Stress, Resilience and ‘Bouncing Back’

In tough and stressful times, being resilient requires more than bouncing back

In the past I have not been fond of the word resilience when it comes to discussing mental wellness. For me it conjured up connotations of bracing against, bearing down, putting up with or toughing it out.

During my childhood and teenage years, “toughing it out” was the coping strategy that was role-modelled to me when it came to handling stress or dealing with pressure. But it’s actually not something that has worked very well in my own experience of working with pain, difficulty and mental health. It was only in my 20’s and 30’s that I came to understand “resilience” to mean the ability to bounce back. However, something about that still didn’t quite ring true to me. I still felt that there was something important in the process of working with stress and difficulty that was not accurately captured.

Then in November 2019 I finally came across an explanation of resilience in the New Zealand Herald that captured more of its essence to me. The author pointed out that the word resilience stems from the word 'resile', meaning 'to draw back from'. This meaning “recognises that we are experiencing something that we do not want. We draw back from it, we resile. Try to bounce without first drawing back. You can’t. To recoil, this gathering in, is vital.”

 

What does this really mean?

 

To me this is about taking stock, accepting the truth of where you are – acknowledging the pain, the loss, the desperation, the shock, the fear, the despair, the anger – fully acknowledging, and being with the full catastrophe taking place in your outer and inner life.

Now as easy as this may sound for some, this acceptance requires skill, practice and patience. Without skillfully taking stock, how are you to move forward with any sense of true understanding and transformational personal growth that can come from the raw honesty of facing the moment exactly as it is?

This has been true in my own experience. After a significant, tragic family event in my teen years, I chose the “avoid and soldier on” approach. To be fair, when big things happen in our lives, sometimes the best coping strategy for a period of time can be to not let the pain of the whole acknowledged truth flood into us. This is actually a cleverly designed short term survival technique. We can’t be falling to pieces if ourselves or our family are in immediate danger.

However, there will always come a point in time when we must turn towards the truth of what has happened and work carefully through our emotional landscape. This for me was truly transformational. Being able to be with the deepest and darkest grief and hurt, with care and attention, has been my greatest teacher.

 

Moving Forward

 

Right now, we are all finding our way forward in this forever changed world, and there will be stress, pain loss, grief and fear. There will also come a time that we owe it to ourselves to resile, to rest, and to take stock of how we feel. Only then, after honouring the complex landscape of who we are and what we have lived through, can we begin to look toward the second part of what it means to be resilient – moving forward.

We then move forward with the knowledge and wisdom that comes with bearing witness to the truth, and with a deeper understanding of the role of impermanence. When we can do this for ourselves, so too can we be there for others who might be dealing with difficulties or stress, with the same depth of understanding, because we have done the work and we know the terrain. This kind of deep work doesn’t happen overnight, after a single workshop, or over a few conversations. This kind of work takes patience, time, and reflection. It sometimes takes the willingness to share the raw and tender parts of your stressful experience with others you trust.

What do you need right now? How can you start to acknowledge fully all that you have experienced over the past few weeks? How can you take stock, resile, and then accept?

Once you have acknowledged this, only then can you learn, grow, and move forward with a presence of unshakable determination and compassion. This comes from being with the full experience, with an attitude of openness, curiosity and care.