Four Practices to Boost Your Resiliency
Dr. Jennifer Thannhauser, PhD, RPsych
Challenge, change and failure are a normal part of life. The question is, will we cope or crumble? Emerge stronger or weaker?
Resilience is described as the ability to adapt well to adversity or change, and to sustain good health and energy when under constant or acute pressure (Reivich & Shatte, 2002; Ungar, 2019). It is not a trait that people either have or do not have. Rather, resilience includes a number of components that anyone can develop:
- a strong sense of self and a sense of control
- flexibility and an ability to change one’s basic frame of reference
- routine and clear expectations
- sense of humour
- having the ability to empathize with others and to verbalize emotions
- physical wellbeing
- problem-solving abilities
- optimism, courage, determination and perseverance
- strong social connections
- role models with pro-social behaviours
- sense of meaning/purpose in life
Just as our physical bodies are strengthened by being physically active, our resilience is strengthened through intentional engagement of the components of resilience. Here are four practices to strengthen your resiliency muscles:
1. Adopt a growth mindset.
Mindset refers to the beliefs we hold about our skills, abilities, intelligence and sometimes our emotions. When some people face a setback, they give up because they think it is a sign that they never had what it takes to succeed or they hold a fatalistic perspective. This is what researchers refer to as a fixed mindset — the belief that people essentially are who they are and do not change (Dweck, 2006). In contrast, a growth mindset reflects a fundamental belief that human beings are designed to change and grow. With effort and experience, your brain can change, providing the perspective you need to stick with something even when faced by a challenge, mistake or failure.
To practice growth mindset, consider asking yourself the following questions when you are facing a setback or challenge (Sloane, P., n.d.):
- What can I learn?
- What could I have done differently?
- Who can I learn from?
- Where can I ask for help/support?
- What other strategies/skills can I try?
- What will I do next?
2. Clarify priorities and set goals
It is easy to be caught up in the hecticness of life, simply going through the motions day after day. We can feel like life is happening to us rather than being active participants in our own lives. The more time we spend engaged in meaningful activities that align with our values the greater our happiness (Seligman, 2002).
Having clear personal priorities and commitment to pursue those priorities fuels motivation to move forward even in the face of challenges and setbacks. Take a few moments and consider the following prompts. Only move on to the next prompt when you have responded to the previous prompt. Try to keep focus on what you want your priorities to be, rather than what other people (e.g., boss, partner, peer) might say your priorities should be.
- If your life could focus on one thing, and one thing only, for the next year, what would it be?
- If you were to focus on two things, what would the second be?
- If you were to focus on three things, what would the third be?
- If you were to focus on four things, what would the fourth be?
- If you were to focus on five things, what would the fifth be?
Once you have clearly defined your personal priorities for this point in time, consider how you actually spend your time. In what ways can you better align how you spend your time with your priorities? Creating short-term goals that align with your higher-order priorities increases motivation to persevere. When goal setting, keep in mind the SMART acronym: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Based.
If you encounter a barrier or fail at one short-term goal, consider what an alternate short-term goal might be that moves you closer to your top priorities. Small steps in a forward direction are key to navigating challenges and change.
3. Connect with others
Most of us have heard of the fight-flight stress response. In her book Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal (2015) describes another theory of stress called the tend-and-befriend stress response. From an evolutionary perspective, this response developed to ensure we protect our offspring and seek out our social group for mutual defense. More recent research shows that when we care for others, it activates systems of the brain that increase motivation and optimism, enhances perception, intuition and self-control, inhibits fear, protects against harmful effects of chronic/traumatic stress, and produces prosocial tendencies including empathy, connection and trust. This sounds much like resilience!
Consider how you might develop bigger-than-self goals that contribute to a sense of connection to the world greater than yourself. These goals go beyond personal gain and success. They include you how you see your role within your community, what you want to contribute, and the change you may want to create. When we focus on bigger-than-self goals, we are more likely to achieve both our individual and bigger-than-self goals, which contribute to increased joy, meaning, curiosity, caring, hope and gratitude (McGonigal, 2015).
To develop bigger-than-self goals, consider the following prompts:
- What kind of positive impact do you want to have on the people around you?
- What mission in life or at work inspires you?
- What do you want to contribute to the world? What change do you want to make?
4. Practice positive thinking and gratitude
When life is not going as planned it is easy to get stuck in zoom mode, focusing only on the bad things that are happening. It is helpful to back up into panoramic mode, looking at the bigger picture with a longer-term perspective. Purposefully looking for the positives when there seems to be none reorients our focus, improves mood, speeds coping and enables faster meaning-making. Moreover, sharing these positives with others boosts the effect and influences others’ experience of happiness too.
One strategy for practicing gratitude is to ask yourself: What went well today? See if you can list three things that went well over the past 24 hours. Then, ask yourself: What was so good about this? What we begin to discover is that it is not necessarily what happened that is so impactful, but the meaning that we give to it. Next time you run into a colleague or meet a friend for lunch, you might even ask them: What went well for them today? All too often, we focus on complaints or venting; however, with a simple question you can help boost others’ resilience by inviting them to focus on gratitude.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.
McGonigal, K. (2015). The upside of stress. New York: Penguin Random House.
Reivich, K. & Shatte, A. (2002). The resilience factor. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.
Sloane, P. (n.d.) 5 great questions to ask yourself after a failure. Retrieved from http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifehack/5-great-questions-to-ask-yourself-after-a-failure.html