Resilience: Ordinary Magic For The Mind

by ParentCo. November 16, 2017

mother walking with her baby son in a beautiful nature as he sits on her shoulders

The world we inhabit is changeable. As a species, over the millennia, we’ve learned to roll with this. The story of humanity, and our survival, has been honed by shifting circumstances. There have been many times, during our long human story, that the proverbial winds have changed. When we have found ourselves needing to focus, stand strong and fight through. Our survival success demonstrates that we are wired to work through these challenges. As a species, it’s arguably one of our signature strengths. The ability to bounce back from life’s challenges is called resilience. Resilience is the antidote to life’s big punches. It's the elastic band in our being that lets us absorb a shock and then recover our previous level of functioning. Sometimes, we even become stronger as the result of our experience. Yet, like most traits, resilience exists on a continuum. Some of us are able to work through unpleasantness with more ease than others. This variability has caught the interest of researchers: Why do some people seem better equipped than others to recover from the challenges life throws at them? And if resilience does vary in each of us, is it possible to help people develop more of it over time? The short answer is, yes, resilience is something we can each create for ourselves. This is because resilience is not so much a fixed trait one is born with as it is a process of calling up resources when times become trying. Resilience isn’t unusual or special. It’s a typical and adaptive response to stress. The “ordinary magic” of the human mind, as noted by Susan Masten, one of the first researchers to study its processes. It is argued that anyone can become more resilient when they start to pay attention to their resources. Resources that take time, commitment and planning to build up. Some of these resources are in the people around you. Those people that you can call on for advice, confidence and support. A few of these resources are in your mind, like the lessons of past experiences, realistic optimism, hope, goals, and courage. Some reside in your body, in the form of strength, good nutrition, and exercise. Some can also reside in your environment in the form of accessible green spaces, safety, and opportunity. So, what does the evidence suggest is a good starting point? Where does the cultivation of resilience begin? Here are a few take-aways from the literature:

Connections with others

Connections with others refuel us, help us make sense of the world and can provide some needed respite during a stressful time. Take stock of your relationships. The ones that nourish you are the ones that should be paid attention to and kept strong. In unusually trying times, meeting other parents in a similar position can also be very helpful. Professionally led groups that bring parents together who are working through similar issues have been shown to be particularly supportive. Our own research has demonstrated that new mothers often cite their friendships with other new mothers as a key element in their ability to adapt to the the demands of their new roles. Many new mothers view their friendships with other mothers are powerful coping mechanisms in their own right. When it comes to building up resilience, attention to your connections with others is "job one." A kindred spirit or two can offer a little light relief on a heavy day. A larger social network of like-minded people can provide helpful resources when needed. “The village” is a bona fide requirement for mothers. Keep searching for yours. You’ll soon know when you have found it.

Experience

The more experiences we collect in life, the more likely we are to believe in our ability to handle what’s next. Every time we try something new, our brains grow and strengthen, creating deeper and richer connections than before. Over time, our growing archive of evidence that we can master new situations provides a deep well of confidence to draw from. As it's possible, make some space for a few manageable, stretch goals in your days. Learn something new. Tackle a problem you’ve been putting off for a while. As we make progress in these areas, we learn about ourselves and our capacity to both problem solve and keep moving. We aren’t just working through things. We are building up experiences that can give us additional strength, confidence and resilience in the future.

Helpful outlook

Realistic optimism, hope, courage and a growth mindset are all habits of mind that can help you work back from a setback. The trick is not to have a blanket policy of rose-tinted glasses, but instead to realistically appraise the possibility in a situation, and dispute negative thinking when the evidence does not support it. In the midst of uncertainty, the brain can prefer to dwell on the negative. Yet your outlook sets the course of your actions. A helpful outlook is going to be the one where you can see progress as both possible and worthwhile. To strengthen your brain’s ability to do this, practice acknowledging the many ways you can make improvements, either big or small, in any situation. Work to note both the good and the bad in your day. Push back on your inner critic whenever you can.

In sum

A twig that gets nudged in the forest might bend. Or, it might break. If the tree it belongs to is fed, watered, and healthy it’s likely the twig will be elastic enough to bounce back. If conditions have been hot, dry, or otherwise depleting, the twig will be fragile. Whether or not the twig breaks depends on the conditions it has experienced beforehand. Resilience is less a matter of the tree’s traits as it is a matter of the tree’s nourishment – the sum total of the resources it was able to call on to keep itself strong. As mothers, our ability to bounce back from challenges, big and small, is a core element in our performance as parents. It is hard to know how we’ll work through a challenge until we are presented with it. Yet by strengthening the resources we have in place, we are stacking conditions in our favor, making it more likely that we will bend, not break, when life twists and turns. The regular practice of maintaining these resources just might be the “ordinary magic” of motherhood. This article was originally published on WellMadeMama.com.


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