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You Can Build Resilience

How to weather life's challenges and thrive

Wassana Mathipikhai/Shutterstock
Source: Wassana Mathipikhai/Shutterstock

By Charles Schaeffer, PhD

Life is challenging and we all struggle at times. But scientific research and clinical practice have consistently shown that one thing makes the difference between getting worn down and giving up or working to overcome life's little (and big) roadblocks: resilience.

Resilience is simply the ability to adapt well when faced with adversity, trauma, or stress. From cancer patients and professional athletes to 9/11 survivors and Marines on the front lines, people who exhibit higher levels of resilience have the ability to find a way to embrace life and thrive in the face of strong, painful, and distressing emotions or events.

If resilience seems in short supply for you, here's the good news: It's a skill you can build. Here are a few proven strategies from scientific research and clinical practice.

Visualize success
Humans are not always very good at separating fact from fiction. We often confuse the images and thoughts we have in our minds with the reality we live in. If you have ever woken from a dream but felt certain it was real life, then you have experienced this phenomenon. And it is one you can use to your advantage, rewiring your experiences and expectations.

Try this: Spend a few minutes each day creating a movie in your mind of how you contributed meaningfully in a dreaded meeting at work, picked up speed in the final stretch of a 10K, or felt excited again after a big breakup. These can be real obstacles you are trying to overcome, or imaginary moments of triumph and success. Therapists call this active visualization and imagining, and they are common components of the most successful therapies for overcoming anxiety, depression, and trauma. Put simply: If you can succeed in your mind, you are more likely to recover from setbacks and thrive in life.

Build mindful practices
Mindfulness practices, or practices that bring your attention to one thing in the present moment, are some of the oldest and most powerful strategies for building the capacity to tolerate and adapt to changing – and often stressful – experiences. Recent research has linked preventive mindfulness-based programs, including Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mind Fitness Training, to significant improvement in attention, patience, and stress tolerance among almost every group from expecting mothers and highly stressed executives to Marines and emergency medical teams.

Try this: Start by integrating five minutes of mindfulness practices into your everyday life. You can follow a guided breathing meditation on YouTube, or use an app such as Headspace. You can also go for a walk and pay attention to each sensation in your feet as well as the sounds you hear around you. If you are really pressed for time, just take a moment to focus your attention on the smells, sounds, and feelings of washing dishes or taking a shower. Here are three focused breathing exercises you can try.

Cultivate self-compassion
When people who are very resilient experience strong painful or stressful emotions, they don't automatically view them as a defect to correct, avoid, or control. Rather, they see them as a signal or reminder that they need to attend to their own needs and feelings. They don't try to judge if their needs and feelings merit attention and care – they know they always deserve and are entitled to empathy and support, just like every other human being.

Try this: Start by consistently making sure you get the basic things that keep you going and feeling well, like good food, exercise, sleep, and time with supportive friends. Then, when you are facing a challenge or experiencing a difficult time, think about the kind of advice, support, or care you give to close friends or family members when they are struggling and give yourself the same encouragement and understanding.

And extend that self-compassion to the process of building your resilience. It won’t happen overnight, but, with time and practice, you can increase your ability to move through life’s challenges with greater strength.

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