Psychological resilience is the ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis or to return to pre-crisis status quickly. Resilience exists when the person uses “mental processes and behaviors in promoting personal assets and protecting self from the potential negative effects of stressors”.
- Bouncing back after difficult times.
- Dealing with challenges and still holding your head up.
- Giving things a go or trying your best.
- Being strong on the inside.
- Being able to cope with what life throws at you and shrug it off.
- Standing up for yourself.
By now, it’s easy to see that the new coronavirus pandemic brought with it a wave of secondary crises. We’ve seen clearly its ripple effect on our economy, our mental health, and our sense of security and safety. Some of us have lost loved ones and jobs. We’ve struggled in isolation without guidance on how to cope. We’re uncertain about what the future holds – or how we’ll even get there.
With all of this at play, it’s become crucial to find ways to support ourselves and each other and do what we can to make it through.
According to psychologists, one thing we’ll need to help us get through this is a whole lot of resilience.
To be honest, resilience is one of those psychological concepts that are hard to define. You likely have your own idea of what it means—maybe the ability to withstand hardship or to get back up after something knocks you down. Psychologist John Grych, Ph.D., who studies resilience at Marquette University’s Resilience and Relationships Lab, tells SELF that a succinct definition might be: “doing well in the face of adversity.” But, he notes, that opens up a few rabbit holes: What’s the definition of “well” here? Or “adversity”? Or even “in the face of”?
Resilience is also hard to measure, Rheeda Walker, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Culture, Risk, and Resilience Lab at University of Houston, tells SELF. “How do we know when resilience has run out and when it’s succeeding?” she says. “Maybe it’s when we still have hope. Maybe it’s the absence of regret. Maybe it’s the ability to look back and see what we’ve overcome. Maybe it’s when we get through something with our minds reasonably intact.”
You can read more about how experts define resilience here. One thing the experts I talked to agree on is what resilience isn’t. “People mistakenly think that resilience is a personality trait that you either have or you don’t have,” Amanda Fialk, Ph.D., chief of clinical services at The Dorm, an NYC-based treatment center for young adults, tells SELF. “But resilience is like a muscle you can build over time. With practice and dedication, anybody can become more resilient.”
Let’s talk about how.
First, what does it mean to build resilience?
It helps to think of resilience as a state of being similar to our physical health. “Just like your physical health is a product of things like your genetics, how you eat, how much you exercise, what underlying conditions you have, and how much you might smoke or drink, resilience is influenced by a multitude of factors,” says Grych. “Some are internal and some are external. But it’s a state that can change.”
So, when talking about what we can do to build our resilience, especially during a time of adversity, it’s not as simple as saying: Do these 10 things every day and you will become more resilient. Instead, “it’s about doing a variety of things to help ourselves get through this tough time, and in turn, we will become more resilient,” says Fialk.
With all that in mind, here are some tips that can help you become more resilient over time. While there are many potential ways to increase your resilience, here are some of the key tactics experts recommend time and time again.
1. Lean on your support systems.
“One of the best predictors of how somebody does in the face of adversity is relationships,” says Grych. “The more connected you are to other people—the more people you care about and who care about you—the more resilient you’re likely to be.”
And yes, that includes virtual connection. While it might suck that you haven’t been able to hang out with your friends, family, or partners the way that you’re used to, the love and support you get from them is crucial even if it’s over FaceTime. If you’re struggling to keep up with your relationships right now, check out these tips on remaining connected during a time of social distancing.
2. Or seek out new relationships.
Deep, quality relationships obviously do a lot to fortify us, but that’s not to say you’re shit out of luck if you’re lacking a support system you feel like you can rely on. Believe me, it might feel lonely, but the world is filled with other people who haven’t found their people yet, either. Plus, the casual relationships we maintain are important too.
“It might be building relationships with people that you don’t know very well,” says Grych. “Maybe through social media or online communities for shared interests. It’s never too late to start building relationships. Even if they aren’t really deep initially, just being connected to other people can help.” Similarly, virtual support groups can provide a sense of community during this time too.
3. Stay up on basic self-care.
Self-care can encompass a wide spectrum of things we do to support our mental and emotional health which, in turn, supports our resilience too. So many of the activities you probably do for self-care are small ways of building resilience already. But for the sake of brevity, let’s focus on the core three: sleeping, eating, and moving. There’s a lot we know about how taking care of our bodies through proper sleep, movement, and nourishment can impact our mental health. The mind-body connection is real, y’all.
“If we’re not taking care of our bodies, it impacts us not just physically but emotionally, and that impacts your resilience,” says Fialk. Don’t know where to start? Here’s what to do if COVID-19 anxiety is ruining your sleep; here’s how to find joy through movement right now; and here are some hacks for still feeding yourself when you’re too burned out to cook.
4. Beef up your emotional regulation skills.
It’s inevitable that you’ll experience a wide range of tough emotions when going through a crisis: depression, anxiety, hopelessness, anger, anguish, fear, you name it. Emotional regulation skills can help you to stay afloat instead of drowning in feelings. “The most important internal asset for resilience is emotional regulation, which involves both being tuned in to your emotions and knowing how to manage them,” says Grych. Otherwise, the emotional impact of a crisis would just be too much.
Like resilience, emotional regulation is a skill we can build over time – and like resilience, there are a lot of moving parts that ultimately affect how good we are at it. Trying to get better at this is a worthy investment of time because the payoff can be massive. This guide to emotional regulation is a solid intro to managing your feelings, and if you have access to professional mental health care like therapy, that space is wonderful for working on these skills long-term.
5. Find ways to laugh.
If you’ve ever laughed at a super-dark joke that hit you right in your existential dread or found yourself overtaken by giggles even though you were crying two seconds earlier, you know humor can be a balm to the soul in unexpected ways. Yeah, it can feel weird to find moments of joy when there’s a lot of suffering in the world, but it’s okay to laugh right now. In fact, it’s imperative.
“Humor has enormous psychological benefits during stressful times,” says Fialk. You’re probably well-acquainted with benefits like improved mood and connection with others, but laughing is so crucial that it can even combat the potential immune-depleting effects of stress and reduce physical pain, the Mayo Clinic says.
6. Create things to look forward to.
All the uncertainty of the pandemic has made it difficult to plan for the future, which means it’s extra important to cultivate hope that will carry us from one day to the next. In the absence of long-term planning, even little things to look forward to can go a long way, says Fialk. Whether that’s weekly phone calls with your faraway loved ones or taking a class online to learn a hobby you’ve always wanted to pick up, bright spots on the horizon can help us make it through the day. If you need some ideas, I wrote this article on creating things to look forward to during the pandemic.
7. Spend time on things you find meaningful.
Having a strong sense of meaning or purpose is another biggie in resilient people, says Grych. But don’t worry, this certainly doesn’t mean you have to have some divine greater purpose. Everyone will have their own personal definition of what is meaningful, and it can include little-m meanings, big-M meanings, or a mix of both.
If you’re not sure what gives you a sense of meaning in the world, now is a good time to start trying to figure it out. A global pandemic can really put things in perspective. Or if the pandemic has disrupted the places you usually seek meaning (such as your career or family), that’s also a cause for exploration. “Maybe this is a time for you to sit back and think, What else matters to me?” says Grych. “What do I do that is meaningful to me? Is listening to music something that is meaningful to me? Is it volunteering? In some ways, it’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity because the usual stuff isn’t available to you.”
8. Don’t mistake resilience with pushing yourself.
Because common definitions of resilience emphasize getting back up after you’ve been pushed down or “getting through” tough stuff, many people think that requires white-knuckling through the pain. But that’s how you burn out, not cultivate resilience that will carry you through. Where mental health during a crisis is concerned, getting through is a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of situation.
“When we tell ourselves that we’re strong and can work hard and carry on, we can overdo it,” says Walker. “It’s important not to ignore when we might feel fatigued, depressed, or anxious. That’s our mind telling us to slow down and when we push through that message, resilience is out the window.”
9. Reframe your negative thoughts.
In that vein, focusing on the big picture – such as making it through the pandemic when we don’t know when it will end—can be overwhelming as hell. “That’s when we start thinking, I can’t deal with this, I’m never going to survive this,” says Walker. “Because it feels like that sometimes. So we have to find something small that we can survive. If you don’t think you can survive the pandemic, can you survive for the next 15 minutes? If you don’t think you can survive homeschooling your kid for months, can you help them with this assignment?”
Little by little, those small things add up and build into overcoming something larger than we thought we could. “Before we know it, we’ve survived a stressful situation or a really hard time, and eventually, we’ll have the experience to remind ourselves, ‘Okay, I can manage this,’” says Walker. “People can become experts in resilience by acknowledging when bad things happen and telling themselves, ‘Okay, I can manage this.’”
If you can take it a step further and not only tell yourself that you can manage but actively reframe your negative thoughts by finding any possible silver lining – getting to see delightful parts of your child’s development that you otherwise wouldn’t if you weren’t homeschooling, for example – you can build that resilience muscle even more. This practice is known as cognitive reappraisal (or cognitive reframing), and it’s strongly connected with resilience.
10. Practice gratitude.
It’s a tiny habit to pick up, but mental health professionals will be the first to tell you that a little gratitude goes a long way in feeling content and psychologically healthy. Find a way to practice gratitude that you can actually stick to, whether that’s ending each day by writing a sentence in a gratitude journal or committing to running through a list of three things you’re grateful for while brushing your teeth every morning.
“Recognizing the things that you have and are grateful for has a pretty significant, pretty profound effect on our mental health and resilience,” says Grych. “Even when the things are simple, it adds up.”
11. Find ways to help others.
This could help you tap into developing a greater sense of meaning as we talked about earlier, but it has its own benefits too. “Acting on compassion not only makes other people’s lives better,” says Grych. “It typically makes us happier as well.”
This doesn’t have to look like volunteering your time (like by sewing masks) and money (like donating to an organization that needs support), though those are certainly great ideas. You can also find smaller ways to be in service of others, like entertaining people with your art or calling those relatives you know would love to hear from you.
Even reminding yourself that you’re supporting your community by wearing your mask and observing social distancing can ground you in something larger than yourself. Not to mention it’s a useful way to reframe negative thoughts if you find yourself feeling annoyed or inconvenienced by these really important rules.
12. Practice self-compassion.
Specifically, self-compassion around how you’re going to screw up the things on this list. You’re going to have bad days, days when you don’t feel very strong or resilient and want to stay in bed and hide from the world. That’s not only okay; it’s completely necessary to being in this for the long haul. “When we give ourselves some space to have a bad day on Tuesday, then by Thursday, we’re probably able to do a little bit better,” says Walker. “But if we push really hard through Tuesday, and then Wednesday, and then Thursday, by Friday, we’re even deeper in the hole than we were on Tuesday.”
While this time in our lives is an opportunity to build skills that support our resilience, the last thing we want to do is put pressure on ourselves. “Part of being resilient is being forgiving of yourself and allowing yourself to not always be the most productive or most on top of it,” says Fialk.
13. Just get through the best you can.
Resilience might be a muscle, but remember that there are many factors that can impact our individual ability to build it – and some of them are outside our control. “We’re affected by the environment that we’re in,” says Grych. “So if you have a stable job and a stable home, you’re already well ahead on the resilience curve [than] someone who’s struggling just to put food on the table. So it’s important not to forget that, sometimes, resilience is a privilege.”
While this sucks in more ways than we can count, sometimes accepting what’s within our control and what isn’t is another resilience tool in itself. The same goes for remembering that while all the tips and skills on this list might be helpful, building resilience is a marathon, not a sprint. You likely won’t see the effects of all this work immediately, and that’s okay. Focus on doing your best while just getting through it.