How and where do we develop resilience to meet life's challenges?
Learning to take one’s falls in life is vital to developing resilience

As students head back to schools and universities across the province, there is a growing debate about whether stress amongst the student population is growing. The wait-list for student counselling at universities is on the rise, but why? Is it because the stigma around mental health issues is lessening so more people are looking for help, or is it because students are feeling more stressed, and if so, how and why?

While the discussion on these questions continue, the increasing stress in teens and young adults could be seen as an indicator, warning us of what seems to be an increasingly stressed and tense society.  From politically volatile situations around the world, to recessions, debt-ridden families, and environmental pressures, we read about its effects every day. It’s symptoms show in the increase of depression, sleeplessness, tension, mental disorders and flaring tempers.

In an interesting article on CNN last year, Amanda Enayati interviewed Dr. Karen Reivich, co-author of “The Resilience Factor”, which includes some helpful ideas on how to build resilience. In her list of six factors, Dr. Reivich mentions the need for optimism, and gratitude, a mental agility to respond in difficult circumstances, and other factors.  She points out that resilience is not an inborn, genetic disposition, but rather something that is learned in childhood.  I would argue that it is never too later to learn resilience…

A doctor friend of mine who has some patients who are immigrants from war torn countries remarked to me recently: “They (immigrants) seem more resilient to the challenges facing them here, because often they have come from unimaginably difficult situations in their home countries.” The word “resilient” left me thinking about my own experiences in dealing with life’s challenges, and where and how I learned to deal effectively with them.

Coming from Britain, which is historically a remarkably resilient country, my inspiration was my mother – a single parent, surviving on a meager wage as a result of a challenging and insecure career. My mother never carries grudges; she forgives easily and rebounds from difficulties and setbacks with remarkable grace and strength. “You don’t let problems frighten you, tangle you up, stop you, or make you feel helpless” she remarked to me recently, adding, “A big thing to watch out for is resentment. It is deadly and kills creativity and spontaneity.”

My mother encouraged me to always see things from a positive, spiritual perspective, that has carried through to this day. So how did she learn this? Her model was the Bible teachings about how to forgive, and to be generous hearted; and most importantly, how to pray. Cultivating the practice of thoughtful prayer can build character that is more capable of dealing with the trials we often face; and brings with it a host of healthier thoughts to offset those depressing waves of emotion that tend to sweep over us and make us feel overwhelmed, helpless and often sick from tension. One story I have often looked to is the story of St Paul. Beaten and imprisoned for speaking about Jesus, he and his friends prayed quietly, and sang hymns. When an earthquake rattled the prison, opening all the doors, Paul and his colleagues did not leave the jail cell. The jailer was terrified that he would be in serious trouble if he lost such important prisoners, and thought to kill himself, but Paul reassured him, and brought a sense of peace and calm to the situation. Staying still and centered when facing a challenge like that has always made a great impression on me.

During the November 2012 exam time, the University of Victoria hosted a “De-Stress Fest”. Free chair massages, dog cuddling sessions, food and other events were lined up to help students learn relaxation techniques prior to exam time. Additionally, the university’s Chaplaincy program offered labyrinth meditation walks, (an early Christian meditative practice), to aid students in learning meditative practices that will help them focus better and feel more centered. Teaching students to handle stress through thought-based approaches, points to an increased understanding in both medical and psychiatric fields of the importance of thought in how we deal with challenges in our lives.

When my children were young, I would often counsel them to “go down the ski hill of life with your knees bent.” The example of St, Paul indicates that prayer can help us achieve a deep, relaxed mental stance that responds and bends with the bumps and hurdles of life rather than jarring and breaking from fear and tension. This enables a more gracious, joyous approach to life that has the potential to bless everyone.

Here’s a thoughtful look at how we can learn to manage stress effectively – by changing how we think. By Dr. Mike Evans.

This article was published on Spiritually Speaking in the Times Colonist Dec 2012