Mental Strength & Resilience for Spoonies

My mom actually suggested I do a post on mental strength and I thought about it for a bit because I find that it is very similar to resilience, which I’m fairly certain I’ve posted about before. However, I did some research and found that while there are similarities there are differences as well and to be honest, both are pretty essential when you’re a chronic illness warrior and can increase positive mental health. I’m going to give you an overview of each concept and how they tie together and some ways that can help you increase them (many of which I have personal experience with) so that we can all grow stronger together in our own separate battles.

It’s not easy to find strength in illness.

First, let’s define resilience. Resilience is our ability to respond positively and to adapt to negative, traumatic, and stressful events, in a way that is constructive. Now let’s define mental strength. Mental strength is our ability to effectively handle stressors and challenges in our lives the best we can despite the situation we find ourselves in. As you can see there are similarities, what I think the biggest difference in is that resilience occurs in the face of significantly impactful events such as trauma, whereas mental strength helps us with less significant (yet still impactful) stressors. We often hear of mental strength in regards to athletes and their ability to practice the same thing over and over. People who are mentally strong like adversity because it’s a challenge not a threat.

Kids are the most resilient of us all – me as a baby circa. 1986/87

The great thing is that both resilience and mental strength can be learned! According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the thoughts, and behaviours involved in resilience can be learned. They state that what makes up resilience includes:

  • your ability to make “realistic plans” and accomplish them
  • self-confidence and self-esteem
  • problem-solving and communication skills
  • emotion regulation

How does this apply to chronic illness? I see it as (1) making realistic plans is including limitations you do have because of your illness but not letting your illness limit you; (2) you can still have self-confidence and self-esteem with a chronic illness; (3) problem-solving and communication actually become more important when you have a chronic illness; and (4) emotion regulation is essential for everyone.

Everyone can build resilience and mental strength.

What are some ways we can build resilience? Let’s break each of these down further:

  • making realistic plans & accomplishing them: includes gaining skills (like going back to school or just learning something new in general); and taking action toward the goals you make for yourself while keeping a positive and hopeful outlook on your ability to accomplish them!
  • self-confidence and self-esteem: accepting change because nothing stays the same, including your illness; engaging in activities that help you learn more about yourself (try something new, be creative, get as active as you can, etc.); view yourself in a positive way (stop the negative self-talk and write down things you like about yourself); and of course, self-care!!!!
  • problem-solving and communication: setting goals for yourself; and making connections with friends, family and colleagues because support is important.
  • emotion regulation: controlled exposure (I would suggest with the help of a therapist); taking a realistic view of crisis situations (I like the phrase, “if that happened, then what would I do?”); and activities such as journaling, meditation and other spiritual practices can help with emotion regulation (I’ll probably do a longer post on emotion regulation at some other time).

So if that’s how we build resilience, what can we do to build mental strength? Turner (2017) states that the elements of mental strength include having a sense of control and purpose of your life and emotions; making a commitment by setting goals for yourself; challenging yourself when necessary; and having that self-confidence. Very similar to what we just talked about for resilience. I’ve got to say that I possess all of these, and I’m not sharing that to make anyone feel like they aren’t enough because they are currently not mentally strong. I’ve had times when I haven’t been strong, it takes a lot of work to get here. My point in sharing is that you can come from a place of anxiety and stress over your health condition and get to a point where you can deal with most things that come your way (I say most because no one can deal with everything perfectly). It just took me a few years of hard work to get here. Here are some ways you can develop your mental strength:

  • gratitude – write down 5 things every day that you are thankful for. I also recommend taking the free Science of Well-being course offered by Yale University. Here’s the link!
  • practice mindfulness – in whatever way you like. I prefer meditation and body scans, and throw in the occasional mindful walk.
  • act “as if” – this is an interesting concept developed by psychologist Alfred Adler. He stated we should act as if things are the way you want them to be (essentially you get to reauthor your life). This one is a bit more complicated and may also deserve its own post.
Image from the Science of Well-Being course.

Before I wrap up this very long post, I want to share research by Pickering & Holliday (2010). They stated that “mental strength contributes to resilience processes and resilient behaviour.” So basically develop your mental strength and you’ll develop your resilience. I mean as we’ve seen there is a lot of overlap between the two so it totally makes sense!

Also, from the Science of Well-Being and I thought it’s great to end on.

Let me know what you think of mental strength and resilience! Comment on the post or shoot me a DM on Instagram (@janeversuspain). I would love to hear from my readers! For now, keep making the most of it!

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