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4 Ways to Boost Your Resilience

Balancing anxiety and grief with hope and purpose are essential to resiliency.

Key points

  • Resilience is the ability to bounce back and even thrive, despite hardships.
  • Researchers have found that resilience can be increased or strengthened like a muscle.
  • There are specific small steps people may start taking today to become more resilient.

For many of us, individually, and for our community more broadly, the past few months have brought several losses: lives lost to gun violence and illness; confidence in our ability to overcome COVID-19 lost to a barrage of alarming news; a nationwide loss in our collective confidence that we can hear and respect each other’s perspectives–to name a few.

While we know that it is not healthy to stuff our anxiety or grief, pretending it’s not present, we also know that it's detrimental to focus solely on what frightens and upsets us or delve exclusively on feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

The truth is, we need to balance anger, mourning, and disappointment with a sense of hope, faith, and purpose.

Graphic by Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D.
Grief-Hope See Saw
Source: Graphic by Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D.

During this turbulent and uncertain time, we need to focus more on our collective and individual resilience.

Are We More Resilient Than We Think?

Think about what the concept of resilience means to you. How do you define it? What are examples from your own life where you have witnessed or experienced resilience?

When I asked myself this question, I was astounded with how many examples of resilience I could come up with rather quickly. From family members who had lived through WW2 to people I know who have overcome serious illnesses to entire groups of people who were thriving despite great odds, I saw resilience in action all around me.

My definition: To me, resilience is like a cork that pops back up out of a deep body of water no matter how much life pushes it under or a rubber band that is strong and stretchy enough to bounce back after you pull it out of shape.

Most of all, resilience is about overcoming the odds to thrive rather than survive.

Fancy definition: The American Psychological Association defines resilience as:

The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. As much as resilience involves 'bouncing back' from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.

What Are 4 Ways We Can Start Boosting Resilience Now?

Scientists have found that resilience can be strengthened, like a muscle, by focusing our attention on four main areas:

  • Purpose: Pursuing purpose and meaning in our daily lives.
  • Relationships: Cultivating deeper, more nurturing relationships.
  • Habits: Shifting from less healthy to more healthy habits (like how we respond to stress).
  • Beliefs: Shifting our mindset from cynicism and hopelessness to possibility and exploration.

Over the next 4 months, we will explore how we can notice and cultivate resilience in ourselves and others (e.g., our students, family members, and employees).

Starting Small

You might be thinking that the four areas outlined above seem like a lot of work to add to an already overflowing week; that you are too tired to take on another self-improvement project, no matter how worthwhile.

I have found, however, that any lengthy journey can be broken down into smaller steps.

If resilience is something you want to explore together over the next 4 months, here are some small ways to start right now:

1. Purpose: Purpose is the “why” behind what we do–the reason we want to be an educator or volunteer coach; we have for getting up every day. Suppose you are having trouble connecting to your "why," no worries. Happens to lots of us. One small step you can take toward accessing your purpose is to start a list of things that you enjoy, things that seem to nurture you (gardening, playing with my dog, walking in the woods, watching old black and white films, eating raspberries with chocolate, working with wood). Pay attention to what you want to do for free–the things you may actually pay to do. Often, these hobbies, activities, and nurturing actions are the first hints toward a bigger purpose. The first step is to start paying attention and writing them down.

2. Relationships: Text or email someone you haven’t talked to for a while who lifts your spirits, makes you laugh, or reminds you of your better self. Tell them you’re thinking about them and would love to have coffee/lunch/phone date soon. If they are responsive but vague about their schedule, be the brave one and don’t give up until you get something on the calendar.

3. Healthy habits: Come up with something healthy you’d like to increase (not something unhealthy you want to decrease). Maybe you want to add one green vegetable to your day; maybe you want to add a 20-minute walk; maybe a brief daily gratitude practice. Now, make it into a challenge. Reach out to a friend, colleague, or family member who would enjoy a little healthy competition. Create a text thread or other accountability system and update each other every day (“one green salad at lunch; check”; “20 min evening walk after dinner; I’m crushing it”; “gratitude list first thing in the morning and you were on it!”)

4. Beliefs: Beliefs underlie how we see the world, how we act with others, and whether we actually think something can or cannot be done. One small step you can take in this arena is to list three or more examples of resilience in your own life–with at least one being a personal story of resilience. For instance, when I did this exercise recently with a group of teachers, one talked about his grandfather, who had returned from the war with his sense of humor, warmth, and love still intact. Once you prime the pump, start to notice–throughout your day–examples of resilience around you. Notice, as well, when you might be shutting out the possibility of your own or someone else’s resilience and rewrite that script.

As we return to school with both excitement and anxiety this fall, let’s balance the reality of our lives with the belief in our ability to bounce back, recover, and even grow from the hardships we face.

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