“You may encounter many defeats, but you mustDo not lose heart. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” ~Maya Angelou
Looking back at my first few decades, it is amazing how different I handled adversity in the early years of my adult life.
I was raised in stressful circumstances and learned to be cautious about my life. Whether it was being afraid of physical harm, loneliness, or failure, I’ve lived my life with an exaggerated fight-flight response to everything. Every corner was filled with danger, and I never had to be saved by anyone.
To minimize, avoid or get around my fear, I created maladaptive strategies.
I became a quiet and obedient kid to avoid my father’s anger.
I was open to any sliver that my mother, a chronically overworked woman, could offer me.
I chose to be the last team pick. After being assaulted while driving home from afterschool theatre, I decided to quit.
My father insisted that I become a teacher and so, I dropped out of art school.
I went to a music school as he wanted and quietly accepted my instructor’s abuse.
I was constantly surrounded by hurt and sadness, until finally, I just learned how to take it all. Nobody seemed to notice that I was struggling. Nobody saw me.
As time went by, I came to realize that the world wasn’t kind and was indifferent to my suffering. My circumstances are completely outside of my control. You can choose to either fail and fight or you can remain silent and make it through. I discovered that helplessness is a virtue.
I know now that my childhood wasn’t that unique, but for a kid, it was isolating and debilitating. This was something I believed I was alone in. It made me feel different and deficient. Low self-esteem, anxiety and a constant feeling of imminent doom soon followed.
That feeling of defeat and dread stayed with me into adulthood. As I was hypersensitive to stress, things that could challenge or overwhelm me were avoided. To get approval and validation from others, I looked for it. I was a complacent person who accepted the good things that were offered to me and did not dare ask for anything in return.
They say that what doesn’t break you makes you stronger but for many—those without a healthy foundation—life’s big and small traumas build up and eventually show up as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or PTSD. These were the ones I experienced.
You can increase resilience
Every person responds differently to adversity. Studies show that psychological resilience is based on a supportive, loving and emotionally sensitive environment in childhood. But even if we didn’t get that strong foundation growing up, we can still build resilience now.
You can overcome your helplessness and increase your sense of control.
Finding Peace in the Now Moment
Mindfulness was the most important practice I used to get out of a state of helplessness, and gain some control.
Instead of reliving the past—the pain, resentments, and disappointments—or worrying about the future, I could find peace in this moment, right now. I couldn’t change what happened and can’t control what’s to come, but I can decide how I move now. It is now that I have control over how I react to my own life.
A deep inhale, noticing my child’s smile, the scent of garlic as I cook dinner—I can focus on here and now, fully absorbing life through all my senses, knowing that in this moment I am okay.
And, if I’m feeling stressed or unsettled, I become curious instead of trying to outrun it. I start paying attention to my body, tracking sensations, observing where I’m feeling tightness, consciously releasing the tension as I breathe in and out. By doing this, I am able to regulate my nervous system as well as shift my reactivity patterns. It is important to remember that discomfort will eventually go away, so I try to keep my head up and breathe.
Moving beyond negative Thoughts
Once I allowed myself to feel what was going on in my body in times of high stress, I began noticing what I’m thinking and feeling in the midst of turmoil.
It can be difficult to not get overwhelmed by the negative thought patterns engraved deeply in our minds, patterns we’ve been falling into for decades, without much conscious examination. These thoughts were so detrimental to my wellbeing that I was forced to look at them now.
With my journal I was able to help me reframe and put perspective on negative events. I also learned how to look at my own experiences with a new lens, so I could focus on the lessons I could have from them.
For example, I’ve carried with me this feeling of failure as a young parent. I lived in constant overwhelm for the first couple of years. There was guilt at not being a better mom and feeling like a failure. It was difficult because I had many circumstances that were against me. I just tried my best.
My three kids were all very close, three under three. This was quite a Sisyphean feat. It was my first time moving across country. I didn’t have any family members or friends who could support me. He worked many weekends and long hours. It was difficult to handle, so I had to manage it all on my own.
This part of my childhood was a reflection of me and I realized that I held unrealistic expectations about what it took to raise a child. It was also clear that my obsession with perfection and constant pressure were a result of my fear of perpetuating the traumatizing generations.
This way of thinking wasn’t constructive—it was making me miserable. Slowly, I began noticing when these tendencies showed up, and instead of feeding them, I’d just watch them come and go.
Mindfulness enabled me to let go of negative thoughts and keep my mind from getting stuck. I could observe my thoughts and breathe in the turmoil, offering compassion to myself for my difficulties, as well as reminding myself that my efforts were making a difference. I learned to stop being so harsh on myself and stopped ruminating.
Being a good person and doing something you love
It is a reminder of how rewarding it is to work hard at something I enjoy.
Gardening has been a passion of mine since childhood. It is my escape from the hustle and stress of today’s fast-paced world—my garden is my sanctuary.
Watching my garden transform over the decade from a lot of dirt to where it is today—with all the fruit trees, veggie boxes, shrubs, grasses, and blooming annuals—brings me a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.
Regular practice of something you enjoy builds self-confidence, self-esteem and a strong ego. You should have hobbies you are good at, and that you can use in stressful situations.
It’s a great way to spend time in nature
Our world is full of anxiety and chronic stress. Our lives are filled with constant stress and anxiety. We’re always connected and in motion, planning, thinking and doing. All the while, we feel disconnected from the rest of the world and ourselves.
Living in the head is a common way of living modern-day life. We need to find a way that can ground us, and restore our balance. The most grounded element that we can have is nature.
Nature can help us relax and down-regulate our nervous systems. Just a few minutes of walking can help improve your mood and lower anxiety. Disconnecting from our daily grind this way—all the responsibilities, worries, and electronics—rebalances our body, mind, and soul. Your problems will seem less urgent and significant. For now, it is possible to breathe easily.
This can be done in many different ways. Grounding can come from gardening, walking or taking care of your houseplants. It’s a pleasure to water my garden every evening and to repot plants each Saturday. I also enjoy long walks on Sunday mornings around the lake. Your natural Zen is what you should be doing. Soak in nature’s energy as often as you can—it’s healing.
Take care of and nourish your body-mind-soul
We can’t be resilient if we are depleted.
As a mom to my children, it was difficult for me to find the time or energy necessary for self-care. I neglected my needs—whether physical, emotional, or mental—just like I was raised to ignore them growing up. My trauma response to self-neglect was self-neglect, which I discovered years later.
It was a cause of my anxiety and depression that I became chronically tired. Every little mishap or challenge would stress me out, whether it was a kid’s tantrum or packing up for a weekend trip. Low-grade depression, emotional dysregulation, chronic overwhelm and emotional distress were all part of my life.
My healing skills improved with the aging of my kids and their independence. It was finally possible to go beyond the basics of self-care, such as showering and eating right, and truly nourish my mind, body and soul. Because it is, I have made self-care a priority in my life.
Focusing on the basics, I prioritize sleep, movement, and practices that nourish and relax me—long baths, longer walks, healthy food, reading, gardening, music. For my inner peace, energy and protection I depend on boundaries. Mindfulness is a habit that I use to practice. Planning ahead helps me avoid being rushed or distracted. Fill my bucket.
With so much out of our control, caring for ourselves—body, mind, and heart—is the one thing we can do.
While challenging times are a given in life and we can’t always change our circumstances, we can have a different relationship with what’s going on outside of us. It is possible to surmount the challenges by focusing on resilience-building practices. That is what makes it possible to be empowered.
Joanna Ciolek is a self-taught artist, recovering self-critic, and the author of mindfulness-based prompt journals, The Art of Homecoming and The Art of Untangling. To learn mindfulness, reconnect with yourself, and begin your healing journey, join her Free Course at The Mindfulness Journal. Follow Joanna on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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Tiny Buddha published the post Increase Control and Resilience.