What is resilience?
Resilience is the ability to return to a place of homeostasis or mental or physical balance after a challenging event or several challenges. It is “adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”1 If you are resilient, you can bend under psychological distress without breaking. Sound relevant to our pandemic experiences?
Resilience does not mean forcing yourself to bounce back to where you were before a challenging event. Difficult experiences will unavoidably challenge and change us. Resilience instead involves moving through the experience and integrating it into a new sense of wellbeing, so that experiences of adversity leave you stronger than before. Resilience means being able to thrive and flourish after setbacks.
Overcoming risk factors for low resilience
Emotional strength is influenced by a range of environmental factors. Do you have any of the following ‘risk factors’ for low resilience?
Negative cognitions: Negative thinking patterns can keep you stuck in an emotional rut. Becoming free of unhelpful cognitions is a first step towards emotional well being. Having confidence in your ability to handle setbacks and solve problems is a major contributor to resilience. Positive emotions can help you find meaning in stressful events. Researchers have found that positive emotions may “prompt individuals to pursue novel and creative thoughts and actions,” helping them respond to stressors in adaptive ways.2
Family negativity and adverse childhood events: Unsupportive relationships can lower resilience levels. Supportive relationships and positive partnering practices foster a sense of belonging, love, and trust help increase an individual’s resilience. Adverse childhood events including neglect and abuse can undermine the development of resilience. Mindfulness practice has been shown to reduce the impacts of adverse events suffered in childhood.3 If you’re new to mindfulness practice, consider beginning with guided mindful breathing practice or a three-minute guided body scan meditation available from The Greater Good Science Center at the University of Berkeley.4
Healthy ways to handle adversity:
When confronted with a difficult event or emotion, avoid the ‘3 Ps’ of pessimism as defined by psychologist Martin Seligman: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.5 Instead, tap into learned optimism.
Personalization: Recognize the things you have control over in the situation and things you do not. Retrain your relationship to failure. When you encounter setbacks and stress, move away from blaming your failure on fixed attributes such as not being ‘good enough’ towards thoughts like ‘you can do better next time if you try harder.’6 It can also help to understand your family history and challenges you may have faced while growing up to put your emotional struggles in a broader context. When positive events occur in your life, look for attributes inside yourself that gave rise to the positive experience.
Pervasiveness: Avoid generalizing negativity. Failure on one project at work does not mean your career is a failure. Similarly, try to catch yourself when negative events in one area of your life bleed over into your perception of self in another area. For example, a fight with your spouse does not need to translate into feeling inadequate as a parent. Again limit this compartmentalization to negativity: let positive events in one sphere of life spill over into the others, creating an upward spiral of positivity in all domains.
Permanence: Recognize that the conditions creating emotional discomfort are impermanent and will pass. Negative events have discrete beginnings and endings. Pain often becomes bearable when we recognize its fleeting nature.
Avoiding the 3 Ps and cultivating positivity will give you the chance to grow from your adversity, leaving you with gifts to share with others about what you've learned. Helping others reduce their suffering builds emotional connection, strengthening collective resilience.
3 exercises to build emotional resilience
Resilience is like a muscle - you can build psychological strength by engaging in repeated ‘resilience workouts’. While training resilience, don’t forget to attend to the fundamentals of well being. Our emotional selves are strongest when we attend to eating healthy, getting sufficient physical exercise, and sleeping well. These daily efforts build a solid platform for developing emotional strength. Once you’ve mastered these fundamentals, ere are a few specific techniques to try out to build your resilience:
Keep a gratitude journal (15 minutes, 3x a week): Write down three to five things that happened during the day that you are grateful for. Try to be a specific as possible, detailing the event, imagining how your day would have felt if the event you are expressing gratitude for had not occurred. Research shows that gratitude practices increase positivity, optimism, and overall emotional well-being.7
Take a 20 minute walk in nature, stopping to appreciate small things you would normally pass by, such as a tiny flower sprouting up next to the sidewalk. Research has shown that maintain positivity while walking leads to greater happiness by the end of the week.8
Write a letter of admiration and gratitude to a friend. Thank them for the impact they have had on your life, using as much detail as possible. If possible, deliver the letter in person for maximum happiness-boosting effects. Researchers found that this practice has a lasting effect on happiness up to one month later.9 This activity also helps you strengthen your social connections. Strong relationships are a known contributor to resilience.
‘The Road to Resilience’ American Psychological Association 2016.
Tugade MM and Fredrickson BL. ‘Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back From Negative Emotional Experiences’ Journal of Personal Social Psychology 2004: volume 86, issue 2, pages 320 - 333.
Whitaker RC et al. ‘Adverse childhood experiences, dispositional mindfulness, and adult health’ Preventative Medicine 2014: volume 67, pages 147- 53.
‘Mindful Breathing’ and ‘Body Scan Meditation’ The Greater Good Science Center at the University of Berkeley 2016.
Seligman MEP. ‘Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life’ Vintage Books 2006.
Dweck CS. ‘Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development’ Psychology Press 2000.
Emmons RA and McCullough ME. ‘Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2003: volume 84, issue 2, pages 377–389.
Bryant F. and Veroff J. ‘Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience’ Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 2007.
Seligman ME, Steen TA, Park N and Peterson C. ‘Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions’ American Psychologist 2005: volume 60, issue 5, page 410.