We know that we midlifers are resilient. We have been through a lot. We have raised children, built careers, and experienced financial and health setbacks. We have had failures, too, and made comebacks during our decades as adults.
COVID taught us, too, that we can deal. Despite illness all around us and much longer quarantines and risks than our children, we stuck it out. We didn’t go on drinking binges in bars at night like the millennials did. We nested and took on new projects during these past two years. Zooming became second nature and our entertainment repertoires expanded to more podcasts, shiurim and creative family get-togethers. When anxious thoughts pervaded, we reached out for help. Practices that calmed us in the past became part of our routines.
We don’t need anyone to tell us we’re resilient. It is good to hear, however.
But what is the science behind it? Why are those of us in our 50s and 60s more capable of dealing with what life has to throw at us? And perhaps more importantly, how can we reinforce that resilience in order to help ourselves and those around us?
Seasoned adults clearly have an enhanced ability to regulate emotions. We have perspectives garnered from years of experience. We have acquired the long view because we tend to take the future into account as well as the past. Midlifers are thus possibly more resilient than those who are younger, says organizational psychologist and bestselling author Adam Grant.
Major life changes that require adaptation frequently occur during midlife. The ability to adjust to them in a positive way, resilience, is therefore of particular interest to midlifers who may be caring for others, thinking about their future health and finances, and carrying heavy financial responsibilities. That’s us: figuring out how much more we need for retirement, thinking about downsizing, taking care of parents, and helping our married kids with tuitions, holidays and houses.
These three factors were the most frequent contributors to stress, according to the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence and the MIT AgeLab. They conducted a study with focus groups and an extensive survey that looked at the stresses and transitions that people in their 40s, 50s and 60s experience and how they remain resilient.
The good news is that people in their 60s reported higher levels of resilience, compared with people in their 50s and 40s, in statistically significant percentages. The study also found that the most resilient adults have a strong sense of self-efficacy. This means that they feel they are “copers” and that they will get through the difficult times. Just call them the “I-will-manage” types
The most popular way that all the adults in the study (40s, 50s and 60s), no matter the age, coped with stress was to participate in entertainment and hobbies. However, the most resilient adults were more likely to participate in physical activity than less resilient adults (70% and 42%).
The implications are obvious. Exercising and going for walks are what the more-resilient people do. It’s much harder than being a couch potato or immersing yourself in your favorite pastimes. However, it builds your coping skills, not just your bone density and heart rate.
Resilience is a product of both nature and nurture, science says. Nevertheless, it is a muscle that can be built up at any time. Your fight-and-flight responses to stress don’t fire as frequently if you handle the inevitable stressors in a positive way. In other words, neurologically, your brain will not go into stress mode as often if you consciously handle stressors in a positive but realistic way. How does one build up the resilience muscle in midlife?
Here are seven tools for improving resilience during midlife.
1. Reframe your story in a positive way. It’s about growth from challenge, not trauma and stress.
2. Remember your comebacks. Remind yourself of how you have moved on from setbacks.
3. Practice optimism. Hey, spring is on the way! Think about saying, “My shoots are coming up in my garden” instead of “It’s such a long winter this year with two Adars before we get to Pesach.”
4. Don’t personalize failures, and consider other factors that may have contributed. Think “the business failed,” not “I failed.” I guess I won’t get rich selling my handmade creations on Etsy.
5. Go out of your comfort zone. Take on challenges. Invite healthy stress into your life, say the experts. These will further train your stress hormone systems to become less responsive to real stress.
Taking on the writing challenge of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month of November, as I did earlier this winter. It was a big challenge and stressor for me. I usually don’t write fiction and as a Shabbat-observant writer, I had to get in 2,000 words daily, not the 1,667 words most participants must draft to meet the goal. Training for a competitive sport, starting Nach Yomi, and participating in Daf Yomi are the same healthy kind of challenge that builds resilience (and other things, too). Courses, countdowns and crossword marathons will do the same thing even as they put pressure on us. We are old enough to know that pressure is not bad for us. It’s too much pressure that takes a toll in many ways.
6. Take breaks after stress.
7. Supporting and helping others enhances one’s own strength in the face of adversity. Doing chesed and reaching out to others is good for our emotional bank accounts, down here as well as our heavenly bank accounts.
The knowledge of the aveilus and COVID projects I took on in the past two years is particularly gratifying. I accomplished more than just organizing 14 closets, completing three courses, moving an organization to the next level, and completing NaNoWriMo in the aftermath of losing my father, zt”l to COVID. I can do it, as Elmo says. And so can you!
Faigie Horowitz, MS, is a writer, political advocate and nonprofit veteran who serves as the rebbetzin of Agudas Achim of Lawrence. She is a co-founder of JWOW!, Jewish Women of Wisdom, a community of Orthodox midlife women, which can be accessed at www.jewishwomenofwisdom.org