Key Strategies for Increasing Resilience in Tough Times
- Category Mental Health
Everyone goes through rough patches. Periods of illness, injury, and uncertainty are unfortunate fundamentals of life. While no two people’s struggles may look exactly the same, one key feature can help us move more effectively through tough times, and that’s resilience. The good news is that resilience isn’t a finite resource and isn’t something that some people have and others don’t. We all have the capacity to increase our resilience, with the right tools, but we need to be aware of some of the “tried and true” advice that could be more harmful than helpful. Let’s unpack what resiliency is and explore some strategies for increasing our ability to adapt to difficulty.
Resilience has been defined in many ways, but can generally be thought of as the ability to adapt to, cope with, and overcome adverse circumstances. Adaptation can include adjusting how we respond, how we think about an experience, or changing our proximity to a stressor when possible. We demonstrate resilience when we reach out for support after a break up, use job loss as an opportunity to find more satisfying work, or try to help others who have been through a similar painful experience once we’ve recovered. Individual resilience depends on a wide range of factors that all interact, including personality, early environment, and social factors.
Certain personality traits have been associated with increased resilience, including cognitive flexibility, optimism, hope, and resourcefulness. Folks who are able to adjust their perspective without compromising core values and remain open to new experiences generally exhibit less problematic responses to stressors and bounce back from difficulty more quickly.
We’ve learned about the impact of early environment through research into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). While it may seem obvious that more adverse experiences in childhood makes folks less resilient, the pervasiveness of negative outcomes was surprising to many. Even experiencing one isolated negative experience such as divorce of parents, witnessing or being a target of violence, or significant personal loss can increase our risk for physical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Ongoing stressors such as poverty, racism, and recurring trauma only increase the risk for negative outcomes, and make it difficult for folks to cultivate resilience. Brain imaging studies have shown that early negative experiences can change the function of key brain areas that help us regulate our emotions, detect threats, and problem solve. Resilience may be more elusive for folks with more intensely negative life experiences as a function of how these brain changes manifest in behavior, combined with how their social environment responds to those behaviors.
With all this talk of brain changes and medical problems, growing resilience may seem like a lost cause. Fortunately, we’ve also learned that the brain is far more changeable (and resilient!) than we knew. We are constantly reshaping our neural networks and can be intentional about increasing resilience even in the face of intense difficulty. This doesn’t mean that everyone will necessarily reach the same place of ease and acceptance, but it does mean that we can expand our toolbox for coping with stress.
One of the most problematic beliefs I hear from my clients about coping with difficulty is that the best approach is to suck it up and keep going. This requires ignoring the discomfort and continuing to do whatever they feel they are supposed to do as if the stressor is not happening.
To be resilient, we have to be willing to take stock of whatever is going on in our external and internal environments. That means being open to feelings like fear, sadness, and anger. Studies have shown that having difficulty naming emotions and repressing emotion are associated with decreased resilience.
To increase emotional awareness, practice naming your emotions when times aren’t stressful. Find a list of feelings to help you grow your emotional vocabulary. The simple act of identifying an emotion helps us practice allowing our feelings rather than pushing them away.
Find your options
Many stressors feel overwhelming because we feel trapped. One of our many natural responses to stress is to freeze, which can turn into a sense of stuckness. To find more flexibility in the face of hard times, we can ask ourselves “what am I missing?” Making a list of all the possible options we have to respond to a situation, even if many of the options are ridiculous, can help us get unstuck and find solutions.
Tap into hardiness
Hardiness is a way of describing certain approaches to life’s difficulties that increase resilience. When we feel a sense of control over our lives, believe that difficulty has a meaning or purpose, and see the growth potential in challenging situations, we can weather some pretty intense storms.
Practice hardiness by thinking of a difficult situation from your past that shaped who you are in some positive way. You might notice themes such as being more aware of your strength or having more clarity around what is really important to you. It’s important to note that making meaning of painful experiences requires that we come to grips with the pain first, otherwise we risk harming our resilience through toxic positivity. Using “both/and” language can help us here: it’s ok to be sad AND brave for example. It’s also ok if we can’t make meaning of every negative thing we’ve ever been through.
Social support and connection
As social creatures, some of our best qualities come through connection with others. Compassion, generosity, and kindness are fundamental to a meaningful life and a resilient stress response. Since many negative experiences happen in the space of relationships, it can be easy to shut down, become less trusting, and cut ourselves off from the important healing capacity of people.
To increase your openness, practice reaching out for support in low stakes situations. Consider how you could ask for exactly what you need, whether that be a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, or help with a particular task. You won’t get all your needs met all the time, but starting small can help grow your trust without invalidating your concerns. Seeking support can also include connecting with a mental health professional to have a judgment-free zone to work through a tough time.
Resilience is a powerful tool for staying grounded when life gets hard. It involves making meaning, staying connected to others, leaning into our strengths, and soothing ourselves, among many other aspects. Resilience is not about hiding our feelings, staying in bad situations to prove ourselves, or otherwise prioritizing strength over sanity. Resilience is also not a fix-all for problems that result from broken systems. It can be damaging to suggest that someone dealing with poverty, homelessness, or other inequities should just try to be more resilient.
We can’t control every outcome, but we can change our responses with the right tools. What does resilience mean to you? What challenges or resources have you found that impacted your resilience? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Written for Fitness Blender by Candice CM, PhD
Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Supervisor
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