Resilience For Dummies
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Developing resilience and ultimately fitness, or the ability to bounce back from hardship even stronger and wiser than before, involves cultivating these six major pillars of resilience:
  • Physical hardiness
  • Emotional equilibrium
  • Mental clarity and toughness
  • Spiritual connection
  • Loving relationships and strong social connections
  • Influential leadership within your community
Volunteers having fun while cleaning a community park © Syda Productions /
Volunteers having fun while cleaning a community park

Developing physical hardiness

Physical hardiness can facilitate resilience and protect you from the negative effects of stress. If you think about it, it makes sense that feeling physically fitter would help you be more resilient. It also makes sense that when you feel physically sick or weak, life feels that much harder. It’s impossible to think clearly, work effectively, or fully enjoy life when your body is sick, tired, inflamed, and not functioning at its best. Whether it’s caused by lack of sleep, exercise, or proper nutrition or by poor work conditions, hectic scheduling, or negative thinking, inflammation and a lack of proper fuel will leave you lacking fighting power when stress comes your way.

Improving physical vitality requires that you perceive everything in your life as something that is either enriching your health or hurting it; providing you with fuel that will enhance your life force or taking fuel away that will diminish your life force. Whether it’s by improving your quality of sleep, developing an exercise routine, abiding by a healthy nutrition plan, or developing a meditation practice, the key is to challenge the body physically yet also fuel it appropriately so that you can thrive instead of dive.

Achieving emotional equilibrium

Positive emotions serve as fuel, in that they fuel you to feel strong, capable, and confident — as though you can conquer challenges. Negative emotions, on the other hand, if persistent, align you with fear-based thinking and behaviors and can lead you through the victim cycle. Studies show that resilient individuals are emotionally balanced; they not only maintain positive emotions in the face of stress but also use them to bounce back from negative experiences as they remain confident, optimistic, and open.

The path toward improving resilience involves learning how to become more self-aware, mindful, and relaxed so that you can regulate your emotions, find your equilibrium, and shift into more a positive state. The path involves learning to use negative emotions as signals and opportunities for growth and change, thus controlling them instead of letting them control you. Through mindfulness practices, self-observation, and techniques that help you release your negative emotions, you learn to quiet your emotions, find harmony within yourself, and have access to optimism and positive belief.

Boosting mental clarity and toughness

When fear takes over, the stress response is activated, releasing stress hormones into your brain and body and causing feel-good neurotransmitter levels to drop and fear-related behaviors and thinking to preside. Your ability to think clearly and make good decisions diminishes. A person who is more resilient has the capability to override this physiological change and maintain clarity of mind, objectivity, and rational thinking. Rather than fall apart, they keep it together, work through the stress, and persevere.

Being able to boost your mental clarity and stay mentally tough in the face of hardship requires that you be self-aware, calm, open to change, and comfortable with not having all the answers, in the belief that, come what may, you have what it takes to prevail. It involves maintaining a positive and optimistic mental attitude, no matter the circumstance, and having the grit and stamina to keep trying, even when you experience setbacks.

Enriching spiritual connection

A growing body of evidence is showing that a spiritual outlook makes humans more resilient to trauma. The literature also shows that possessing a sense of meaning and purpose in life is positively related to quality of life and improved health and functioning. People with greater spirituality partake in healthier behaviors, maintain a more positive world view, are more connected to a community, and feel a greater sense of belonging — all factors that strengthen resilience.

Enhancing your connection to spirituality can take many forms. You can awaken and harness this pillar of resilience via meditation or prayer, practicing mindfulness, spending time in nature, joining a spiritual community, reading uplifting literature, volunteering, or working toward a greater understanding of your higher purpose. Experiencing resilience with a spiritual lens helps you stay more positive and optimistic, find meaning in difficulty, express more gratitude, discover stronger social support, employ healthier behaviors, and improve your coping skills.

Establishing healthy relationships

Humans are social creatures. They have an innate desire to belong and to be together. Numerous studies show that social support is essential for maintaining physical and psychological health. Not all relationships, unfortunately, are created equal. Quality relationships can support your resilience, and unhealthy ones can break it. Though healthy, high-quality relationships can buffer stress and can help you live longer, heal faster, and improve behaviors, unhealthy relationships can lead to physical and emotional distress, self-sabotaging behaviors, and loss of self-confidence and self-mastery.

To build your resilience, you therefore want to establish loving and healthy relationships that support you to thrive. This requires taking a deeper dive into yourself, uncovering your core values and feelings of worth, learning to accept and love yourself, and committing to knowing that your relationships will help you learn and grow. It involves examining your current relationships, assessing your levels of commitment and investment, improving your sense of compassion, and learning how to effectively communicate, express gratitude, see value, and receive as well as give.

Belonging to a community and becoming a leader

When you understand that you’re part of a community and you cultivate this network of support, you enhance your resilience. Knowing that you belong and that a group of people have your back helps you know that you have assistance and resources to mitigate uncertainty. It supports you to stay optimistic and feel secure, encourages you to work well with others as a team, enhances your sense of trust and confidence that success is possible, and helps you find purpose in difficult times.

The more cohesive and resilient the community, the better off you are. Studies show that people who are affiliated with communities that are prepared and have resources to manage adversity are more resilient than those individuals who lack such an affiliation. Building this pillar of resilience thus involves strengthening your networks of support and helping your community become more resilient itself. It involves knowing that, to some extent, even if you aren’t a CEO, a captain of a team, or someone’s boss, you still have influence on the people around you and you have a choice of whether you want that influence to be positive or negative.

Building this pillar involves working through blocks and negative mindsets that might keep you alienated, isolated, or unable to seek support, and also learning to find value in the virtues and efforts of people around you. It entails becoming aware of the influence you have on others; communicating more effectively; remaining clearheaded, authentic, and insightful; and being a positive and resilient leader who inspires others to do the same.

Ultimately, the path toward optimal resilience differs from one individual to the next because everyone has different genetic tendencies, backgrounds, and life circumstances, and some individuals are more fit in one pillar over the other. The beauty is that there is no single right way to get there, because many tools and many paths lead to the same place, where, eventually, stressful challenges become opportunities and life indeed becomes more joyful, successful, and rewarding.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Eva Selhub, MD is a physician and resilience expert. She taught for 20 years as an instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and served as the medical director of the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital for six years.

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