Building Up Emotional Resilience: The Key to Recovery

Barb Resnick HeadshotBarbara Resnick, PhD, CRNP
Sonya Ziporkin Gershowitz Chair in Gerontology
University of Maryland School of Nursing

As I noted in an earlier series of blog posts, I’ve been dealing with an intense course of cancer treatment. During my treatment, I’ve come face-to-face with some important but difficult facts—and since I think many of those facts hold true for others dealing with serious chronic illnesses like cancer, I wanted to share them here.

First, I’ve learned that cancer treatment can be a real rollercoaster. Your emotional resilience—or your ability to bounce back from a challenge—can dip. Along my journey through a long, slow recovery, for example, I’ve experienced dark moments when my resiliency has all but faded. I know that many people who cope with chronic illnesses experience these difficult, dark moments—which is why it’s so important to recognize them when they appear.

I’ve also learned that losing your resiliency is often as hard on your caregiver(s) as it is on you. It’s tough when you’re the person undergoing treatment, but it can be equally painful for a caregiver to watch someone struggle with a difficult recovery. These are the moments when you need to say to yourself—or reach out to your loved one and say—“Please fight just a little bit longer.” Let’s look at some ways to make that possible.

Strengthening Your Resiliency Muscles

Where resiliency is concerned, what can you do to help yourself or the person you are caring for draw on inner strength for the road ahead?

Begin by recognizing the difference between physical and emotional resiliency.

We’ve already seen that emotional resiliency is your ability to bounce back from a challenge. Physical resiliency, on the other hand, refers to your ability to recover physical strength after you’ve undergone intensive treatments for cancer, surgery, or other serious medical conditions. Each type of resiliency can be impacted by an illness, and each person may respond to resiliency differently. Physical activity is something that I truly enjoy, for example, so remaining physically resilient was less challenging for me than maintaining my emotional resilience. You need both types of resiliency when you’re dealing with tough medical challenges. Let’s focus here on strategies for conserving your emotional resiliency (my next blog post will be on regaining physical resiliency).

Regaining Emotional Resiliency

During a slow and difficult recovery, your symptoms may feel overwhelming or never-ending—that’s when your emotional resiliency can plummet. You may feel like throwing in the towel, so to speak, by stopping eating or taking necessary medications. In these difficult instances, try to rebuild your emotional resilience one minute, one hour, or one day at a time.

You’ll help yourself become more emotionally resilient if you surround yourself or your loved one with positive, optimistic people. Believing that you will recover or helping your loved one believe that they will recover is not always easy—but it’s essential for emotional resilience.

It’s especially helpful when people share stories about themselves or other people they know who’ve gone through similar situations. Sharing those stories and reinforcing the possibility that a good—if not perfect—outcome is possible is essential for maintaining or rebuilding your emotional resilience. If you need help finding someone to talk to, there are a range of resources available to you. Your local Agency on Aging is a great place to start, and the Eldercare Locator can also connect you to support resources catered to your needs.

It’s also important to remember that healthcare professionals play a vital role in our care and well-being, but they’re not alone. As a nurse myself, I know that the optimism that can come from a support network of family, friends, and caregivers is just as important as clinical expertise when living with a disease or making decisions about treatment. If you’re a person receiving care or a caregiver looking after someone in need, remember to supplement the expertise of healthcare professionals with emotional support for what you’re going through, especially if you are losing hope. Encourage caregivers, family, and friends to call you (or your loved one, if you are a caregiver). If you feel comfortable doing so, tell people you trust that it’s okay to ask about symptoms and recovery activities (such as eating or sleeping). Knowing that others want you to fight even when you want to give up can help you carry through the day.

If you’re the one under care, remember that your recovery takes a toll on your family and friends. Show appreciation as often as you can by giving back the gifts of love and support others have given you. If you’re a family member, friend, or caregiver of someone living with a serious illness, protect yourself from burnout and caregiver fatigue by taking care of yourself through difficult times. Your own physical and emotional well-being is as important for you as they are for the person you’re helping. I’m a firm believer that exercise and engaging in meaningful activities—continuing to go to work, engaging in hobbies, or volunteering—promote your health, and may even make you a better caregiver at the same time. has a helpful virtual quiz you can use to see if you might be at risk for caregiver burnout.

The point is that these recommendations can help boost your resiliency.

We all have to do whatever we can to maintain resilience—physically and emotionally. Whether you’re the person receiving care or are a caregiver, ultimately you will get to the point one day where you can look back and celebrate how much you have gained from this experience.

2 thoughts on “Building Up Emotional Resilience: The Key to Recovery

  1. I have a family member who just became caregiver for her second husband, with a diagnosis of renal cancer. She is a testament to adult resiliency after infertility, adoption of 3 brothers together, abuse at the hands of her first husband, and finally finding happiness with her second husband. Your resiliency is an inspiration for all of us struggling with an oh-so-hard task of picking oneself up and going on again, even with the help of others. Silly as it seems, there is a tiny cough drop wrapper that I keep in my wallet which has small encouraging phrases printed on it, and the phrase which made me keep it is “Be resilient.” Hang in there!

  2. Pingback: Regaining Physical Resilience After Serious Illness > Health in Aging Blog > Health in Aging

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