- The power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity.
- Ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy.
As anyone who has experienced a serious illness or injury can attest, a health crisis creates a sense of being bent, compressed, or stretched, coupled with an intense longing to return to one’s original state. Resilience is elasticity: it is bending but not breaking, being compressed but not flattened, and stretched but not torn. Cancer, injury, or any serious illness, can drag one down– often abruptly– into the murky depths of illness. Resilience is buoyancy: the ability to rise up, resurface and emerge into sunlight and fresh air again.
Having resilience during a health crisis is adapting well in the face of adversity; it is “bouncing back” from difficult experiences. Resilience requires the ability to enlist one’s own emotional, mental and spiritual strengths, and implies a sense of activation and internal motivation. For example, resilience is not closing and bolting the door and waiting out the storm. The sense of bracing or shielding from adversity is more typical of “perseverance.” Perseverance is important and can be helpful, but it is not the same as resilience.
It is this sense of action from within that conveys there is something we can do to create resilience in our lives. Resilience is not inherited; in fact, research has shown that behaviors and decisions are much more powerful than genetics in developing resilience.
Early on in my journey with cancer I was introduced to CaringBridge, which helped nurture resilience within me. CaringBridge is a nonprofit organization that enables a person or family experiencing a health crisis to create a free website. This personal website facilitates connection to loved ones. When I had cancer, I was able to communicate with my family, friends, and larger community, and they in turn could communicate with and support me. In addition, one can keep an online journal to share the logistics as well as the emotional experience of a medical journey.
The diagnosis of a tumor in my muscle was an abrupt detour on the road of life, and like many others who experience similar news, my initial response was fear and worry about the future, as well as a sense of isolation from the “normal” world most people seemed to be living in. Having resilience is associated with social connections. Individuals who feel a sense of connection and support from others are more likely to adapt well to an illness, and are more likely to recover more quickly. CaringBridge is an online medium that easily connects individuals with a support group.
Research has also shown that expressive writing and a concept called “mindfulness” help promote resilience. Initially, I had no idea that keeping a journal on CaringBridge about my treatments, experiences and struggles would have such a profound effect on my ability to cope with my illness. Writing about a difficult experience helps one gain new insights and perspectives, reflect, as well as see and articulate the positive aspects of a difficult experience. As a story is shared, someone in the midst of a health crisis not only communicates what is happening, but also may see the opportunity to influence the direction of their own narrative. Over time this expressive writing can subtly encourage the creation of a new, more hopeful reality. My personal CaringBridge journal began as an avenue for communicating information, and gradually evolved into a journal that shared a variety of emotions I experienced, and expressed gratitude for the multitude of people in my life who provided immeasurable support. Writing helped me reflect and better understand my journey; writing gave me strength.
Since expressive writing is an in-the-moment process, it can also encourage staying in the present. The present is the best place to be during a serious illness. Thinking about the future when one is scared is often fraught with the worry and anxieties of “what-if’s,” which can then lead to more and darker “what-if” scenarios. Meanwhile, lingering in the past can foster a sense of loss about a life that is lost, or lead to the “should-have” and “could-have” thoughts that impede adapting in healthy ways. Staying in the present is the essence of “mindfulness,” and has been shown to promote resilience.
I learned that the antidote to the fear and isolation that can occur with a serious health event is connecting with others, opening up rather than hiding, sharing, and staying in the present. Through writing and social connection, CaringBridge gave me tools that promoted resilience when my world turned upside down.
If you know of someone experiencing a serious health crisis, introduce them to CaringBridge. In doing so, you will help equip them with valuable tools that foster internal elasticity and buoyancy. You will increase the chances the person you care about will respond to their illness in adaptive ways that promote healing. In sharing the gift of connection, the seeds of resilience are sown, nurtured, and are given opportunity to flourish.
Listen to Dr. Merrill-Steskal’s interview with CaringBridge Founder Sona Mehring.