Becoming More Resilient In The Face Of Chronic Illness

Reviewed by Phillip Waite, Ph.D.

Since I was diagnosed with chronic illness in the mid 1990's, I've been fascinated with how we can become more resilient in coping with and overcoming the challenges that chronic illness inevitably presents. I've always wondered why some people seem to be able to bounce back more quickly from personal challenges, illnesses, disappointments, tragedies, etc. better than others. On the surface it seems that some people are just born with extraordinary resilience. You know the people that seem to weather life's storms without skipping a beat! But when you dig a little deeper, that's often not the case. It's something they've developed over time. They've become masters of resilience. You see, resilience isn't a natural characteristic, it's a learned one.

It just so happens my brother, Dr. Phillip Waite, is an expert on the subject of resiliency.  He is a professor of health promotion and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation about resiliency in the workplace.  Several years ago, he co-authored a journal article titled Mental Health Promotion Through Resilience and Resiliency Training.  He defines the resiliency process as "the experience of being disrupted by change, opportunities, adversity, stressors or challenges and, after some disorder, accessing personal gifts and strengths to grow stronger through the disruption."  What he found in his research is very interesting.   When employees participated in a five day program focused on enhancing personal resilience there were immediate improvements in individual control, purpose in life, self-esteem, interpersonal relationships and job satisfaction.  In short, we can all learn to become more resilient!!!

I know you're probably saying, that's more easily said than done.  That's true, but the good news is becoming more resilient isn't impossible, even in the face of chronic illness.

Resiliency seems to come easier to some people than others.  My brother has it right.   Some people have "personal gifts" that seem to allow them to swim more effortlessly through life's stormy seas.  I call these people optimists.  I know.... I hate them too!!!  You know the sort... always looking on the bright side of life.  Always seeing the cup as half full, instead of half empty.  I know the type, I married one!  She was irresistable.  Her outlook was infectious.  She was always looking at situations in life through a completely different lens than I was, to the point I had to wonder if she was delusional.  Well, she wasn't and isn't.  She just has a natural ability to always see the positive.

I've never been that way.  In fact, it's downright depressing how pessimistic I can be.  I really don't enjoy it.  It's just the way my brain works.  Until I met my wife, I wasn't sure I could ever change.  Nearly 20 years later, she's definitely had a positive influence on my perspective.  She has helped me retrain my thinking.  Sure, often my first impulse is to be pessimistic and sometimes I can still be irrepressibly so.  But more often than not, I've learned to be more optimistic.  It doesn't happen overnight.  But when we consciously change how we think, we can become more resilient.  For me, it isn't a personal gift but an inner strength that I have developed over many years.

Do I still struggle in the face of adversity?  Sure, probably more than the average person.  I have a chronic illness after all! (Sorry, that's the pessimist in me).  Optimism is only part of the puzzle.  There many other components.  I believe, for example, that building relationships among a community of others dealing with similar challenges can make us more resilient.  Resilience for me is a process, not an end game.  It is something I have to constantly work at and consciously develop.   I know the next flare is going to happen, so I prepare myself so that when it does occur, I'm able to get through it as well as possible.  It is as much mental, as it is physical, preparation.

So what makes you more resilient in the face of chronic illness?  I'd love to hear your ideas.

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