A misconception about resilience is that it’s just about enduring and sloughing through. Being tough enough to get back in the ring, pushing through on little sleep, or limping across the finish line. And while it can involve those signs of endurance, the meaning of resilience is also about how you recover.
It doesn’t mean you’ll float through life unburdened and unscathed. It means experiencing all of the difficult, negative, distressing events of life and finding ways to keep moving forward. Developing resilience basically requires emotional distress. After all, if we never faced hardship in the first place, we would never learn how to deal with and recover from it (1).
The Meaning Of Resilience: Is It The Same Thing As Grit & Mental Toughness?
Many of us use the terms resilience, grit, and mental toughness interchangeably. And they are all quite similar. But the differences between them can help us understand the ways we are resilient and how to build more of it. One widely-used definition of resilience is:
“The psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by the adversities of life and come back at least as strong as before. Rather than letting difficulties, traumatic events, or failure overcome them and drain their resolve, highly resilient people find a way to change course, emotionally heal, and continue moving toward their goals (2).”
Resilience generally refers to the ability to recover from short-term struggles, while “grit” has more to do with sticking to something long-term, no matter how difficult—like writing a book or training for the Olympics (1).
And mental toughness could be seen as more preemptive. If resilience is what helps you rebound from a setback, mental toughness can help you avoid experiencing the setback in the first place. Mental toughness expert and M.D., Doug Strycharczyk, says “All mentally tough individuals are resilient, but not all resilient individuals are mentally tough (1).”
When it comes to resilience, we also know that it isn’t totally dependent on you muscling through alone. Though it will look a bit different for all of us, we’ve learned from psychological research that our individual ability to be resilient depends on how resilient our interconnected system is—from our relationships to social support (3).
What Are The Qualities & Benefits Of Being Resilient?
So what does the meaning of resilience look like? Take a moment and think about those qualities in yourself or those you might admire in others that seem resilient. What came to mind?
According to the American Psychological Association, resilient people have the capacity to set goals and take steps toward them, they hold a positive view of themselves, have confidence in their strengths and abilities and are able to manage strong feelings and impulses (1).
Author and resilience expert Glenn Schiraldo adds to this saying that resilient people also hold a strong sense of autonomy. They have an ability to keep calm under pressure, an inherent optimism, as well as a sense of meaning and purpose, emotional intelligence, and a tendency toward altruism. And from here, we can also add all of the positive effects and outcomes that can result from any of these traits (1).
Research also suggests that resilience offers a host of benefits to our physiology, including successful aging, reduced symptoms of depression, greater resistance to stress, better recovery after a spinal cord injury, as well as stronger immune system function (1).
Which of these qualities do you see in yourself and those you see as resilient?
What Has Research Discovered About Resilience?
So we know the meaning of resilience and why it’s good for us, but to what extent can we grow our own resilience? Is it something in our genes (nature) or something we learn over time through our environment (nurture)? Here is what some of the research in the field has found.
Some research context: In the earlier psychological research of the 1970s, resilience was framed more as resistance to stress because researchers began to study children capable of normal development despite a difficult upbringing. But into the 1990s and beyond, studies shifted to focus on how we overcome adversity and how social factors influence our mind and behavior (4).
One study by the National Institute of Health supports the theory that all experiences that happen in your life (including those in utero) will influence how your genes are expressed and thus your mental health. It found that how our genetic makeup influences stress is “plastic” meaning it can change through our experience (nurture) (5).
A second study aimed to investigate the influence of nature (green schoolyards) on children’s stress levels and resilience. Its findings suggest that “children experienced peace, calm, and relaxation in nature” as well as opportunities for the development of supportive social relationships, which are important protective factors for resilience (6).” Another study supporting our ability to learn and grow our own resilience.
5 Ways To Build Your Resilience
“Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving, we get stronger and more resilient (7).” – Steve Maraboli
Thanks to brain plasticity, aka neuroplasticity, we are not immutable and can learn and evolve—and grow our resilience. Here are five ways, supported by psychology, to start strengthening your mental muscle.
1. Build Your Connections.
Relationships can be one of your strongest support systems—make these a priority. Connecting with people who are empathetic and understanding can help you feel less alone, while compassionate people can help support your resilience by validating your feelings. You can also feel more connected and supported by joining local groups or organizations in your community. They can help you feel a sense of purpose as well as joy from giving back (8).
2. Take Time To Recover & Unplug.
Research has found a direct correlation between a lack of recovery and an increased incidence of health and safety problems. After working really hard, you should make time to stop, recover, then resume work. The biological concept of homeostasis is the ability of our brain to continuously restore and sustain our well-being. When our brains and bodies get out of whack from overwork, we end up wasting a lot of mental and physical energy trying to get ourselves back on track (9).
3. Tap Into Your Purpose.
Develop realistic goals and do something regularly—no matter how small—that helps you move toward them. A helpful question you could ask yourself is, “What’s one thing I can do today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?” And if you’re not sure which direction you want to go, you could look for opportunities for self-discovery through journaling about what you enjoy doing or reflecting on new ways you’ve grown and evolved recently. Practices like these can help boost your feelings of self-worth and competence (8).
4. Practice Mindfulness
Mindful practices like meditation, journaling, and yoga along with other healthy lifestyle habits, can help boost feelings of calm and reduce anxiety. A recent study showed that mindfulness meditation can help boost your resilience to stress (10). Mindful practices can help bring you into the present moment and out of the worrying past. When you journal or meditate, one helpful focus could be on positive aspects of your life, like what’s going well and things you’re grateful for (8).
5. Practice Being OK With Discomfort.
The meaning of resilience and mental strength are not the same as stoic or unemotional. Quite the contrary. It involves feeling your emotions fully—the comfortable and uncomfortable ones—and simply accepting them without being controlled by them.
It also involves recognizing when your emotions might be holding you back. For example, if you experience some degree of social anxiety and are avoiding meeting new people, it might be time to step out and challenge yourself. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but it will get easier the more you practice and your confidence grows (11).
Like building a muscle, increasing your resilience takes time. And, with anything, consistency will bring greater benefits. First, identify and acknowledge the ways you already are resilient. Then you can focus on the ways you want to strengthen it that work best for you—from building your connections and practicing mindfulness, to tapping into your purpose and being ok with discomfort. These strategies can help you approach and recover from life’s setbacks with more resolve, optimism, and confidence—the real meaning of resilience (8).
Ackerman, Courtney E., MSc. 2020, January 9. What is Resilience and Why is It Important to Bounce Back? (Blog post) https://positivepsychology.com/what-is-resilience/
Psychology Today. Resilience. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/resilience
Masten, Ann S. 2019, January 2. Resilience from a developmental perspective. World Psychiatric Association. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wps.20591
Liu, Haoran; Zhang, Chenfeng; Ji, Yannan; Yang, Li. 2018, August 21. Biological and Psychological Perspectives of Resilience: Is It Possible to Improve Stress Resistance? Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00326/full
Broekman, Birit Froukje Philippien. 2011, October 15. Stress, vulnerability and resilience, a developmental approach. European Journal of Psychotraumatology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3402146/
Ernst, Julie; Johnson, Michaela; Burcak, Firdevs. 2018, October 3. The Nature of Nurture of Resilience: Exploring the Impact of Nature Preschools on Young Children’s Protective Factors. International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1225648.pdf
Steve Maraboli quotes. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/319000-life-doesn-t-get-easier-or-more-forgiving-we-get-stronger
2012. Building your resilience. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience
Achor, Shawn and Gielan, Michelle. 2016, June 24. Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure. (Blog post). Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2016/06/resilience-is-about-how-you-recharge-not-how-you-endure
Galante, Julieta, PhD; Dufour, Geraldine, MA; Vainere, Maris, MA; et al. 2017, December 19. A mindfulness-based intervention to increase resilience to stress in university students (the Mindful Student Study): a pragmatic randomised controlled trial. National Institute of Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5813792/
2013, December 3. 5 Powerful Exercises To Increase Your Mental Strength. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/groupthink/2013/12/03/5-powerful-exercises-to-increase-your-mental-strength/?sh=505fc4f84cda
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