think anyone can understand this experience unless you have been there," she said.

Fiona battled for five years to get her daughter the help she needed.

Instead, she was told by doctors to "force feed" her child.

Another time, Fiona waited for 35 hours in the emergency room of a hospital and wouldn't leave until her daughter got medical care.

Losing Tess was shattering but somehow, just months after it happened, Fiona found the inner strength and resilience to be able to open up about what happened to her and her daughter.

I actually don't know if I could have done the same and I admire her for her courage.

"I just don't want other families to go through what we went through," she told me.

What I realised by talking to Fiona was that maybe her act of speaking out to advocate for change was one tangible way she could claw back some sense of meaning out of such tragedy.

When I went back and looked at the scientific research into resilience, I was struck by the insight the creator of positive psychology Martin Seligman had about how people overcome setbacks.

He found the best way to deal with setbacks was to move beyond the three Ps:

  • Personalisation — the idea you are at fault.
  • Pervasiveness — the belief that an event will affect all areas of your life.
  • Permanence — the thought that the effect of the event will be life-long.

Do these thoughts strike a chord with you? They do with me.

When something goes wrong, how often do we think "it's my fault" or "this will change everything" or "that life will never be the same now this has happened"?

Fiona told me that she struggled to move past feelings of blaming herself when her daughter became ill.

"One doctor said I needed to go into therapy so I could find out why it was I couldn't save my daughter's life," she said.

"That stayed with me for a long time."

Ultimately, Fiona realised the situation wasn't her fault. It was the system that let her down.

And while the loss of her beloved daughter would change her life forever, she was able to make a difference to others, by shining a light on a health system that failed her family.

Women like Fiona embody the true meaning of courage, that is "strength in the face of pain and grief".

She spoke out when it was much easier to stay silent.

Her desire to protect other families from a similar heartache helped boost her strength and resilience.

Some experts believe it's even possible to experience what they call "post-traumatic growth".

Associate Professor Adam Grant, an expert in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, believes there are four ways people can experience growth after a tragedy.

"Finding personal strength, forming deeper relationships, discovering more meaning in life and seeing new possibilities," he says.

"When we face the slings and arrows of life, we are wounded and the scars stay with us. But we can walk away with greater internal resolve," he writes in Option B, a book he co-authored with Sheryl Sandberg.

"And we can develop much greater appreciation of what we take for granted — our relationships, our health and our families."

And by finding meaning in our experiences, emotional suffering can be relieved.

As Viktor Frankl said, "in some way suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning".

Fiona's story will always stay with me, as will the stories of the other families I met.

Their stories of hope despite sadness, and resilience in the face of loss, resonate with others too.

What has helped you to become resilient?

What strategies have helped you to get back up when you have fallen down?

Sophie Scott is the national medical reporter for the ABC. Her blog is at www.sophiescott.com.au.