How to cope when life throws you challenges

Resilience is surviving (and thriving) in the face of challenges, big and small. The good news is – it’s a skill we can learn. You build resilience by taking control of your thoughts and filling your tank – well before it gets empty.

You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control your reaction to it. We can do our best to create a life we love, but there’ll always be curveballs. We’ll all experience everyday inconveniences like bad traffic on the way to work or dropping a new phone and smashing the screen. But what about when events happen that completely shake us. Those inevitable times in life that are so painful they bring us to our knees and leave us heaving with sadness or anger.

Covid-19 is unprecedented, it's going to affect most of us in some way. For some, it's an inconvenience and to others, it's life-threatening. Collectively, we're all experiencing the stress and anxiety that comes with global panic. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning “we must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation when facing a fate that cannot be changed.” Even on days where the worst happens, if nothing else, your suffering will expand your capacity for empathy and compassion. To understand the pain of the human condition, the inevitability of loss.

I've learned from my own experience with having a mental breakdown, that sometimes we have to fall apart to reach our full potential. It feels so daunting right now, but this will pass. When we're on the other side of it, we'll bear the scars of putting the pieces back together but we'll be stronger from the experience.

To build resilience we need to build a bank of good feelings we can draw from when we’re suffering. It’s as simple as noticing the experiences that make us feel calm and at peace. There are plenty of little moments throughout the day that can make us feel content. The first sip of your morning coffee or the feeling of warm sunshine on your face. But usually, we’re so quick to move onto something else, we hardly let the good feelings sink in. Dr Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist and Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. He explains in his book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence that “every time you take in the good, you build a little bit of neural structure. Doing this a few times a day—for months and even years—will gradually change your brain, and how you feel and act, in far-reaching ways”.

You know that feeling when you’re so happy, there’s nowhere else you’d rather be? When you’re in that moment, soak it up, let it linger, feel it wash through your body and nourish you. Taking the first bite of a piece of chocolate cake. Put your phone down. Marvel at the glossy icing, savour the decadent smell before you taste it and when you take the first bite let it melt in your mouth slowly.

Each time you hold onto these experiences that make you smile, you’re creating a memory bank to draw from. New neural pathways will form in your brain and over time you’ll find you can bounce back faster when you’re emotionally knocked down.

It's a cliché, but it is true, that having gratitude for the little things makes a real difference to your emotional wellbeing. For me, it’s a jar of fresh-cut flowers. Lighting a candle when I walk in the door at the end of the day. Surrounding myself with beautiful objects that elevate all my daily tasks. The hand-carved wooden spoon I use to cook dinner, the beautiful stoneware plates I eat from. Paying attention to the loveliness (and chaos) of having children in the house and the youthful joy they create.

We're missing out on a lot right now, instead of focusing on what we're lacking, think about what we do have. Someone to hug you tight at the end of the day, listening to a song that takes you somewhere far away in your mind and a pot of tea.