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New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult once said, “The human capacity for burden is like bamboo — far more flexible than you'd ever believe at first glance.”
The good news: That elasticity can be developed with focus and practice.
You and everyone you know experiences challenges in life. When difficulties pop up, you have a choice: wallow and dwell or adapt and bounce back. It’s a decision between stagnation and resilience, with the latter being the option that propels you through and ultimately beyond the challenges.
Resilience is not about being happy all the time or not feeling affected by difficult times. It’s having the belief that you will get through the tough times.
Here are some actions you can take right now — amid any difficulty, small or large — to develop a mindset of resilience.
Change Your Perspective
Sometimes when you’re in a situation you perceive as negative, it can be hard to see how things will work out well. Perspective helps ensure your mental view of a situation neither devalues it or blows it out of proportion.
For example, let’s say you’re feeling stuck on a work project. You’ve been at it for hours and you’re frustrated. You begin to tell yourself things like, “They shouldn’t have picked me for this project. I’m terrible at this. I’ll never get it done and I may not get that promotion I have been working toward.” The more you berate yourself, the more you feel stuck. In that moment, the most useful thing you can do is to stop, walk away, and do something completely different for a little while to refocus.
Physical activity proves to be beneficial in moments when you need a perspective shift. Exercise stimulates production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein involved with the growth of new neurons. These new neurons impact what researchers call cognitive enhancement, which can help flush the mind and adjust your perspective from negative to positive. In the case of the work project, your perspective shift might go from, “I’m terrible at this” to “This is challenging, but I’ve got this and I know I will find a solution.”
Tap Into Your Self-Confidence
Whenever you’re going through something challenging, it’s extra important to channel your inner self-confidence. This might look like reminding yourself of other difficult situations you’ve been through and how you used your strength, skills, and tools to persevere.
Consider sitting down and writing out a two-column list. In the left column, list out five challenges you’ve experienced in the past. In the right column, write out how you overcame them. Read over the list a few times and think of how it makes you feel. Although the situations themselves were tough, how you handled yourself to get through them took persistence and confidence. Harness that confidence and watch yourself move forward in the situation you’re experiencing present-day.
Take Care of You
Tough times can have a sneaky way of convincing you that you don’t have capacity for self-care. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
Stress can cause the immune system to produce an inflammatory response. That’s why it’s doubly important during challenging times to eat nutritious food, exercise, get enough high-quality sleep, and do other immune-boosting self-care rituals.
Taking care of yourself primes your body and mind for resilience so you can handle whatever you’re going through.
Work Toward a Goal
Last year, I aimed to ride 2,000 biking miles by the end of the year. It was a big, hairy, audacious goal, seeing as how I had only gotten into road cycling and mountain biking the year before. But I was 100% committed to achieving it, no matter what, because I knew it would help me get better at both sports, which was important to me. I wanted to feel more confident on my bikes, build endurance, and be able to go on long rides several times a week for exercise and to cut down on how often I drove my car.
Throughout the year, some challenges tested my “no matter what” commitment: getting COVID-19; experiencing multiple injuries and ailments from sitting on a bike seat for too long (if you cycle, you know what I’m talking about); long workdays that forced me to ride at odd times; riding in extreme wind (my least favorite weather condition of all time); and more. There were many days I wanted to give up. My “why” kept me going. And in December, on a very cold, windy day, I clocked the final miles on my road bike to reach my goal. Half-frozen, I felt a massive sense of achievement as I closed my cycling app and put my bike away.
What’s your aim and why do you want to achieve whatever you’re aiming for? The “why” is especially important because it will help motivate you when adversity strikes.
Gratitude, according to scientists, is a deep feeling of appreciation. Researchers have found that focusing your thoughts on gratitude can create many benefits for your mental health, including improved mental resilience. Why? Because practicing gratitude helps shift your attention from ruminating on the negative to intentionally focusing on the positive.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to practicing gratitude. However, research psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough have found that gratitude results from a two-step cognitive process:
- Recognizing you have obtained a positive outcome
- Recognizing there’s an external source linked to this positive outcome
Some people like to take a few minutes each day to think of and express thankfulness for a handful of things they feel grateful for. Others prefer to keep a daily gratitude journal, where they regularly write about what or whom they’re thankful for and why. There are also many unconventional ways to practice gratitude, such as creating a reverse bucket list.
Learn from Reflecting on Experiences
American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.”
Some experiences feel natural and flow with ease. Others test and challenge you. When you reflect on your experiences, you also reflect on your own abilities to navigate those experiences.
Research shows that taking time to reflect on stressors and challenging experiences — plus all the practices mentioned above — can positively influence resilience and long-term healthy mental and emotional development overall.