Mental resilience –– this powerful, elastic capacity we all possess to some degree, is our ability to bend, not break, in the face of adversity. Around the world, people deal with daily disasters –– big and small –– from illness and addiction, to budget-cuts, burn-out, and decision fatigue. Even the things we perceive as a struggle may differ from person to person. Regardless, these things accumulate and chip away at the psyche, lowering any natural inclination for resilience.
Yes, we all have resilience, and yes, some people are hardwired to have more than most, but it’s a skill that can be learned, and there’s always room for more. You can even train your brain ahead of time so you’re ready to react with resilience when challenges arise, and recover quicker once they pass.
If you feel like you aren’t as resilient as you’d like to be, don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember that our brains learn and adapt based on new experiences. If you practice certain behaviors and mindsets, they become second-nature over time, and you can actually become a more resilient individual.
Think of resilience as a gas tank –– you’re somewhere between Full and Empty at any given time. To inch your meter back toward F, there are a series of small adjustments you can adopt on a day-to-day basis.
Former Olympic skier Bonnie St. John coined the term “micro-resilience” in 2011. When she was five years old, she had her right leg amputated below the knee. She also endured years of abuse at home. Despite these challenges, she became the first African-American to win medals in a Winter Olympic competition, a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and leadership consultant of Fortune 500 companies.
Her methods for micro-resilience stem from research into neuroscience, psychoneuroimmunology, and physiology. One of her more popular “hacks” is to put together a “first-aid kit for your attitude.” This is a physical container where you store items that inspire and uplift you. These could be quotes, letters, pictures, nostalgic knick-knacks––anything that makes you feel positive or remember a more positive time.
Store the container out of sight, somewhere you can’t see on a daily basis. Then, if something happens that shakes you, or if you are just feeling a bit low on fuel, go find the kit and spend some time envisioning the feel-good story behind each object, or remembering the emotion it evokes. I’ve added to Bonnie’s recommendation. I add something new to the kit each year that represents what I am working toward creating that year. It helps to remind me of what’s really important while I “refill” my tank.
Walking meetings are another good micro technique to implement with coworkers, friends, and family. If there is something you need to discuss with someone, get up and walk while you talk. Doing this sparks creativity. Connecting with nature can build resilience, too. So, if possible, walk around the block or on a bike path –– anything outside.
When you find your resilience getting hijacked by an intense situation or emotion, you can bring yourself back to a state of calm by describing your environment or labeling your emotion. It doesn’t need to be spoken aloud, but putting a name to something can lessen its power over you. So, for example, if you feel agitated over a perceived slight from a coworker, say to yourself, “I’m sitting at my desk. It’s 3pm in the afternoon. Both of my feet are planted on the ground. I feel angry because Joe didn’t acknowledge the time and energy I put into this project.” This practice can create just a bit of space, allowing you to find the path forward more readily.
In today’s world, most of us have to multitask to get through our to-do list. However, by creating a safe zone –– a metaphorical “island in the sea” –– you give yourself an escape hatch. It doesn’t need to be a physical space, just carve out some time during the day to step away from your problems and to-do lists, calm down, and re-center. You could listen to music at your desk, take another walk, or maybe play with your dog for ten minutes. Choose something that gives you a sense of peace. And don’t forget to help others help you by letting them know when you’re in the zone and need to be distraction-free.
Macro-resilience refers to the high-level actions you can take to become more resilient. This includes some of the more obvious (though often overlooked) techniques like getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising regularly. It’s important to remember to practice these consistently in order for them to pay off.
But there are other less evident macro-methods as well like practicing gratitude, changing our view on adversity, self-coaching, and developing targeted psychological resources.
The act and practice of gratitude counteracts the kind of stress that weakens our resilience. Try to make a habit of listing three things you’re grateful for each and every day, and spend time thinking about what they mean to you. I finally mastered this one when I began keeping a small journal on my nightstand. Gratitude, or thankfulness, also cultivates positivity, which helps build resilience. Two benefits in one!
Another key element of resilience is our beliefs about adversity in general. For people who think of adversity as an intrinsically bad thing, it will be. But, if you’re able to reframe and coach yourself to think of it as an opportunity, it will be. Instead of asking who is to blame for a certain situation, ask yourself what you can take away that’s useful? What can you learn? What options are available to you? Adversity is a lot like stress, which many people, including Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, believe to be positive. She says, “Once you appreciate that going through stress makes you better at it, it can be easier to face each new challenge.”
We all have inner strengths and resources to tap into –– like courage and grit –– and we should be aware of how to access them when we need to. Psychologist and author Rick Hansen says that not only can we pinpoint our inner resources, but we can actually strengthen them. Part of this comes from really absorbing beneficial life experiences. So, for example, think of a time you were courageous. Let that memory sink in, revisit it, and attach it to a lesson in your mind.
Think of resilience like your ability to face an oncoming wave. If you’re rigid and unmoving, it’ll slam directly into you and wash you straight to shore. If you can learn to move with it, either surf along or dive through it, you’ll be in much better shape. You can’t square up and fight the wave, but you can react to it with a level of wisdom and flexibility. And, remember, if you don’t feel particularly wise or flexible, those are skills your brain can learn with practice and experience.