Why are some of us able to adapt really well to extreme stress and personal setbacks? Is this the domain of a superhuman few? Nope! The ability to spectacularly ‘bounce forward’ is innate to us all. Here are 10 ways to develop extraordinary resilience.
We’ve all faced trauma, from events such as crime and violence to financial strain, serious illness, natural disasters, or divorce … the list is endless. Yet, history proves the human potential to overcome unthinkable odds. Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Dr Viktor Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Sisanda: “It is important to fight for what we want and to give life all we have!”
Sisanda Msekele was born in the rural Eastern Cape. After conquering the harsh reality of growing up in an impoverished setting and experiencing personal loss, the unthinkable happened – she lost her eyesight during her matric year. “I could have quit, but literally talked myself into negotiating the world without sight – I spoke words that led me to believe that I was capable, and found ways of adjusting,” explains the 30-year-old who is also a Discovery Vitality member. “My textbooks were recorded onto tapes from which I could study, and I took my exams orally, which took up to eight hours per exam. My answers were transcribed by any person the school could find to help – at one time even a cleaner on staff.” Testament to her resilience, she passed matric with four distinctions. Showing true grit in every area of her life, Sisanda became a national rowing champion and represented South Africa at the 2012 World Rowing Championships. Her team won a medal for third place, ranking them 13th globally! She also achieved a master’s degree in neuropsychology in 2015, is currently completing a PhD in Anthropology at Wits University and works as a Clinical Researcher.
“I am inspired by hard work and putting vigorous effort into every possible opportunity,” she says. “Life has taught me that it is important to fight for what we want and to give life all that we have. If you fall, do all you can to simply keep moving forward.”
The remarkable Sisanda Msekele, pictured with her guide-dog Romy, is the epitome of resilience and achievement.
Resilience – the ordinary magic of bouncing forward
Resilience is not the exclusive domain of a few brave individuals. Allow yourself to be surprised by the ordinariness of resilience and how this basic human operation works for all of us. “Resilience is an intuitive response to stress and an adaptation innate to all humans. It’s a form of ‘ordinary magic’, in ordinary people, who somehow always manage to pull through,” says psychiatrist and associate professor at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, Renata Schoeman – who is also recipient of a Discovery Foundation Academic Fellowship Award. “It’s the common magic we see in so many people. No matter what life throws at them, they come out stronger and prove that resilience is about more than negotiating challenges and regaining ground – what we call ‘bouncing back’. It’s also about ‘bouncing forward’. True resilience comes with a transformation and growth component.”
We’re inspired when others overcome the odds. We wonder, ‘How would I have fared in their situation?’ Can we all develop resilience – like a muscle?
Psychiatrist, Prof. Renata Schoeman lectures on personal and organisational resilience.
Gerhard: “Two years later, I’m a completely different person.”
Three years ago, Gerhard Le Roux got divorced, saw his children infrequently, and faced mountains of debt. “I accepted my mistakes and knew I could do better. Life has taught me that happiness is the cumulative result of the small decisions we make daily. We aren’t victims. We are responsible for our lives.” He scribbled a goals list and dedicated himself to a better life. Two years on, he has reached a year’s worth of weekly Discovery Vitality Active Rewards goals consecutively. He has also finished six marathons (42.2 km each), a Two Oceans Marathon (56 km), a Comrades Marathon (± 90 km), the Three Peaks Challenge (± 50km) and the 947 Cycle Challenge. “I’ve paid off debt, have my own place, and see my kids often,” says Gerhard.
Prof Schoeman adds, “Many resilient people have been through adverse life events that have built a sense of self-identity and self-esteem. They pause, do a reality check and remember, ‘I am okay, despite my circumstances’, ‘I have survived challenges before and I can take this on, adapt and cope. I will be fine. I will grow’.”
Gerhard le Roux turned his life around at his lowest point – by diving into his resilience reserves.
Prof Schoeman’s top 10 Habits for extraordinary resilience
A balanced diet, limiting alcohol, sufficient sleep and consistent, lifelong physical activity are fundamental to the body’s ability to adapt to stress. For example, exercise enhances neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt to change). It also promotes memory and learning, and improves determination, mood, memory, endurance and energy. Prof Schoeman – a long-distance runner and regular participant in endurance events – puts living healthily at the top of her list of priorities.
Understand your values
If your top values and priorities are, say, commitment and integrity, then you will be able to understand why you respond with stress to situations that devalue these. This insight then allows you to better understand your reactions, and to make decisions in line with your values.
Commit to what makes you happy
Be engaged in all you do and commit to spending your time in ways that feed your body, mind and soul, as this will help you to balance life and work pressures. Gerhard adds, “Once you experience true happiness, you’ll do whatever it takes to keep it.”
Think about the words you are using
Our beliefs, thoughts and words determine our resilience. How many self-defeating things do we say that take away our power and give power to the events that cause stress? Analyse and train your words and internal self-talk – just as Sisanda and Gerhard did. Deliberately practice affirming speech, for example, not a ‘crisis’ but a ‘challenge’, until it becomes your norm. Affirming words allow you to develop mental hardiness – helping you to see negative things as less threatening, and allowing you to embrace change.
Take responsibility for your situation
‘Hardiness’ refers to the belief that one has a great degree of influence or control over one’s life events – you are not just a victim of your circumstances. In every situation, we have a personal choice. We must take personal responsibility for aspects of the situation in which we find ourselves, just as Gerhard did.
Nurture your spiritual life
Spiritual faith allows people to fall back on the belief that there is greater meaning to life, and a guiding hand, working for our good.
Find meaning at work
To feel engaged and find meaning in what you do, your passions and beliefs must align with your work. Whether you work for the love of the job, or to feed your family, or fund a hobby, feeling aligned really matters. A clash of values will cause you to feel disengaged, and lead to severe stress.
Push your mind to learn
Sign up for courses to further your skill set, challenge yourself to grow, and you will nurture greater confidence in your ability to learn in new situations. With the vast array of online learning opportunities available today, there’s no excuse to be complacent.
Develop a strong social network
Build your support network (loved ones, friends, etc) and look to resilient role models you can imitate. A feeling of connection is key to our resilience. It even affects our outlook on our environment. A Stockholm University Resilience Centre study proved that people are more likely to recycle their waste if they feel they are joining their neighbours in doing so.
Without diminishing the seriousness of unexpected and challenging situations, the ability to bring in humour, or see a lighter side, is key to allowing us accept a loss of control. Loadshedding? We’ll braai. Lost a key document? Your second draft will be better. Stuck in terrible traffic? It’s teaching us patience.
Get rewarded for living well
Discovery Vitality encourages and rewards you for living healthier and driving well. From half-priced movies, flight savings, cash back on your groceries, fuel savings, weekly rewards and more, being healthier has never been more rewarding.
Join millions of Vitality members worldwide getting rewarded every day, and start your journey to a healthier you and a safer way of life. Join today!
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