Surviving Insights with John Wynn: Resilience

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What Can I Do to Hold It Together When Everything Seems to Be Falling Apart?

Each of us responds in our own way to stress and challenges. The key to holding it together lies in identifying ways of coping that work in the moment and sustain us as we move from challenge to challenge. The quality that enables us to do this, the quality that we want to cultivate in ourselves and our loved ones, is resilience — the strength to cope, survive and grow.

You can think of resilience in a number of ways. For example, resilience is:

  • A tendency to tolerate stressful life events without loss of emotional stability or reasoning power.
  • A capacity to integrate traumatic experiences into an expanding but persistent appreciation of self and environment.
  • Above all, an ability to grow from life's challenges and to sustain hope, come what may.

Where does resilience come from? From our innate and inborn strengths, our ways of responding and thinking things through, and from our relationships and spiritual connections.

What is innate or inborn? Some infants will respond calmly to hunger or pain; others, more dramatically. As adults confronted with calamity, some of us are calmly open to the newness of it all, agreeable with those who can help, and diligent in attending to the essential details. These are, in varying degrees, inborn qualities.

As we grow, we develop habits of responding to life. Hopefully, we will warmly welcome the new — even new challenges. And instead of asking ourselves, "Why me?" we should wonder instead, "Who will accompany me on this journey?" By pulling people and strategies together we can assemble a "bag of tricks," a variety of ways of coping with whatever comes up. These relationships and our repertoire of responses will sustain us through the unknown — and beyond.

We have to look out for the negatives: seeing the glass half empty, missing the big picture, fighting when we need to collaborate. Our expectations will color our perception: if we seek out support, reliability and open communication, then we are much more likely to find the resilient inner circle of friends and family who can help us along the way.

Fortunately, in cancer, there is a large and growing community of patients, families and health-care professionals who want to help. This includes your cancer doctor and staff, all of the collaborating professionals at the hospital, and the many community organizations that stand at the ready with assistance (American Cancer Society, Gilda's Club Seattle, Cancer Lifeline and others). Who's your backup? Take your pick! But you have to look for the resources and you have to expect — and at times, demand — the support.

Beyond the daily strategies and relationships with others, some of us also cultivate spiritual resilience — a sustaining belief in something beyond the day-to-day. Many find comfort and purpose through connection with a higher power. That spiritual tie may be complemented by participation in a community of like-minded folks who share your beliefs. Individual prayer, group devotion and a community of believers may be a marvelous source of nurture, comfort, strength and healing.

Whatever our resilience resources, the basic strategy goes like this: Get the facts, involve others, make a plan and move forward! Keep your strengths and resources in plain sight at all times, cultivate your inner calm, be open to new information and new responses, and find a community that wants to help you along.

You can develop a personal "resilience recipe" that might include:

  • Recognizing your physical needs, strengths and vulnerabilities.
  • Taking stock of your coping strategies to orient and remain calm, gain insights and grow.
  • Clarifying your social supports and sources of reassurance; collaborating and sharing whenever possible.
  • Respecting your spiritual needs and resources: remembering to go outside of your day-to-day activities to find higher meaning and purpose in your life.

John Wynn, M.D., is medical director for the Swedish Cancer Institute Division of PsychoOncology. In this role, Dr. Wynn is responsible for developing programs to help patients and families cope with the cancer experience. He also attends to the educational and emotional needs of professionals working in the highly demanding field of cancer care.