Learning to bounce back

Living with a chronic illness, like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, can cause a lot of physical symptoms and emotional distress. But what we don’t talk about enough is the positive effect of having a chronic illness- the ability for patients to take their experience and become more resilient, strong individuals because of the difficulties they have overcome. 

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is defined as “…the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.”

How a person responds in the face of adversity is based on numerous factors, such as your support system (family and close friends), self-confidence, ability to communicate feels, and more. But possessing a good support system or being a good communicator doesn’t always mean you will be resilient when you encounter a challenge. So how do you know if you’re resilient? Maria Konnikova wrote in an article for The New Yorker:

“Whether you can be said to have [resilience] or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other challenges that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb, or do you surmount?”

I’ve never met more resilient people than the IBD patients I interact with every day. It’s not surprising that Pfizer’s UC Narrative survey, of which the Foundation served as a partner, found that 63% of respondents felt that living with ulcerative colitis made them more resilient. 

Whether it be finding the strength to get out of bed during a flare or using your disease as motivation to accomplish incredible feats, resiliency means something different to everyone. So, what better way to find out how the IBD community defines resilience than by polling our social media followers. Here are a few of the responses from the IBD community on how they defined resilience:

“Keeping a positive outlook through the most challenging times.”
“Going to work even when you’re flaring. Wiping your tears and moving on.”
“Advocating for myself (which is hard with an invisible illness).”
“Realizing what is important in life and not sweating the small stuff.”
“Putting myself first.”
“Fighting to make something out of every day, no matter what it looks like.”
“Knowing you can make it through any challenge life throws at you.”
“Being able to bounce back from the toughest of situations with strength and positivity.”
“Doing everything I want to do, even when my physical conditions makes it difficult.”
“Knowing that I’m strong enough to get through my next flare because I’ve done it twice [already].”
“Finishing my RN program after I had to quit when I got sick. I graduate in March!”
“To keep following your dreams even if people tell you that you can’t because of this disease.”
“Falling down and having the strength to pick yourself back up at your own pace.”
“Fighting back when you didn’t think you could, but you did and that’s all that matters.”

I remember the first time I realized just how resilient my husband was. He had just had his bowel resection and had to take a leave of absence from his graduate teaching program. By the time he was given the okay to go back to his regular life, the only class available in his program was one where he worked with a drama camp on their final production for the summer. He went from being unable to do any physical activity to spending everyday dancing for hours. And although he was still fatigued and weak from surgery, he pushed himself to do it every day until the program was complete. I was never more in awe of him than I was during their performance, both for his resilience to bounce back after surgery and his stellar dance moves. 

Becoming resilient is a personal journey and continues to evolve over time. Just like living with IBD is different for every patient, resiliency is different for every person. But the American Psychological Association has a list of 10 ways to help build resilience:

  1. Build relationships and accept help and support from those who care about you
  2. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems
  3. Accept that change is a part of living
  4. Develop realistic goals and take steps toward achieving them, no matter how small
  5. Take decisive actions
  6. Look for opportunities to learn about yourself
  7. Work on your self-confidence
  8. Keep everything in perspective 
  9. Be hopeful
  10. Engage in self-care and pay attention to your own needs and feelings

And we’ll add one more to the list above – don’t be afraid to seek professional help! Living with a chronic illness is hard and sometimes you need a little extra help navigating the emotions you experience. Seeking help from a mental health professional can help you gain perspective on your situation and find ways to cope and improve your resilience. You can also find support through in-person and online support groups and the Foundation's Power of 2 peer-to-peer support program. 

Rebecca Kaplan is the Public Affairs and Social Media Manager for the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation and the caregiver of a Crohn's disease patient