When Staff Sergeant Luke Murphy drove into Baghdad in 2006, he lost more than his vehicle. The roadside IED that exploded under his armored car also took away his right leg below the knee. When he got home, Luke became very depressed. He eventually found hope and help with a soldier’s survivors network called The Wounded Warrior Project. Now, seven years and 28 surgeries later, he has graduated from Florida State University, is a successful realtor and motivational speaker. “It’s not about what you can’t do,” he says. “It’s what you can do. I can complain about not having a leg, or I can do something about it and make the best of what I’ve got.”
Thankfully, few of us will ever experience this kind of life-altering trauma. But we all experience loss. From minor every day changes, to the loss of a job, a home, a loved one, our youth and eventually our independence. What is it that makes some people bounce back from adversity, while others remain stuck? Resilience is the term often used by psychologists to describe this particular quality, and it turns out that human beings show remarkable ability to adapt, even in the face of devastating tragedies. While people vary dramatically in their coping skills, researchers have identified some key factors that contribute to overall resilience when confronted with a crisis
1. Strong Social Support
The single most important determinant of resilience is the strength of our social support network. Friends, family, co-workers, support groups, online discussion boards – all can be potential sources of social connectivity. Whenever you’re dealing with a problem, it is important not to isolate, but to share it with others. Especially with others who may understand the specifics of what you’re dealing with – like The Wounded Warrior Project, say. Even when there is no support available, resilient people often develop their own means of communicating. Prisoners in solitary confinement, for example, will sometimes devise a simple “tap code” to communicate with fellow prisoners. That simple tap code becomes a lifeline.
2. Getting Up Quickly
Resilient people are generally quicker to get back up, once knocked down. They tend not to wallow in it. After a period of adjustment, they look at the available options, and choose one. Sometimes it may be the only option. On the Jersey shore, it is the decision to “rebuild” after Hurricane Sandy struck. Post 9-11 in New York, it is David Letterman going back on TV to tell silly jokes. In Silver Linings Playbook, it is the crazy dancing at the end, laughing in the face of mental illness. What resilient people understand is that taking any action – even it is the wrong one – is usually better than doing nothing at all. Because action focuses our attention and harnesses the necessary energy to begin again.
3. Identifying as a survivor, not a victim
When dealing with any catastrophic event, it is the people who see themselves as “survivors” – rather than victims – who tend to fare better. They have what psychologists call an “internal locus of control.” They acknowledge that while bad things can sometimes happen, they generally believe that their life is ultimately not determined by outside forces. They feel as though they are in control of their own destiny, and refuse to be defined by any singular event. Of course, some factors are simply beyond our personal control, like natural disaster, illness, or a roadside bomb. But what resilient people understand is that whatever happens to us, we still have the ability to choose how we will react.
Another characteristic of resilience is the belief that while life is full of challenges, it is still a game worth playing. And even if things look pretty grim right now, the sun will eventually come out again. Another word for it is hope. Psychologist Martin Seligman, pioneer of the “Positive Psychology” movement, is widely regarded as one of the leading experts on learned helplessness and depression. Optimists, he says, see setbacks as temporary and isolated events. Pessimists tend to see difficulties as fixed and unending, which can lead to a state of learned helplessness. What’s the point in doing anything if it’s never going to change anything?
From his research, Seligman determined that the state of helplessness was a learned phenomenon. If it could be learned, he reasoned, it could also be unlearned. That is to say, we can learn to be more optimistic. By learning to recognize our thought patterns, interrupt the “negative loop” and replace it with something more helpful, we can grow our resilience muscles.
This is not to diminish or belittle the very real pain that many people face. Probably the most common cause of depression is pain that a person can’t fully let go of. And there are many reasons for this. Many people can’t let go of old pain, because the only way to do that is to properly feel it. They keep the pain alive, oddly enough, by not letting it in. And so, a moment from the past shapes their lives, and because they have not dealt with it, they are crippled by it.
Having pain in your past or present doesn’t make you weak or damaged. It makes you normal. While the situation may be unavoidable, you can grow your resilience muscles and stay focused on a positive outcome.
Remember: it’s not about what you can’t do, it’s about what you can do.