The word resilience can be perplexing. Does it mean remaining calm when faced with stress? Bouncing back quickly? Growing from adversity? Is resilience an attitude, a character trait, or a skill set? And can misperceptions about resilience hurt people, rather than help?
To sum it up in a sentence: Resilience is the ability to manage stress in effective ways. It’s not a static quality or attribute you’re born with, or a choice of attitude. Instead, it’s a set of skills that can be developed by repeating specific behaviors.
Dynamic Nature of Resilience
But as with physical fitness, you can’t get stronger abs by just wanting them. Instead, you have to repeat specific exercises that make your abs stronger; intention alone just won’t do it.
Building Blocks of Resilience
Cultivating resilience is much the same. Like physical fitness, resilience is not a single quality but rather many ingredients that contribute differently to a range of strengths and situations.
Factors Affecting Resilience
Some building blocks of resilience are factors that are largely beyond one’s control, such as greater income and education and having supportive environments. Some are things you can do in your daily life, such as exercise, hobbies and activities, and getting adequate sleep. Other facets might take more time to develop, such as nourishing supportive relationships, building skills for tolerating distress and regulating emotions, meditation, incorporating spirituality or religion, and practicing less self-criticism and more self-compassion.
Resilience Can be Cultivated
Confusing connotations about resilience pervade not only the scientific literature and mental health approaches but also popular culture.
The idea that difficult experiences make someone resilient is incorrect, or at least incomplete. Studies show that the same building blocks mentioned above helped people navigate the pandemic with greater well-being.
Sometimes painful feelings or experiences contribute to personal development. Post-traumatic growth refers to the positive changes that some people report after trauma, especially when they incorporate some of the resilience “building blocks” listed above.
Complexity of Resilience
Resilience is more complex than being mentally tough or not letting things get to you. Pressuring yourself to appear OK when you’re not – also known as emotional perfection – could make things worse and prevent you from seeking support.
Resilience Isn't Always the Answer
Sometimes, changing stressful environments, such as a job or living situation, rather than just adapting to them is a healthier choice.
Consideration for Specific Situations
This is why resilience can be a loaded term. Although coping with challenges has its place, for trauma survivors, people who have experienced racism or homophobia, or those living in regions especially affected by climate change, and many others, resilience falls flat.
A one-sized-fits-all approach to resilience doesn’t work for every person and problem. But most of us can benefit from nourishing some of the building blocks of resilience, such as cultivating supportive relationships, physical exercise, and self-compassion.
Becoming more resilient is a process. We can benefit from working on the building blocks of our own individual resilience, and from initiatives in schools, workplaces, and other environments that promote resilience more broadly.