It’s been a week now since we rang in the new year.
I’m not really one to work on new year’s resolutions before a new year starts. Which, now that I think about it, kind of disqualifies them as “new year” resolutions, doesn’t it?
Still, I find that trying to create some monumental “I’m going to transform my life” moment at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve is way too much pressure. That pressure is so onerous that it often makes me lose steam by the second or third week of the new year.
This could just be me.
If you are one who reviews your life and makes new goals every December, and more importantly, STICKS TO YOUR GOALS through January to the next December…I applaud you. You are my hero.
For myself, I find that I am more successful if I spread the review process out through the new year, thinking carefully about what I want to accomplish and taking incremental steps toward the life changes I want.
This is my roundabout explanation for why I am posting a “new year’s resolution” type-post AFTER the new year has started rather than before.
This year, one of my resolutions is to build more patterns of RESILIENCE into my thinking. I’m sure you’ve heard the term already – it basically means using thinking patterns that make us more resilient against the slings and arrows of life stressors.
Resilient thinking is like body armor – no, make that brain armor. Rather than getting wounded by the stressors in our lives (which often leads to stress-induced depression and/or anxiety), resilient thinking makes stressors bounce off with less damage.
Some individuals are fortunate enough to be born with resilience already programmed into their thought patterns. Others, like me, have had to learn them over time. Because – and this is GREAT news – resilience CAN be learned.1
Dr. Kathryn Connor, a psychiatrist at Duke University Medical Center, has collected a list of resilient thinking patterns discovered over several decades of research.2 I have chosen twelve of these to study over the next twelve months.
If you are interested in joining me, I am listing them here, along with some inspirational quotes for each week to help us remember them.
January: JUMP into action.
Resilient individuals do not take life’s knocks lying down. Even if life stressors temporarily get the upper hand and knock them off their feet, resilient individuals react fast and fight back.
Dr. Connor calls this an ACTION-oriented approach to stress or trauma.
Here are a few inspirational quotes to help us JUMP into ACTION:
“You have been given your own work to do. Get to it right now, do your best at it, and don’t be concerned with who is watching you. Create your own merit.” – Epictetus
“Fall seven times, rise eight.” – Japanese Proverb
“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there will be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.” – Mahatma Gandhi
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” – Dale Carnegie
“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
February: FIND the MEANING.
Resilient individuals are able to find a sense of meaning in any life event. This does not mean that ALL events, in and of themselves, make perfect sense or happen for a reason.
You and I know this is not always true.
But when bad things happen, resilient individuals search for a meaningful outcome, even if it is simply having the ability to come alongside someone else going through the same things and helping them through it.
Here are some quotes from others who have tried this:
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.” – Victor Frankl
“Almost every day I feel momentary flashes of hopelessness and wonder every time whether I am slipping. For a petrifying instant here and there, a lightning-quick flash, I want a car to run me over…I hate these feelings, but I know that they have driven me to look deeper at life, to find and cling to reasons for living. I cannot find it in me to regret entirely the course my life has taken. Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely, and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?” – Andrew Solomon
“Sometimes the darkest challenges, the most difficult lessons, hold the greatest gems of light.” – Barbara Marcianak
“Trials are often unreasonable, but not without reason. You and God work out the reasons together.” – Chuck Swindoll
March: MAKE lemonade out of lemons.
Resilient individuals are what I call “optimistic realists.” It’s not that they ignore the bad stuff; they simply believe in their ability to get through it. They don’t go searching for the worst; rather they hope for the best.
Here is how others have described this optimism:
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill
if you are in darkness
and the void sucks you in further.
This is not the place we go to die.
It’s where we are born
and our stories begin.” ― Kamand Kojouri
“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” – Henri Matisse
April: ADAPT to Change.
Some life events cause permanent change. Examples include losing a loved one in death or divorce, making a major move, or experiencing a life-changing illness or accident.
Resilient individuals don’t spin their wheels by living in the past. They find a way to adapt, to mold themselves into their new reality.
Here are some examples of adaptive thinking:
“What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.” – Lao Tzu
“Some periods of our growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognize that growth is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would never occur to us, unless we stumbled on a book or a person who explained to us, that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger, spiritually, than we were before. Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening. Those long periods when something inside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually become the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed.” ― Alice Walker
“I have become my own version of an optimist. If I can’t make it through one door, I’ll go through another door – or I’ll make a door. Something terrific will come no matter how dark the present.” – Rabindranath Tagore
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”-Martin Luther King, Jr.
May: MEASURE Current Problems with Past Successes.
Resilient individuals have the ability to confront current challenges using past successes. They think to themselves, “Have I ever seen something like this before? If so, did I make it through all right? If I did, what would stop me from making it through this time, too?”
Examples of this kind of thinking:
“Notice your heart. Still beating. Still fighting. You made it, after all. You made it, another day. And you can make it one more. You’re doing just fine.” – Charlotte Eriksson
“Those who overcome great challenges will be changed, and often in unexpected ways. For our struggles enter our lives as unwelcome guests, but they bring valuable gifts. And once the pain subsides, the gifts remain. These gifts are life’s true treasures, bought at great price, but cannot be acquired in any other way.”― Steve Goodier
“Sometimes I feel proud of myself, not because of any success I’ve achieved, but because I’m aware of all the difficulties that I have suffered or went through. I’m an eyewitness at all the fear, weakness, frustration, failure, depression, refraction and bad luck moments that I’ve been through alone and which affected significantly but never was able to beat me for so long. This is why I’m proud, because I’m here now stronger than yesterday, I’m still able to stand and continue on my way, still following up my dreams, still trying my best to build better future for me and my family and I will never ever give up!” ― Shadi Kamal Kandil
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“Study the past if you would define the future.” – Confucius
June: Learn to JOKE About Things.
Resilient individuals have a sense of humor. Unlike the rest of us, their humor does not desert them when the going gets tough. Instead they use their sense of the ironic or comical to lighten their perspective of the situation.
“He who smiles rather than rages is always the stronger.”- Japanese Proverb
“If someone speaks badly of you, do not defend yourself against the accusations, but reply: “You obviously don’t know about my other vices, otherwise you would have mentioned these as well.” – Epictetus
“A strange thing happened to me in my dream. I was rapt into the Seventh Heaven. There sat all the gods assembled. As a special dispensation I was granted the favor to have one wish. “Do you wish for youth,” said Mercury, “or for beauty, or power, or a long life; or do you wish for the most beautiful woman, or any other of the many fine things we have in our treasure trove? Choose, but only one thing!” For a moment I was at a loss. Then I addressed the gods in this wise: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose one thing — that I may always have the laughs on my side.” Not one god made answer, but all began to laugh. From this I concluded that my wish had been granted and thought that the gods knew how to express themselves with good taste: for it would surely have been inappropriate to answer gravely: your wish has been granted.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
“A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.” ― Phyllis Diller
July: JOIN a Community.
As I have confessed before, I am an extreme introvert. Most of the time, I don’t mind this about myself because introversion definitely has its perks (bless you, Susan Cain, for finally pointing this out to the rest of the world).
However, when I get hit with a major stressor, I tend to crawl into my isolated shell of introversion. I lie there like a wounded animal, licking my wounds and wallowing in self-pity.
Regardless of their introverson or extraversion, resilient individuals draw strength from relationships. They don’t fall for misguided beliefs like, “I should be strong enough to go through this alone.”
Rather, their connectedness to others is part of their armor. They offer help and, when needed, they ask for it, too. Thus resilient individuals form resilient communities capable of protecting and nurturing others.
Here are some examples of this type of thinking:
“Was it you or I who stumbled first? It does not matter. The one of us who finds the strength to get up first, must help the other.” – Vera Nazarian
“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.” – Nelson Mandela
“Yes I’m seeking for someone, to help me. So that someday I will be the someone to help some other one.” ― Vignesh Karthi
“When we feel weak, we drop our heads on the shoulders of others. Don’t get mad when someone does that. Be honored. For that person trusted you enough to, even if subtly, ask you for help.” ― Lori Goodwin
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”- Victor Frankl
August: AIM for specific and personal goals.
A team of researchers from the United Kingdom and Sweden recently asked a group of depressed patients and non-depressed control subjects to list their personal goals.
The control group talked about the typical stuff that comes up around the new year:
“I want to exercise more,” “I want to advance in my career,” or “I want to learn a new language.”
The research team noticed a telling difference with the depressed patients: they more often had less specific, more abstract goals like:
“I want to be happy,” or “I want to feel better than I do now.”
There is nothing wrong with more abstract goals, really. Or with wanting to feel better. But it’s also harder to gauge if one is making progress on these types of goals.
Quoting the researchers: “This may not be surprising, as lack of motivation is a symptom of depression. But while not having goals will reduce your chances of failure, it also reduces your chances of success. Small successes can be helpful in overcoming feelings of worthlessness in depression.”
This is my reason for including specific, personal goals in this list.
Others have also written about the value of goals:
“I respect the man who knows distinctly what he wishes. The greater part of all mischief in the world arises from the fact that men do not sufficiently understand their own aims. They have undertaken to build a tower, and spend no more labor on the foundation than would be necessary to erect a hut.” – John Wolfgang Van Goethe
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” – Henry David Thoreau
“There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can circumvent or hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul.” – Ella Wheeler Wilcox
“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.” ― Louisa May Alcott
September: SEE Problems as Challenges.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
That explains this characteristic of resilience in a nutshell.
Resilient individuals choose (note that word — we’ll unpack it more next month) to view stress as a challenge rather than an impossible hurdle. They also view life’s difficulties as opportunities to get stronger.
“When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.”-Peter Marshall
“If we are not allowed to deal with small problems, we will be destroyed by slightly larger ones. When we come to understand this, we live our lives not avoiding problems, but welcoming them them as challenges that will strengthen us so that we can be victorious in the future.”― Jim Stovall
“A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her.” – David Brinkley
“Trouble is only opportunity in work clothes.” – Henry Kaiser
October: OWN Personal Control Over What Happens.
Daniel Levitin explains this characteristic in his book on work productivity:
“But there is a critical point about differences between individuals that exerts arguably more influence on worker productivity than any other. The factor is locus of control, a fancy name for how people view their autonomy and agency in the world. People with an internal locus of control believe that they are responsible for (or at least can influence) their own fates and life outcomes. They may or may not feel they are leaders, but they feel that they are essentially in charge of their lives. Those with an external locus of control see themselves as relatively powerless pawns in some game played by others; they believe that other people, environmental forces, the weather, malevolent gods, the alignment of celestial bodies– basically any and all external events– exert the most influence on their lives.”
Resilient individuals consistently have an internal locus of control, believing that they are masters of their own destiny.
This does not mean that they have 100% control over what happens to them — no human has that. But — and this is kind of a key point, so don’t miss it — they realize that they have 100% control over their reaction to what happens to them in life.
“The man [or woman] who makes everything that leads to happiness depend upon himself [or herself], and not upon other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily. This is the man [woman] of moderation, the man [woman] of… character and of wisdom.” ― Plato
“Oh, my friend, it’s not what they take away from you that counts. It’s what you do with what you have left.” – Hubert Humphrey
“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I shall have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it, even if I may not have it at the beginning.” – Mahatma Gandhi
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Victor Frankl
“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” – Epictetus
November: NEVER Give up.
Resilient individuals understand the value of patience and persistence.
They don’t give up.
“What is to give light must endure burning.” – Victor Frankl
“What ought one to say then as each hardship comes? I was practicing for this, I was training for this.” – Epictetus
“You can walk through a storm and feel the wind but you know you are not the wind. That is how we must be with our minds. We must allow ourselves to feel their gales and downpours, but all the time knowing this is just necessary weather. When I sink deep, now, and I still do from time to time, I try and understand that there is another, bigger and stronger part of me that is not sinking. It stands unwavering.” ― Matt Haig
“All of life is a process of recovery that never ends. We each must find ways to accept and move through the pain and to pick ourselves back up. For each pang of grief, depression, doubt or despair there is an inverse toward renewal coming to you in time. Each tragedy is an announcement that some good will indeed come in time. Be patient with yourself.” ― Bryant McGill
December: DEFINE Your Worth.
Resilient individuals have a strong sense of self-esteem and self-worth. This can be a tricky thing to develop without some guidance, which is why I described four ways to develop self-esteem in my CBT series.
The value of strong self-esteem has been discussed by others:
“Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
“All the external adoration, respect and adulation in the word, can’t drown out the internal voices that tell us, we are not good enough and unworthy of; happiness, love and an abundant life. When we need others to tell us were amazing, worthy and lovable, in order to feel good about ourselves, it is never enough. It goes into the bottomless pit where our inherent self-worth should be. It may feel like we are reaching out to receive love, but in actuality, we are seeking external noise to help drown out our negative core beliefs. Love blossoms from the inside out. That is why it is so important to do the work necessary to heal our emotional wounds, to love ourselves and stand strong in who we are. Only then, are we truly free to give and receive love, unconditionally and in abundance.” ― Jaeda DeWalt
“When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.” – African Proverb
“He that respects himself is safe from others; he wears a coat of mail that none can pierce.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
1 Chmitorz, A., Kunzler, A., Helmreich, I., Tüscher, O., Kalisch, R., Kubiak, T., … & Lieb, K. (2018). Intervention studies to foster resilience–A systematic review and proposal for a resilience framework in future intervention studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 59, 78-100.
2 Connor, K. M. (2006). Assessment of resilience in the aftermath of trauma. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 67(2), 46-49.
Connor, K. M., & Davidson, J. R. (2003). Development of a new resilience scale: The Connor‐Davidson resilience scale (CD‐RISC). Depression and anxiety, 18(2), 76-82.
3 Dickson, J. M., & Moberly, N. J. (2013). Reduced specificity of personal goals and explanations for goal attainment in major depression. PloS one, 8(5), e64512.
Which of these characteristics of resilience are the most challenging for you? How have you learned to integrate them into your thinking?
I welcome your comments below!
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.