Resilience is the ability to adapt to stress and change, to bounce back and rebound from negative experiences and the wear and tear of daily life. Resilience is a skills set that may be learned and practiced and benefits grow and accumulate over time.
These are a few of the myriad ways to build and reinforce resilience:
Activate the Relaxation Response: Dr. Herbert Benson, the modern “father” of the Relaxation Response formulated a basic 8-step process:
- Find a quiet place.
- Close your eyes.
- Relax your body.
- Slow your breathing.
- Focus on your breathing, or repeat a word, sound, prayer, phrase, or image on the exhale.
When you lose focus, gently guide yourself back to the repetition without judgment or self-criticism. Practice for 12-15 minutes. Make a commitment to a daily practice for 30 days.
Install the Good: Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson encourages us to address our innate human negativity bias by giving the good things more attention. The longer you focus your attention on a positive experience, feeling, or thought, the more neurons fire in the brain and wire together.
Savor good experiences and feelings, let them sink into your body and mind, and reshape your brain. His advice includes “pulling weeds and planting flowers in the mind” by remembering to consistently acknowledge the good and take it a step further: spend some time with it and install it in your brain.
Cultivate Acceptance: Allowing things to be as they are can be difficult when we are in the very human state of being resistant to our own reality. Acceptance is not about apathy, resignation, or giving up; it may mean that you consciously acknowledge an unpleasant reality and realize that the situation calls for an action.
Differentiate between what you can control and what is beyond your control. Human life includes limitations. When you practice acceptance, you loosen your grip on how you think your life should be, and open into the full flower of your life as it is.
Commune with Nature: Modern man has manipulated the world to such an extent that he need never commune with nature. Walk in nature, garden, do outdoor activities, spend time with pets, etc. A connection with the natural world fosters well-being and increased resilience. Find some green space and put your feet in the grass, feel the ground beneath your feet. Walk the beach, stare at the stars and sky, go ahead and hug a tree.
Practice Gratitude: Making gratitude a habit increases well-being and fosters resilience. Train your mind to pay attention to the opportunities for gratitude in your daily life. Write a gratitude letter and read it to the recipient, as recommended by renowned psychologist Martin Seligman. Be generous and appreciate the generosity of others — gratitude can be contagious.
Simplify: Get back to basics, whatever that means for you. Cultivate simplicity by slowing your pace and intentionally avoid rushing and hurrying through life. Allow yourself to rest and recharge from work and activities. Do one thing at a time. Slow down and take some deep breaths several times a day.
Get rid of excess stuff, focus less on material things. Edit your life when possible. Say no to an over-scheduled life when the opportunity arises.
Be Mindful: The practice of mindfulness leads us to pay attention moment by moment, with a spirit of non-judgment. Psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn instructs us to cultivate a wise relationship to the moment and our immediate circumstances, including our attendant thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Being mindful of life as it is occurring affords us the opportunity to choose how we would like to respond to, and be in relationship with everything in our life, our external circumstances and our internal process.
Embrace Spirituality: A spiritual orientation to life increases resilience and aids in cultivating a sense of meaning and purpose. Definitions of spirituality are varied and may or may not include church attendance or affiliation with a particular religion or doctrine. Each individual must decide for themselves what spirituality means for them. Prayer, meditation, yoga, singing, creating something, being in nature, and practicing with a group are just a few of the ways to embrace the spiritual dimension in your life.
These resilience-building activities may be integrated through consistent practice. There is no quick-fix, only the worthwhile ongoing process of building resilience: proactive stress management for the 21st century.
Herbert Benson, M. D., & Klipper, M. Z. (1992). The relaxation response. Harper Collins, New York.
Hanson, P. D. (2013). Hardwiring happiness. Random House, Incorporated.
Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Simon and Schuster.
Kabat-Zinn, J., & Hanh, T. N. (2009). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Random House LLC.
Frances L. Hennessey, LICSW, is a social worker, psychotherapist, and registered yoga teacher. She currently works with active duty military and their families.