This global crisis we’re facing is testing the mental fortitude of even the strongest. Although we might not recognize it in the moment, this challenge is shaping who we are. Science has shown that encountering adversity can help us build resilience and develop a deeper appreciation for life’s small pleasures.
When our daily lives are disrupted drastically, how quickly will we recover? Is there a way to strengthen our emotional resilience against the overwhelming change that’s on the precipice of our future? The answer is yes. Each of us has an emotional immune system, a set of subconscious mechanisms to keep us resilient in the face of adversity. Like our physical immune system, it can be strengthened, says David Palmiter, a psychologist at Marywood University.
In 2015, I had an intense bunion surgery on my right foot and spent the 8-week recovery living at my parents’ house. For the first three weeks, I couldn’t walk. Now, I’m a fairly active person and almost always on my feet, so needless to say not being able to walk properly for a month was quite the adjustment. However not being able to walk was only the physical challenge. Prior to the surgery, I had just returned from my first 15 month travel stint in New Zealand. I was 22 at the time – high on life – carrying that fresh newly-returned-from-living-and-working-abroad energy and thinking I could rule the world. But after the foot surgery, I became completely (albeit temporarily) dependent on my parents again. I had to live at home during the recovery so my mom could literally help me up and down the stairs and cook my meals. Combine that with the fact that I was unable to walk, work, or escape the house and you’ve got a recipe for a complete mental regression depression.
I was a total mess some days. I felt like a child all over again. Upon returning from my first experience living abroad, I felt disconnected from my friends and family. I felt disconnected from myself. Nothing made sense anymore. I was so unsure about my future, where I would go, live or work next or what I would do. I didn’t even know who I was anymore, or let alone what I wanted to do with my life.
Little did I know that that foot surgery was the secret thing I needed in order to make the first of many big shifts in my life.
I still remember that day five years ago at the music festival in Floyd, Virginia. It had been about five weeks since the surgery, and I was just getting to the point where I could walk normally again. I woke up in my hot, sweaty tent and looked at the music schedule for the day. I saw there was yoga happening, and something inside me urged me to go. Up until that point, I had only taken a handful of yoga classes in my life and never really enjoyed them. “Oh, this is too slow,” I thought. Why would I waste my time in a yoga class, when I could be out running or doing something more “productive,” I thought. But something made me want to go that morning. Maybe it was because I hadn’t exercised in so long, but the thought of doing some slow, sweet stretches or just moving with my body sounded really appealing. I went alone and stood in the back. And for the first time in my life, something clicked. Something changed. “Oh my god, I get it!” I thought to myself. “THIS is what yoga feels like. THIS is what happens when I just allow myself to move and breathe and tune into my body.” For the first time ever, I understood what I was doing.
I was hooked. I started going to yoga every other day of the festival. When I got back home, I signed up for my local yoga studio and started going 2-3 times per week. After weeks of not being able to move my body, I really resonated with the heated vinyasa-style classes. It just felt so good! Like the sweetest sweatiest release.
Yoga became my outlet. If I was going to be stuck at home living with my parents, at least I had something to take my mind off of my current circumstances. Slowly, I started to see some changes. I knew that the classes were helping me recover physically and gaining strength in my weakened foot, ankle and leg muscles. Mentally, I had more clarity. I started to put things in perspective. I felt stronger, more capable. My future started to come into focus and I started making a plan. I got a job and a couple months later I moved into my own apartment.
Fast forward six years later, and now I’m teaching yoga and traveling the world.
But if it wasn’t for that hard foot surgery, I would’ve never gained the courage or skills I needed to make that first shift. I might have never fallen into yoga, let alone develop a practice that would unleash this wold new world on me. I would’ve never become a teacher, traveled to so many places, or experienced the world in all the ways I did. And I certainly wouldn’t have developed the mental resilience to bounce back so quickly after living at home again.
It was the catalyst I needed to start making big changes. A year and a half later, I flew to Bali for my first yoga teacher training. I traveled all over Asia, taught in Australia for a year and have since taught in dozens of other places. I learned how to be independent. I learned how to be resourceful, creative, flexible and completely self-sufficient. How to love myself. How to be more open-minded and adapt to changing circumstances.
I learned how to be resilient.
I discovered that I was my own greatest teacher. That life is full of unexpected situations, curveballs and challenges.
Change is constant. It’s not what happens that matters. It’s how we react to what happens. How will we respond? Will I react through the lens of fear, or respond through the lens of love? How will we show up for ourselves, for others?
These days, I can draw on the tools I’ve gained from six years of nomadic life and holistic lifestyle. Having a mindfulness practice keeps me sane and grounded. Whether it’s movement, meditation, or breathwork, finding some way to connect with myself every day has been crucial to my overall sanity.
Learning how to take care of myself first. Nourishing my body with healthy and wholesome foods, incorporating Ayurvedic practices and certain herbs such as turmeric and triphala into my diet. Learning how to be more compassionate, grateful and loving. Learning how to be my own leader, stay true to myself, and care less about what others think. Being more selective with my words and more decisive about my actions.
I know in my heart that this too shall pass. Even the most uncomfortable and seemingly unbearable situations do. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by challenging or changing circumstances, I look back at my path and let myself be amazed at how far I’ve come. Past situations in which I’ve chosen to show up regardless of what “happened.”
We can’t control the virus. But what we can control is our overall mental state and how we respond to it. We know that people who have a penchant toward optimism tend to be more resilient in the face of a crisis. Drawing from a well of inner resources that we didn’t even know existed and connecting to our truest core values can increase our optimism and make us more adaptable in the face of change.
What are some situations in your past in which you’ve shown resilience? How can we draw upon that inner resilience to tap into the tricks we need to face what’s in front of us?
Fake it till you make it. Even if you don’t see yourself as an optimist, you can act like one. Whenever you find yourself ruminating, stressing or going over and over the same thoughts in your head, change the lens. What would this look like if it were easy? If everything did work out in the end, how would that physically feel in my body?
It’s amazing what happens when we begin to train our minds to be resilient. To see things in a positive light; to bounce back quicker from a space of negativity, even if the disruption is unprecedented.
There are no mistakes. An opportunity or secret lesson is hiding in anything and everything, even in the face of overwhelming adversity. Like all living things, it is in our nature to evolve, to adapt. You will too. Tap into that well of resilience. Draw from your inner strength. It is there, even if it is hiding in some dim corner, or buried beneath a pile of anxiety. Behind the clouds, the sun still shines.
Now, more than ever, the world needs more light, strength and resilience. We are in this together.