Resilience is “one of the most important elements of our lives,” said clinical psychologist John Duffy, Ph.D. Some people are naturally more resilient than others. But anyone can learn to strengthen their ability to bounce back from rough times.
We asked clinicians to share their suggestions for cultivating this skill, along with what resilience is really all about.
What Is Resilience, Really?
Resilience is the “knowledge that we can handle challenges, difficulties and hardships in our lives,” according to Duffy, also author of the book The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens.
Clinical psychologist Christina G. Hibbert, Psy.D, defined resilience as the ability to bounce back after something knocks you down. “Resilient people are those that can duck and dodge the curveballs and get back up and going when life knocks them down.”
Deborah Serani, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist, cited the Japanese proverb: “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” “Being resilient is about weathering the stressful storm and finding your ground again,” she said.
Joyce Marter, LCPC, a therapist and owner of the counseling practice Urban Balance, described resilience as the “strength to continue on the path which you know to be true, despite obstacles and challenges.”
Clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, cited resilience researcher Galen Buckwalter’s definition: “resilience determines how quickly we get back to our ‘steady state’ after the air has been knocked out of us, when we must push through life circumstances that challenge our very being.”
Howes also likened resilience to playing the guitar. Many potential guitarists stop playing after their first lesson because their fingertips hurt. But others persevere. “[P]eople who are really interested in guitar push through this initial discomfort and realize after a week or two that the strings don’t hurt anymore because their fingertips have grown tougher.”
In other words, their fingers have become more resilient and “better able to tolerate the string tension, stronger as they push down the strings, and more competent at finger placement. I think this metaphor fits for most areas that require resilience.”
How to Become Resilient
According to Buckwalter’s work, resilience consists of strength, meaning [or] purpose, and pleasure. Specifically, “When a person feels strong enough to handle daily life as well as extreme challenges, when you feel you have clear focus and direction for your life, and when you deeply enjoy experiences and events that satisfy you, resilience should be within your grasp,” said Howes, also author of the blog “In Therapy.”
Here are additional tips from the experts.
Hibbert, who’s experienced terrible trials and losses in her own life, stressed the importance of not giving up. “No matter how hard things got, my husband and I would say, ‘I guess we just keep putting one foot in front of the other, knee deep, in the mud.’”
One of Marter’s clients who overcame great adversity also made the choice every day to forge ahead. “To him, he felt this was the only choice because the alternative would virtually have resulted in perish.”
Use the 4-factor approach.
Serani, also author of the book Living with Depression, uses this approach with her clients. It consists of: stating the facts; placing blame where it belongs; reframing; and giving yourself time.
Take the example of a bad car crash. “[Y]our car is totaled, you have some serious injuries, and you have to miss weeks of work as you heal.” In the first step, you’d list the trauma without magnifying it: “OK, I just hit a tree. I’m awake, but I think I broke my arm. Maybe my head is bleeding. I can’t tell. But I can get out of the car and call for help.”
Then, instead of blaming yourself or someone else, you’d say, “OK, I won’t beat myself up for this. It was rainy. It was dark. And it was an accident.”
Next, re-evaluate the event, and try to find “the silver lining.” Serani gave this example: “Things could be worse. I could’ve had more serious injuries.” Finally, “give yourself time to adjust to the trauma.”
According to Jeffrey Sumber, M.A., a psychotherapist, author and teacher, resilience is linked to acceptance. “When I accept that things, people and emotions come and go, it allows me to bend like the reed in the wind, and I am a part of the world not a person whom the world is acting upon.” This is the opposite of believing that the world is a bad place that does bad things to you, he said.
Acceptance helps you stay in the present, Marter said. This helps you separate from your ego and fear and “operate from your authentic self, or essence. When you connect with your essence, you are connected with a power greater than yourself.” Your higher power may be God, “the universe, nature or the life force that connects us all.”
Know your strengths.
Sometimes, we make tough times even tougher by questioning whether we have the strength to manage these stressors, Duffy said. But “you can have a slew of weaknesses that a few marked, acknowledged strengths can overcome.”
The key is to know your strengths. Then, “you can lean into them during [difficult] times, whether they be slight or profound.” Knowing your strengths gives you the faith and confidence to endure hard times, he said.
Understand that failure also is key.
Howes worked with a man who was terrified of rejection, particularly when making friends at his new college. So he created a goal to ask someone to coffee every day for 14 days.
According to Howes, he was surprised to discover that: “the sting of rejection was not nearly as bad as he imagined, and nearly half of the people agreed to go to coffee, three of whom became good friends.”
Doing this experiment also bolstered his resilience. And, importantly, it taught him that “the ‘failures’ were just as important as the ‘successes.’”
Resilience isn’t about going it alone. It also means knowing when it’s best to ask for help. In fact, as Howes said, “A support system of loved ones and mentors also helps, as resilience is best nurtured in the context of relationships.”
During her difficult times, Hibbert relied on her “husband, family and friends [along with] counseling, massage and medication as I needed it.”
“Access support from your higher power and those who love you to gain trust, inner peace and resilience,” Marter added.
Focus on self-care.
Self-care is “key to a resilient response to life’s challenges,” said Hibbert, also author of the forthcoming memoir This Is How We Grow and an expert in women’s mental health, postpartum issues and parenting. This includes getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising and carving out time for yourself to do whatever you need, such as hiking, taking a bath and talking to a friend, she said.
Don’t compare your resilience to anyone else’s.
This applies especially to shared experiences, Serani said. “Measuring your recovery speed against someone else who’s been through the same event can leave you feeling inadequate if you’re lagging behind or superhuman if you’ve left them in the wind.” Either way, focus on your own healing.
Bouncing back from a difficult time can seem overwhelming. Fortunately, resilience isn’t something you either have or don’t. It’s a series of steps and habits, which you can cultivate, one day at a time.