The Year of Stress and Resilience


This year might be the year of stress. What we need is its counterpart: resilience. We’re all facing chronic stress, whether it comes from the economy, the virus, the political situation, or the unending uncertainty and doom that the news cycle projects. Unease and anxiety push us toward feeling despair and maybe even hopelessness. We get stuck in the cycle of wondering when in the world we’ll achieve some sort of normalcy, and, due to the coronavirus, we are attempting to make our way through this crazy world without our normal routines or support system.

Resilience is the capacity to bounce back when we’ve dealt with adversity. It’s tied to being able to rapidly activate a stress response, but then quickly and efficiently terminate it once it’s no longer needed. In other words, it is being able to turn on and then turn off stress, a capacity we all could use right now.

I’ve spent the past five years studying the science of resilience for my new book Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong. Here are five key characteristics that resilient people tend to posess.

Embrace Reality

Resilience is tied to having low levels of denial and the ability to face your fears. Being able to face whatever challenge is thrown your way, not through delusion, but with realistic optimism. A belief that it may be really difficult, but that we possess the skills and ability to get through what comes our way. The School of Life echoes this definition, “The capacity to remain confident is therefore to a significant extent a matter of having internalized a correct narrative about what difficulties we are likely to encounter.”

Seeing Meaning in Adversity

Resilient individuals are able to extract meaning from struggle. This is tied to having what’s called cognitive flexibility, or the ability to reinterpret or reframe what you’re going through and what’s happened. For example, interpreting anxiety as excitement, or a loss as an opportunity for growth and development.

Proactive, Instead of Reactive
Instead of waiting to see what happens and then reacting to it, resilient individuals are proactive. They work to increase their resources or capacities to handle stress before hand, and look for challenges or opportunities even while going through tough times. Researchers looking at proactive versus preventative coping in the work place summed it up quite succinctly: “Be proactive if you want good outcomes.”

Strong and Diverse Social Network
One of the best antidotes to stress is social support. When we feel connected to others, or have an outlet for working through whatever we’re going through, we are able to move from stressed out to back to normal. It’s why research shows that after a big loss, surrounding yourself with teammates who care and support can not only reduce stress hormones, but put us in a place where we’ll perform better in the next game.

The Ability to Let Go
When it comes to dealing with stress, it’s not the physiological responses—the increase in heart rate, adrenaline, etc.—that can cause our performance to drop. It’s the thoughts and feelings that come with it. It’s when we spiral into rumination, when our thoughts become overwhelmingly negative and repetitive. Learning how to let go, to stop the cascade of fear, doubts, or negativity. To experience the strong emotions that often accompany stress, but then to let them go.


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