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If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times - “Everyone suffers. It’s the human condition.” Whether you’re an Olympic athlete or a champion at binging shows on Netflix, you’re human. Because you’re human, you face adversity on a regular basis.
You might be grappling with the existential threat of climate change, feeling the pain of heartache, or grieving the loss of a loved one. No matter what flavor of suffering you’re experiencing, the aftermath varies from person to person. You’ve undoubtedly seen many stories of individuals who overcame extreme adversity to excel in unimaginable ways.
Michael Phelps, whose 28 Olympic medals make him the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, dominated headlines in 2014 for something other than his swimming; he was arrested for drunk driving. During an in-depth interview with Sports Illustrated in 2015, he shared that he contemplated ending his own life after that arrest.
Phelps turned a potential career- and life-ending event into fuel for success. Phelps faced his mental health struggles and went on to excel in the 2016 Olympics, winning five gold medals.
How can the rest of us be like Phelps and turn turmoil into triumph?
First off, let’s consider what it means to be resilient. Resilience doesn’t mean returning to one’s original state, and it’s not the same as being robust and strong. In their book, “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back,” authors Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy use the example of the Egyptian pyramids to explain what resilience is not. While those structures can be deemed robust and strong, if they ever tumbled to the ground, they would never put themselves back together.
Zolli and Healy define resilience as, “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.”
Instead of crumbling to the ground when facing dramatically changed circumstances, you’ll bounce back more easily if you cultivate these three conditions that support resilience:
The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, defines mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.”
When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to what the mind is doing, which means you’re not getting caught up in your worries about the future or regrets about the past. You’re able to accept what’s happening within you and around you without judging yourself.
Research indicates that mindfulness supports resilience because it’s inclining the mind to stay present and not spin out of control. It allows you to see things clearly and gives you an attitude of acceptance.
In his book “Resilient: Find Your Inner Strength,” author and psychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D., writes that to cultivate mindfulness you should, “Let be, let go, let in.” He advises that you can “let be” by labeling your sensations and emotions in order to engage the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls emotion regulation), which calms down your body’s stress response. Instead of fighting what you feel, try to observe it with curiosity.
Hanson recommends you “let go” by releasing harmful thoughts and feelings and by moving out of a reactive mode. “Exhale slowly, and relax your body. Let feelings flow. As appropriate, cry, yell, grumble with a sympathetic friend, or simply sense that anxiety, irritation, and hurt are draining out of you.”
Finally, you can “let in” by allowing your needs to be met. You can do something pleasurable, like eating your favorite food, listening to music, or going for a walk. You can write a list of things for which you’re grateful, connect with a dear friend, and pay attention to the feeling of warmth in your heart when you consider how others care about you.
Research indicates that self-compassion can motivate you to learn from your mistakes, it can help you lessen rumination and worry, and it can keep you from getting overwhelmed by negative emotions when you make a mistake. In other words, self-compassion is a key ingredient for bouncing back.
The main researcher of self-compassion, Kristin Neff, Ph.D., defines self-compassion as having three main pillars: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. The mindfulness part of self-compassion allows you to notice that you’re suffering without getting lost in the story. If you don’t realize you’re struggling, or you try to ignore it, you won’t give yourself the gentle and healing attention you need.
Often, you might feel that your suffering isolates you from others. This may seem especially true in our modern world where people share every accomplishment, picture-perfect vacation, and filtered selfie complete with wrinkle-free faces. It might seem as if everyone else is sailing through life with ease, and you’re the only one struggling. The common humanity pillar of self-compassion reminds you that setbacks, grief, loss, and pain are universal. You are not alone, despite what your social media feed might indicate.
The self-kindness aspect of self-compassion gives you permission to treat yourself the way you treat the people in your life that you value most. You can override your self-critic with self-talk that provides encouragement, levity, and gentle warmth.
3. Social Networks
A strong connection to a group - like family, friends, a spiritual community, or even co-workers - can help you bounce back from adversity. Healthy relationships nurture overall wellbeing, which acts as a strong foundation to stand upon when you’re slammed by one of life’s inevitable curveballs.
A longitudinal study out of Harvard, which has collected over 80 years of data, found a link between strong relationships and health. In a TED talk describing some of the findings of the study, Robert Waldinger, director of the study, said “When we gathered together everything we knew about (the study participants) at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
Nurture your relationships by making time to connect, showing vulnerability, and extending compassion to those around you who need support.
While you and Michael Phelps might not have a lot in common, I can guarantee that you and he will both face more adversity as the years go by. By arming yourself with mindfulness, self-compassion, and a supportive network, you’ll be well-suited to accept life’s challenges, learn from them, and just keep swimming.