Becoming Resilient

Becoming Resilient

How to Face the Crisis of Cancer without Crumbling

by Jeffrey Kendall, PsyD

Everyone knows about the medical strategies we use to fight cancer – chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, surgery. But what about the psychological strategies? What about resilience?

What is resilience?

Resilience is the psychological process of adapting when faced with adversity, crisis, or overwhelming stress. In simpler terms, it is the ability to “bounce back.” Those with high resilience bounce back like a rubber ball and tend to feel a greater sense of control over their surroundings. These people view stressors as obstacles they can overcome rather than crises that can crumble them. People with less developed resilience could be thought of as bouncing back like a tomato. These people tend to experience intense stress as overwhelming and uncontrollable. 

It is important to remember that people with high resilience still experience crises and high stress; they just handle it better than do people with low resilience. It is during these times of stress when resilience manifests. 

Are we born with resilience or do we develop resilience? 

Yes! We are all born with the ability to be resilient. We also all have the ability to further develop our natural resilience. 

Everyone can train themselves to become more resilient in times of crisis. As with most skills, improving your resilience is something you can do at any age, regardless of your background or previous educational experiences. And the benefits are numerous. People with more developed resilience are excited by new experiences, have greater mental flexibility, become less upset by uncertainty, and are naturally curious. 

6 Strategies for Building Resilience

Research suggests that there are six core components of resilience. We can increase our resilience by focusing on building up these six areas:  

  • 1. Connections  Strong social networks are a key building block for resilience. Accepting help and support from others strengthens resilience. Having strong relationships within and outside your family can provide the support and reassurance you need to overcome a period of crisis in your life. 
  • 2. Perspective  People with high resilience view crises as solvable problems rather than insurmountable obstacles. Since it’s often impossible to change your circumstance, it’s important to shift your focus to solutions, to the things you can do to make your situation more bearable. For example, instead of dwelling on your cancer diagnosis, try thinking about the things in your life that bring you joy. 
  • 3. Acceptance  Acceptance is not “giving up.” Instead, it is the act of emotionally acknowledging the losses cancer has caused and then mentally determining what is still available to you even though you have cancer. For instance, people receiving chemotherapy may exhibit acceptance by acknowledging the loss of their hair but determining that they can still go out with friends wearing a wig, a scarf, or a hat, or simply embracing their baldness. 
  • 4. Realistic Goals  Setting realistic goals helps to focus your attention on those things you can still achieve. The size of the goal is not important. You can set weekly or daily goals. Setting goals that are both meaningful and achievable can help you build resilience and keep you engaged with life. 
  • 5. Positive Self-View  It is common for people with cancer to feel a greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable. Keeping a positive view of self helps us maintain self-worth. Resilience grows when we focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses. 
  • 6. Emotional Management  Resilience is not suppressing strong emotions. Instead, it is being genuine with your feelings. Allow yourself to be upset, but don’t let a bad moment turn into a bad day. Find ways to create happiness and laughter even when you are faced with less than ideal circumstances. 
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Dr. Jeffrey KendallDr. Jeffrey Kendall is the director of Oncology Support Services at University of Minnesota Health Cancer Care in Minneapolis, MN, where he is dedicated to addressing the impact of cancer on individuals and families. Dr. Kendall serves on committees for the American Psychosocial Oncology Society and the Association of Community Cancer Centers. He also serves on the boards of Gilda’s Club Twin Cities, Suite Hope, and A Breath of Hope Lung Foundation.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2019.