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.”