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How to Build Resilience

On this page: Three sections on how to build resilience

  1. Resilience Skills
  2. Training Resilience
  3. Moving from Fear to Courage

Resilience Skills

Storytelling

Imagine something unexpected and negative just happened. Perhaps you performed poorly in an interview, blew up in a big athletic competition, got laid off, or, far worse, lost a loved one or suffered some other horrible tragedy. Why is it that some individuals bounce back from these events more easily than others?

According to the latest research, the answer may lie at least partially in the stories we tell ourselves.

When things go south, most of us feel broken — it’s abnormal not to. Yet it turns out that one of the keys to putting ourselves back together lies in constructively integrating whatever happened into our forever unfolding personal story, the ongoing narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves. If we can do that, we’ll feel better and move forward faster.

The word constructively is emphasized because it’s easy to tell ourselves very different stories about the same event. For example:

  • “I didn’t get the job, my streak of failures is continuing,” versus;
  • “I didn’t get the job, but I learned X/Y/Z specific things in the process, and I’ll be better off for learning those things at my next interview.”

Make no mistake: this is not meant to encourage delusional thinking nor lying to oneself. An overly rosy (or narcissistic) view of the world is neither conducive to long-term performance nor mental health. When life takes a turn for the worse, you should feel hurt and grief. This is normal.

What this is meant to encourage, however, is consciously choosing to encode in your memory, via story, the positive pieces of an otherwise negative incident. Doing so has both acute and lasting benefits.

Here’s an example from one of the most resilient athletes we know, United States Olympian runner Des Linden, on an injury that forced her to pull-out from the 2012 Olympic marathon just two miles in:

“Having an injury is a sign of pushing beyond your limit. When I fractured my femur — an injury that forced me to pull out of the 2012 Olympic Marathon — I did everything I could to stay positive. Sure, it sucked, especially because of the timing, and I let myself be sad. But I also learned about imbalances in my body and fixed them. And, in a weird way, the injury increased my confidence. I ran on that thing for like six weeks — it proved to me that I’m a pretty tough gal. I could challenge that toughness in bouncing back.”

Storytelling is a big part of what separates us from other species. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are extremely powerful. They have a significant and lasting impact on our lives. Craft yours wisely.

Emotional Control

Research continuously shows that emotional control is linked to not only toughness but also behaviors that we associate with being tough, such as tolerance of pain.

But when we think of emotional control, most of us think about it wrong. We tend to think it is the capacity to ignore, push away, or push through our emotions. To remain stoic and strong in the face of stress or threat. But emotional control is far more than that. It is a process involving monitoring, evaluating, and modifying our reactions to what is happening around us and inside of us.

Emotions and feelings aren’t something to hide from. They are feedback that your body is providing. We can utilize their information to help us make a better decision. Think about the sensation of pain or effort during a running race. While often thought of as a negative, it is actually a positive. Pain is acting like a car dashboard, telling you how hard the engine is working and how much gas you have left in the tank.

That’s where evaluation comes into play. Like a driver or a pilot, we have to evaluate the feedback coming our way. Is it trustworthy? Is this really a dangerous scenario, or is it just our natural alarm being overly cautious, perhaps misfiring. Can we make it to our destination before running out of fuel? Monitoring, understanding, and evaluating feelings is not a liability; it is an asset. And it is an ability that can be trained (more on this below).

And finally, there is our response to emotional stimulation, or our ability to sit with and, when appropriate, modify our emotions. Unfortunately, this is the point where we engage the all-too-familiar solution: ignore or push through. This is a tactic that’s akin to insisting that the only tool in our toolbox should be a hammer. Ignoring or forcing our way through might be helpful in some situations, but it shouldn’t be your only tool. Modifying emotions, and more importantly your response to them, involves creating the space to do so. To make sure that you don’t jump from feeling pain or stress to an alarm like reaction. When you can create space, it allows you to have a say in whether you respond, ignore, or let the feeling float away.

Emotional control is a key part of actual toughness. For example, when we compared high and low performers among college and professional athletes, the better performers scored much higher on emotional control. It wasn’t because they ignored or pushed their emotions. The more successful athletes were better able to listen to their bodies, evaluate what they were saying, and then respond appropriately. In other words, they leaned into their emotions.

A Drive from Within

Big goals serve as a wonderful motivational tool. But oftentimes we place far too much emphasis on whether or not we achieve a specific goal and not enough emphasis on executing the incremental steps along the way. Adopting a process mind-set means that you set a goal, figure out the steps to achieving that goal that are within your control, and then mostly forget about the goal and focus on nailing the steps instead. It also says that you should judge yourself less on whether or not you accomplished your goal and more on whether or not you executed the process along the way.

A process mind-set ensures that your self-worth never hinges on events that are outside of your control (e.g., the boss that was going to promote you gets fired or you get a flat tire in your first big bike race) and thus increases your stamina and ability to bounce back from failure — something that in and of itself is key to long-term success. It also helps keep your passions “harmonious,” or driven predominantly by intrinsic motivation, versus “obsessive,” which is all about external results and validation. Whereas harmonious passion is linked to sustainable performance and life satisfaction, obsessive passion is linked to anxiety and burnout. The more you can cultivate inner drive and a process mind-set, the better.

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Training Resilience

We tend to live under the illusion that things are stable when in fact they are always changing. This is why resilience training is so important. We crave a straight line, but—like it or not—life is cyclical. Here are just a few ways to conceptualize the cyclical nature of life, be it on a personal, community, or even social and cultural level:

  • Order → Disorder → Reorder
  • Orientation → Disorientation → Reorientation
  • Integration → Disintegration → Reintegration
  • Freezing → Unfreezing → Refreezing

The hard work, of course, is navigating the middle phases, the liminal spaces between order and reorder. The prefix “dis,” which all the middle phases share, means asunder, apart, or into pieces. The question, then, is how do we go to pieces without falling apart? In many ways, answering this question is the key to becoming a more resilient person.

The principles and practices below, all of which are supported by modern science and ancient wisdom, can help you become more resilient. In essence, these principles and practices are the keys to successful resilience training. Like any other muscle, in order to train resilience, you must practice these principles consistently. When you fail—which will inevitably happen; developing resilience is no easy charge—you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back on the path.

Stop Resisting What Is Happening. Periods of disorder are the nature of reality. Resisting them may feel good in the short-term, but invariably leads to distress in the long-term. You’ve got to engage with what is in front of you, and wisely—which is what all of the following principles emphasize.

Focus On What You Can Control, Do Not Worry About What You Cannot. Trying to control the uncontrollable is a waste of time and energy, and a surefire path to anxiety. There is a difference between worrying about a situation one the one hand and taking productive action on the other. Whenever you catch yourself doing the former, use it as a cue to do the latter. Not only is it more effective, but you’ll feel better too. Exerting agency, even if only in small doses, is key to health and well-being.

Nail Daily Habits. Move your body regularly. Sleep. Do what you can to eat nutritious foods. Nailing these basics supports underlying physiological and psychological strength. If you feel guilty or indulgent for doing these things, don’t.

Use Routines. When it feels like the ground underneath you is shaking, having tried and true routines provides a source of stability and predictability. This can be as simple as your daily walk, morning cup of coffee, meditation practice, or evening book-reading time. It’s all about something that you know will be there and that you can come back to over and over again.

Stay Connected. Study after study of resilience points to the benefits of community. During periods of disorder there can be an urge to shut down and isolate. Do what you can to resist this urge. Odds are, many other people are feeling the same way as you. Vulnerability builds trust and deep relationships. And in deep relationships we stay strong (enough) together when we could never do so alone.

Think Adaptation Instead of Change. Change is something that happens to you. Adaptation is something that you are in conversation with. Get the former out of your vocabulary and focus on the latter. All successful systems, from individual cells to entire species, are successful because they can adapt with their shifting surroundings. Get clear on the aspects of you (or your organization) that are non-negotiable, and then push yourself to be more flexible with the rest.

Respond Not React. The Holocaust survivor and philosopher Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” This kind of approach is, of course, easier said than done. Something that helps is what I call the 4 P’s: pause, process, plan, proceed. It’s a good heuristic for thoughtfully being in the dance with a frequently changing environment (see above).

Show Up, Get Through, and Worry About Making Meaning on the Other Side. At times, it can be helpful to release from any sense of “this has to be meaningful” or “I need to make the most out of this” in favor of being kind to yourself, being where you are, and simply getting through. If you pay close attention to what is happening inside of you during these liminal phases, and do so without judgment, the right choices and actions tend to emerge on their own. Gradually, you progress from disorder to reorder from disorientation to reorientation. Research conducted at Harvard by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert shows that we look back on challenging periods of disorder in a much more productive and meaningful light than we experience them. In other words, sometimes nothing makes sense until you get to the other side, and that’s okay.

Remember to Experience Joy

Many driven and ambitious people are so energized to keep growing and progressing that sometimes they forget to be fully present for special moments or neglect to pause and celebrate their milestones. Don’t fall for this trap—it’s an especially dangerous one. “Moments of joy don’t just give us happiness—they also give us strength,” says Adam Grant, author of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. When things aren’t going well, we can fall back on happy memories to give us the resilience to move forward.

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Moving from Fear to Courage

When we face any sort of stress—be it giving a public speech or encountering a snake on a trail—we experience what is called a stress response: a mixture of hormones and nervous system activation that prepares us to take on or run away from whatever it is we’re facing. Most of us learned this as “fight or flight.” However, there’s a bit more to it than that. What determines whether we run away or face the danger head-on? Another response: courage.

When Stanford researcher Dr. Lindsay Salay and her colleagues put mice through a harrowing experience of seeing an ever-growing black circle approach from overhead (to simulate a predator), most mice chose one of two options: fleeing or freezing. But a few mice responded differently. They turned around and shook their tales. A mouse’s way of saying, Bring it on you bastards.

As an always curious scientist, Dr. Salay set out to understand why some mice rattled their tails while others didn’t. In a series of experiments, she and her colleagues narrowed in on a brain area called the vMT (ventral midline thalamus) as the potential difference maker. According to Salay, the vMT “receives diffuse inputs from limbic areas and the midbrain (regions that support emotion, motivational behaviors and bodily responses), and projects heavily to higher cognitive areas, such as the prefrontal cortex.” In other words, the vMT acts as a hub, integrating and connecting. And in the case of dealing with threats, it connects two important areas: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

When the researchers activated the vMT that connected to the prefrontal cortex, the mice shook and rattled their tails, ready to take on the intruder. When they activated the vMT that connected to the Amygdala, the mice froze in their tracks.

What does all of this mean to you or me about managing fear in our lives?

Our responses to stress aren’t set in stone. We are capable of responding in any one of these manners. The brilliance of our flexible and adaptable stress system is that we can, with the right mind-set and training, choose how we respond in the face of fear. While Dr. Salay and colleagues work was the first to isolate and indicate this specific brain area, there has been a lot of work on the amygdala functioning as the threat alarm, and the prefrontal cortex serving as a brake. Research shows that interventions such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy can shift how these two areas interact. But even simpler, exposing ourselves to stressful situations, and then creating the space to navigate them, does the trick too.

As we discussed in Peak Performance, figuring out how to pause in the midst of distress and have a “calm conversation” with ourselves is crucial to navigating discomfort. It is one reason experienced endurance athletes and adventure racers are able to navigate the discomfort of racing better than novices

The next time you find yourself freezing or fleeing, know that you, too, can rewire your brain with a bit of practice. You, too, can shake your tail, when appropriate, of course, at whatever threat presents itself. You, too, can shift from fear to courage.

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