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Everyone talks about ‘resilience’ these days. What exactly is it, and are there ways to become more resilient?

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences.

Many of us face challenges as we age. Some chronic conditions are more likely to develop in older adults, and our physical and cognitive function may decline. Retirement may bring financial constraints and a sense that we are no longer contributing to society. We also are more likely to experience personal loss—as has been underlined by the covid-19 pandemic.

Yet despite these experiences, studies show that most older adults feel content as they age, and that they tend to have lower rates of depression and anxiety compared to younger people. Why is this? Some refer to it as the “paradox of aging.” Experts posit that this paradox may reflect wisdom gained over decades as well as recognition that our time on earth is finite. Both may lead us to focus on the positive—such as the relationships and activities that sustain us—rather than any adversity we face.

Navigating older age in this way requires resilience that can help us manage challenges, stressors, and trauma. Hallmarks of resilience include the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, gratitude for what we have, optimism, and a sense of perspective. Strong relationships, and involvement in the local community also factor in. Some of these may not come naturally to you, but don’t assume that resilience is a personal trait—in fact, it’s a skill that can be developed through practice. And developing it can benefit more than your mental health—resilience can help you better manage the stress that been linked to cardiovascular disease. As an example, a recent study suggested that optimism, a sense of purpose, and feeling in control were a recipe for better heart health among African Americans, even if they lived in neighborhoods where heart disease and stroke were more common.

So how do you cultivate resilience? Firstly, take care of yourself by eating a nutritious diet, engaging in as much physical activity as possible, getting enough sleep, and maintaining social connections (over the phone and online if you are living in a covid-19 hotspot). If circumstances are getting you down, try to focus on small, daily pleasures—enjoying your morning coffee, reading a good book, listening to your favorite music, or engaging in hobbies like needlepoint, painting, or birdwatching. However mundane these things may be, they still can bring joy that may help distract you from worry and negativity. At the end of each day, reflect on one or two good things that happened to you, and things you may feel grateful for—consider recording your thoughts in a journal. Instead of focusing on things that seem out of reach, set two or three realistic goals, and gradually work towards them one small step at a time. At the same time, accept that things may happen that place some of these goals beyond reach. If this is the case, focus on the things you can change.

It is inevitable that challenges will arise. When this happens, try to retain perspective and avoid catastrophizing—you may not be able to avoid all of the obstacles life throws in your path, but responding to them rationally can help you deal with them even if they seem overwhelming. It also can help if you look for lessons you can learn from your challenges. Note these in your journal, because they may provide you with resources you can lean on in the future. Lastly, family and friends, as well as online communities, also can be resources that boosts your resilience—so don’t try to go it alone during tough times.

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