I recently had the pleasure of spending a weekend with a dear friend of mine who I didn’t know if I’d ever have the chance to see again- not only because she lives far away in France, but because last year, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer with a very small chance of surviving it. After two rounds of chemo and extensive surgeries, she has beaten the odds and was recently given a clean bill of health. She’s been through a horrific experience that I can’t comprehend even in all my empathy, yet my time with her could not have been any more pleasant. We laughed, sang, played with her kids, and bonded over shared memories from our 20-year friendship. As I flew home, I thought about her resiliency and what makes her so happy and strong, and I thought about the crossover of the lessons that I, as a therapist in Washington, DC, teach my clients during therapy when they are going through difficult times in their lives. Here are my take-aways :
- Be present. I am constantly coaching my clients to focus on the present rather than past regrets or future fears. Meditation and mindfulness practices help strengthen your ability to keep your mind in the present. Download the Headspace app if you want an easy way to get started. My friend has made a conscious effort to focus on the present; I didn’t see her on her phone a single time over the weekend we spent together. She was fully engaged with me, her family or in whatever activity she was doing the entire time.
- Take care of your body. I tell my clients that if they want to go far in life remember FAR: Fuel (healthy diet and hydrate), Activity (daily exercise and 3x/week higher intensity exercise), and Rest (8-10 hours of sleep is ideal). My friend focused on everything that she could control with her health, including daily cardio exercise. You’re more resilient physically and mentally when you’ve given yourself a healthy baseline.
- Enjoy the little things. I brought my friend cinnamon tea because she loves it, and I noticed her smelling it in the morning with a huge smile on her face and tears in her eyes. She said to me that when she went through chemo she lost her sense of smell for a period of time; she never thought about how wonderful it was to smell until she lost the ability to do so and then got it back, and now it is something she doesn’t take for granted. What if we all took a moment to notice and appreciate the little things each day that we take for granted? Joy and gratitude build up our resilience by fostering a positive attitude and shifting focus away from hardships.
- Laugh. I wasn’t sure if this visit would be a bit somber considering what my friend has been through, and we had some serious conversations, but we were also constantly laughing. We played a funny game with her family, and we all laughed so hard we cried. I frequently tell clients that laughter really can be a great medicine- there’s some science behind it (it releases endorphins, decreases stress hormones, and there’s even research that it boosts your immune system). Hard times have to be balanced with lighter moments and joy- play a game, laugh with a friend or watch something funny, and don’t underestimate how much it could help your resiliency to have a good deep belly laugh.
- Plan things to look forward to. I’ve coached parents before to ask their kids how they’d like to celebrate getting through a challenge (like going out for a nice dinner after exams), so that the focus would be on something exciting and feelings of motivation and achievement rather than on the stress of the feared experience. My friend showed me a whole section of her bookshelf devoted to travel books; she told that after receiving her diagnosis, she went and bought these books and started planning the exciting trips she wanted to go on as soon as she got healthy again. She and her family just got back from three weeks of adventures in southern France and she dreams of doing a road trip in the southwestern U.S. I can’t emphasize enough the power of positive future-thinking. Allowing the possibility of positive outcomes, and picturing exciting events in the future, can become self-fulfilling prophecy and, at the very least, can be a comfort and a fun dream to spend time thinking about.
- Say “Yes.” My friend told me that she and her husband watched the movie “Yes Man” and it inspired her to have a “yes attitude” in her life. I’ve told my clients about the improv lesson of always saying “yes, and…” in order to keep an improv skit flowing and how that applies to accepting life’s challenges and finding some way to build from them. My friend told me she said yes to all sorts of new experiences after making this commitment to herself- she and her husband even took a falconry class while they were on vacation and she had a blast. Saying yes is about being open to new experiences and accepting of challenges and discomfort, learning to adapt and go with the flow, and looking for ways to learn, grow, and have fun. It is choosing to be resilient.
- Surround yourself with positive people. My friend worked to surround herself with positive people who encouraged her rather than pitying her while she was battling cancer. Think about who to surround yourself with when you’re having a tough time- who do you feel better after talking to? It is important to feel heard and uplifted when you’re struggling, whether that comes from a therapist, a partner or a friend. Having a support system and positive people around you can restore your feelings of strength and resiliency.
These are just a handful of the ways in which I noticed my friend enjoying her life and walking away stronger and happier after overcoming incredible hardship. These keys to resilience are simple practices that don’t come as naturally to everyone as they might come to my friend, but with practice or with the support of therapy, these are skills that can be learned, strengthened, and can lead to a happier life even in the face of significant challenges.