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Last Updated Tuesday March 28 2017 10:52 PM IST

Heal Thy Self | Get tough! Skills that'll help you rebound from life's hard knocks

Nirmala  Ferrao
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509684632 Resilience – that ability to rebound from hard knocks, setbacks, personal crises, or a terrifying ordeal – is perhaps the most critical survival skill.

The childhood memory that lingers eternally in Renuka Aradhya’s mind is that he was “always hungry”. Growing up in a village near Bangaluru, he was no stranger to the soul-destroying poverty that millions of Indians live with. To feed a family of five, his father (a pujari with no fixed salary) and he would make the rounds of neighboring villages, beg for foodgrains and then sell them at the marketplace.

As a child, Aradhya did a whole lot of other odd jobs, including as nursing attendant for an ailing old man, and as domestic help in the houses of school-teachers who, as reimbursement, covered his school fees. Put into a boys’ ashram where there were only two meals a day, one at 8 a.m. and one at 8 p.m., studies were the last thing on his mind, he was so focused on trying to somehow get food into his belly. One way he found was by learning Sanskrit and the Vedas so that he could assist at weddings and naming ceremonies where he would get something to eat. And so he failed the tenth standard, passing only in Sanskrit.

When his father passed away, the onus of the financial responsibilities fell on Aradhya. He took up a series of jobs: as sweeper, security guard, mali (gardener), coconut tree-climber, and as a handcart puller, loading and moving suitcases from the factory to the shop under a pitiless scorching sun. No money, no mentors, no “connections”. But he always kept an eye out for the main chance. Finally, he decided he wanted to become a driver. He pawned his wedding ring to learn driving, then joined a transport company where the people he ferried included foreign tourists who paid tips in dollars and who taught him English.

After long years, he was able to put together his small savings, buy a Tata Indica and start his own transport company. There were many bumps and potholes on the road ahead, but today, at 50, Aradhya is a boot-strapping crorepati several times over. His transport company has a fleet of more than 1000 cars, employs 150 people and has fended off poaching forays by Uber and Ola.

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Contrast Aradhya ‘s rebuttal to the hard knocks of life with a completely different but familiar narrative: A young man with a University education, specialized training, a belly that never rumbles and a lifestyle of reasonable comfort loses his job, goes for four selection interviews, is not called back, and slumps into a deep slough of despondency and inertia.

What critical trait did Aradhya have that this young man evidently does not possess? In a word, Resilience.

Life bowls googlies at its whim to all of us, and we can never know when one is going to come down the crease. If you miss it and look back to find a stump shattered, does it also leave you feeling stumped? Or do you have what it takes to bounce back into the game?

Resilience – that ability to rebound from hard knocks, setbacks, personal crises, or a terrifying ordeal – is perhaps the most critical survival skill. Those who do not have it not only find it difficult to navigate life’s rapids but may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, or may even end up with a mental illness like an anxiety disorder or major depression. And with WHO predicting that depression will be the leading cause of the global burden of disease by 2030, “resilience” is a word you’re going to hear more and more.

It is a word that ensconced itself firmly into the popular vocabulary with research on children in high-risk life situations. These were children with the odds hugely stacked against them: survivors of poverty, war or abuse; children from broken families; children with at least one parent who was an alcoholic or was mentally ill. When researchers looked at what happened to these children over the years, they found that, while a number of them developed serious learning and behavior problems, took to crime and / or ended up in unhappy marriages, one out of three had grown up self-assured, academically and professionally successful, and happily married. They had somehow risen above the negative impacts of their childhood. These kids were tagged as being resilient, and the researchers found that what made them resilient was a clutch of “protective factors” that acted as a counter-balance to the “risk factors” in their lives. Love was the key, the studies found. Even if a child lacked nurturing by his own parents, but had surrogate parenting (say, from grandparents who gave him love and attention), the child would draw strength and confidence from these strong bonds.

Newer research finds that, while humans seem to be born with an innate “self-righting” ability, this can be either helped or hindered. You, too, can bring protective factors into play in your life, factors that will rev up your resilience, by cultivating certain attitudes and behaviors.

Here are some strategies that have proven their worth down the decades:

Just connect. Many studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person’s resilience by providing needed support and acceptance in both, good times and bad.

To have a friend, you have to be one. Volunteering is another way to grow your network of friends. Assisting others in their time of need can make you feel good about yourself, another important factor in boosting your “cope-ability”. Also, the act of helping others enables you to put your own problems in perspective.

Be pro-active. Research finds that one of the factors that clearly separates resilient children and teens from the not-so-resilient ones is the ability to set goals and solve problems. Don’t keep your dreams on the back burner. Set realistic goals for yourself, and then do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward your goals. Ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?” As you move steadily towards your goals, you’ll develop self-confidence, a vital asset in building mental toughness.

Take up a hobby. A hobby is not “just a hobby”. In study after study, researchers have found that resilient children and teens all had a special interest or activity. For them, the hobby was virtually a “survival secret”. In the midst of family turmoil or difficult times, their hobby was a refuge – the one thing they could rely on.

Hobbies and side projects help you not only to relax but also to push new skills, flex your creative muscles, experiment and take risks, and gain mastery and control. All of which, again, help you grow in self-confidence.

Learn from the past. Look back on the skills and strategies that helped you through rough times. Even better – write down your deepest thoughts and feelings related to trauma or other stressful events in your life. The thought process that is involved in writing helps you dissect and analyze the experience, identify positive and negative behavior patterns – and thereby guides your future behavior.

Look on failure as a learning experience. As Henry Ford said, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker”. Failure is as much a part of life as success is, and by no means something in front of which one sits down and howls as though it is a scandal and a shame. On the contrary: we grow only by our failures. So, if one dream should fall and break into a thousand pieces, never be afraid to pick up one of those pieces and begin again.

Take care of yourself. Tend to your own needs, nurture yourself. Eat a healthy diet. Include physical activities in your daily routine. Get adequate sleep. Practise relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, prayer, meditation and yoga. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

Keep your perspective. Sometimes in life we do miss, and when that happens and you feel you’re about to go down in flames, it helps to imagine a worst-case scenario. Most times, you’ll find that the worst isn’t so terrible after all. Resilient people transcend the pain of bad times by perceiving such times as a temporary state of affairs, by holding fast to the truth that “This, too, shall pass”. They know that, hit or miss, life offers you plenty more shots to take.

(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, works as a counseling therapist.)

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