Feature

How to bounce back from a horrible year

Psychologist and The Missing Hours author Emma Kavanagh gives her tips on building resilience.

 

It is a fact generally acknowledged that 2016 was a sucky year. We saw a swathe of political upheavals that have put many of us on edge. We saw the rise of the far right, of hate crimes and discord. We saw an unremitting, unrelenting war in Syria that has cast out countless men, women and children and has killed many, many more. It would be easy to sink into the quagmire, to give up.

So I wanted to write about psychological resilience - the ability to adapt and even to thrive in the face of extreme stressors. Because, if any year called upon us to be resilient, it has been the last one. Catastrophes happen, disasters unfold. And yet, in spite of our fears, as a species we humans are remarkably adaptive, capable of surviving the worst psychological stress that life can throw at us, and even learning to grow from it. After the attacks of 9/11, one of the things that surprised psychologists the most was the level of resilience displayed amongst those directly impacted by the events of that day. What we are learning is that resilience is not the purview of an extraordinary few, but rather a natural human capacity which, with practice, we can work to improve.
 


The good news is that resilience, like so many other psychological abilities, can be built

You may be lucky. You may be one of those fortunate individuals who are simply built to respond effectively in the aftermath of trauma. There are a number of factors that can make you more resilient, stacking the deck in your favour. A good social network is a huge one - having the love and support of family and friends who care about you, who will allow you to process your reactions, can be a massive boon in allowing you to deal effectively with tough life events. Having confidence in yourself and your ability to survive, that’s another one. If you believe you will survive this, then you are tipping the odds markedly in your own favour. Being a good communicator and problem solver, and having what is known as an ‘internal locus of control’, meaning that you perceive the world as being something you can take charge of, are also really helpful in allowing us to be resilient as individuals.

Alternatively, maybe you aren’t so lucky. Maybe you simply weren’t designed that way. Maybe you have experienced too many major stressors at too many critical junctures in your life and any resilience that you once had has crumbled to dust.

The good news is that resilience, like so many other psychological abilities, can be built. Where we are now is not where we have to stay. We can get better, with just a little bit of work. So, how do we build resilience? Here are eight ways we can enable ourselves to recover and grow from the worst that the world has to throw at us.

1. Suffer. Those who are resilient do not run from their feelings. They allow themselves time to grieve, to mourn what has been lost. But they also recognise that there are times that those feelings must be boxed away, in order to allow them to function. So mourn what you once believed the world to be, but then do something, no matter how small, to allow yourself to get better.

2. Enlist the power of the people. Social support is a key factor in resilience. Those who take advantage of, or seek out, social networks containing people who can provide emotional support and guidance are likely to cope better in the aftermath of a trauma. It may be family. It may be friends. It may be a support group. The key thing is, do not cut yourself off. We are built to need other people and seeking those people out when you are in pain can be a crucial first step in your recovery.

3. Avoid thoughts like 'it’s a catastrophe!' I do this. What can I say? I’m an author - we’re paid to be dramatic. But seeing a crisis as a major catastrophe is really not healthy. Our bodies respond to information provided by our brains. The worse we tell ourselves a situation is, the higher the level of the stress response. We cannot change what happens to us, but we can change our interpretation of it, and going all Mrs Bennet on the situation (as my agent would say) is not going to help.

4. Remember that the only constant is change. Life is change. Things do not stay the same. And whilst we may mourn for what once was, acceptance of its passing frees us up to focus on those things that we can still control.

5. Do something. Don’t bury your head in the sand and wait for the storm to pass. Resilient people take decisive action, controlling those aspects of the situation that are within their power to control.

6. Develop goals. Work out what your long term goal is, and what it will take to get you there. Then make a concerted effort to do something every day to move you towards where you want to be.

7. Believe you can do this. Confidence is king here. Don’t let those nagging self doubts take over. You need to practice telling yourself that you are capable of dealing with this, that life will move on, and that you will be fine.

8. Remain hopeful. In Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (amazing film - if you haven't already, go see it right this instant), Newt Scamander says: “My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.” This was one of those lines that I heard at the time I needed to hear it most. I’m a worrier. And on the occasions that the thing that I have worried about has come to pass, the fact that I had worried was frankly of no help at all. I had simply allowed myself to suffer twice. Allow yourself the gift of hope that life will resolve itself in the way that you wish it to.

 


If you believe you will survive this, then you are tipping the odds markedly in your own favour.

Whilst we cannot stop the bad things that come to pass, we can make a resolution to survive them to the best of our abilities by building up our resilience. So to you, 2016, I say: you were one pain in the backside of a year, and yet from you we will learn and we will grow, and ultimately - now you have passed - we will be better for having known you. 

 

Find out more about the author

The Missing Hours

Emma Kavanagh

'Prepare to have your mind well and truly twisted' - Heat

A woman disappears

One moment, Selena Cole is in the playground with her children and the next, she has vanished without a trace.

A woman returns

Twenty hours later, Selena is found safe and well, but with no memory of where she has been.


What took place in those missing hours, and are they linked to the discovery of a nearby murder?

‘Is it a forgetting or a deception?’

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