Moving Toward Greater Resilience

One of the most important factors necessary for good mental health is resilience. Resilience is that human quality that allows one to be buffeted by life, disappointed, knocked down and defeated again and again, yet pick themselves up to take on new challenges, try a new approach, or refuse to accept failure as a final outcome. It is the ability to recover from difficulties, to learn and grow from adversity and develop behavioral flexibility and emotional toughness.  

Resilience is normal among humans, being necessary for personal and professional success. Research indicates most of us are well-equipped with a trove of strengths, skills and attitudes that allow us to confront difficulties and work around and learn from failures. It is this natural resilience, a product of our highly evolved stress response system, which has served as the necessary driver of further evolutionary adaptation and individual and collective human advancement. Still, as in every aspect of humanness, not all possess the trait in equal measure and individual levels of resilience fall along a continuum, ranging from extreme fragility to nearly immutable. Nor is resilience a constant; it can be both learned and lost.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist considered the “Father of Positive Psychology,” spent years studying success and failure, including how some learn helplessness while others remain resilient, and has determined the key trait behind positivity and resilience is optimism.  Resilient people view setbacks as disappointing but temporary, refuse to be defined by their failures and understand each as opportunities to learn, grow, and recalibrate. They maintain a realistic and healthy perspective and know not to generalize or draw broad conclusions from specific events. This does not mean resilient people don’t experience setbacks, disappointments, or failure; they do, and experience all the attendant anger, frustration, depression and even PTSD in certain circumstances. The difference lies in how the more optimistic among us are able to quickly step back to reframe the experience(s), work through emotions, and envision a path forward. They refuse to become stuck in the morass of hopelessness and helplessness.  

Encouragingly, researchers such as Seligman and his peers show that, even if you are less resilient than before, or feeling helpless either personally, professionally, or both, resilience can be restored and strengthened. There are actually many things you can do, and an internet search of “building resilience” will provide a wealth of suggestions about how to build resilience, but we suggest the following as the most simple and direct:

MAINTAIN HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS One of the strongest predictors of emotional health and long-term happiness is the quality and strength of relationships. This is true regardless of other factors that can otherwise negatively impact happiness and mental health, demonstrating how powerful our connections with others are and how important it is to nurture them.

FOCUS ON PERSPECTIVE Train your brain to look for and test other perspectives about why things happen, their meaning and how it affects you emotionally.  This is, in a nutshell, the heart of cognitive-behavioral therapy that many modern mental health professionals rely on to treat depression, anxiety and other disorders in their offices with great success.  Learn to seek broader perspectives on everything, as a matter of habit, and see how much doing so will brighten your outlook and sense of resilience.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF Take care of yourself physically by exercising, minding your health, eating well and getting proper rest. This seems obvious, but when emotional resilience dips we tend to neglect other areas of health, as well.  Good physical health and rest are important to meet challenges with resilience.

DIVERSIFY YOUR IDENTITY This doesn’t diminish your role in any particular area of life, it enhances it. It is also what we have been preaching and practicing for years. We often become stuck in specific identities such as employee or business owner, parent, brother, volunteer, etc and lose sight of other aspects of the self. But when that primary identity faces trouble that can bring you down, disappoint, or skews your perspective and worldview, it can break your heart. So have other identities, too, from which you can draw strength, success, and resilience. It is when we base all our identity and self-esteem into one role that the inevitable failures, disappointments, and setbacks sure to come are more likely to whittle away at our natural resilience. Diversification is one of the best ways to you can stay resilient and be at your best emotionally.

Building resilience can be difficult, however, when we are feeling overwhelmed by life, fatigued to the point of distraction, or struggle to maintain perspective at the center of a whirlwind of busyness and demands. Finding a supportive mental health professional able to help you “zoom out” and take a breath is often the best first step. Having someone in your corner with a more emotionally detached but caring view of your situation can be a godsend.

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