Resilience can help you adapt to loss, betrayal, failure, and other life difficulties — and continue to thrive despite these challenges.
Resilience, in a nutshell, refers to the ability to “bounce back” after challenges and setbacks and experience a good outcome, regardless of the trials you’ve faced.
Of course, since people don’t always agree on what counts as a “hardship” or a “good outcome,” resilience can be a pretty subjective term.
In general, though, you can think of resilience as a mix of persistence, hardiness, and flexibility. You might bend in the face of adversity — but you don’t break.
- an improved social life
- better performance under pressure
- protection from mental health symptoms like depression or anxiety
Resilience doesn’t come naturally to everyone — but it’s absolutely possible to boost resilience, with a little effort and training. Read on for more details on its benefits, plus tips to build resilience in your own life.
The concept of resilience originated in the 1950s through studies of childhood trauma. Researchers worked with kids who had survived difficult circumstances but didn’t show obvious signs of mental health issues. They considered resilience a personality trait and wanted to know why some kids had this innate “invulnerability” to stress.
Research from 2015 expanded the definition of resilience to include a broader ability to adapt to stress and change.
In short, you don’t need to overcome a traumatic childhood to show your resilience — and having mental health symptoms does not make you lessresilient.
Rather, many psychologists consider resilience a state of being, like hopefulness or determination, that anyone can access. Since it’s not an innate trait, lived experience can help you develop it further.
To put it another way, you have to fall down before you can learn how to get up. But the learning process gives you the knowledge and skills you need to pick yourself up off the ground if you fall again. You may also gain the confidence to move forward, since you have memories proving you can survive the challenges life throws your way.
Some evidence links greater resilience to lower levels of anxiety, stress, and depression, according to a 2018 review.
Resilience may also offer some protection from other mental health concerns and emotional distress, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), rumination, and attachment issues.
More resilient people may also:
- have greater ambition
- feel more hopeful and optimistic
- find it easier to maintain emotional stability
- be more resourceful
- find it easier todelay gratification
- feel more connected to others in their personal life and the world as a whole
- have greater satisfaction with life overall
According to the
Active engagement with the world
Resilient people tend to face the world head-on. When they face hardship, they might spend little time on self-pity and instead search for lessons they can learn from the incident.
Your romantic partner dumps you without warning, breaking your heart.
At first, the breakup feels devastating, not to mention surprising. But within a few days, you find yourself reflecting on the red flags and feel grateful you now know what you do not want in a relationship. You plan to use this information when you’re ready to date again to find a partner who’s a better fit for you.
A toolbox of problem-solving strategies
When facing adversity, it helps to have an assortment of methods you can use to climb out of the proverbial hole. Resilient people tend to have plenty of mental, emotional, and personal problem-solving skills stuffed in their pockets.
You and your partner are home with COVID-19 when you discover an inch of water pooling on one side of your basement. After a quick moment of panic, you remind yourself it could have been worse — at least the entire basement didn’t flood. Then, you do some poking around to discover where the water came from.
You don’t want to have anyone come diagnose and fix the issue until you test negative. So, you clean up the water mess with towels and a wet/dry vacuum and set up fans to try the area. Then, you call the hardware store to order some flood barriers and enlist a friend to pick them up and drop them off at your door.
Better performance under stress
Generally speaking, resilience can help you recover after sudden, distressing, or life changing events. With greater resilience, you may find it easier to manage your emotions so you can focus on what you need to do next.
The company you work for changes hands and your entire office learns they’ll lose their jobs in 2 weeks.
Everyone seems stunned, angry, and upset by the unfairness of the situation. You’re pretty frustrated, too, and you channel your emotions into your search for a new job: You go home, brush up your resume, and start sending it out to similar companies.
Resilience isn’t an unlimited resource. Enough pain, emotional distress, and exhaustion can cause even the most resilient person to falter.
That’s what makes it so important to rest — physically and emotionally — after going through a hard time.
Everyone has a point where stressors stop building character and start damaging well-being. If you’re forced to stay in emergency mode for too long, your mind and body can eventually get stuck in that setting. This toxic stress response can actually decrease your long-term resilience.
Toxic stress may lead to:
- a faster, more intense response to stressors
- anxiety over changes in your environment that typically wouldn’t bother you
- emotional numbness or difficulty experiencing or expressing emotions
- trouble thinking or concentrating
- difficulty managing impulses
In short, resilience is worth cultivating, but it can’t resolve all of life’s problems — especially factors outside of your control, such as racism, homophobia, transphobia, abuse, and other forms of inequality and injustice.
Take relationship abuse, for instance. It often occurs as part of a cycle — and it can cause toxic stress, not to mention deep and lasting trauma.
Your partner may hurt you — with actions, words, or emotional tactics — then apologize and act very kind and loving, swearing they didn’t mean to do it and will never do it again.
Once they apologize, you may relax and recommit to the relationship, trusting their promises and feeling as if you’ve weathered the storm. But in time, the abuse will likely begin again.
In these cases, resilience alone may not safeguard your well-being. Even if you’re strong or resourceful enough to endure an awful situation, the effects can take a serious toll.
Hoping to become more resilient? These tips can help:
Grow your support network
When going through hard times, it helps to know people you trust have your back. Your social circle can let you crash on their couch after a breakup, termite infestation, or house fire. They can offer emotional support after a loss and provide a community of faith or shared culture that creates a sense of stability in times of upheaval.
Strong, supportive relationships are especially important for children who have survived trauma. Evidence suggests that kids who have at least one positive adult role model tend to grow up with much better mental health than kids who don’t have a trusted adult in their life.
It’s easier to bounce back after a crisis when you don’t feel overwhelmed by feelings of panic.
Taking the time to build a toolbox of anti-anxiety techniques can make a difference when you do face a challenge or hardship — especially a sudden one.
- listening to music
- box breathing
- progressive muscle relaxation
- guided imagery
Level up your skills
It’s pretty much impossible to be good at everything — but you can target your self-improvement efforts to where they’ll count the most.
As a start, it may help to consider the biggest sources of stress in your life, then pick one or two skills that could help you in that area.
For example, if you get an emotional “hangover” after every visit with your in-laws, brushing up on boundary setting could boost your strength for future visits. You might, for instance, practice saying “No, I’d rather not” or “Sorry, but that’s none of your business” in the mirror, or try a round of conversational roleplay with your spouse.
It’s always worth reminding yourself that you don’t have to be perfect — or anywhere close — to thrive.
Maybe you haven’t found the job of your dreams yet. But you have an impressive resume, strong recommendations, and a handful of unique talents that set you apart from the crowd. If you approach each interview as an opportunity to practice and grow, rather than a new chance to fail, you’re demonstrating resilience.
Work with a therapist
If you’d like to practice resilience with an expert, a therapist or counselor can offer resilience training.
This training can take anywhere from 2 to 28 hours, depending on the program. You’ll learn a range of skills that may help boost resilience, such as:
- goal setting
- emotion regulation
Research from 2018 suggests that interventions rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can boost resilience a small amount, while mindfulness-based interventions may have a moderate effect. Training that includes both mindfulness and CBT techniques appears to boost resilience the most.
Resilience can help you adapt to challenges and hold your ground in the face of adversity.
Some people are naturally more resilient than others. All the same, anyone can cultivate this skill — and experts consider it a skill worth cultivating, since greater resilience often translates to better mental health and higher life satisfaction.
Just keep in mind that resilience may not help you weather every challenge. Resilience is just one of many skills at your disposal, and it’s not the only way to show your strength.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.