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Building a Reservoir of Resilience

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall.” Confucius

Why do some people bounce back from adversity and misfortune?

Psychologists agree that some people seem to be born with more resilience than others. But they also assert that it’s possible for all of us to cultivate more of it. One key is adjusting how we think about adversity. A recent article cited a long-term study of 99 Harvard men showed that the way people view negative life events (as fixed and unchangeable vs. temporary and subject to influence) predicted their physical health five — and even 35 — years later.

In addition, Darcy Smith, PhD, a clinical social worker in Manhattan, explains: “Resilience refers to our capacity to deal with discomfort and adversity, but it’s not just a reactive skill set. The same characteristics that make us resilient are traits that enrich our lives.”

Want to boost your own resilience? Here are our top tips…

1. Find the Silver Lining

“In our research program, we found that the daily repertoire of emotions of people who are highly resilient is remarkably different from those who are not,” says Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, the author of Positivity (Crown Archetype, 2009). Resilient people reportedly have an ability to experience both negative and positive emotions even in difficult, challenging or emotionally wrenching situations. They mourn losses and endure frustrations, but they also find redeeming potential or value in most challenges. They can often, put simply, see a ‘silver lining’. The lining might be only small, a glimmer rather than a force field, but it’s there, and that’s what matters in terms of resilience.

When not-so-resilient people face difficulties, they are less likely to have this experience. Things are either really fantastic or they are absolutely terrible. And if things are terrible, then they struggle to find the positive or to look forward past the situation itself. An example of this, in resilient people, could be when you hear someone say, ‘oh well, it could have been worse, at least this didn’t happen…’ Or Perhaps, ‘better luck next time, practice makes perfect.’ Or even, ‘it’s probably for the best even if I don’t like it…’ Once you start to refer to a situation with those frames of reference it can help build resilience for future situations that may arise.

2. Life is all about Learning and Growing

The more you can leverage challenges as opportunities to grow and evolve, the more resilient you are likely to be. The more a challenge is a chance to learn, to grow and to reflect, the more resilient you will become. Looking at pain as an opportunity to learn and problem-solve goes a long way in terms of building resiliency. On the other hand, seeing a situation or challenge as an insurmountable barrier, or a reason to quit, is a sign of lower resilience in a situation.

Say to yourself, ‘is there something I can learn here?’ Or perhaps, ‘how could I best approach this or what are my available choices?’ Using these types of questions in a challenging situation are more useful for your resilience than the alternatives such as ‘this is too hard, I’ll never achieve it’ or ‘what’s the point’ or even ‘I’ll probably fail so there’s no point even trying.’

3. Emotional and Physical Resilience Are Linked

Good health — and a regular routine of healthy habits — form the bedrock of both mental and emotional resilience. Your daily habits count and impact more than you might imagine. Are you rested? Sleeping well? Eating healthily? Exercising? Aware of your stress levels? The more fragile you are in these areas the more likely you are to struggle to be resilient in a challenging situation.

For example, research has suggested that spending just 20 minutes outside in nice weather leads to “more expansive and open thinking,” writes Fredrickson — a pro-resiliency mindset. Other studies have shown that time in nature helps combat anxiety and depression, improves immunity, and lowers levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body. Therefore, if you wish to develop your resiliency, you need to also take care of yourself (physically, emotionally and spiritually).

Consider what you are doing to look after yourself. What’s your self-care like? When did you last try something new? Go for a long walk? Lose yourself in something you love? Laugh with friends? Good resiliency begins with you.

4. Laughter is the Best Medicine

Laughing in the face of adversity can be profoundly pain relieving, for both the body and mind.

‘Playful humour enhances survival for many reasons,’ writes resiliency authority Al Siebert in The Survivor Personality (Perigee Books, 2010). He notes that ‘laughing reduces tension to more moderate levels’ and also that “playing with a situation makes a person more powerful than sheer determination [does].’ He takes a moment to explain what this means by outlining ‘the person who toys with the situation creates an inner feeling of ‘This is my plaything; I am bigger than it. I won’t let it scare me.’

So that old adage is true – laughter can be the best medicine. If you wish to be more resilient, it helps if you can find some humour in the moment. And even if you can’t find it in the moment, then reflect later and try to play with the situation a little to see if you can review a perspective, find an insight or realise something new about it.

In summary, keep working at it. Resilience takes time to build, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t see the effects immediately. Instead, persevere with the strategies you find work best (maybe from our list above or from elsewhere), and be assured that resilience is not innate and is something that can be learned.