Dealing with loss, change, and hardship is part of life. These events can be relatively minor, like not getting to go to an event you had planned, or more major, like a global pandemic. Regardless of the severity, how you react to and deal with these events is based on your resilience.
Psychologists define resilience 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.
The good news is, anyone can build resilience, and while it in itself won’t solve your problems, it will help you better handle them and figure out a way to move forward.
In general terms, resilience refers to the ability to bounce back from adversity or times of distress and to grow from these challenges. It is a character trait that can be learned, and it can help you face difficulties in life in an adaptive way.
Although resilient people might seem optimistic or like they see the world through rose-colored glasses, they are most often realists. Their resilience gives them the ability to face life’s hardships head on. This doesn’t mean that life events don’t impact them or they don’t experience stress or grief like other people do. It just means that they have learned to handle such difficulties in a way that might even make them stronger.
People who lack resilience might become overwhelmed by similar life experiences and recover more slowly from setbacks. Sometimes they will turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol to cope with their situation. They might also suffer from more long-term psychological distress as a result.
Bad times can be good training for future bad times. We truly never know what life is going to throw at us and although we plan as best we can, our resilience helps us react to curveballs, however difficult they might be.
It is possible to become too resilient. Extreme resilience could drive people to become overly persistent with unattainable goals or overly tolerant of adversity. When we’re too resilient, we put up with bad relationships, living situations, or work environments instead of doing what’s best and leaving.
It’s also true that simply being resilient isn’t a cure for injustices or inequities in society. Especially now, with the pandemic, racial justice movement, and economic insecurity, people are being asked to be exceptional to get something less than exceptional in return: a basic standard of living.
Sometimes, people are praised for their resilience by individuals who take advantage of them. For example, an employer could compliment their employees on their “resilience” as a way to invalidate their worries about overwork or low pay. Government leaders will praise the “resilience” of their communities and constituents to distract from cutting social services.
Still, a healthy amount of resilience is important to help us tackle our problems. So if you need to be more resilient, what can you do?
Some people might be naturally resilient, but an increasing body of empirical evidence shows that resilience can be learned. It’s like a muscle that springs into action when hardship hits and rests when things are okay. Unfortunately, the best way to build resilience is to be exposed to difficult situations. But that is part of life! Difficult situations can be switching jobs, moving to a new home, ending a relationship, and so on—typical life situations like these will all help you build resilience, so when the next difficult situation happens, you can start to notice how you respond and work on how you will react to that situation.
Resilience isn't about weathering life’s storm alone like a rock at sea. We’re not meant to navigate difficult times or figure it all out on our own. The ability to connect with others for support is an important part of being resilient.
A support network or even a single person you can confide in is important for building resilience. While talking about your problems won’t make them go away, sharing the burden can make it easier to bear. If you struggle to connect or share with others or ask for help, practice on something smaller. Reach out to someone and say, I’m having a hard time with this and could use some advice or support.
Practicing gratitude, doing random acts of kindness, and donating and volunteering can also help build resilience. It’s less about positive vibes and more about positive impact.
Just like we’re supposed to put on our own oxygen mask before helping others, making sure we take care of ourselves will set us up to be prepared for hardship. Think about a time when you had a bad night of sleep and then struggled to deal with problems that arose the next day. Resilience is like having a good night of sleep and being prepared to tackle anything that might come our way all the time—and actually having a good night of sleep can help.
Resilient people don’t just tackle problem after problem after problem. They are able to stop, rest, and replenish inner resources. That doesn’t mean waiting until they are completely drained to fill their cup—it’s about being proactive with your self care.
Whether it’s with a health condition where bills are piling up, a death in the family with arrangements to take care of, or the daily barrage of the news, it sometimes feels easier to avoid or ignore our problems (and maybe even hope that they go away). When you build your resilience, you’ll be able to assess the situation, make a plan of what needs to be done, and take action.
When stress or anxiety attacks, practice defusion—observing our thoughts for what they are and learning how to keep the potential impact of those thoughts at a distance. That doesn’t mean keeping our thoughts themselves at a distance; it’s protecting ourselves from the full potential impact, of those thoughts. You can use positive self talk, as in, This situation is extremely stressful, but you are resilient and you can get through it, or other coping mechanisms or techniques that can help you train your mental focus, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and visualization, that will help you acknowledge what is happening and figure out how to move forward.
It can take time to build resilience and figure out exactly what you can do to help you cope, and a therapist can help. A therapist can help you look at situations in your life and see where you showed strength and resilience in the past and figure out what strategies you can use to continue to flex that muscle moving forward. They can also help you identify what you value or what is important to you and see how your life aligns with your values—and if there is misalignment, what you can do to make changes.
Resilience is a powerful skill that can help us cope with life’s hardships, but you don’t have to do it alone. Focus on what you can control and find small ways to take action, take care of your mental health and wellbeing, and connect with others to build a support system and you’ll be well on your way to weather any storm.
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Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.