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10 Ways to Stay Resilient with a Physical Disability

Updated: Feb 8

Image/Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services

Emotional adjustment and coping with a physical disability can be influenced by a person’s life experiences, personality, and how they prefer to handle issues they encounter. Many people however may not have had to deal before with something as challenging as a disability. Having a chronic illness can truly test someone’s patience, energy, motivation, and overall mood.

Developing resilience takes time and does not happen right after a diagnosis. It may not happen quickly. Everyone’s path is different and there is no strict timeline or expectation for how quickly people adjust to their new life circumstances.

For those with a physical disability interested in resiliency concepts, here are some strategies to look into to see what fits best with you as you continue your journey. Not all of them — and especially not all of them at the same time — are necessary. You may already see one or more strategies below that you recognize in yourself and see through your actions. Excellent! Focus on those — as well as any other points below that also speak to you on a personal level.

1. Acceptance

Easier said than done, but acceptance of where you are at right now is crucial to moving forward in your life.

Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up hope for changes down the line. It means that you are taking in your situation slowly and making peace with your current spot on this unpredictable map called life.

2. Focus on what you can control

Few things can frustrate us more than trying to change things that are beyond our control.

You might not be able to handle stairs independently, walk independently without a mobility aid, or possibly even walk at all right now. That can stir up lots of difficult emotions and it can lead to a stuck and hopeless feeling. Rather than focusing on what you can’t do, which could be discouraging and demoralizing, try to focus on what you can control.

Are you able to dress, bathe, or feed yourself? Brush your teeth? If none of the above is possible at this point, are you able to direct your care based on how you would like a caregiver or support worker to help you? Drawing your attention to what you can do is key for maintaining your sense of self in a time where you may not be able to do things exactly how you like.

3. Challenge negative thoughts and beliefs

It is common to be down on yourself sometimes, especially when you are trying to learn something new or work on a skill. Try to manage negative thoughts and beliefs such as “ I’ll never get the hang of this” or “ I won’t be able to _____ (fill in the blank)”.

Notice the thought, think of a list of points that don’t fit with that thought and replace it with something more balanced that reflects positive tones. For example: “This is hard right now but I can keep improving with practice over time” or “ I can’t do this right now but who knows what the future holds — I have to keep working with what is possible right now and focus on that”.

4. Remember your strengths

What would you say or what would your family or friends say are some of your biggest strengths? Think about them and move them to the forefront of your mind. Use these strengths, even in an adapted way.

For example, let’s say you are a great cook but cannot use a stove safely at this time. Maybe you can describe to a loved one step-by-step how to make one of your favorite recipes. They will try to create a version that satisfies your taste test!

Think of any strength you have and use it to the best of your ability, even if it looks different than its original format.

5. Lean on your social network

You know who you can count on within your family, friends, and others close to you in your social network when you need a boost, listening ear, or general help. Connect with them when you need to. If you would like professional help that is beyond your social network, reach out to a counselor or therapist to discuss your concerns, and see how they can help.

6. Draw on your problem--solving skills

Whether you are a parent, in school, working, volunteering, or fulfilling multiple roles at the same time, use the problem-solving skills you have available to you based on your personal, work, and life experience.

Maybe you have to call your employer to ask some questions about your work health benefits plan. Can you make a list of questions and book a time to talk with them when you won’t be disturbed? Or, perhaps your family member has to get the car fixed but they don’t have experience with that responsibility. Is there a relative or friend who could help them with that task? Or, maybe you need to interview caregivers to help you at home but you don’t know where to start or what types of questions to ask. Is there a member of your healthcare team or another professional who might be able to help you?

Thinking through the issues you are dealing with, taking it as far as you can based on your problem-solving skills, and being open to ask for help from others whose skills complement yours will assist you along your way towards resolving difficult matters.

7. Be optimistic

Instead of automatically thinking negatively about something that going to happen in the future (e.g. your medical appointment results, your transition home or to another setting, your community outing, etc.), put an optimistic spin on it and point your thoughts in a positive direction. Approaching a situation in this way, and with careful problem solving as noted above, you may notice that the outcome is not as challenging as originally thought.

8. Practice self-compassion

Self-compassion is another word for self-care. Be kind to yourself through the ups and downs and give yourself a break when you need to for rest. Self-care is important for building healthy coping skills and resiliency in broader terms.

9. Find purpose and meaning

If you have a new physical disability, you may not be able to do the same job or activities you did before depending on how independent you are now in your ability to take care of yourself and manage different life spheres (e.g. personal care, work, school, family, extra-curricular, recreation, etc.).

Once you are medically stable, settled in at home, and able to focus your attention beyond your immediate needs, put deeper thought into how you would like to spend your time. Would you like to go back to work full time or part-time? Can your employer modify your duties and hours to accommodate your physical needs and changing energy levels? Is there volunteer work you are interested in pursuing? Are there hobbies or passions you would like to devote more time to? Can you do a sport you love in a different, adapted way?

It’s a matter of figuring out what you are passionate about. Start there. Narrow down ideas to your top goals, develop a clear plan, work out a schedule and everything will flow from there.

10. Practice gratitude

Reflecting on and honoring what you are grateful for can increase your sense of peace and calm. Try thinking about 3 things you are grateful for each day. They can be little or big things based on your terms (and sometimes the little things are the big things!).

For example: being able to get yourself out of bed this morning; talking with a friend on the phone; going outside for a few minutes for some fresh air; watching the sunset in the sky; other ideas? Having a positive mindset from practicing gratitude can help prepare you for challenges and difficulties that you come across in your journey ahead.

Wishing you well on your mental health journey.

Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT

Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist

If you are an adult in Ontario or Alberta seeking online therapy and you would like to request a free 15 minute phone consultation with Meaningful Independence, please Book An Appointment or reach out directly under the Contact page.


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