How can we build our resilience?

From the Winter edition of InTouch Magazine.

Dr Sally Shaw is a Melbourne-based psychologist who focuses on supporting people with MS. Sally works with clients to increase their ability to be strategic while moving forward in life, using positive psychological frameworks which centre on building resilience. Here, she shares some practical insights on how we can build our resilience to help us cope with MS as well as any other challenge we may be facing.


What is resilience?

Resilience is the ability to cope really well when things go wrong. If you have resilience, it means you have the capacity to recover quickly from a difficult situation, whether this be around financial concerns, health concerns or relationship problems. With resilience you can see a challenge, you can get through it and you can come out relatively unscathed. People talk about “bouncing back.” It’s about being able to get back to a good, solid place after facing a challenge in life.

Why is having resilience important for people with MS?

It’s really important for people with MS, who are often thrown challenges that other people in their world might not fully understand. Fatigue’s a great example of this because it can be a debilitating part of MS and it can also be tremendously invisible and misunderstood by the people around us. We really need to build resilience to cope with other people’s understanding or reactions to our fatigue and other MS symptoms, but also for our own ability to cope with MS itself. Every now and then, MS throws us a curve ball and resilience is needed at that point to cope with the unexpected and the overwhelm that can happen when we’re dealing with MS symptoms on top of other life challenges.

What are some of the strategies we can use to build our resilience?

We want to take the opportunity to build our resilience at every turn. That might be around practising flexibility in our thinking. What is within my control? What can I change in my world right now? And conversely, what are the things I have very little control over? If we take the time to have a look at where our discomfort lies, we might be able to take some control over small components that make us feel better about a situation, rather than expecting dramatic change in areas that we have no control over, like others’ behaviour, or a challenging health situation. 

Basic stress management is also a strategy used to build resilience. Identifying the fundamental cause of a stressor in an objective manner is a good start. Look at the problem and apply some problem-solving techniques, like seeking some information to help guide your decision making, planning an approach and working your way through it. Do we need to bring other people in to give us some guidance? Who can we talk to in order to find our way towards a solution?

Another strategy to build resilience is to learn how to manage the emotions associated with a difficult situation. You might find that a situation brings up a lot of anger for you, or a whole lot of sadness and these feelings can be really uncomfortable. We can find coping strategies to help us move through them as quickly as we can. They might be around mindfulness, meditation, prayer, acceptance - which is hard, but a great thing to learn more about because these strategies can help us to reach a point where we can accept uncomfortable feelings and emotions because they’re part of being human.

Setting little goals every day and ticking them off your list can help you realise that there are achievements to be had no matter your situation. This builds self-confidence, a sense of self-efficacy - knowing that no matter what comes my way I will be able to get through it. This is very important because we don’t know what challenge is about to come our way – MS or otherwise. Rather than saying, I want to be able to control everything that happens to me, we can choose to say, no matter what happens, I’m going to be able to get through it.  Building resilience means that we will be more likely to believe this statement – a much more comfortable and empowering thought!

Would being part of something like an MS peer support group be an important in building resilience? 

Absolutely. It’s really important to be a part of a group of people who are ‘your people’, whoever that may be.  It might be a group of people who share your passion for a sport, or a craft activity, or your love of reading, or it may be a group of people with MS. Other people with MS might not have the same symptoms as us, they might not have the same social factors as us, they might be in different relationships or in different jobs, but they will have a shared experience of some parts of our MS world. So, it’s really important that we consider that as an option when we’re looking for meaningful social connectedness. 

How does mindfulness help in building resilience? 

Mindfulness plays a huge role in building resilience because it can help bring our mind back to the situation that we’re in control of now, not trying to figure out a way forward three weeks from now, or dealing with stressors of the past. Engaging with your body, and where you are right now, connecting with your breath and your senses, can really help manage your unhelpful thoughts and feelings and keep them in the here and now rather than in the stressors of the past or in the worries of the future. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Don’t fall for the belief that some people are resilient, and some people are not.  We all have the power to build our levels of resilience so that we can prepare for challenges of the future – MS related or not! 

If you’d like more information, Dr Sally Shaw can be contacted via her website: 

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