Bend or break?: The option of resilience

Illustration of trees bending in the wind
Photo: © John Takai / 123RF Stock Photo

What happens when you stretch and release a rubber band? It comes back to where it was. Some have more elasticity than others and recoil better while some bands are rigid; they break when we pull them too much. To a certain degree, we are like rubber bands. We just vary in flexibility. And that impacts our life significantly.

Creatures of habit

We get used to things being a specific way. If we do something different, the sleeping cells in the brain have to be reactivated. They are pushed to build new connections to power new ways of thinking. Young teenage brains tend to get a little lazy here. When things go on the track that we have predefined, we feel in control. And we like it.

And hence, we abhor change.

That’s because we don’t want to pave new paths, we hang onto the railway track style of living. In this we are fixated and don’t feel compelled to venture into the unknown shaky zones outside of the established routine. We choose certainty. And feel at ease within it. We stick to our favourite food, same school; we don’t want to switch schools or try a new sport or hobby either. We feel upset if friends go away, in fact, we don’t even want to make new friends because we’re spending all our time grieving the separation from old ones.

Tough times don’t demand as much strength as they do resilience. Elasticity, bounciness and plasticity; all seem like qualities of rubber bands and appear to have little resemblance with human nature. But they’re truly what allow us to modify ourselves when we can’t mend the world around us.

With littlest of change we sense pressure, become stressed, and feel heartbroken. We get angry, push our loved ones away, blame the world, and at other times withdraw, and feel resentment and self-pity. The littlest concerns become catastrophes for us. And even though we know all this and we are emotionally strong, we can’t seem to cope.

Are we not strong enough?

Tough times don’t demand as much strength as they do resilience. But they’re truly what allow us to modify ourselves when we can’t mend the world around us. In fact, the strongest elements break because they cannot bend. That’s why, we make ornaments out of gold and not lead.

How to build resilience of character

Resilience is a mental capacity that allows us to adapt with ease during tough times, bending like bamboo instead of crumbling like a rock. Resilient people recover from hardships swiftly. In fact, difficulties don’t get the better of them in the first place. Most of us have a home to live in, schools and colleges to go to, food to eat, lovely clothes to wear, most have a mobile phone. I bet all of us are safe from war, famine and merciless poverty. But yet we are all susceptible to personal challenges. And these test us every day. When we are resilient, we are geared to face all challenges effortlessly. We stretch and then get back to where we were. We don’t break.

Change locus to keep focus

Resilience is a mental capacity that allows us to adapt with ease during tough times, bending like bamboo instead of crumbling like a rock. Resilient people recover from hardships swiftly. In fact, difficulties don’t get the better of them in the first place.

When we take responsibility for what happens to us and with us, we feel more in control. This doesn’t mean that our surroundings won’t affect us, but it does motivate us to not blame the world for our problems. When our locus of control is external, we’re powerless because we feel we’re not responsible for anything. We think our parents should change, friends should understand, and examinations should be abolished. An internal locus of control means we have to be in charge. This way we communicate better with our parents, become empathic with friends and study harder. And we feel better about our life.

Choose processes over outcomes

Action is our choice, what comes out of it, isn’t. We worry about what will happen if our result isn’t good — we won’t get into the college of our choice, we might not be able to make friends easily, we’ll be lonely and depressed and our life will be finished. We make so many assumptions about outcomes. And all are negative, of course!

It’s so much easier to focus in class, revise with friends, practise previous years’ papers, and sleep better before an exam. But no, we spend that time worrying. If we focused on the process, we would improve our action and its outcome. Unfortunately, we waste time agonizing about an imaginary battle. That it’s going to be hard and we’ll be weak and the result will be awful. We should think of crossing the bridge when we reach it. That way we get stronger and swim across effortlessly.

Change your emotions. And attitude.

The first thing to happen when you feel out of control is an emotional flare-up. You can’t predict or avoid your friend’s mood or exam result, for example. So, you get frustrated, upset, afraid, sad, angry or depressed. Negative emotions pose an unwanted drain on energy. And sap out any enthusiasm that otherwise might help you tide through your rough time. If your friend deserted you, it’s sad but it’s also a lesson to be more careful about whom you trust. When you are resilient, you take the blow and still don’t break. A positive attitude takes you far.

Detach for starters. Let go if you can.

Detachment means separating the emotion from the event. It helps you to accept reality without detesting it. This way you become a bystander, and the incident doesn’t affect you. Holding on to past failures can make the future look worrisome. That’s why stress becomes a habit for some of us and we make anxiety an integral part of everything we do. Try to let go of the past, if not, then work on a way to remember the past event but detach from the emotion you felt then. It will help you deal with life’s everyday risks with greater valour.

Invest rightly. Time, emotion, energy, everything.

Stress is pricey. Many teenagers believe that if they’re worrying, they’re at least doing something. Ironically, this makes them flustered, takes away common sense, adds to confusion, and allows more slip ups. Stress executes a vicious cycle that can invade our entire existence. Picture these cascading effects:

  • Being worried about studies,
  • Feeling distressed at home,
  • Losing appetite and sleep,
  • Avoiding meeting friends,
  • Getting frequent headaches,
  • Feeling more frustrated,
  • Losing out on study time,
  • Worsening performance.

All this because you could not be flexible. You couldn’t accept that bad days can happen. And that they will pass and that you are stronger than this, that you have survived this and more in the past, and that you can survive way more than this in the future. Because you could not bend, you broke.

Flexibility is an attitude. It keeps you from breaking.

Dr Shefali Batra
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Dr Shefali Batra

Dr Shefali Batra, Psychiatrist and Cognitive Therapist, is the Founder of Mindframes and Co-founder of InnerHour. She is available at connect@mindframes.co.in.