Weathering life’s storms

Rewriting your own story can be used as a way to build resilience.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Rewriting your own story can be used as a way to build resilience.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
I’ve been reading a bit of poetry lately and I was taken by a poem about the seasons. In it Dennis Pennefather writes of "the soft chanting of the sprites of allseasons" as he beautifully outlines our traverse through the seasons as we dip and soar through summer into autumnal surrender and on as we await "the promised rebirth ... the fecund hope of spring" ("The Fecund Hope of Spring", Dennis Pennefather).

It got me thinking. You see, I love spring and all the promise of new growth and new life. The bulbs flower, the seeds sprout and the trees blossom. The days get longer and it feels like we’ve turned the corner. Then, winter storms back in, loudly shouting that it isn’t done with us yet as the hail rips through the tender new growth and the gale-force winds blast the blossom off the branches, not to mention trampolines off lawns, and we’re hauled from that gentle place where we’ve let down our weather guard and rudely thrust back to the cold and wet tumult. Life can be a bit like that sometimes. We can be cruising along, happy in our space and wham, life throws a curve ball at us and knocks us off balance.

If we’re like a smart gardener, we’ll build in a bit of resilience that allows us weather the storms. Good gardeners note what grows well where and what gardening techniques suit their plants, and they don’t keep planting plants that don’t survive; they prune. We could learn a lot from that approach. How do we grow best, what situations and people support us and what stunts our growth? What behaviours and actions serve us well and what has us repeating harmful patterns? With a bit of reflection and thought we could figure out what works for us and start to develop those things.

While resilience is a great skill for children to learn, adults can also learn to boost resilience.

Midlife, especially, can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries, yet many of us may not have the coping skills we need to meet these challenges well.

The good news is that perspective gained from life experiences, concern for future generations and the ability to better regulate emotions may give those in middle age a bit of an advantage over the young when it comes to developing resilience. After all, resilience is an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time.

Here are some of the ways you can build resilience in middle age.


Optimism is part genetic, part learned. Optimism doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of a dire situation. After a job loss, for instance, many people may feel defeated and think "I’ll never recover from this". An optimist would acknowledge the challenge in a more hopeful way, saying, "This is going to be difficult, but it’s a chance to rethink my life goals and find work that truly makes me happy".

While it sounds trivial, thinking positive thoughts and surrounding yourself with positive people really does help.


Studies have shown that we can benefit from reframing the personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. A Harvard study found that people who viewed stress as a way to fuel better performance did better in tests and managed their stress better physiologically than those encouraged to ignore stress. In expressive writing studies, university students taught to reframe their university struggles as a growth opportunity got better marks and were less likely to drop out.

Take time to think about what stories you are telling yourself about you and your life. Is it time to change your script?


We have a tendency to blame ourselves for life’s setbacks and to ruminate about what we "should" have done differently. In the moment, a difficult situation feels as if it will never end. To bolster your resilience, remind yourself that even if you made a mistake, a number of factors most likely contributed to the problem, and shift your focus to what you can control and the next steps you could take.


When times are tough, it can help to remind ourselves that there are other people who have it worse. However, you will get a bigger resilience boost by reminding yourself of the challenges you personally have overcome.

Look back at previous challenges you’ve worked through and remind yourself that you’ve gone through it and come out the other side. Remind yourself that nothing lasts forever.


Resilience studies show that people are more resilient when they have strong support networks to help them cope in a crisis. But you can get an even bigger resilience boost by giving support. Research has shown that people who have higher levels of gratitude, altruism and a sense of purpose were more resilient when facing challenges.


It’s important to recognise that we can never eliminate all stress from life, in fact some stress is actually good for us. However, prolonged periods of stress are harmful. Create regular opportunities for the body to recover from stress — just as you would rest your muscles between weightlifting repetitions. Take a walk in the park, spend five minutes meditating, have lunch with a good friend. These are some of the ways to give your mind and body a break from daily stress.


Resilience doesn’t just come from negative experiences. You can build your resilience by putting yourself in challenging situations. Take an adventure vacation, run a half-marathon. Share your secret poetry skills with strangers at a poetry reading. Do something that is a challenge to stretch yourself.

Live your life in a way that helps you build the skills that enable you to handle the blustery weather so you can live life strong and blossom, even after the tough patches take the wind out of you!

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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