When you’re laid off from work, your partner breaks up with you, you’re diagnosed with cancer or you’re faced with similarly stressful and upsetting circumstances, how do you react? If you’re able to adapt to the changes, recover as best you can, and live life joyfully and purposefully, instead of becoming bitter or hopeless, you’ve got resilient qualities.
Resilience is a coping mechanism that can help you navigate through negative life experiences and emerge feeling hopeful or empowered. If you don’t think you are particularly resilient, here are some things you can do to try and strengthen that skill.
“We all have some amount of resilience, and we all have the capacity to increase it,” says Sara Dolan, PhD, a resilience researcher and associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “It consists of our abilities to set realistic goals and plans to achieve those goals, then to competently carry out those plans. It is also about how positively we view ourselves, how effectively we can manage our own emotions and reactions and how well we interact with and communicate with others.”
Some aspects of resilience come from within, but it’s also influenced by external factors.
“You need a bunch of personal resources and sources of support outside of you, and those have to be in place before stress occurs,” says Michael Ungar, PhD, founder and director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and author of Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success. “It’s a process of us interacting with the world around us in ways that allow us to be our best and boldest self.”
Resilience is good for you: Research shows that people with resilient qualities are at a lower risk of depression. Other research found that resilience helps people perceive pain less intensely. Still more research shows that people with health challenges function better, emotionally and physically, when they’re more resilient.
Try these ideas to become more resilient:
Be kinder to yourself
Self-attitude alone won’t make you resilient, but being understanding of yourself may inspire you to make positive progress, rather than feeling stuck. “Believing in ourselves overall and having self-confidence in our abilities to cope with stress is critical for resilience,” Dolan says. “If we have hope and confidence we can manage something, that increases the likelihood we will effectively get through it.”
Seek social support
You can’t build resilience in a vacuum: Resilient people seek support from friends or relatives, rather than isolating themselves and ruminating about their worries. Create a supportive network, and reach out when you need encouragement. “If you surround yourself with a world that is more like the one you think you need to be your best self, you’re probably more likely to experience that best self,” Ungar says.
Resilient people are more likely to focus on ways to make the most of the present and future, rather than dwelling on upsetting events in the past. “Highly resilient people move toward positive solutions to their problems,” Dolan says. “Events that happened in the past are unchangeable. Our reactions to those events, however, are under our control. The more we can move beyond negative feelings about the past, the better equipped we will be to enjoy the present and prepare to cope with future stressors.”
Manage your health
When you’re coping with trying circumstances, don’t neglect your physical needs. Eating healthily, sleeping enough, and getting regular physical activity should prepare you to react to your situation optimally. Some research found that exercising consistently may make you more resilient and stress-resistant.
“Engaging in behaviors that increase physical health also bolster resilience,” Dolan says. “Getting good sleep, eating healthfully, taking care of medical issues as they arise, and getting appropriate amounts of exercise all provide a person with the physical wellbeing necessary to face stressors.”
Find things within your control
Since you may not always be able to control your circumstances—say, if you were fired or need chemotherapy—you may feel powerless. Bringing some control back to your life may help you realize that you can still positively influence your situation.
“It doesn’t have to be big—it can be as simple as, ‘I am going to go through the drive-thru at Starbucks and get an extra-foamy soy latte with a sprinkle of cinnamon on top,’” Ungar says. “These sources of where we have a sense of control—a decision that we can make elsewhere—can actually tip the balance, and can compensate for when we feel completely out of control in another part of our lives.”