What is Resilience?
Resilience is the ability to withstand and recover from adversity in our lives. It involves resistance (standing strong in hardship), recovery (being flexible and getting back up when life knocks you down), and reconfiguration (making positive changes that enable you to better handle future challenges). Resilience protects against the ill-effects of stress and enables us to not only endure hard things but to “bounce forward” and grow from them. We can emerge from challenges with stronger relationships, improved skills and confidence, and a greater sense of meaning and purpose in our lives.
Resilience isn’t a characteristic that some people inherently have and some don’t. It involves processes that can be learned by making use of resources that we already have available or can acquire, and by practicing effective patterns of problem-solving. These help us fill a “reservoir” of positive emotions, optimism, self-control, and other tools that we can draw upon to keep us floating above the rocks of adversity.
Research has identified protective factors that help people be resilient. These include social support, resourcefulness, being connected to others, problem-solving skills, and seeking help. Thus, resilience isn’t about handling hardship alone. In fact, the foundation of these factors is the belief in connection with something greater than ourselves and in interconnections with others based on love and compassion. This perspective helps us cultivate hope, motivates us to act rather than be acted upon, and enables successful coping and solutions. Here are a few ways to cultivate these aspects of resilience:
- Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a special kind of awareness that comes when you intentionally and non-judgmentally focus on the present moment. This can look like mindful movement (e.g. yoga or walking), informal meditation (e.g. pausing to breathe deeply throughout the day) or formal meditation (e.g. a guided body scan meditation). Mindfulness can help clear your mind and enable you to better recognize and make use of the resources you already have access to, as well as possible solutions to your problem.
- See https://ggia.berkeley.edu/#filters=mindfulness for specific exercises to practice mindfulness.
- Identify Support and Strengths: Make a list of people who have offered you comfort or help in the past. These might be family members who have helped you find temporal resources, trustworthy friends who listen without judgment, or a mentor who has provided important guidance. Reflect on specific situations when you were in distress and these people were there for you; write down your thoughts.* It can also be helpful to list resources such as reliable and relevant organizations, books, or websites, as well as personal characteristics or talents you have that can be a source of strength.
- Optimistic Thinking: Learn to recognize the thought patterns you have when faced with adversity. When something bad happens, what do you believe about it? What do those beliefs lead you to feel and do? Look for evidence that either supports or challenges your beliefs about the adversity and practice identifying multiple ways of looking at a situation. For example, if you don’t hear from a potential employer after a job interview, you might believe that you’re never going to get a good job and that it’s all your own fault. However, if you broaden your perspective and challenge your negative beliefs, you might be able to recognize what wasn’t in your control, identify strengths you have that would make you a valuable employee, and make necessary changes to find good employment.
Taking care of your body with proper nutrition, exercise, sleep, practicing gratitude, and journaling about adversity can also help you develop protective factors by nourishing mental and emotional health.
Every one of us experiences adversity in our lives, whether it’s a major struggle such as a mental illness or small, daily challenges at work. Fortunately, we’re not doomed to be broken down by it. As we start putting these and other tools to good use, we add water to our reservoirs of resilience and make it so we do more than just survive during periods of adversity – we become able to thrive.
Akhtar, M. (2018). Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression. London, United Kingdom: Watkins Publishing.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.
Walsh, F. (2012). Family Resilience: Strengths Forged Through Adversity. In Walsh, F. (Ed.) Normal Family Processes (483-497). New York, NY: The Guildford Press.
* Based on the “Feeling Supported” practice found in more detail at: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/feeling_supported