An Introduction to resilience, the beliefs we hold about it and how we might build it in the face of adversity.

Resilience can be defined as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress and the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape.

The importance of resilience is gaining momentum in the health sector; when you understand what keeps someone buoyant and afloat during a stormy time, you can use this understanding to develop strategies to support both yourself and others.

Resilience is quite prevalent in the cancer world because promoting resilience has been found to be a critical element of patients’ psychosocial care and understanding the multi-faceted role that resilience plays in supporting positive wellbeing following cancer is an important focus.

While more young adults are diagnosed and surviving cancer, understanding what helps to cope or even thrive under the circumstances can be really beneficial.

Top 5 Facts About Resilience

  1. Resilience isn’t about ‘being positive’; it is about coping, managing and maybe even thriving in the face of adversity.

  2. Resilience is made up of many factors, including your personality, genetics, your experiences, and how much support you get from your social circle and community.

  3. There are protective factors to resilience – these include having people in your life who care for you and believe in your abilities, as well as personal qualities that support you against stress and hardship.

  4. There is mixed evidence on whether men and women differ in their resilience levels.

  5. One person’s resilience is different to the next - understanding our own level and what we can tolerate is the best starting point.

Recovering from Setbacks

Cancer inevitably turns your world upside down and your way of coping with the variety of difficulties faced during your cancer journey may be very different to someone else.

Traditionally it may have been said that the speed of someone’s recovery was an indicator of their resilience. However speed takes no account of length of illness or amount and types of treatment someone has had, nor their mental state before, during and after treatment, nor the myriad of events that contribute to their resilience level in the first place.

Instead, it seems appropriate to look at quality of recovery; do you feel resilient? Do you have strengths you are calling on (that you may or may not recognise yet)? How do you cope with every day life outside of your health? This indicates how you may recover from any setback and where you can look for strategies to build for the future. What skills have you developed to give meaning, purpose or skills to cope with adversity or challenge have they developed?

Recovering from a set back may not mean making a ‘full recovery’ – you will inevitably be changed by a challenging experience, and acknowledging the ebb and flow of your growth and development, even with something like cancer as a part of it, can help you when looking at how you adapt and change during and after difficult times.

Everyone has a starting level of resilience – your genetics, environment, external events and more determine your level at any one time. Each person also experiences different events in life, and each react differently to them. This combination, along with any resilience building strategies you may have acquired along the way, determine how resilient you feel - your resilience level. Another key predictor that psychological research has pointed to is the subjective ‘locus of control’ reported, meaning how much you feel that life controls you vs. how much you feel that you influence your own future.

However, this isn’t static. Just as you learn how to cope with something, it can change, requiring you to adjust and manage slightly or completely differently. Learning to adapt with this change and understand your changing levels of strength and resilience can bring a sense of peace and focus. Understanding your own level at any given moment is useful to gauge your self-talk and self-belief during difficult times.

Your resilience level is also about perspective; you may not feel resilient, yet to others you appear to be thriving during a challenge. It may take time and distance from that challenge for you to acknowledge how resilient you really were. Or your belief may be that you didn’t cope well enough – it comes down to your perspective in the end. Watch out for the level you believe yourself to be at – because it may just be a lot higher than you are letting yourself think.

Finding Inspiration

When you think of a person who’s inspired you, a characteristic you may recognise in them is resilience. However, showing a lack of resilience (a time where you didn’t cope or where things weren’t manageable) can be the most inspirational part of someone’s journey or story.

Resilience is often in the story behind a person, the part where they had to work to get to where they are; it makes it real and helps build bridges with others who might be going through something similar. Sometimes you want to know what it was like in the depths for someone, so that you understand it’s not just you who feels like this – and that is natural. There is both strength in numbers and in honesty.

Finding inspiration in others is a very personal experience – everyone is inspired by others in different ways. Thus, if you can find who and what inspires you and understand why, it will help you learn what strengths you admire and how you can develop similar strategies for yourself in future to support your own resilience.

Learning to Cope

Resilience isn’t about not feeling the things you feel, nor is it about not being honest when things are hard. It is about working with what you’ve got. This doesn’t mean ‘put up and shut up’, it means, facing where you are and asking ‘what’s my next step now?’ and what resources do I need and have I already got?

One person’s coping mechanisms will be very different to another’s, thus this is about finding what works for you and your situation, at the pace you need and not according to someone else’s expectations.

What that means is that it’s not your fault if you’re not coping – it isn’t a choice to not be as resilient as the next person, it is just how it is and it may not be like that forever. It means that you can be gentle with yourself and learn the right ways for you. Your strategies might be quiet and not apparent to others, but they are yours and they work for you.

Cancer is unbelievably difficult, and most would accept that having cancer at a younger age is tough because of all the life changes still to come. A key part of that is resilience; the younger you experience something difficult, the more of a knock it can be to the fundamental building blocks of your strength and resilience.

Perhaps identifying and learning to cope, accept or even thrive with where you’re at in life’s journey is the best starting point, even if it means feeling awful about it for a good while. Being able to show vulnerability, learn ways to support ourselves and ask for support, may just be the best resilience strategy you can start with.