Think about the times in your life when you were hit with adversity. Maybe it was a divorce, the death of a loved one, a major financial setback, or some other traumatic event that demanded you be resilient in order to carry on. Did you find a reserve of resilience or did you struggle for a long time? Do you ever marvel at the way other people can weather the storms in their lives with toughness and grit?
While resilience may be a quality some people are born with, it is also something that can be developed later in life.
“People are probably born with certain personality traits that are related to being more resilient—for example, some people seem to have a strong, perhaps innate, tendency to be more optimistic than others,” says psychiatrist Daphne Holt, MD, PhD, director of the Resilience Enhancement and Prevention Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “But it is also clear that it is possible to change one’s resilience level—to learn ways to be more resilient, at any age—no matter what you started out with.”
Building Blocks of Resilience
Simply put, resilience is the ability to recover or “bounce back” from stressful or traumatic experiences, Dr. Holt explains. But researchers are still learning what characteristics, in addition to optimism, actually increase a person’s resilience.
“Certain cognitive abilities, including cognitive flexibility, as well as having good social supports or connections in one’s life are very important,” Dr. Holt says. “Often having good social connections is linked to certain characteristics, such as having a certain degree of self-awareness or self-knowledge, which is similar to what some people call ‘emotional intelligence.’ In other words, having some ability to accurately judge and navigate social situations and understand one’s own strengths and weaknesses and those of others can allow a person to be less reactive in response to the ups and downs of relationships and the stresses of daily life.”
Self-awareness and the ability to evaluate new situations allow you to keep your perspective, even when your circumstances change for the worse. Knowing that you’ve overcome similar challenges in the past, for example, should give you confidence when confronted with new such obstacles. Self-awareness also means being in touch with your needs and being willing to express your needs to those close to you. And the better you can size up a problem, the more likely you are to view it as something you can manage or at least survive until things change.
Part of maintaining some perspective in the face of adversity also means understanding that there is a clear difference between you and the problem or the cause of the problem. The current challenge you’re facing is a chapter in your story, but it doesn’t define you.
Other key resiliency traits include:
Acceptance and the willingness to acknowledge that pain is sometimes part of life. It’s better to deal with your difficulties than deny or suppress them. Acceptance also means understanding that you don’t always have all the answers to your problems right away.
Mindfulness, the ability to just be in the moment without judgment or distractions. As much as talking through a problem can help, it’s also valuable to sit quietly with your own uninterrupted thoughts now and then. “For example, if a setback is met with a critical inner voice (e.g., ‘you’re stupid, you’re a failure’), it is much more difficult to bounce back,” explains Anne Burke, PhD, a clinical fellow with MGH’s Resilience Program. “In contrast, if we can develop a compassionate inner voice, there is more room to learn from our experience.”
Organization, such as keeping a list of self-care habits, can be helpful if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Also, being organized helps reduce resilience-robbing stress in your life. When you can maintain control over your schedule and other facets of your life, you may feel like you can seize the reins in areas that are less secure at the moment.
Strengthening Your Resilience
The path toward greater resilience differs from person to person. And it can have its share of stops and starts along the way. While there are plenty of things that help boost our resilience, there are just as many hurdles in our way, too. Recognizing those obstacles or the behaviors that are undermining your resilience can help you overcome them sooner and change course if needed.
“Vulnerability factors, like lack of adequate support or lack of financial, emotional and physical resources can make it more difficult to be resilient in the face of adversity,” Dr. Burke observes. “But you can be resilient at any age. Some types of adversity might affect people differently depending on age, gender, cultural background, resources, etc.”
She adds that having an understanding of the factors that help you feel most resilient can allow you to better manage feelings of being overwhelmed and unable to cope during difficult times.
So if you’re ready to be more resilient, consider some of the following strategies:
Maintain your health: One way to fortify yourself against seemingly overwhelming situations is to be strong in body and mind, Dr. Burke adds. That means sticking to a healthy diet, getting daily exercise (even a 30-minute walk or two 15-minute walks will help), and getting at least seven hours of sleep each night. Try yoga to calm your mind and tone your muscles. Even going through a simple series of poses can boost your mental and physical flexibility—a key quality to hone as you navigate a difficult period.
Foster positive social relationships: “At all ages, having supportive relationships boosts an individual’s ability to manage life stress,” Dr. Burke says. “In some studies, the lack of social relationships has been as strong a risk factor as smoking and obesity in predicting adverse health outcomes.”
Surrounding yourself with other resilient people can work wonders. And just having people who know when to listen and when to step up and offer advice or other tangible means of support can make all the difference in how you get through a difficult experience.
Pursue healthy activities you enjoy: Instead of engaging in reckless coping behaviors, such as excessive alcohol consumption or illicit drug use, turning to healthy pursuits that make you feel better is always recommended. It could be writing in a journal, taking a long bath, going on a hike, working in a garden, or just calling a friend. Most crises don’t require your attention 24/7, so carve out time for activities proven to lift your spirits.
Join a support group: Whether you’re dealing with divorce, a particular chronic illness, or other challenge, sharing your feelings and experiences with others confronting the same issues can give you strength, perspective, and plenty of coping strategies.
Remembering all these strategies when trouble arrives can be helpful, but Dr. Burke suggests working on resilience-building behaviors during the good times, too. Be well-armed to deal with a crisis head on.
“Many of us wait until something happens to try to marshal our resources, but when things are going well, it’s a good time to develop a range of good habits, such as getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, attending to physical illness, and engaging in physical activity,” she says. “It’s always important to tend to one’s relationships. All these things can help guard against feeling overwhelmed during times of adversity.”