The longer you live, the more likely it is you will have had to deal with trauma, loss and other setbacks that can leave you wondering if your dream of a happy life was just that, a dream.
What happens when you get knocked down so hard or so many times that you don’t want to get up again? The saddest and most extreme example was spotlighted last year when major media outlets reported that suicide had reached a 30-year high, led by Baby Boomers. A study by the National Center for Health Statistics found the suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 to 64, jumped by 63 percent, while it rose by 43 percent for men in that age range between 1999 and 2014. September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
How can we address this alarming national public health trend? The answer I believe lies in building resilience, our ability to cope with and grow through whatever life throws at us. And there is encouraging new research that shows people can grow their resilience in midlife.
“The good news is that some of the qualities of middle age -- a better ability to regulate emotions, perspective gained from life experiences and concern for future generations -- may give older people an advantage over the young when it comes to developing resilience,” Wharton professor Adam Grant told the New York Times.
The Times notes “scientists who study stress and resilience say it’s important to think of resilience as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time. While it’s useful to build up resilience before a big or small crisis hits, there still are active steps you can take during and after a crisis to speed your emotional recovery.”
By the time we reach midlife, most of us have lived through tough times and losses, be it a divorce, the death of a parent, the loss of a job or other career setbacks. Our years of experience give us some advantages when it comes to coping. Practice these three strategies to strengthen your resilience muscles.
1. Look at how you’ve grown through past struggles.
Most of us are not intentionally taught resilience; rather, we learn it through life experience. Given that the average person experiences five or six traumas in their lives, these seem like pretty necessary skills. I wish I had learned them in school. I use resilience way more than I use algebra! Fortunately, resilience is a skill that can be cultivated, practiced and honed.
It’s natural when faced with an overwhelming situation to feel defeated, but people who practice resilience learn to see the situation a bit differently. They have their initial feelings, process them, and then look at the problem and say, “What is this teaching me? What can I learn from this?” They choose to use failure and adversity as learning opportunities.
It’s difficult when you are in the middle of a struggle to see the good that may come out of it. But take heart that although you may not see the lesson at the time, you will be able to look back with perspective and learn from it.
We achieve strength through struggle. When we make it through a trauma, crisis, or stressful time, we always learn something. It is called “post-traumatic growth.” Recognizing how you have grown through adversity is a way to flex your resilience muscles.
2. Assert control over your expectations.
Be aware of your expectations and don’t let unrealistic ones lead you to judge yourself or others harshly and negatively.
I have found that when I’m sad, upset, frustrated, or disappointed, it’s because my expectations are out of alignment with reality. We all have expectations of how we think people should be and should behave. Unnecessary heartache arises in relationships when people fail to meet our standards and expectations. Unmet expectations can build hurt, anger and resentment. I know that my life got a whole lot easier when I started giving people the benefit of the doubt.
This also applies to our expectations of ourselves. I am what Brené Brown would call a “recovering perfectionist” or an “aspiring good enoughist.” I’ve been a perfectionist since I was a little girl. Recently, my mom reminded me that I refused to eat until I could learn how to tie my own shoes -- when I was two!
The only way to beat perfectionism is to acknowledge where we are most vulnerable. We all go through the universal experiences of shame, judgment, blame, lack of self-esteem and even self-loathing. It is only through our willingness to embrace and actually love and appreciate our imperfections, that we can find courage, emotional intelligence, resilience, compassion for one another, and that ever-so-elusive peace of mind.
3. Practice gratitude.
Rates of suicide, depression and self-medication are higher in the Western world than any other place on Earth. We appear prosperous on the outside, but on the inside, we are emotionally starving. We’ve somehow adopted the notion that we can purchase happiness or even more, a perfect life. In reality, the more we seek perfection and the less time we spend embracing and being grateful for our imperfections, the more deeply depressed and dissatisfied we become.
The good news is, gratitude heals. Numerous scientific studies have shown that practicing being grateful on a regular basis lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation, improves heart health and sleep, and lowers stress levels.
It’s easy to be grateful when you have money in the bank, the bills are paid, your family is healthy, and you just got a promotion at work. But what about when that’s not the case? How are you supposed to feel grateful when you just lost your job, your child is ill, or you just suffered a broken heart?
Gratitude is not measured by how you are feeling during the worst of times; rather, it involves acknowledging that something good still exists for you.
Whether you call it selective attention or the law of attraction, we find what we look for. Gratitude has additional benefits. What’s interesting is you don’t have to find anything to be grateful for. You just have to look. The simple act of looking releases serotonin and dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitters in your brain.
People often say if you have the right attitude, you automatically get gratitude. I disagree. From the seeds of attitude come a basis for great understanding and acceptance. But from the seeds of vulnerability and joy, come gratitude.
Related: A Little Gratitude Can Go a Long Way
When you are taken over by despair and sadness, you diminish your ability to be resilient and strong. Allow joy and gratitude to come into your heart. None of us can prepare ourselves completely for bad times before they happen, but exercising our resilience muscles will help to keep them in shape. I could never prepare myself for being the mother of a mentally ill child or navigating a tumor resulting in facial paralysis, or breaking my foot while going through radiation, but I know that today I am stronger, more courageous, and more resilient as a result.