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Mental Health: Fortifying Your Emotional Resiliency

Life experience can make individuals more flexible and adaptable. Here are some strategies to bolster your emotional staying power.

By Lisa B. Samalonis

April 25, 2024

Mental Health and Well-Being

Many people over 50 struggle with difficult life experiences, including personal losses, chronic health conditions and/or professional and financial issues, among others. Research shows these challenges often provide wisdom and perspective and help people become more resilient as they age.

“Human struggles are increasing and becoming more debilitating. The pandemic remains in our rearview mirror and has caused a vast majority of Americans to claim their mental health has been negatively affected by a ‘constant stream of crises without a break over the last two years’,” notes Gina Vild, co-author of “The Two Most Important Days: How to Find Your Purpose and Live a Happier, Healthier Life” and a forthcoming book on resilience.

“We all face everyday struggles that affect our state of mind and our health.”

The World Happiness Report, an initiative of the United Nations, reveals that Americans are trending toward gloom with our worst showing since it was first released in 2012. Today Americans rank 19th, above Afghanistan but well below Finland. In addition, Americans struggle with increasing political divisiveness, Vild notes.

As Vild notes, “We all face everyday struggles that affect our state of mind and our health. We experience professional problems, divorce, conflicts in relationships, debt, miscarriage, infertility, relocation, and the death of those we love. It is especially challenging as we age and face a change in our appearance, make peace with dreams that never came to pass, watch our children grow up and leave the nest, and begin to lose neighbors and friends to illness, death and relocation.”

“The point is that no one escapes adversity,” she says.

Yet, because we struggle, we also strengthen our power to rebound. For example, Vild notes that she has personally — and consciously — cultivated this fortitude at different times in her life, most notably when she lost her parents within 72 days of each other when she was in her late 20s.

“Another was when at 59 I discovered through a devastating series of reveals my marriage wasn’t at all what I thought, and I chose to walk away at a time in my life when most are nesting and readying for the later years, comfortable with long cultivated security and familiarity,” she says.

What Is Resiliency?

Resilience is the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands, according to the American Psychological Association.

“Resiliency often encompasses experiences of flexibility or adaptability, being able to problem-solve, not letting situations ‘ruffle your feathers’ and maintaining some semblance of optimism despite life’s difficulties and adversities,” explains Cynthia Shaw, licensed clinical psychologist and owner of Authentically Living Psychological Services in New York.

“We may be surprised when we are hit with overwhelming emotions of anxiety, loneliness, self-doubt and sadness.”

“It can be quite challenging to practice this during our midyears, as there are often many changes that can cause disruptions, invite self-doubt and shake our sense of inner peace,” says Shaw. “For example, the midyears is a time when children leave the home, we consider retiring and look toward the future with more questions. We may be experiencing a decline in health, dissatisfaction with what we have or haven’t accomplished in life thus far, and concern for what the latter portion of our lives might look like.”

In addition, the generation of people currently over 50 may be less adept at attending to their mental health. “We may be surprised when we are hit with overwhelming emotions of anxiety, loneliness, self-doubt and sadness. Being less aware of how to cope with such experiences, we may resort to behaviors and activities that are either fleeing or counterintuitive. For example, engaging in ‘retail therapy’ [and possibly spending money we don’t have]. This may lead to even less resiliency as we become frustrated with our current state of being, unsure of how to regain control,” she says.

Older People Cope Better

While older age may bring challenges, it also comes with experience. Recent research by Zhen Cong, PhD, director of the School of Public Health’s Climate and Health Initiative at the University of Alabama Birmingham, found older adults between ages 65 and 74 had better coping appraisals of negative outcomes than did younger adults.

“Older people also are more resilient to financial losses and stressful experiences than are younger adults,” reports Cong, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences.

Her research looks at why older adults are vulnerable or resilient to disasters. Cong explains that understanding the reasons behind resilience will help communities work together to build a disaster and climate-resilient society in a time with the population aging.

The Effects on Long-Term Mental Health

Physical ailments and chronic conditions play an integral role in resilience and these factors impact long-term mental health. For example, one recent study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, concluded that “physical resilience, such as preserved mobility and good physical function, is an important element in attaining high psychological resilience, because it positively influences a sense of self-coherence and self-efficacy, and boosts optimism and feelings of satisfaction with life.”

“Resilience is a learned skill, as necessary, I always say, as learning to tie your shoe and program your remote control.”

In short, if our health is not good and we don’t feel well, it’s hard to be resilient.

How to Cultivate More Resiliency

“Resilience is a learned skill, as necessary, I always say, as learning to tie your shoe and program your remote control. Rather than relying on the crutches of drinking, overeating and sabotaging relationships, we can choose to feel happy again and survive the burden of problems by choosing to thrive,” Vild says.

Here are some tips to put into action:

Forgive Others and Yourself

Suzy Welch, professor of management at the Stern School of Business at New York University defines resilience as grit plus forgiveness. If you are going to be resilient in your life, you have got to be forgiving of people you think have held you back and be forgiving of yourself for not doing something right, she says. “You can’t pick yourself up and try again if you are still holding on to anger and resentment.”

Attend to Self-Care

Self-care does not have come with a big price tag. It means caring for your whole self — what you think and how you feel. Good nutrition and exercise play a role here, too.

“It’s important to allow yourself to experience all emotions, as each emotion plays a function and isn’t objectively negative or positive (even though there are certain emotions we don’t enjoy all that much, like sadness). Creating space for your emotions is only one form of self-care. Additional practices can include spending time in nature, participating in a water aerobics class, joining a knitting group, or going for regular manicures,” explains Shaw.

Cultivate Presence

The benefits of being present to your life are always immense especially when you are grieving a loss or disappointment and trying to heal, says Vild. “You practice acceptance by being present to your life. Consider it a form of self-care that increases mindfulness, improves health, lowers blood pressure, boosts immunity and regulates sleep patterns. Being present also boosts inner calm, increases positive emotions, provides greater clarity, increases creativity and prods patience and tolerance — all factors necessary for resilience,” she explains.

Being present has social perks as well. Presence makes you more receptive to opportunities that will lead to a stronger social network. Things like meditation, tapping and Reiki can help increase your mindfulness, Vild adds.  

“Recognizing that you have choices in life is a definite way of improving resiliency.”

Develop Optimism

“While it’s important to make space for allowing yourself to experience your emotions, to practice resiliency, it can be helpful to invite balance by curating optimism,” Shaw says. “Being able to learn from experiences, practice gratitude, identify learnings from a situation and note the bright side is a sure way to develop resiliency.”

This sometimes means fighting the urge to stay in a negative headspace. “It is difficult to accept aging, physical and cognitive decline and life changes,” she says, but practicing mental flexibility or openness to possibilities in your future and learning to enjoy moments by incorporating mindfulness can make a difference on your outlook.

Seek Support

Friends and family members can offer support during the many changes occurring at this stage of life. Having trusted relationships can aid in building resilience, as well as increasing positive joined activities, Shaw adds.

Counseling from a professional (either in person or virtually) is also an option if more guidance is needed. Many insurance plans include behavioral health services and list affiliated providers on their websites.

Remember to Problem Solve

It is often helpful to remind ourselves of the tough things we have endured.

“When we are feeling stuck in life, it can be tempting to give up hope, surrender to the stuck-ness, and wallow in self-pity and frustration. Recognizing that you have choices in life is a definite way of improving resiliency,” advises Shaw. “Consider your options, make a pro and con list, identify what your values are and make efforts towards choosing and creating your next steps or achieving your next goals.”

Bring Beauty to Your Life

Surround yourself with things you love — flowers, people, art, music or anything that brings you joy. Indulge yourself without guilt, says Vild.

“My girlfriend surrounded her bed with flowering plants after her extensive cancer surgery. Another woman began painting as self-expression. Inhale and digest beauty and positivity,” she says.