By Kaye Olsson, I Start Wondering Columnist
I recently traveled to Croatia, a place I knew relatively little about before my visit. This small country’s desirable coastal location has made it the target for occupation by many civilizations throughout history. Influences from past Austrian and Hungarian aristocracies dominate the northern areas, while remnants of Roman and Venetian cultures are readily seen in the architecture and cuisine of the southern regions. This diverse country has both mountains and beaches, castles, and stone villages. It is at once intriguing and confusing.
The Croatian people have figured out how to survive, despite past hardships, which is a true lesson in resilience that we can all learn from. They have been conquered time and time again, but still, continue to rebuild. Most recently, conflicts with other parts of the former Yugoslavia during the civil wars of the 1990s left scars on the landscape and its inhabitants. Now, with its newfound independence, this ancient country is struggling to discover its own identity.
Photos from my trip to Croatia
Learning about Croatia made me realize how we, too, are continually forced to adapt to ever-changing roles as we age. A former mother of a young child becomes an empty nester, a former employee or business owner becomes a retiree, a former spouse becomes a widow(er), and so on. Striving to achieve full and meaningful lives means we can expect challenges along the way.
Just as we learn to walk by falling down, again and again, failure and disappointment are necessary prerequisites to growth. However, the real test of character comes after the failures and disappointments. This is resilience— how easily you deal with traumatic situations, what you learn from them, and how you bounce back.
The COVID-19 outbreak is a perfect example of a traumatic event that impacted the lives of millions of people across the world. It strained our finances, our relationships, and our mental health. And it was particularly hard on women.
What was unexpected, however, was how well many people weathered the pandemic’s psychological challenges. It showed us that people are more resilient than they themselves realize. Human beings possess what some researchers call a psychological immune system, a host of cognitive abilities that enable us to make the best of even the worst situation.
The pandemic has been a test of the global psychological immune system, which appears more robust than we would have guessed. When familiar sources of enjoyment evaporated in the spring of 2020, people got creative. They participated in drive-by birthday parties, virtual cocktail hours, and nightly cheers for healthcare workers. Some people developed incredible baking skills. Many found a way to reweave their social tapestry. Surprisingly, across multiple large data sets, levels of loneliness showed only a modest increase, with 13.8 percent of adults in the U.S. reporting always or often feeling lonely in April 2020, compared with 11 percent in spring 2018.
So how can we build our resilience? Dr. Wendy Suzuki, author of Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion, tells us that the key to resilience is part mindset and part skillset. The brain is an incredibly adaptive organ that actually needs stress to keep it alive, so we must work to flip our uncomfortable feelings into “good anxiety.” Suzuki has found that “when you adopt strategies that harness the neural networks of anxiety, you open the door to activating your brain-body at an even deeper, more meaningful level.”
Strategies for dealing with worry or anxiety might include movement, meditation, naps, and social stimulus. Also, being able to name our uncomfortable feelings instead of hiding from them allows us to explore what they are telling us. The capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors when faced with life’s disruptions allows us to emerge stronger and wiser. This not only decreases anxiety levels but can also enhance our ability to bounce back from a difficult experience.
As we look ahead to life’s next great challenges, it’s important to remember this hard-won lesson: human beings are not passive victims of change but active stewards of our own well-being. We are resilient. This knowledge should empower us to make the necessary changes that our current–and future–life circumstances may require. We must realize that we have a chance to live before we die, and we have the ability to heal.
So call someone who needs to hear your voice. Be kind to others. Say “I love you!” Walk the dog. Water the plants. Be good to your body. Listen. When everything feels like it’s falling apart, the key point is to appreciate the many small blessings each day brings and recognize that hardships won’t last forever. Accepting our new reality is part of building resilience.