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Don’t let yourself be defeated by difficulty. How to find sense and build mental resilience

Human existence offers all kinds of life experiences which, in many cases, may exceed an individual’s imagination of how to cope with them.

Events such as the death of a loved one, serious illness, cataclysms, divorce and many others may require a person to reach the heights of his or her adaptation capabilities. Although these experiences are mostly universal across the world, when they happen to an individual, the way he or she copes with them will be the product of interaction between various factors (resources). These factors differ from person to person. The environment in which one grows up, one’s genetic endowment or temperament and the support networks existing in one’s life will be of great importance. These are to a large extent ‘foundational’ elements, linked to our biology or psychosocial background, while others are acquired over the course of our lives.

Researchers dealing with the psychology of crisis point out that a crisis, which is a transitory situation, may be an opportunity for development, but it also involves the risk of triggering various mental disorders. It refers both to normative crises (related to breakthroughs resulting from developmental stages) and situational crises (resulting from difficult and sometimes even traumatic experiences). Both types of crises require from a person to increase efforts invested into the adaptation to a changed situation, causing his or her emotional imbalance.

Regardless of how we may have reacted to reality so far, often without being aware of it due to certain genetic or other factors beyond our control, we can influence our own behaviour. When experiencing difficulties, crises or traumas, a more conscious approach to such problems can play a huge role in coping with them. Discovering one’s role in responding to the event and thus in creating the reality in which we will live can be the beginning of an inner transformation. This change of a person subjected to and controlled by external events has the potential to strengthen one’s psychological resilience and make one the subject of one’s own choices. The conscious choice of one’s personal response to any of one’s life events has the potential to give one’s life an entirely new quality.

Seeing man as a creature with a full potential to transgress the status quo possessing free will and creative power was the approach initiated at the turn of the 1950s and the 1960s by

humanistic psychology. It emphasises man’s agency and freedom, which can be realised by choosing how to react in a given situation, regardless of how unbearable it might be. This ability, referred to as mental resilience in psychology, consists of various mechanisms and tools that play a protective role against unfavourable events. Adaptive behaviour leading to the ability to skilfully cope with difficult circumstances is not a set of binary traits. Rather, it is a continuum on which every person will find himself or herself, and which can shift from one side to the other at different moments in life.

In spite of the fact that humans in their biological dimension of existence are subjected to determinism, ‘they have the possibility to freely take a stance towards circumstances and conditions’ (Szczukiewicz, P., Szczukiewicz, A., 2018) at the psychological level to a certain extent, and even more - at the spiritual level. Even at the most difficult moments in life, e.g. mental crises or incurable illnesses, a resilient person feels that he or she can ultimately choose how he or she will accept his or her experience.

Because mental resilience is a dynamic phenomenon, in certain situations a person may nevertheless experience profound despair or a sense of meaninglessness in life. In crisis situations and moments of great suffering, logotherapy can be particularly helpful. Viktor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist, saw man as an individual guided in life by the need to find the sense and purpose of existence. Crisis situations may force reflections on the meaning of life, suffering and death. However, even such extreme experiences do not determine the loss of developmental possibilities. According to Kazimierz Dąbrowski’s theory of positive disintegration, the experience of a mental breakdown and the breakdown of inner integration, as a result of working through losses, can become the seed of development. In fact, each subsequent experience of coping with a crisis and solving a difficult problem builds mental resilience.

Researchers indicate that mental resilience can be acquired through conscious decisions and commitment to the acquisition of empowering skills, which fall into five general categories: regulation of arousal (the body’s response to stress); control of strong negative emotions; increase of happiness; growth or adaptive coping; and emotional preparation for difficult moments. Each of these can be developed through specific exercises, which can be performed individually or with the help of a professional.

Building up mental resilience that will support you is facilitated by creating conditions for yourself and maintaining certain strategies, also in moments when the existing resources have been exhausted. In such situations, it is a good idea not to take on too many tasks and limit the challenges. It is also worth getting to know yourself and consciously avoid situations aggravating your mood (e.g. a depressed person may, in worse moments, consciously give up listening to music with a minor tone, which may become a catalyst for a lowered mood).

The results of resilience studies give us hope that mental strength can be learned, regardless of unfavourable factors such as certain genetic or psychological conditions. There are very promising findings of neuroscience which demonstrate that the brain can continue to develop long after achieving maturity, so not only those born with certain favourable traits can discover and strengthen adaptive skills. To what extent it is possible is certainly a very individual matter, depending, among others, on the level of motivation to change and work on yourself, because, as we know, not much can be achieved against your own will.

Reference literature

Berndt, C. (2015). Siła rezyliencji. Jak uodpornić się na stres, depresję i wypalenie zawodowe. Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Wydanie I, Kraków.

Kubacka-Jasiecka, D. (2016). Kryzys emocjonalny i trauma szansą na rozwój i potęgowanie zdrowia. Wątpliwości i pytania. Rocznik Filozoficzny Ignatianum, 22(1), 51-89.

Schiraldi, G. R. (2017). The Resilience Workbook: Essential Skills to Recover from Stress, Trauma, and Adversity. New Harbinger Publications.

Spętana, J. (2016). Sens życia jako wyznacznik zdrowia oraz kategoria badawcza w obszarze nauk społecznych. Chowanna, 1, 301-317.

Szczukiewicz, P. Logoterapia a pomaganie w kryzysie psychicznym – studium przypadku. [dostęp:30.06.2021].