Life will knock you down when you least expect it… it is what you do when it happens that makes all the difference to your success
This article looks at what you can do to dust yourself off and develop resilience in life that will serve you.
What is Resilience? A Definition
“Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes.”
In a nutshell, resilience can be defined as the ability – and tendency – to “bounce back.”
What’s the Meaning of Bouncing Back?
“Bouncing back” is what we do when we face disappointment, defeat, and failure, but instead of wallowing or letting things keep us down, we get back up and continue on with our lives.
According to the APA Help Center, it’s “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress” (APA, n.d.).
You might say someone bounces back when they experience a traumatic car accident and sustain serious injuries, but stay positive and optimistic through a long physical therapy journey.
Resilience and Mental Toughness: What’s the Difference?
Aside from the term “bouncing back,” there are many more similar concepts that resilience is often associated with. For instance, resilience is frequently used interchangeably with “mental toughness.”
So what is mental toughness? Mental toughness is “a personality trait which determines in large part how individuals deal with stress, pressure and challenge irrespective of circumstances” (Strycharczyk, 2015). It’s part hardiness (optimism and predisposition towards challenge and risk), part confidence, and it is what allows people to take whatever comes in stride, with a focus on what they can learn and gain from the experience.
While the association with resilience is understandable, it’s also easy to see where they differ: resilience is what helps people recover from a setback, but mental toughness can help people avoid experiencing a setback in the first place.
As Doug Strycharczyk puts it, “All mentally tough individuals are resilient, but not all resilient individuals are mentally tough” (2015).
Those who are mentally tough are not only able to bounce back, they are more likely to see hardship as a welcome challenge and greet it with a smile.
Resilience vs. Grit
Another commonly used synonym for resilience is grit, but is grit really a synonym for resilience?
According to Professor Guy Claxton’s Building Learning Power organization, grit is not just a synonym for resilience:
“Grit is a more recent import, much researched by Angela Duckworth, and is defined as the tendency to sustain interest and effort towards long term goals. It is associated with self control and deferring short term gratification” (n.d.).
Resilience is more narrowly defined, although it is related to the same experiences, skills, and competencies. One simple way to think about the differences between resilience and grit is that resilience more often refers to the ability to bounce back from short-term struggles, while grit is the tendency to stick with something long-term, no matter how difficult it is or how many roadblocks you face.
It’s great to have both resilience and grit, but it’s clear that they refer to two different traits.
Mental Endurance: Yet Another Synonym?
Another construct that is similar to resilience is mental endurance. Mental endurance refers to the mental or inner strength that we use to deal with our challenges.
It requires willpower, self-discipline, and perseverance to develop and maintain mental endurance (Sasson, n.d.). Although it is not specific to “bouncing back” from trauma or adversity, it is related in the sense that both traits help us deal with difficulty in our lives.
What is the Meaning of Fortitude?
Finally, there’s fortitude—yet another word that is often used in tandem with or in lieu of “resilience.”
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines fortitude as “strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage.”
This shares some obvious similarities with the other constructs mentioned above, namely mental toughness and mental endurance. All three are rooted in this idea of inner strength, a reserve of mental power that we can draw upon to get us through the most difficult times.
The Psychology of Mental Strength
Although you might read about resilience (and all of the many, many traits related to it) and think that it applies to only the most inspiring, impressive, and awesome among us, resilience is surprisingly common. As the APA Help Center’s piece on resilience states, “Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience.”
Resilience isn’t about floating through life on a breeze, or skating by all of life’s many challenges unscathed; rather, it’s about experiencing all of the negative, difficult, and distressing events that life throws at you and staying on task, optimistic, and high-functioning. In fact, developing resilience basically requires emotional distress. If we never ran into disappointment in the first place, we would never learn how to deal with it.
When you think about it in those terms, it’s easy to see that we all display some pretty impressive resilience. Some of us are more resilient than others, but we have all been knocked down, defeated, and despondent at some point in our lives; however, we kept going—and here we are today, stronger and more experienced.
Demonstrating Resilience as an Individual
So what does it look like to demonstrate resilience?
The APA outlines a number of factors that contribute to and act as markers of resilience, including:
- The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
- A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
- Skills in communication and problem-solving.
- The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses (n.d.).
Author and resilience expert Glenn Schiraldi (2017) provides even more examples and characteristics of resilient people, listing strengths, traits, and coping mechanisms that are highly correlated with resilience:
- Sense of autonomy (having appropriate separation or independence from family dysfunction; being self-sufficient; being determined to be different—perhaps leaving an abusive home; being self- protecting; having goals to build a better life)
- Calm under pressure (equanimity, the ability to regulate stress levels)
- Rational thought process
- Happiness and emotional intelligence
- Meaning and purpose (believing your life matters)
- Altruism (learned helpfulness), love, and compassion
In addition, these characteristics are also mentioned by Glenn Schiraldi:
- Character (integrity, moral strength)
- Curiosity (which is related to focus and interested engagement)
- Balance (engagement in a wide range of activities, such as hobbies, educational pursuits, jobs, social and cultural pastimes)
- Sociability and social competence (getting along, using bonding skills, being willing to seek out and commit to relationships, enjoying interdependence)
- Adaptability (having persistence, confidence, and flexibility; accepting what can’t be controlled; using creative problem-solving skills and active coping strategies)
- Intrinsic religious faith
- A long view of suffering
- Good health habits (getting sufficient sleep, nutrition, and exercise; not using alcohol or other substances immoderately; not using tobacco at all; maintaining good personal appearance and hygiene)
To summarize, if a person has awareness (both of the self and of the environment around them), they manage their feelings effectively, keep a handle on their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and understand that life has its inevitable ups and downs.
Why is Being Resilient so Important?
You hear a lot about growing and developing resilience – both in ourselves and in children – for good reason.
Therapist and counselor Joshua Miles lists a few of the wide range of reasons that resilience is a great trait to have:
- Greater resilience leads to improved learning and academic achievement.
- Resilience is related to lower absences from work or school due to sickness.
- It contributes to reduced risk-taking behaviors including excessive drinking, smoking, and use of drugs.
- Those with greater resilience tend to be more involved in the community and/or family activities.
- Higher resilience is related to a lower rate of mortality and increased physical health (2015).
The Effects of Psychological Strength on Overall Health
Although every point in that list is a good reason to pay attention to resilience, the last one may be most important of all. Resilience has a powerful impact on our health (and vice versa, in some ways).
A recent review of the research on resilience suggested that resilience leads or contributes to many different positive health outcomes, including:
- The experience of more positive emotions and better regulation of negative emotions
- Less depressive symptoms
- Greater resistance to stress
- Better coping with stress, through enhanced problem-solving, a positive orientation, and re-evaluation of stressors
- Successful aging and improved sense of well-being despite age-related challenges
- Better recovery after a spinal cord injury
- Better management of PTSD symptoms (Khosla, 2017).
Further, resilience experts Harry Mills and Mark Dombeck point to research that resilience boosts immune system functioning. Resilient people are able to better manage negative emotions and experience more positive emotions, which leads to objectively good health outcomes like more immune system cells and better immune functioning in cancer patients, and more favorable mortality rates in marrow transplant patients (n.d.).
Growing Mentally Strong as a Person
Since we know that being resilient is such a helpful trait to have, the next logical question is: How do we develop it?
Luckily, resilience is not an immutable, “you have it or you don’t” sort of trait. There may be a genetic component to a person’s base level of resilience, but you are always able to improve upon the resilience you have.
This add-on resilience is often referred to as “self-learned resilience.”
How Self-Learned Resilience Works
Self-learned resilience, as the name implies, is the resilience that you build up in yourself through concerted effort. It is the result of being aware of the opportunities for self-development and the courage to take advantage of them.
There are many ways to build up your own reserve of self-learned resilience. Below are just a few ways to go about it from three different sources.
From Dr. Carine Nzodom on using a loss or stressful event to grow:
- Allow yourself to feel a wide range of emotions.
- Identify your support system and let them be there for you.
- Process your emotions with the help of a therapist.
- Be mindful of your wellness and self-care.
- Get some rest or try to get an adequate amount of sleep.
- Try your best to maintain a routine.
- Write about your experience and share it with others (2017).
From VeryWell Mind author Kendra Cherry:
- Find a sense of purpose in your life, which will help boost you up on difficult days.
- Build positive beliefs in your abilities to help you increase your self-esteem.
- Develop a strong social network of people who support you and who you can confide in.
- Embrace change as the inevitability that it is, and be ready for it.
- Be optimistic—you don’t need to ignore your problems, just understand that it’s all temporary and that you have what it takes to make it through.
- Nurture yourself with healthy, positive self-care—get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise.
- Develop your problem-solving skills through strategies like making a list of potential ways to solve your current problem.
- Establish reasonable goals by brainstorming solutions and breaking them down into manageable steps.
- Take action to solve problems rather than waiting for the problem to solve itself.
And remember: Keep working on your skills and don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to get to the level of resilience you desire (2018).
From Kira M. Newman at the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center:
- Change the narrative by free writing about the issue or deciding to focus on the positives.
- Face your fears and challenge yourself; expose yourself to things that scare you in increasingly larger doses.
- Practice self-compassion; try to be mindful, remind yourself that you’re not alone, and be kind to yourself.
- Meditate and practice mindfulness; the Body Scan is a good way to work on your meditation and mindfulness skills.
- Cultivate forgiveness by letting go of grudges and letting yourself off the hook (2016).