Three ways to build resilience

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When life doesn’t go exactly the way you had hoped, what is it that helps some of us cope better, be resilient or even grow as a person through adversity?

As a journalist focusing on health and medicine, much of my time is spent with patients, some of whom have been deeply traumatised. They may be living with a chronic illness or recovering from a life-threatening condition, or dealing with the loss of a loved one. 

Recently, I spent time with three women who had unimaginable tragedy in their lives.

They had all lost someone they loved to suicide through an eating disorder.

I travelled interstate to spend time with one of the mothers, Fiona. 

Her young daughter Tess was diagnosed with anorexia at 11 and died at 16.

What struck me was Fiona’s quiet determination that her daughter’s death would not be in vain.

“I don’t think anyone can understand this experience unless you have been there,” she said.

Fiona battled for five years to get her daughter the help she needed.

Instead, she was told by doctors to “force feed” her child.

16-year-old anorexia victim Tess Ryan smiles with her eyes closed
Tess Ryan died in December 2016 after a five-year battle with anorexia. (Supplied: Fiona Ryan)

Another time, Fiona waited for 35 hours in the emergency room of a hospital and wouldn’t leave until her daughter got medical care.

Losing Tess was shattering but somehow, just months after it happened, Fiona found the inner strength and resilience to be able to open up about what happened to her and her daughter.

I actually don’t know if I could have done the same and I admire her for her courage.

“I just don’t want other families to go through what we went through,” she told me.

What I realised by talking to Fiona was that maybe her act of speaking out to advocate for change was one tangible way she could claw back some sense of meaning out of such tragedy.

When I went back and looked at the scientific research into resilience, I was struck by the insight the creator of positive psychology Martin Seligman had about how people overcome setbacks.

He found the best way to deal with setbacks was to move beyond the three Ps:

  • Personalisation — the idea you are at fault. 
  • Pervasiveness — the belief that an event will affect all areas of your life.
  • Permanence — the thought that the effect of the event will be life-long.

Do these thoughts strike a chord with you? They do with me.

When something goes wrong, how often do we think “it’s my fault” or “this will change everything” or “that life will never be the same now this has happened”?

Mother Fiona Ryan smiles while posing with her daughter Tess
Fiona Ryan and her daughter Tess. (Supplied: Fiona Ryan)

Fiona told me that she struggled to move past feelings of blaming herself when her daughter became ill.

“One doctor said I needed to go into therapy so I could find out why it was I couldn’t save my daughter’s life,” she said.

“That stayed with me for a long time.”

Ultimately, Fiona realised the situation wasn’t her fault. It was the system that let her down.

And while the loss of her beloved daughter would change her life forever, she was able to make a difference to others, by shining a light on a health system that failed her family.

Women like Fiona embody the true meaning of courage, that is “strength in the face of pain and grief”.

She spoke out when it was much easier to stay silent.

Her desire to protect other families from a similar heartache helped boost her strength and resilience.