21 practical, research-backed strategies to become more resilient.
When the world feels uncertain and scary, cultivating resilience is resistance.
What is Resilience?
Dealing with change, setbacks, loss, and grief is an inevitable and normal part of life.
Resilience is the psychological strength that allows some people to adapt, thrive, and/or return to their baseline faster after adverse experiences happen.
Resilient people are emotionally agile — they don’t ignore bad events or negative feelings, nor do they wallow in negative emotions. They have a “fitting” emotional response — neither overblown, nor callous, nor insensitive. They feel the grief, the anger, the frustration, the joy, the celebration, and they allow and feel each.
Allowing all of the feelings and sustaining energy can be particularly hard when you are caring for others, when you are experiencing the effects of micro and/or systemic bias, and/or when you spend your time fighting for the reform of an unjust system.
In times of extreme collective uncertainty and adversity (ahem 2020), it’s particularly important we all practice resilience daily so we can maintain our health, compassion, grace, and equanimity in the face of change and fear. And, so we can strengthen ourselves to continue fighting against systemic racism and oppression and for a more just, equitable world.
In this way, resilience is essential to both one’s self and to the work: in the words of Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
As a young person at recent peace protest for George Floyd told us in the crowd, “The status quo wasn’t just and we have to keep the fire alive. But this doesn’t mean fighting incessantly — rest when you need to rest — but the fight must go on. This is a marathon not a sprint.”
Fortunately, a person is not “resilient” or “not resilient”- you can always become more resilient because resilience is a set of skills that can be grown through practice, not a static trait.
In other words, we can learn the skills of resilience through practicing them. Research shows that resilient people cultivate these 7 things:
- Positive Emotion
- Locus of Control
While there are other important resilience skills, including mindfulness, each of these plays an important role.
Below, I’ve included a brief description and three research-backed strategies for practicing each. If you want to know more about any of these, read the longer piece linked at the end of each section.
One of our most basic human needs is to feel connected to others. While we tend to frame resilience as an individual attribute, resilience is as much a property of communities as it is of individuals.
Resilience is not about personal strength: resilient individuals and resilient communities have strong social bonds.
This is one of the reasons that policies — like healthcare, unemployment support, child welfare , public education — that support our social fabric are so important.
Resilient individuals — those able to persist and thrive through hard times — are the ones most likely to have cultivated a personal network whose resources they can draw on.
We all go through hard times; it’s the people who show up for us that get us through those times, not just our own personal grit.
Research-backed practices to cultivate community include:
1. Ask yourself, “How can I serve?”
Interestingly, oftentimes the best way to build connection is through giving. It’s through giving we feel connected, and through receiving that we allow others to feel connected.
o What’s one nice thing you could do for someone else today?
o What’s one unexpected thing you could do for others you don’t even know?
2. Actively make time to connect
Automate reminders or create rituals to make sure you stay connected even when life is busy.
Listen & share deeply: Make sure at least some of the conversations you have are a real, deep conversation with someone (or many people, 1:1 or in groups!) you care about.
3.Reflect on your connections daily
Take time every day to reflect on the times you felt connected with someone else over the course of the last 24 hours. If you journal, it’s great to write this down (and then you can go back and look at patterns later one), but if not, just reflect on and savor those moments of connection during your morning coffee or at night before you sleep. Then, consider how you’ll actively create more positive connections in the next 24 hours.
Read more on the why and how of cultivating community.
Cultivate Positive Emotion
We all know that life is more enjoyable when we have more positive emotion — but did you know it directly impacts our ability to think creatively, to broaden our attention, to recover faster from colds and the flu, and to improve our overall health?
Physiologically, laughter and humor lowers our heart rate, relaxes our muscles — it’s a signal that the situation is safe, and that we are part of the group. We even literally see more — our vision expands on the periphery — when we experience positive emotion.
And, as social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson finds in her research, it allows us to see beyond ourselves more metaphorically, in the sense of going beyond our needs, wants, and interests and being able to take others’ perspectives. Which makes us more likely to cultivate community, the number one resilience skill.
Anger is important to drive action, but positive emotion will bond groups and sustain that action in the longer term.
Research-backed practices to cultivate positive emotion include:
4. Create shared laughter
Victor Borge once wrote,“Laughter is the closest distance between two people.” While we cannot see as many people in person during COVID-19, that doesn’t mean we can’t have shared laughter. This is important for individuals, partnerships, and office teams. Develop inside jokes, share memes, play funny games, have a dance contest or a corny joke contest.
5. “Hunt the Good Stuff”
We’re wired as humans to have a negativity bias. And, when everything in the news is overwhelming and loaded with fear, it can make it hard to get beyond that bias.
“Hunting the Good Stuff” is a research-backed strategy to counteract this — and it’s simple because it’s just about noticing and analyzing the good things in your life.o How-to ideas: Set aside five minutes each day — beginning, middle, or end — and reflect on the last 24 hours. What are three things that went well?
6. Aim to create 3 positive interactions per day
Aim to create three positive interactions each day, then take time to remember and reflect on them at the end of the day. This doesn’t have to be long discussions — even just a quick hug with a partner, or a three-minute FaceTime call with grandma or your best friend, or a smile and thank you shared with the grocery cashier will do. It’s important you see the other person, but otherwise, let your creativity run wild!
Read more on the why and how of cultivating positive emotion.
Cultivate Locus of Control
One reason events like COVID-19 are so scary, beyond even the existential fear of a pandemic, is that they interrupt our sense of being in control of what happens in our life.
This might be particularly true for people who have cultivated a high internal locus of control — people who believe their own actions and behaviors influence their life circumstances and experiences. Someone who believes their life is the result of things outside of their control (like luck or fate) has an “external locus of control”.
While we may not always control the events that surround us, or their impact on our circumstances, We always have control over how we respond to our circumstances.
Cultivating a high internal locus of control makes us more resilient, even in the most challenging times, because we’re more likely to still focus on what we can control, even if many things are outside of our control.
As the Irish prayer goes, “grant me the serenity: To accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.”
Research-backed practices to cultivate locus of control include:
7. Ask, “What is most important to me now? How can I learn and grow from this?”
No matter the situation, and especially when things go awry (which they do on the daily), you can always ask yourself the simple questions — “What is most important to me?” and “How can I learn and grow from this?”. These questions are valuable whether the situation is within your control or not. Then, ask yourself, “What will I do differently next time or, what will I do differently tomorrow?” to make it better. The goal is not perfection or achievement, just rooting in what’s really important, then growing and learning every day.
8. Set goals.
Setting and achieving goals daily is one of the best ways to grow your internal locus of control (combine this with the “hunt the good stuff” exercise daily for maximum effects). Every week I sit down Monday morning and write down my biggest goals, and all the things that have to get done. Then, I break them into daily, more manageable tasks. Checking things off my list is a unequivocal joy every day.
There are many different goal setting frameworks, a simple and easy-to-execute one is WOOP. It asks you to reflect in four steps:
- What’s your Wish?
- What’s the best Outcome?
- What’s your main inner Obstacle?
- Make a Plan.
9. Do the next best thing.
Sometimes the world, and/or our to-do list, is simply overwhelming. It seems impossible to do everything, yet everything has to get done. It’s easy — and normal — to get paralyzed by how to best approach it. Yet the best strategy? Do the next best thing. If it can’t be the “best” thing, objectively, do a thing. Anything. Once in motion, the rest will feel more addressable. In social psychology this is sometimes called “the progress principle” — small wins now build momentum; action begets action. You can’t do everything at once. Do one thing, now. As Glennon Doyle, #LoveWarrior says, doing the next right thing, one thing at a time, will take you all the way home (or wherever your journey is headed).
Read more on the why and how of Cultivating Locus of Control.
Compassion means, “to suffer with”. The Latin root of the word, compassion, is pati, which means “to suffer.” The prefix, com-, means “with.” If we are a compassionate friend, self-compassion is offering the same kindness to ourselves as we would to a friend.
Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the research of self-compassion, breaks these down into three core components of self-compassion:
- Mindfulness — you notice the suffering; you feel moved so that your heart responds to their pain and you feel caring and the desire to help lessen the suffering.
- Self-kindness — you offer understanding and kindness about failures and mistakes, rather than judgment.
- Remembering imperfection and suffering is part of the shared human experience. You’re not alone.
This last part is important: self-compassion releases us from the isolating negative experience or shame and allows us to recognize that all humans are imperfect, we all make mistakes, we all experience failures and setbacks and grief, and thus our imperfection, mistakes, and experiences actually connect us with other humans and the broader human experience.
Self-compassion quite simply means treating oneself with kindness and concern when experiencing negative events.
It’s easy to think, “but if I’m not hard on myself and self-critical then I won’t achieve my goals or do the thing or stop doing the thing.” It turns out, however, that cultivating self-compassion is key to being resilient.
Research-backed practices to cultivate self-compassion include:
10. Ask yourself, “How would you treat a friend?”
Stop for a moment and reflect on whatever it is you’re struggling with. If a close friend (who you think the world of) came to you and described their situation and feelings exactly as you’re experiencing them, what would you say to them to support them with love and kindness? How would you draw their attention to their strengths and resources? How would you validate their experience and their humanity?
Now, is this how you’re talking to yourself? If not, why not? Try to offer yourself the same wisdom, love, support, and guidance as you might offer your cherished friend.
11. Write it out.
Numerous studies have found that writing things out, especially by hand, can help us cope or process difficult emotions — and, Neff and her colleagues have found this works to promote positive sense of self-compassion as well.
This is a three-part exercise –
- Reflect on what’s making you feel inadequate and note the emotions that come up.
- Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of a friend who loves you unconditionally.
- Take a break, then come back and re-read the letter.
Very helpful, full directions are on Dr. Neff’s website here. Try it when you’re having a particularly rough time, or schedule into a weekly or monthly practice.
12. Imagine future you reflecting back on current you.
Imagine yourself twenty years in the future.
Will this matter?
If no, imagine how it feels to not even really remember this moment well. Put it into perspective: how many bigger things are happening or will happen to cause this to be a minor blip?
If yes, how will you tell the story of this moment? How will you have overcome it — learned from it, grown from it. How will this suffering allow you to connect with others or know your self and strength better? What else will you have achieved and overcome by that time? How will this experience and this pain be woven into the narrative of the stronger, more compassionate, more grounded person you will have become?
Read more on the why and how of cultivating self-compassion.
We literally cannot think rationally nor connect well with others when we are experiencing fear.
Being able to effectively take action to mitigate threats requires both our rational minds and our hearts. So what are the antidotes to fear’s poison?
Antidotes to fear include hope and optimism.
The most resilient people — those who can recover quickly from experiences of fear and move toward reasoned action — actively practice hope and optimism daily.
Research-backed practices to cultivate hope include:
13. Switch from problems to solutions thinking
To feel hopeful you need to think realistically and flexibly about the problems you encounter (why it’s related to locus of control). To do this, you need to acknowledge the negative, and potential setbacks, but also move beyond the problem and think about various solutions, ways you could mitigate against potential setbacks, or ways you can navigate around potential pitfalls.
Solutions thinking says, “Take what you have and make what you want.” Solutions thinking mindset says:
· There is a solution to this problem or situation, and ways to reach my goal.
· I possess the skills, talents, and resources to discover the solution.
· I will devise a workable plan and make it work.
14. Look for the gift — find the silver lining
Similar to “hunting the good stuff”, looking for the gift means to try to find the silver lining in every challenge or difficult situation. It does *not* mean denying that something is hard, traumatic, or painful — it *does* mean actively seeking the positive, even if we would have never chosen to have the experience. It means consistently asking, “what did I learn?” “what positive might come from this?” and, “how do I make lemonade from these lemons?”
15. Challenge negative thoughts
When you find yourself overwhelmed by scary thoughts about the future, it’s a good practice to challenge them directly. The most damaging negative thoughts are the 3Ps: 1) Personalization — the belief that we are at fault for something bad, or things happened because we are bad; 2) Pervasiveness — the belief the event will affect all areas of our life; and, 3) Permanence — the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever.
It’s important to challenge negative thoughts, especially when they fall in these 3P categories. So, for example, you might think, “It’s a global pandemic, I will never get a job.” Or, “I have diabetes — I’m doomed!” You can challenge these by saying, “It may be more challenging to get a job right now.”, or “Many people live long and fulfilling lives with diabetes.” Just a slight shift in words can change both how you feel and the outlook you have about a situation. It’s worth the effort to try to always pull yourself out of the 3P traps.
Read more on the why and how of cultivating hope.
It’s often thought that if you’re happy *then* you’ll be grateful, but studies have shown that, actually, causation likely goes the other way: if you’re grateful, you’ll be happier.
And, you’ll also be more resilient to the inevitable challenges life throws your way.
Fundamentally, gratitude is about appreciating what *IS*, being thankful for what you do have and experience, rather than focusing on what is (supposedly) lacking. It doesn’t mean ignoring or repressing the negative, but rather knowing that there is always something for which we can be thankful, even in our darkest hours.
Along with hope and optimism, gratitude is another important antidote to fear: the way our brains work, it’s impossible to be both grateful and fearful at the same time.
Research-backed practices to cultivate gratitude include:
16. Say, “thank you”. Literally.
This is the first practice. Every time you notice something someone does for you, or that you appreciate, say it.
And if you want to say thank you WELL, in a way that really builds trust and healthy relationships, focus on the benefactor and their good qualities, as well as on the benefit. Social Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson notes that, done well, expressing appreciation becomes a kind gesture in return — a way of showing them you see their good qualities, as well as the action.
Rather than saying, “thanks for mowing the lawn,” you can say, “You’re the best; thanks for mowing. When the lawn looks good I feel so much more happy driving up to the house. Thank you.” If someone gets you a coffee at work, “You’re so thoughtful. This coffee is exactly what I needed to feel more energized for my presentation — thank you.”
17. Write thank you notes.
Writing and sending thank you notes have been shown to increase both well-being and our relationships. Three ways to bring writing thank-yous into your life:
· Daily practice: Start every morning by writing a text, email, or quick note to someone for something you appreciate about them, or appreciate that they did. If you want to send five per week on a weekly basis instead of daily, that works too. The cadence doesn’t matter as much, just that it’s frequent and ritualized so that you’re consistently looking for and expressing things you’re grateful for.
· Every Gift: Write an actual hard-copy thank you note and send it for every gift, and for particularly meaningful acts of kindness.
· “The Gratitude Visit”: Identify someone who did or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone you could meet face to face (or via video call!), preferably. The letter should be concrete, include details, and about three hundred words (half of a page). Be specific about what the person did and how it affected your life. Mention what you are doing now and how you still remember what they did. Once you’ve written the testimonial, call the person and say you’d like to meet, but be vague about the purpose. Then, take your time reading the letter to the person. Notice their reactions. If they interrupt, say you really want them to listen until you’re done. Then, afterwards, you can discuss the content and feelings.
(Developed by Martin Seligman (the father of positive psychology), the gratitude visit has been found to increase happiness even a month after doing!)
18. Keep a gratitude journal
Take a moment every single day, or once per week, to write down three things you’re grateful for in your life. Express why and how it makes you feel. If you’re in a space where gratitude feels too much (I have been there), just notice something you can appreciate, something lovely you noticed, a kindness, or something you enjoyed. Similar to “hunt the good stuff”, it turns out (verified now by neuroscience research) that we can train our brain to feel more gratitude simply by taking the time to notice when we do.
Read more on the why and how of cultivating gratitude.
Being in “flow” is when you are so absorbed in doing an activity that nothing else seems to matter.
Like a lioness on the prowl: when in flow, you’re simply present and focused on the task at hand. This Lioness was spotted in Kruger National Park.
Time seems to stop, you forget yourself, you’re focused on the challenge at hand, and you feel in control — you’re not worried about failure or perception of others.
It’s so enjoyable that you will do the activity even at great cost, just for the sheer sake of doing it[i].
In other words, flow happens when you find the activity you are engaged in to be “autotelic” — derived from two Greek words, ‘auto’ meaning self, and ‘telos’ meaning goal — as in, the goal (and enjoyment) is contained within the activity itself.
Research-backed practices to cultivate flow include:
19. Become an amateur or dilettante
The word amateur is derived from the latin verb “amare” — to love — and originally referred to a person who loved doing something. The word dilettante is derived from the latin “declare”, which means “to find delight in”, and referred to someone who truly enjoyed a given activity.
We seem increasingly obsessed as a society with the outcomes of doing something — the success, achievement, or quality of someone’s efforts, rather than the quality of the experience one has from doing them.
If you want to cultivate flow, become an amateur or dilettante — focus on what you enjoy doing for the experience itself (AND that has a clear goal that requires adaptive responses).
Interestingly (and fortunately) research has found that flow is most likely to be cultivated when people are involved in things that require high amounts of psychic energy and attention but not much else. This means that inexpensive leisure activities that don’t require expensive equipment, electricity, or other forms of energy (so, television, computers, power boats, or motorcycles) are the best for flow.
The best flow states are embodied and use our five senses. Some ideas:
· Moving — yoga, running, rock climbing, martial arts, TRX, tennis, crossfit;
· Creating — drawing, painting, woodworking, pottery, sculpture, cooking, sewing, knitting, playing music… coloring books!;
· Conversing — discussing, debating, book clubs, exploring ideas, getting to know one another;
· Playing — try playing with small children — they are often raptly involved in their play!; games, especially ones that involve your mind and body — e.g. charades, but also video games, chess, poker, and other games that require you adapt and gain skill with practice.
20. Design for slack
Slack is the feeling you have enough of a resource. A perception of scarcity — of either time or of resources — can inhibit flow, as well as decrease cognitive bandwidth and increase anxiety [ii].
Perceived scarcity doesn’t actually depend on the objective amount of the resource — it’s in your perception of the “enoughness” of the resource. You can be extraordinarily wealthy and not feel you have enough, or you can have very little and feel it’s enough (in time, money, or other resources).
Designing for slack is the antidote to scarcity.
To design for slack, create blocks of uninterrupted time to focus on your selected activity and set aside time regularly to reflect and think big picture about your life and goals.
If you can ritualize your activity focus times somehow, even better — make it a consistent time each day or each week (i.e. do yoga every morning before coffee, or writing every Saturday morning), or do a small ritual at the beginning and ending that marks the time as distinct from “normal” time.
21. Be present — get rid of distractions.
Allow yourself to fully concentrate on the task at hand, whether it be conversing with your partner, crafting a beautiful Medium post on flow, or cycling up a mountain.
Get rid of distractions — leave your phone on silent, no buzzing, IN THE OTHER ROOM. If something is niggling in your mind, write it down on a post-it and leave it to deal with later (or, if it will take fewer than three minutes, deal with immediately and then focus).
Read more on the why and how of cultivating flow.
Where to begin?
The best way to start is to start.
Choose one of these 21 practices to try today. If you like it, keep it. If not, try another.
Over time, you can build up a regular practice of those that work. The effects are not always immediate. Growing resilience is like growing muscle strength or the ability to play an instrument, it takes time and repetition to have its full effect.