Let’s Talk About Resilience

I’ve been thinking about resilience lately. 

My eldest graduated college last month. I kept hearing the word “resilient” used to describe her class since Covid interrupted over half of their college experience.

Reflecting on their journey, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between these young adults and my clients. Like these graduates, many of my clients also display resilience with their mental health concerns.

Every single one of us can benefit from (and become better at) resilience, but just how does one live more resiliently?

What Is Resilience?

In psychology, resilience is defined as “the ability to bounce back from adversity.”  It’s a quality we develop when we endure tough situations and come out stronger. 

Explained another way, resilience is the key to withstanding and recovering from situations that can otherwise be overwhelming. It’s the process through which we effectively navigate life’s challenges and rebound from stressful events more capable than before. 

Resilience gives us that unique ability to find strength in vulnerability, to learn from our experiences, and to leverage adversity as an opportunity for growth.

The Connection Between Resilience and Distress Tolerance

Helpful in building resilience is building your distress tolerance

When we don’t tolerate distress well, we teach our brains that we can’t handle negative or unpleasant internal states — so we avoid them. Avoidance might look like skipping a social event, not following through on plans, or simply not performing difficult tasks.

The more you avoid, the more you avoid. You reinforce your perception that you can’t handle feeling uncomfortable. It’s a vicious cycle. As your world gets smaller, your opportunities for growth also diminish.

The answer is to work on increasing the amount of distress you can tolerate. That’s how resilience grows. The more you do, the more your perception about what you can handle changes. Have you ever noticed how confident you feel when you walk through a fear? You begin to trust yourself to do hard things, and your belief that you can bounce back from life’s stressors begins to strengthen. It’s a cycle, too, only a more helpful one.

Resilience Can Be Cultivated

Luckily, resilience isn’t fixed. 

Everyone’s initial resilience level differs due to a blend of genetic, personality, temperamental, and environmental factors. Past experiences and the stressors faced also play a significant role. 

Yet, resilience is something you can build. Like muscle.

And, like building muscle, we build resilience by getting out there and doing the reps. In this case, “reps” mean being open to adversity and negative experiences as learning experiences versus trying to avoid and shut down the discomfort.

The Importance of Building Resilience

Why do we want to build resilience?  

The benefits go far beyond what you can see at first glance. Building resilience doesn’t just help you do the heavy lifting in difficult situations, but it enhances almost every aspect of our lives, from interpersonal relationships to our ability to physically heal faster.

Here are 3 of the biggest reasons to build resilience

  1. Adversity is a part of life: Life is unpredictable, and adversity is inevitable. So, it’s in our interest to learn how to bounce back from it.
  1. Work satisfaction and well-being: Resilience has been shown to enhance work satisfaction and engagement, improve overall well-being, and can even lower depression levels. There is even evidence that resilience can help protect against physical illness (Harvard Business Review, 2021).
  1. Increases flexibility: Resilience helps us become more adaptable. The ability to adjust and modify our responses can be extraordinarily beneficial when handling adversity.

Strategies to Foster Resilience

As a therapist specializing in treating anxiety disorders, I witness the profound difference resilience can make in individuals’ lives, and resilience is a trait that everyone benefits from strengthening. Here are the essential elements to building your “bounce-back” muscles:

  • Build your distress tolerance: The more we can tolerate discomfort and face our fears, the more resilient we become.
  • Find meaning in adversity: It may take time and distance from the event, but finding meaning in hardship is a crucial step toward resilience. It contributes to what’s known as post-traumatic growth—the transformation that can happen after experiencing trauma. 
  • Cultivate social connection: Building a supportive community is essential. We all need someone to lean on in tough times.
  • Stay true to your values: They are there to guide your behavior. When we live according to our values, we feel more grounded and resilient.
  • Check your mindset: Are you focusing your time and attention on things you cannot change or staying in the present? A mindful awareness of your thoughts and feelings can help you stay grounded and resilient.

Seeking Help in Building Resilience

If you’re finding it challenging to develop resilience on your own, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. If you’re in Ohio and want to talk, contact me.