What is Resilience?
Some people seem to “bounce back” from stressful events quickly, whereas others get stuck and appear unable to move on. The ability to cope effectively with negative or challenging situations is referred to as psychological resilience. Being resilient increases a person’s well-being, that is, they have the psychological, social and physical resources needed to deal with a particular challenge or stressful event.
Everyone encounters stressful and difficult times, and everyone has a degree of resilience, however some people are more resilient than others. Those with higher resiliency are more likely to flourish in their lives and are less likely to suffer from social or mental health issues.
Characteristics of Resilient People
Research indicates that resilient individuals tend to be optimistic, curious and open to new experiences, and proactively foster positive emotions by using humour, relaxation techniques, and optimistic thinking. In addition, they are more likely to view things in a positive way, have a realistic view of their abilities, be accountable and accept responsibility for their actions, perceive problems as challenges, deal with pressure and stress constructively, enjoy healthy and positive relationships, and are happy with themselves and for the success of others. Given these attributes, consequently, resilient people are more likely to be successful in their lives.
How Can You Build Resilience?
Some people are naturally resilient while others are not. Resilience is determined by both internal and external factors. Internal factors such as individual or personality features associated with resilience include strong interpersonal skills, problem solving skills, independence, responsibility and confidence, and a sense of purpose, hope or meaning.
Resilience is also developed through experiences within our environment including the influence of family, friends and social relationships. The development of psychological resilience in childhood is strongly influenced by parenting style, parental educational levels, socio-economic status, and the home environment. Supportive social and educational environments also provide structure and safety that positively impact the development of resiliency and leads to greater self-esteem and a sense of purpose.
However, for people who do not have high levels of resilience, it can be learned and developed through the use of positive psychology techniques. Studies have shown that there are particular strategies and skills that allow people to manage the challenges of life more effectively and enjoy life despite the down times, therefore, enhancing an individual’s psychological resilience and well-being.
What is Positive Psychology?
Positive psychology is about creating a satisfying life filled with meaning, pleasure, engagement, positive relationships, and accomplishment. Unlike traditional psychology which has emphasised fixing the shortcomings or problems of individuals, positive psychology focuses on a person’s strengths and potentials and finding the things that make life worth living and helping them thrive in their life.
Positive Psychology Interventions for Building Resilience
There are several small things that we can do each day to boost our positive mood, optimistic attitude and resilience.
1.Use your strengths and focus on solutions
A strength is something that you are good at and using our strengths has been shown to lead to increased happiness and resilience. We all know the excitement and sense of accomplishment that comes with engaging in activities at which we excel. When we go through tough times, it’s easy to become negative and lose hope, but focusing on your strengths serves as a buffer to distress by providing a clearer sense of direction, greater self-confidence, and higher levels of motivation and striving to succeed.
Often, we beat ourselves up and focus on problems, mistakes we’ve made, or things that might go wrong. Rather than listening to our negative self-talk, a more effective strategy is to identify our personal strengths and take a purposeful solution focus where we consider where we want to go and how we can get there.
2. Reframe problems or obstacles as challenges or opportunities
When we view obstacles or hindrances as things outside of our control, it leads to inaction as we feel out of control and helpless, and we tend to develop a victim or blaming mentality, rather than taking responsibility or being proactive, so they act as a barrier to moving forward. If instead, we perceive these obstacles as challenges, opportunities, or areas for development, we start to view the problem as something that we can have some influence over, and we become more proactive, positive, confident, and resilient. Each time we have a small victory, it increases our motivation to find new ways of exerting influence. We don’t waste energy on things we can do nothing about, but rather direct it towards what we can change.
3. Focus on progress, not goals
Setting realistic, achievable and meaningful goals is important for enhancing a person’s commitment and motivation to reaching them. However, monitoring progress towards the goal rather than focusing on the desired outcome is essential for ensuring that goals are translated into action. Research has demonstrated that goals direct attention towards relevant activities and away from irrelevant activities, lead to greater efforts, and increase persistence.
In contrast, when we focus solely on the outcome, we become aware of the gap between our current circumstances and where we want to be, and this can be discouraging and unmotivating. Taking small steps, acknowledging progress, and rewarding small wins, reinforces further action, and if setbacks arise, you are much more likely to overcome them. So, your sense of resilience thrives on goal striving and making progress.
4. Link your goals to values
Values reflect what is most important to us and they bring purpose, meaning and passion to our lives. When we align our values to our goals, we feel more energised, stimulated and excited, and it leads to ‘pathways thinking’, whereby we experience intuitive thoughts about different ways we can reach our goal. However, if our goals and values are not consistent, it can lead to ‘cognitive dissonance’, which refers to the state of experiencing conflicting thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, which in turn, produces a feeling of mental discomfort.
5. Manage negative thinking
When a person encounters a difficult or challenging situation, it can lead to unwanted emotions such as depression or anxiety. These emotions are usually preceded by one or more unhelpful thoughts. Often, it’s not the situation that causes the distress, rather it’s our interpretation of it and the meaning we attach to them. A key to building resilience involves noticing how our beliefs about a situation can lead us to feel a certain way, not the event itself, as it allows for a greater level of awareness about our reactions, and a more adjusted and healthy response during difficult times.
6. Engage in random acts of kindness
Random acts of kindness towards other people, even people we don’t know, that is motivated by concern for others without the expectation of a reward is associated with improved well-being. Research shows that people who perform acts of kindness have increased levels of happiness and positive mood and it promotes gratitude, empathy, compassion, and leads to a greater sense of connection with other people.
7. Express gratitude
Research has shown that taking time to express gratitude, savour the moment, or appreciate what we have each day can boost well-being, increase happiness and reduce depression. It’s suggested that if you’re thankful for what you have, you’re less likely to feel there are things missing in your life. The Three Blessings exercise is one way to express gratitude and involves thinking of three things that went really well today, no matter how small, at the end of each day. This exercise can become an enjoyable daily habit for people.
Most people have resentments and harbour anger towards other people. A way of dealing with this is through forgiveness. Writing a forgiveness letter is one way to manage resentments and allows us to see things from the other person’s point of view. It can be a difficult thing to do and you don’t actually have to deliver the letter, but by just expressing forgiveness, externalises the anger and resentment and allows us to see things in perspective, which enables us to move forward, rather than harbouring it internally and letting it fester.
9. Manage your stress
Stress is a part of life and dealing with it effectively can benefit your health and well-being. Practicing good coping skills during stressful times can reduce many of the negative health consequences such as chronic illnesses, depression and obesity. Some small things you can do each day include managing your time, taking breaks, prioritising tasks, saying “no” to unimportant requests, and quietening your mind by meditating, mindfulness or relaxation techniques.
10. Manage your emotions and emotional triggers
Identifying and managing your ‘default’ or ‘go to’ emotions when under stress, for example, anger, irritability, distress, and your emotional triggers, that is, the situations or people that cause you to react in a more extreme way than the event calls for, can build resilience. This is important when dealing with an accumulation of stress because we are triggered more easily at these times. For example, being uncharacteristically short and sharp with a co-worker, crying irrationally or being sarcastic when you’re usually supportive. Managing emotions and triggers involves taking control of your negative thought processes and being aware of how you are interpreting the event.
11. Behave like a happy person
People who are extroverted report being happier and have more energy and vigour than introverts. Research has shown that when introverts act like extroverts, such as being more talkative, behaving assertively, and acting confidently around others, their positive mood increases. Instead of waiting until it feels just right, or we think we’re ready to act this way, changing your behaviour first can change the way you think and feel. Practice acting ‘as if’ and behaving like the person you want to be is key to becoming like this in reality.
12. Engage in enjoyable activities and have fun
Participation in pleasurable activities can lead to higher quality of life and enhanced well-being. In addition, by regularly making time for fun and relaxation and doing things that you enjoy, you’re in a better place to handle life’s stressors. This may involve setting aside time each day for rest and relaxation and taking time out from all your responsibilities to recharge your batteries.
13. Build social networks and connect with others
As humans, we have an inner need and desire to connect with others. Research has shown that individuals experience a boost in positive mood when they have an enjoyable experience socialising with family, friends or co-workers. Furthermore, people with strong family or social connections are generally healthier than those without. Healthy relationships have been linked to reduced stress, higher self-esteem, better healing, and longevity. In contrast, being isolated or lonely can have negative consequences for physical and mental health.
It’s beneficial for people to be around supportive and positive people who are not draining or negative as a strong support network buffers against the negative effects of stress, but it’s also important that we make time for our close relationships by being present and showing interest in others.
14. Spend time in nature
Being in nature has been shown to have many positive effects on physical, social and mental health. In particular, spending time in nature has been shown to have a restorative effect aiding recovery from mental illness as well as a protective effect against the development of mental health issues. In addition, it’s been demonstrated that exposure to nature fosters positive emotions, decreases negative emotions, and strengthens resilience and coping skills. Moreover, exposure to nature has been associated with improved mental functioning including concentration, learning, problem solving, and creativity. A positive side effect is the enhancement of mental health and well-being via physical fitness and social engagement associated with taking a nature walk with others.
15. Be physically active
Strengthening your physical health improves your ability to deal with stress. Aerobic exercise in particular, is great for releasing built-up stress and tension and is related to short-term increases in positive mood, even on stressful days. Exercise has been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression and has been associated with increased energy levels, improved sleep and better self-esteem. Furthermore, it serves as a temporary distraction from worries and rumination and improves social connections if the exercise is done with other people.
It’s important to have a sense of humour and the ability to laugh at yourself. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways: it boosts immunity, lowers stress hormones, and relaxes muscles, thereby reducing anxiety and enhancing resilience. Moreover, laughing with others forms social connections, which is beneficial to our health and well-being.
17. Increase mindful awareness and live mindfully
Mindfulness is about being present in the here and now and accepting life with a compassionate, open and non-judgmental stance. To live mindfully, we need to be more attentive to the activities we are engaged in day-to-day rather than being lost in our thoughts about what we need to do next.
Cultivating this mindful awareness has been associated with a range of benefits including increased well-being, enhanced positive emotions, improved mental and physical health, increased focus and concentrate, improved sleeping patterns, greater self-acceptance and self-compassion, heightened emotional intelligence and empathy, and reduced reactivity, stress and anxiety.
Moreover, mindfulness has been linked to better ageing and increased brain grey matter in parts of the brain associated with memory and learning processes, regulation of emotion, processing and perspective taking. Brain scans reveal higher concentrations of tissue in brain regions most depleted by ageing, suggesting that practicing mindfulness meditation may help to reduce brain age and protect against age-related decline and the onset of dementia. In particular, mindfulness meditation has been shown to slow down the ageing process by enhancing genetic repair of the telomeres, the protective caps containing DNA at the ends of chromosomes. The shorter they get, the older we are genetically, and the more prone we are to age-related chronic illnesses.
18. Practice loving-kindness meditation
Self-compassion refers to showing love and support towards yourself, particularly at times of perceived inadequacy, failure, or suffering. Having compassion towards yourself has been shown to increase positive emotions, health, vitality, and well-being, and reduce self-criticism and depressive symptoms. Self-compassion also helps people develop loving-kindness and compassion for others. In fact, studies have shown that it activates and strengthens areas of the brain responsible for empathy, which in turn, leads to improved relationships. Practicing loving-kindness meditation on a daily basis is a way to start developing compassion towards oneself and others.
19. Increase your experience of positive emotions
Individuals who have high resiliency tend to experience positive emotions even when under stress and these positive emotions contribute to the person’s ability to physiologically recover from negative emotional arousal. In fact, research has found that the tendency of resilient people to maintain positive emotions serves as a buffer against the progression of diseases.
This appears to be due to the fact that positive emotions, although fleeting, have long-lasting consequences after their momentary pleasures have passed. The momentary experiences of positivity accumulate over time and lead to broadening of a person’s mindset, thereby helping to build intellectual, physical, social, and psychological resources for the future, changing how they think and behave, which in turn leads to higher odds of survival. Specifically, experiencing a positive emotion leads to states of mind and to modes of behaviour that indirectly prepare an individual for later hard times. Therefore, a capacity to harness positive emotion in daily life appears to be important for building resilience, as it may help people to persevere in the face of challenge and bounce back from life stressors.
There are ways to experience more positive emotions more often in our lives. Boosting positive emotions is likely to occur through regular participation in positive activities on a daily basis such as taking a walk in nature, meditating, being open and kind, living mindfully, and maintaining social connections. However, using humour or laughter to attempt to stimulate positive emotions may not work during stressful periods so at these times, positive emotions may be developed indirectly by finding positive meaning within current circumstances. For example, focusing on strengths, expressing appreciation, love or gratitude.
Flow is an optimal experience resulting in intense engagement in an activity. This experience may be described as being “in the zone” and is characterised by complete absorption in the task at hand, resulting in a loss in one’s sense of space and time. A key characteristic of flow is transformation of time, where time usually passes much faster than expected. When in a state of flow, people often report feeling energised, focused, challenged, motivated, in control, enjoyment in the process of the activity.
A state of flow is achieved when the person perceives a balance between the challenge of the activity and having a skill level where it is just possible to meet the challenge, so ‘being stretched to the limit’. However, if the challenge exceeds the skill level, the person may become anxious and if the skill level exceeds the challenge, the person may become bored. Neither of these two scenarios results in flow.
Many activities are conducive to flow such as sports, dancing, arts, crafts, hobbies, chess playing, mountain climbing, socialising, studying, reading, and working, particularly in occupations that require high focus and level of skill and precision such as surgeons.
21. Reflect and review
In the course of our lives, it is very easy to get off track and become distracted away where we want to be. So, every so often we need to stop, reflect and review where we are. This involves checking off what our values are and if they’ve changed, what we’re currently doing and if it’s still working or not, and what we could do differently. This process of self-reflection and regulation builds self-awareness and allows us to renew ourselves and refocus.
In summary, possessing the attribute of resilience is important for protecting us from the negative aspects of stress and buffering against the onset of mental illness. Fortunately, it is a skill that we all can learn. Resilient people tend to be optimistic, curious and open to new experiences, and proactively foster positive emotions. These characteristics can be cultivated through the use of positive psychology techniques. Positive psychology focuses on people’s strengths and potentials so that they can lead a satisfying and meaningful life. By practicing these techniques on a daily basis, we can boost our positive mood, optimism, resilience, and well-being, and flourish in our lives.