One concept popular in psychology today is that ofresiliency. But what does that mean, exactly?
Here’s an example: Stan is in his early 60s and was planning to retire in a few years…until the day he is given a layoff notice.
Stan could react in one of two ways.
He could spend the following weeks and months stewing over this setback, thinking, “I’ll never find another job at my age.”
Or after some time spent recovering from the shock, Stan could decide that if finding another position doesn’t work out, he will use his skills and contacts to build his own consultancy.
The second option is what resiliency looks like.
“Resilience is the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by the adversities of life and come back at least as strong as before,” say the folks atPsychology Today. “Highly resilient people find a way to change course, emotionally heal and continue moving toward their goals.”
What Makes People Resilient?
Psychologists have identified four factors that make for greater resiliency:
Ability to Maintain Optimism. Being able to see “negative experiences as temporary rather than permanent, specific rather than global, and external rather than internal,” asPsychology Today puts it, marks a positive approach to life’s ups and downs. Optimism also reduces the physical and mental effects of stress,†The information provided is not an endorsement of any product, and is intended for educational purposes only. NaturesPlus does not provide medical advice and does not offer diagnosis of any conditions. Current research on this topic is not conclusive and further research may be needed in order to prove the benefits described. The conditions and symptoms described may be indicative of serious health problems, and therefore should be brought to the attention of a qualified healthcare practitioner. which makes it easier for you to plan a path forward.
Ability to Handle Stress. Those stress effects—elevated heart rate, for example—occur as the body responds to a perceived threat. Such situations are not always bad: “You need challenges in your life to develop resilience,” says Tchiki Davis, PhD, author ofThe Happiness Skills Workbook (CreateSpace). But prolonged stress is hard on body and mind; learning how to take pressure in stride is crucial to resiliency.
Ability to Regulate Emotion. All of us experience unpleasant feelings; resilient people can keep them from spinning out of control. They avoid turning every downturn into a catastrophe. (“When we believe the worst will come true, we set ourselves up for unnecessary stress and poor resilience,” Davis says.) They also avoid becoming blinded by anger or paralyzed by anxiety.
Ability to Learn from Failure. We all fail at one time or another, sometimes in spectacular fashion. Resiliency allows you to move past the frustration, shame and embarrassment by, in the words ofPsychology Today, “accepting the emotions that came with the setback, being curious about why things went wrong and seeing how you can improve in the future.”
Is Resilience Inborn or Learned?
Some people seem to enjoy natural resilience, and researchers are looking into how much genetics may play a role. In addition, some children grow up in fortunate family circumstances, while others find emotional support and nurturing through connections they make at school or in religious or civic organizations.
But no matter what your genetic inheritance may be or your early life may have been like, experts believe you can develop resilience…even if it doesn’t come naturally.
“Resilience is an acquired skill, not a you’re-born-with-it-or-you’re-not trait,” saysEllen Hendriksen, PhD, of theBoston University Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders. “It can be taught and learned with time.”
Ways to Build Resilience
First of all, resilience doesnot involve hiding your emotions and forcing yourself to smile no matter what.
“True resilience doesn’t mean you never get discouraged—you’re human, not a machine,” says Hendriksen, author ofHow to Be Yourself (St. Martin’s Press). “What matters isn’t how you feel in the moment, it’s that you overcome it and stand back up. That’s resilience.
“Be honest and authentic and you’ll come out feeling relieved and sane.”
Here are ways to develop a more resilient approach to life.
Adopt Healthy Habits—Especially Regular Exercise
It’s easier to face challenges when you’re not feeling constantly tired, run down and depressed, which make eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and nurturing close relationships key cornerstones of a more resilient life.
But of all the lifestyle choices that promote resilience, none is as crucial as exercise. For one thing, being active helps brighten your mood and reduce the effects of stress (learn morehere).†The information provided is not an endorsement of any product, and is intended for educational purposes only. NaturesPlus does not provide medical advice and does not offer diagnosis of any conditions. Current research on this topic is not conclusive and further research may be needed in order to prove the benefits described. The conditions and symptoms described may be indicative of serious health problems, and therefore should be brought to the attention of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
What’s more, Hendriksen calls exercise a “mini metaphor for life’s larger challenges: We set short-term goals that build mental momentum to reach larger goals in the long term. Pushing through on both good and bad days is resilience in action.”
Practice Consistent Stress Relief
Exercise is one time-tested way to counteract stress;yoga andbreath control are others.
So is meditation. “Practicing mindfulness brings us more and more into the present, and it offers techniques for dealing with negative emotions when they arise,” says Kira Newman of theGreater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. (Gohere to learn aboutMindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which incorporates a number of mediation techniques.)
Mediation helps you take a more emotionally detached approach to stressful situations. “Studies show that helping people see certain experiences as demanding rather than dire protects them from the corrosive effects of stress while still delivering its positive effects, such as focused attention and speedier information processing,” saysPsychology Today.
Davis believes it’s also helpful to a take a this-too-shall-pass attitude. She suggests thinking about a recent stressful even and asking yourself what life will be like in five years: How will you feel about this incident? What will you be doing instead?
Build Your Sense of Control
A big part of how you respond to life’s challenges lies in whether or not you feel you have any power over them, a concept psychologists refer to aslocus of control.
Greater resilience is associated with an internal locus of control, or someone’s belief that life events “are greatly influenced by their own abilities, actions or mistakes,” according toPsychology Today. On the other hand, someone with an external locus “will tend to feel that other forces—such as random chance, environmental factors or the actions of others—are more responsible.”
The more you can internalize your locus of control, the better, although no one says it’s easy. AsPsychology Todayputs it, such an effort “requires a significant mindset change; like any skill, it takes practice and repetition.”
Davis suggests what she calls “running at the dog,” saying, “Running toward what makes you feel uncomfortable is a great way to overcome that discomfort and build resilience.”
She offers her fear of speaking in meetings as an example: “I challenged myself by speaking up at least once in every meeting. At first, my heart would beat like crazy. Now, I contribute freely to conversations and don’t even think about it.”
Escape Negative Thought Patterns
It’s easier to build an internal sense of control (and make stress less distressing) if you can stop gloomy thoughts from hijacking your brain.
Again, exercise can help. Davis says that when she finds herself dwelling on something negative, “I’ll drop everything and go for a five- to ten-minute run. This behavioral break forces both my brain and my body to completely switch gears and focus on something else entirely.”
Turning molehills into mountains of catastrophe is one example of negative thinking. To stop blowing things out of proportion,Psychology Today suggests the following:
- Labeling negative thoughts. Telling yourself that you’rehaving the thought “I am a failure” rather than unthinkinglyembracing the thought “I am a failure.”
- Naming repeating thoughts. Saying to yourself, “This is my “I’m a failure” story.”
- Draining the thoughts’ power. Singing negative thoughts or saying them in a funny voice.
Once you’ve identified a catastrophic thought, try replacing it with something more realistic, such as “I’m having a hard time at the moment, so I’ll have to find another solution.”
If you spend a lot of time worrying over potential problems in the future,Psychology Today recommends trying to “think through the most plausible consequences of a real or anticipated misfortune: How bad would it really be? Would it really be something you couldn’t recover from?
“You can also envision yourself coping with what you worry will happen, reflecting on any resources and strengths that you have.”
“Wear a pendant or carry a stone or other small object with you,” suggests Davis. “Every time you find yourself imagining the worst, touch the object while reminding yourself that the best possible outcome is just as likely to occur as the worst possible outcome.”
Another harmful thought pattern isrumination, or reliving a negative event over and over again in your head: “It’s like a cognitive spinning of the wheels, and it doesn’t move us forward toward healing and growth,” says Newman.
Instead, Newman suggests using a technique calledexpressive writing: “It involves free writing continuously for 20 minutes about an issue, exploring your deepest thoughts and feelings around it. The goal is to get something down on paper, not to create a memoir-like masterpiece.”
Why is it helpful? “We’re actually crafting our own life narrative and gaining a sense of control,” says Newman.
Cultivate a More Positive Outlook
Optimism, the ability to maintain a hopeful attitude no matter your current circumstances, is a lot like resiliency itself: It’s partially genetic…but also profoundly influenced by how you decide to live your life.
“Optimism is measured by your explanatory style, or how you define events,” says wellness coach Elizabeth Scott, PhD, author of8 Keys to Stress Management (Norton). That involves seeing positive events as: (1) being associated with something you did, (2) a sign of good things to come and (3) a sign that good things will happen in other areas of your life.
On the other hand, Scott says, you should look at negative events and “think of the extenuating circumstances that could have contributed to this happening: What outside circumstances contributed to your failure?” (Although she quickly adds, “This doesn't mean you should deny responsibility for mistakes—that's how we learn!”)
Newman suggests using an optimism-building technique she calls “finding silver linings,” which involves “calling to mind an upsetting experience and trying to list three positive things about it.” She cites aCanadian study in which doing so every day for three weeks “helped participants become more engaged with life afterward, and it decreased their pessimistic beliefs over time.”
For example, Davis employed this technique after her car’s transmission blew out: She was grateful for not having been on the freeway at the time, and happy that the third gear remained operable (so the car didn’t need to be towed) and that her husband was with her, enabling her to reach a repair shop that day.
Sometimes, though, you actually can be a little too optimistic. AsPsychology Today puts it, “While an optimistic viewpoint can be helpful in motivating people to take chances and pursue their dreams, a dose of realism about the risks involved can make success more likely.”
Learn to Regulate Your Emotions
Feelings, good and bad, occur constantly. Trying to not feel unpleasant emotions, such as anger or fear, is simply not possible.
A better approach is to fully feel whatever emotion you’re currently experiencing—and then step back so you can appraise the situation with a cooler head.
Davis advises learning to “emotionally distance yourself from challenges” using the following technique.
In thinking about a recent stressful conflict—something specific such “Vic forgot we had a date on Saturday,” not fights with Vic in general—try to imagine how an outside observer would interpret the event:
- Would the observer be able to understand why you are upset?
- Would the observer be able to see the other person’s point of view?
- How would the observer evaluate the situation?
- Might this observer view the situation differently than you do?
Newman suggests overcoming a repeated fear, such as that of heights or public speaking, through controlled exposure.
“The first step is to slowly, and repeatedly, expose yourself to the thing that scares you—in small doses.” she says. “For example, people with a fear of public speaking might try talking more in meetings, then perhaps giving a toast at a small wedding. Over time, you can incrementally increase the challenge until you’re ready to nail that big speech.”
What’s more, you can “use your negative emotions to propel you forward,” Davis says, noting that emotions such as sadness or grief let others know we need support, while emotions such as anger can motivate us to take action and make changes in our lives.
When feeling something unpleasant, Davis suggests asking yourself, “Is this negative emotion trying to teach me something?”
Turn Failure into Challenge
The fact that you have—and will—fail is simply a given in life. Resilience depends on how you react to failure.
Failure don’t just feel bad; it can also make success seem more unreachable. “Failure makes our goals seem tougher and our abilities seem weaker, and it damages our motivation,” saysGuy Winch PhD, psychologist and cohost ofDear Therapists Podcast.
All this makes “learning to be okay with making mistakes, big or small, a critical skill,” saysPsychology Today. “Becoming okay with making mistakes helps build better emotional regulation. Further, analyzing and accepting a setback can provide lessons that will stop the failure from repeating itself in the future.”
Winch recommends dealing with failure by taking the following steps:
- See whatever happened as a one-time incident, then “make a list of the specifics of the situation that might be different when you approach the task next time.”
- Focus on factors in your control, such as “ inadequate planning, poor preparation and insufficient effort.”
- Revive your sense of self-worth by “making a list of the qualities and capacities you possess that should (at least on paper) make it possible for you to succeed.” If you have to, ask a friend or loved one to remind you of your strengths.
- Find renewed motivation in “reconnecting to the reasons you began pursuing your goal in the first place—consider how you would feel if you succeeded.”
- Do some brainstorming. First, think about every possible way to tackle the goal, completely ignoring what is realistic or possible. Then go through your list and “think through what is or isn’t viable.”
- Rank your approaches in terms of the risks they entail, then “make informed and calm choices about which to pursue first.”
†The information provided is not an endorsement of any product, and is intended for educational purposes only. NaturesPlus does not provide medical advice and does not offer diagnosis of any conditions. Current research on this topic is not conclusive and further research may be needed in order to prove the benefits described. The conditions and symptoms described may be indicative of serious health problems, and therefore should be brought to the attention of a qualified healthcare practitioner.The information provided is not an endorsement of any product, and is intended for educational purposes only. NaturesPlus does not provide medical advice and does not offer diagnosis of any conditions. Current research on this topic is not conclusive and further research may be needed in order to prove the benefits described.
The conditions and symptoms described may be indicative of serious health problems, and therefore should be brought to the attention of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
Like this article? You’ll love our weekly newsletter
sign up here!
**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.