The Secret to Bouncing Back

In a 41-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings football team near the end of the 2007-8 season, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw four interceptions, three of them returned for touchdowns. But he would go on to lead the Giants through the playoffs and on to victory in Super Bowl XLII.

What accounted for Manning’s incredible turnaround? Psychologists would say it’s a trait called resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back after any kind of defeat and become a winner again. The ability to overcome adversity is considered a crucial element to success in life because troubles are something no one can avoid. When we know that circumstances can bend, but never break us, we gain the confidence to pursue difficult tasks with unreserved enthusiasm. We believe in ourselves. A lack of resilience is one of the chief causes of depression because it permits life to overwhelm us.

Clearly, having resilience is desirable. But is it something we can control? While some psychologists believe that at least a part of our ability to cope with life’s stresses is an inborn trait, most feel we can also cultivate resilience. Here are some ways how:

1. Recall past triumphs. When you are faced with a crisis as an adult, you can go back to your youth and think of all the adversities you were able to overcome. It could be anything from getting better grades to earning extra money selling lemonade. You’ll realize there were quite a few times when you let life’s difficulties temporarily get you down, but that you were eventually able to surmount them.

2. Remind yourself that life is cyclical. Even if you are at the bottom, you cannot stay there forever. Look at sports teams. One season, they are in the last place in the standings, only to make a slow ascent to the top in subsequent seasons. Before you know it, they are champs. Even if things appear static, they are always moving toward a different state. Remember—the only thing permanent is change, and a new day is coming.

3. Keep a goal for the future in mind. Try not to be passive let things happen to you. Instead, think of yourself as someone who can solve problems and learn from experience. If you are stymied, think about what you have to do to get over the hurdle. Have something you want to achieve and work towards it.

4. Cultivate your spirituality. The value of faith cannot be overestimated. Faith often gives us the strength to go on in difficult times. When you believe that “God’s will will never take you where God’s grace cannot protect you,” it can be extraordinarily reassuring. Even if you don’t believe in a higher power, you can put your faith in science and the remarkable ways in which nature sustains itself.

5. Seek out role models who are in the public eye. Perhaps it’s a politician who came back from defeat in one election to win another, or a celebrity who has overcome a drug addiction. Also, ask people you know how they were able to bounce back from difficult situations in their lives. This will give you hope and inspiration.

Resilience isn’t about being a tough or unfeeling. In fact, many resilient people reach out to others for advice and consul when they are going through rough times. It’s just a question of deciding that you are not going to dwell on and remain bitter about a life event, but are going to learn and grow from it. I’m sure that on his road to the Super Bowl championship, Eli Manning immersed himself in game tapes and studied his opponents carefully, so that he could adjust his own game and try new strategies. I’m also sure that after the Giant’s loss in the 2009 playoffs, Manning will be making adjustments you’ll see next season.

And that leads to my last point.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that the cultivation of resilience makes taking risks and going outside your comfort zone imperative. Without taking on new challenges there is no possibility of growth. When you have mastered a new skill, for instance, your resilience is automatically enhanced. Psychologists like to say that resilience is an emotional muscle. Nurture it and you will have strength you never knew you had.

About the writer: Wendy Aron is the author of Hide & Seek: How I Laughed at Depression, Conquered My Fears and Found Happiness.