Some people just seem to bounce back from whatever life throws at them. Whether it’s illness, loss, or tragedy, they do the tough work of picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and carrying on—even when it seems impossible.
If you’ve ever thought, “I could never do that” when looking at one of these apparent “superheroes,” don’t be so sure. It’s actually possible to build resilience to make yourself better able to bounce back from even the most difficult times.
“It’s the ability to get back in the game after you’ve had some sort of failure. And indeed, we can learn to become more resilient,” says social scientist and leadership expert Frank Niles, PhD who says there are a number of science-backed areas people can address to help them be more resilient.
Here are some ways you can shore up your “resilience bunker” to better prepare for when tough times strike.
1) PREPARE FOR THE WORST
Niles says the concept of “preparing” for bad times often throws people off. “They’re like, ‘Wait a minute. A disastrous change is like losing a job. How do I prepare for that?’” It starts with mindset, he says. Accept that change is inevitable, and realize that you can choose how you react, and whether you decide to be optimistic. People with positive outlooks tend to have greater resilience and financial and business success.
When possible, lay the groundwork for recovery before you need to: Keep your skills up to date to stay in demand in the market, have a financial reserve in case of job loss or illness, etc. Of course, tragedy or devastating events can disrupt the best-laid plans, but developing the right mindset—including the ability to reframe negative events-and taking action to mitigate potential damage where you can go a long way in helping you recover in a worst-case scenario.
2) BE EMOTIONALLY SELF-AWARE
Organizational communication and leadership expert Anne Grady comments that “your ability to become and remain resilient is directly related to your emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand your mood and emotions, be aware of the moods and emotions of others, and to use this awareness to guide your behaviour. Emotional intelligence determines how you interact with others, manage relationships, stay motivated, make decisions, manage your emotions, influence others, and much more.
To better manage stress, observe how you respond when you are under pressure. How do tense or stressful situations affect you physically, psychologically, and emotionally? Become familiar with those feelings as indications that you need to manage the stress in a situation since strong emotions are more likely to dictate your behaviour. To understand what triggers your stress, think about how you would complete the following statements.
- It makes me angry when:
- I don’t like it when people:
- I feel offended when:
- I think it’s rude to:
- It makes me crazy when:
- If people would only:
- I get irritated when I come to work and:
- I get irritated when I come home and:
Practicing “active internal coping mechanisms” such as reframing, humour, optimism, and meaningful social interactions in the face of everyday stressors can help you better manage big events, she says.
3) WRITE IT OUT
The act of writing can be enormously helpful in building resilience and recovering from traumatic situations, says Stacy Brookman, host of the podcast Real Life Resilience: Stories of Recovery from Life’s Most Difficult Trauma. Simply writing about your feelings can help you explore them and resolve some of the issues that may be preventing you from recovering from trauma, she says. “The act of just writing out [traumatic memories] helps you organize your brain where you can cope a lot better,” she says. “It feels much, much safer to manage words on paper than it does to confront tough situations in your brain.”
A September 2017 study from Michigan State University found that simply writing about feelings can help people perform upcoming stressful tasks more efficiently, and provided the first neural evidence of expressive writing’s benefits. Niles adds that writing down positive things that have happened also helps you remember them when times are less rosy.
4) BUILD A COMMUNITY
Niles says another key component of resilience is the people around you. Having strong relationships with family, friends, mentors and others to whom you can turn in times of crisis helps you bounce back. One April 2017 study from the British Psychological Society found that having a best friend plays a big role in adults’ resilience in the face of adversity.
We need a personal board of directors around us,” he says. “When a company has a board of directors, the board of directors advises the company. But the company also provides, in exchange, value for shareholders. So a board of directors ideally is really kind of your resiliency ‘buddies’ or resiliency ‘army.’ We can help each other out.”
5) KNOW YOUR PURPOSE
Several studies have linked having a sense of purpose to everything from resilience to cognitive function to overall mental health. Having a sense of purpose beyond your occupation or everyday role also plays a big role in resilience, Niles says. “Our positions are temporary and will likely change. But our purpose should never really change,” he says. That includes our values and the things that motivate us to fulfil a greater purpose in the world. When you connect with a greater purpose, you can use that to keep the ups and downs of life in perspective.