Life inevitably involves difficult times, from small upsets to big events like bereavement, illness, or trauma. The idea of resilience doesn’t mean you find these events easy or fair.
Instead, resilience is about facing these events in an adaptive way, helping you to focus on what you can control.
The definition of resilience varies, but experts generally agree it involves skills and behaviours that anyone can learn. Building up these skills and habits yourself or with the help of a mental health professional can make a difference to how you get through tough times.
Building social connection
A big part of resilience is connection with people who make you feel good, as a support network is a huge help in challenging situations.
You might find you withdraw socially under stress, but finding ways to connect with people you trust - even if it’s as simple as going for a walk or getting a coffee together - can support your wellbeing during tough times.
Another part of this skill is asking for help when you need it.
Sharing problems with others and accepting help can be hard, but it plays a big part in reducing your isolation when you’re struggling. Talking about your problems also gives people the chance to share how they got through similar challenges, giving you ideas of what could help.
Taking care of your physical health
Taking care of your health has many benefits, including improving your body’s ability to respond to stress and difficult events.
One way to improve your physical health could be improving your sleep through sleep hygiene. This involves trying to keep to regular sleep and wake times, avoiding nicotine, caffeine and alcohol 4-6 hours before bed, and avoiding daytime naps. Having a regular wind-down routine in the hour before bed, by turning off screens and doing something relaxing, can also help you have a better quality sleep.
Another way of supporting your physical health and ability to respond to stress is through exercise.
Experts say that 30 minutes of exercise five days a week can improve your mood, energy, and reduce stress hormones. This can be broken up in the day and doesn’t have to be strenuous – walking fast while still being able to talk is great.
Everyone feels positive and negative emotions throughout a lifetime and even in a given day or hour. Emotion regulation is the process of responding to your emotions with some care and acceptance.
This can be challenging for everyone at different times, and especially for people who have been through traumatic events.
Let’s use anger as an example. This can be a difficult emotion, and many people feel they don’t know how to deal with it safely. Learning to manage anger can involve learning what situations trigger anger in you, and how you recognise it – for many people there are physical signs like a hot face or body tension.
Noticing why and how anger comes up helps you find safe ways of responding. One response could be pausing, through taking a few deep breaths or removing yourself temporarily from a difficult situation.
Some people also find distracting themselves or safely expressing the emotion helpful – for example, by blowing off steam through exercise or listening to music that expresses their anger.
A therapy called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy or DBT can help people who find it very challenging to regulate their emotions. DBT includes learning a range of skills in distress tolerance, mindfulness, and emotion regulation. Many people with Borderline Personality Disorder find DBT helpful.
Practicing gratitude, acceptance and getting perspective
There are a few attitudes and ways of looking at the world that can help you cope with challenging or distressing events, such as:
Gratitude - Connecting with a feeling of thankfulness for the positive things (big and small) that come your way. One way of feeling more gratitude is to make a list of what you are grateful for, or to thank people for actions or words that you appreciate.
Acceptance - Acknowledging that change and adversity are normal parts of life stops you feeling that there is something wrong with you or the world each time a challenge comes up. This then helps you to focus on the areas you can change or influence.
Perspective - This involves stepping back and observing extreme or irrational thinking. At a challenging time, this could involve noticing when you are assuming the worst-case scenario. Or, giving yourself a reminder that no difficult situation lasts forever.
The ‘dark side’ of resilience
The idea of resilience is often promoted as something everyone should aspire to, which has a downside - it can be used to encourage people to tolerate situations that are unpleasant, abusive or discriminatory.
Resilience is not about putting up with circumstances when real change is needed. This can mean people who are struggling get blamed or feel inadequate when they have a valid response to an unacceptable situation.
In short, the idea of resilience is useful, but no one should expect themselves to always grow during adversity. And no one should be blamed for being affected by harmful environments.
What do you think?
Join the conversation in the comments below! Do you find these skills useful? And have you encountered the ‘dark side’ of resilience?
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• Visit the Resilience Project to find online tools for building resilience.
• Way Ahead’s guide to Building Resilience.
American Psychological Association. (2012). Building your resilience. American Psychological Association.
Moore, C. (2021, March 19). Resilience theory: What research articles in psychology teach us. Positive Psychology.com.
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