Resilience and Coping Mechanisms

Contributed by guest writer Shonah Nykiforuk

Resilience and Coping MechanismsEveryone can attest after living through the last three years, life can throw you a lot of curveballs.  Sometimes those curveballs hit internationally, nationally, or just within your home.  Sometimes they hit simultaneously, like a broken batting machine, each ball coming at you one after another.  Responding to these events can often reveal to us how resilient we actually are.  Our response reminds us what we are, or are not, made of.  For some, these events, especially compounded, break us down until we hit survival mode and just try to make it through the day.

How Resilient Are You?

Where do you find yourself when the batting machine of life is broken, tossing ball after ball in your direction?  Are you swinging left and swinging right, knocking each one out of the park? Or have you dropped your bat and hit the dirt with your head in your hands, hoping each ball flying over your head is the last one?  Sometimes we don’t know who we are until we are in it and sometimes we aren’t the person we expected ourselves to be.  

Do you let past experiences dictate future outcomes?

Let’s say that the first ball that comes at you you swing at, really hard, but you miss and it hits you in the shoulder.  It’s painful and causes your strength to decrease just a little bit.  The next ball comes, what’s your process?  Based on your previous experience, your mind might tell you that the probability of the next ball hitting your shoulder is 100%.  Instead of attempting to take a swing, you turn your shoulder towards it, choosing to take the blow of the second ball, as predicted.  The pain is deeper and your shoulder is now aching.  The third ball ques up.  Your brain tells you it’s absolutely going to hit you, so you drop to the ground and shelter your shoulder.  The ball flies right over top of you and you hear it bounce off the chain link fence.

The second scenario is this. The first ball comes flying at you and you swing at it with all your might.  You hit it square on and the crack of it against the bat echoes around you as you watch it fly straight ahead and over the fence.  You feel like a million dollars.  Your brain tells you the probability of it happening again is 100% based on history.  The next ball comes flying at you, your confidence increases and you swing again.  Crack!  There it goes, over the fence.  You now feel like a major league player.

What is the result of  relying on past experiences to predict future outcomes?

What’s the difference between these two scenarios?  One ended in pain, the other in success.  Life is no different.  When life throws us curve balls, we always do our best to hit them, especially when we are young and inexperienced.  But as life moves along, and we miss a few hits here and there, our confidence decreases.  Not only this, but our ability and strength to face the next challenge lowers.  We are more tired than before, our stress levels are high, and the expectation of ourselves is much more than that of a batting cage.  As our hope diminishes, we start to view life with pessimism and lower belief in ourselves that we can do it, so why bother?  There is a term for when things get this low, it’s called “learned helplessness”.  This does not mean that we necessarily choose helplessness, but the lack of success of past events has taught our brain that our success rate is low, so why try?

How do we learn to anticipate success?

However, as we learned from the original example, if we had only hit the first ball or two out of the park, our outlook would be much different.  So how do we learn success?  How do we learn resilience and hit the next curveball out of the park that life throws at us?  One of the biggest secrets of resilience is coping mechanisms.  When faced with hardship, how do you cope?  What do you turn towards?  What is your self-talk like?  Those who talk down to themselves, turn towards numbing activities (watching television, substance or alcohol use, social media, gaming, etc), or cover up their pain with addictions, including shopping, gambling and binge eating, are less likely to build resilience and more likely to end up on their knees, covering their heads as the next ball hits them in the shoulder.

Resiliency begins with our approach

Resiliency begins with our approach to the event.  Is this just another hit in the shoulder, or is this an opportunity for development?  Is this a chance to broaden my self-awareness, increase a skill or double down on a healthy coping mechanism?  Already we have chosen to not take it in the shoulder, we are choosing to use this event as an opportunity.  So what are some healthy coping mechanisms we can start to learn or practice in the event we need to take them into overdrive to get us through a challenging circumstance?

Coping Strategies:

  1. Meditation and Breathing

    Meditation and breathing are internal and mental exercises that can lower blood pressure, decrease stress and anxiety and bring us into the focus of the moment.  Being present in the moment lowers overwhelm and allows us to address the crisis one item or minute at a time.  Meditation also slows catastrophic thinking, overgeneralization, keeps us from jumping to conclusions and allows us to get back into our rational mind.  Breathing exercises calm physical symptoms of stress, including lowering blood pressure, increasing oxygen for clearer thinking, and calms the central nervous system.   Practicing meditation and breathing exercise when they are not needed helps us better implement them in times of heightened stress and chaos, allowing us to navigate the event with a clearer mind and calmer body.

  2. Exercise and Routine

    Routine exercise is one of the most beneficial coping mechanisms a person can learn to implement.  Having a gym routine keeps you physically fit and grounded in a predictable daily rhythm. It is also an excellent way to continually push your physical and mental boundaries.  Pushing yourself to do hard things at the gym, like one more set or an increase in the weights that one more plate, teaches you that you are more capable than you previously perceived.  The physical exertion of exercise lowers stress and increases cortisol, a stress hormone, causing us to be physically more capable of handling stress from a biophysical level.  Not only this, but having a routine to rely on when challenging events come, keeps you grounded and focused on each day in front of you, preventing overwhelm.  

  3. Counselling and Talk Therapy

    Generating better self-awareness about how you manage challenging circumstances will show where your weaknesses are and give you an opportunity to refine your strengths.  If we can learn helplessness through failing over and over, then we can learn success by practicing resilience over and over.  Sometimes the most difficult person to see in the room is the one staring back at you in the mirror.  It can be helpful to talk to a trained professional about your previous experience of resiliency and failure. Through this, you can learn how you can choose to swing at the next ball, instead of taking it in the shoulder.   Additionally, if we’ve learned helplessness, we often need help unlearning it. This can be painful and leave us feeling vulnerable.  Speaking with a trusting professional at Incentive Counselling can provide us the empathy we need to move on from our painful past and step into a more resilient future!

So what are your coping mechanisms?  Are they helping you or preventing you from resiliency in challenging events?  Think through the last curveball life threw at you. What was your initial thought – fear or fierce?  What did you do to get through? Did you find yourself giving up? Conversely, did you turn to your healthy coping mechanisms and turn them up to overdrive?  After the event ended, did you feel less capable of facing another event, or did you feel stronger from the experience?

Book in with one of our counsellors to discuss the above questions.  Building a more resilient outlook on life will make the curveballs feel more like snowballs, breaking apart upon contact.