What does it take to overcome a challenge? Whether we’re facing a strict work deadline or trying to teach our kids math, some hurdles seem too Herculean to even get started on. Getting past these difficulties involves more than just hard work—it also involves resilience, or “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity.”
If you don’t feel like resilience is one of your strong points, don’t worry. Healthy adapting skills aren’t innate, permanent character traits that some people have and others do not; rather, they can be learned and strengthened throughout our lives. Research has found that behavioral training can actually alter our neural circuits in ways that improve our reactions to stress and trauma. Likewise, resilience building “classes,” particularly in childhood, can teach us how to master challenges in a less stressful manner, allowing us to act and react more positively when faced with challenges.
So how can you strengthen your resilience?
- See yourself as the master of your fate
A 1955 study looked at children from the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i, where many inhabitants experienced poverty, unstable family lives, and less access to higher education. The research suggested that despite their difficult upbringings, roughly one-third of the children raised in Kaua’i grew up to be extremely stable and successful, with accomplishments that equaled and even surpassed those of children in more privileged environments.
What did those children have in common that made them so much more adaptable? The study suggested that the key was an “internal locus of control,” or the sense that the children (rather than society or their parents) controlled their own destinies.
We can incorporate this lesson into our own lives by looking to ourselves for the change we want to see—and being firm and decisive about our choices. If you’re wondering where you might live in a few years, for example, don’t leave it up to fate. Make a choice and stick to it. Want to get healthier? Make an exercise and/or healthy eating plan and stick to it. While there will always be some things out of our control, taking our lives into our own hands will make us feel more assured in times of stress.
- Turn the tables
Think of a negative, stressful experience. You can probably list all of the things you didn’t like about it pretty easily—but what about the good things that came out of it? For example, losing your job may have had some truly unpleasant consequences, like making you feel insecure in your income, but it also freed you up to pursue a job that’s a better fit. Maybe it even allowed you to look for jobs in locations you wanted to move to, or inspired you to move into a field you’ve always wanted to be involved in.
Finding these silver linings won’t take the negative aspects of the event away, but it can genuinely improve your outlook. A 2004 study asked individuals to think of one negative event and list three good things that came out of it. They did this every day for three weeks. By the end of the study, their rates of pessimism had decreased.
How does that affect resilience? When we feel pessimistic about the stressors in our lives, we tend to be less motivated to a) face them and b) try to get something positive out of the situation. Optimism, in contrast, opens our eyes to all of the ways we can use a stressor to our advantage, and tends to make facing the stressor less emotionally draining. This doesn’t mean you need to become ever-cheerful or ignore real problems, it just indicates that you have a lot to gain from broadening your view to include the positive as well as the negative.
- Check in with your body
Have you ever performed a body scan? It’s simple: just focus on each part of your body in turn (we like to go from the tops of our heads to the tips of our toes) and observe how they feel. During times of stress, you may discover that you’re holding tension in certain areas, like your jaw or your wrists. Upon realizing this, you can relax those areas, easing your physiological stress.
Being in touch with your body in this way has enormous benefits. Body scans have been linked both to greater wellbeing and less reactivity to stress, and we’re feeling stronger and less on edge, we can handle challenges more healthily and efficiently. Further, even if all your scan does is make you more aware of the tension you’re carrying, you’ll have a better idea of how to care for yourself; for instance, if stress causes stomach pain, you may alter your diet during difficult times to include foods that feel more “safe.”
Interestingly, both the presence of social support and the action of seeking social support help us become more resilient. In fact, the APA notes that making connections is one of the top ways we can increase our adaptivity. When we build connections, we strengthen our support system, solidifying relationships with people who can back us up during particularly challenging periods. Whether they offer emotional (listening, being present for difficult moments) or task-based (helping with a work project, cooking dinner, etc) support, their efforts will make a difference.
These connections also provide us with opportunities to help others during their times of need, which can make us feel useful, competent, and good. All of these traits are essential when it comes to facing stressors in our own lives.
Still searching for the right way to boost your resilience? You’re always welcome to reach out to our clinicians, who’re here to answer any questions you may have about increasing adaptivity and overcoming stressors. If you have any tips you’d like to share, be sure to reach out. We love hearing from you.
Erin Ross, MS OTR/L is an occupational therapist and an aspiring science writer in DC. She believes in evidence-based practice, clear communication in healthcare, and diligent inclusion of the Oxford comma.