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What makes a person resilient?

Talk about a year of uncertainty… Thank goodness I didn’t know what was ahead! Not sure how I would have dealt with that. From one point of view, I guess I could have planned accordingly (albeit limited) as even that would have been uncertain. On the other hand, as we were given updates and changes as and when, I started to accept that it is what it is. Life goes on anyway.

Isn’t that what life is about though? We can never plan things and know for certain they will happen because life can get in the way. I know this has happened a lot in my life and somehow, we get through it and life goes on. It might have changed direction and had a big impact on us but yet, we continue.

I now know that this is what resilience is all about. Somehow, without knowing and understanding the concept, this is what I have learned through experience.

So what makes one person resilient and another break down?

An individual’s resilience is dictated by a combination of genetics, personal history, environment and situational context. Research has found the genetic part to be relatively small.

The most significant determinant of resilience — noted in nearly every review or study of resilience in the last 50 years — is the quality of our close personal relationships, especially with parents and primary caregivers. Early attachments to parents play a crucial, lifelong role in human adaptation.

“How loved you felt as a child is a great predictor of how you manage all kinds of difficult situations later in life,” said Bessel van der Kolk, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine who has been researching post-traumatic stress since the 1970s. He is the founder of the Trauma Research Foundation in Boston.

Dr. van der Kolk said long-term studies showed that the first 20 years of life were especially critical. “Different traumas at different ages have their own impacts on our perceptions, interpretations and expectations; these early experiences sculpt the brain, because it is a use-dependent organ,” he said.

We can think of resilience as a set of skills that can be, and often are, learned. Part of the skill-building comes from exposure to very difficult — but manageable — experiences, like the ones my husband and I have gone through.

“Stress isn’t all bad,” said Steven M. Southwick, professor emeritus of psychiatry, PTSD and Resilience at Yale University School of Medicine and co-author of the book “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.” If you can cope today with all that’s happening in the world around you, Dr. Southwick said, “then when you are on the other side of it, you’ll be stronger.”

Tools common to resilient people are optimism (that is also realistic), a moral compass, religious or spiritual beliefs, cognitive and emotional flexibility, and social connectedness. The most resilient among us are people who generally don’t dwell on the negative, who look for opportunities that might exist even in the darkest times. During a quarantine, for example, a resilient person might decide it is a good time to start a meditation practice, take an online course or learn to play guitar.

So, what have you learnt in the last 18 months? Have you found new coping skills? Have you become closer or more distant to the ones you love? Have your priorities in life changed?

Connection and belonging are a big part of resilience so ensure you reach out to your loved ones.

We all need it.

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