How to Be Resilient Even When Your Life Gets Tough

Resilience is something you can develop and increase

How did you handle the challenges of this unprecedented year? Your answer to that question likely comes down to how much resilience you have. Fortunately, resilience is something you can develop and increase.

Back in January, when this year rolled into view, hundreds of witty news reports, self-help articles, and inspiring sermons implored us to “have a clear vision in 2020.”

Now, as the year closes, we’ve heard some good jokes (and bad ones) about hindsight, along with plenty of reminders that “hindsight is 2020.”

So, when you look back, how was your year? Did you stumble through? Is it possible to answer that question, given the far-reaching challenges that lingered for months, such as Covid-19.

It is possible, if we evaluate the past year within the context of resilience. Resilience is the ability to recover quickly. It’s not about being perfect. Challenges ebb and flow throughout life, so it’s worth a couple of minutes to review the year–to celebrate our resilience, reinforce it, and refine those areas where we didn’t respond well.

THREE KINDS OF RESILIENCE

1. PHYSICAL RESILIENCE

A robust immune system best expresses physical resilience. No one illustrates this better than Wim Hof, aka “The Iceman,” a Dutch extreme athlete who has broken many records for feats of daring and endurance, such as running a half-marathon barefoot above the Arctic Circle, and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro wearing only shorts. He has been involved in scientific research that has proven that human beings are capable of voluntarily influencing the autonomous nervous system and immune response. And Hof has made it his mission to teach people to rev up their resistance to diseases, infections, and biological invaders.

Hof insists that a cold shower each day helps keep the doctor away, and research backs him up. Scientists can’t entirely explain why, but cold exposure stimulates latent power in our bodies. Hof also promotes other ways to increase physical resilience, such as deep breathing and cardiovascular exercise. Breathing heavily during exercise, as well as taking deep breaths throughout the day, causes a complicated, but healthful, series of internal responses. In addition, cardiovascular exercise brings in fresh oxygen, pressing the bone marrow into service, and bone marrow is vital in defending us against disease and inflammation.

Research demonstrated that using these methods helped participants combat an injection of endotoxin, a toxin that can be responsible for disease symptoms. In a study, the cold-tolerant, cardio-conditioned group of participants who were using deep breathing techniques successfully enhanced their immune responses, in contrast to the other group of unprepared people who suffered through the study in the name of science.

2. MENTAL RESILIENCE

Psychologists say that “bouncing back” from a difficult season doesn’t mean that we’ve avoided experiencing some raw emotions. Resilient people have their share of bad days. That’s why research shows that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. Everyone can increase his or her capacity to adapt and learn to thrive.

According to the American Psychological Association, people with a sense of purpose–who contribute meaningfully to family, community, or the world–are more likely to recover from a negative experience. In other words, mental resilience is built on a foundation of good relationships, taking care of yourself and others, and setting goals–all habits that help you grow and foster hope.

In addition, simply embracing good thoughts can ignite your mental resilience. Neurosurgeon and neuroscientist Darlene A. Mayo says, “Every time you have a thought, a pathway forms in your brain. The more often you have the same thought, the stronger the pathway becomes. Eventually, you form superhighways in your brain that become the basis for the perspective you have on life.

Mayo recommends being intentional about what goes into your mind: “Are you filling your mind with positivity, truth, and hope? Are you taking the time to dream? When you take time to build up your mind with things that are true and hopeful, you protect yourself from being influenced by the world around you. You develop a perspective that sees change not as something to fear, but as an opportunity to be embraced.”

3. EMOTIONTAL RESILIENCE

This year offered proof that people have endless opportunities to practice managing difficulties. And if the year left you feeling extra emotional, that’s perfectly normal: “When we grapple with dark emotions, we can make the mistake of thinking we are not resilient, even when we are,” says Kristen Lee, EdD, LICSW, author of Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking. “Research shows that resilient people are able to name the full spectrum of their emotions as part of their healing process.”

As you review your year and your responses to difficulty, consider speaking with a trusted friend or counselor, especially about what you’ve been doing that has and hasn’t been working.

Accepting emotions and breaking things down into manageable pieces is helpful. “Small things can make a big difference,” Lee says. We should strive to implement micro strategies. “Behavior change is more likely to be sustained when we select specific activities that are feasible, instead of trying to make massive, monumental shifts. If your sleep schedule is off, pick one or two habits to target, like getting off your screen one hour earlier than usual. Often, once we regulate one area of our lives, it helps generate momentum for additional areas.”

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Perhaps you experienced events over the past year that were personally devastating. Perhaps you experienced the loss of a loved one, or your health, home, or career, things that had everything–or nothing at all–to do with a global situation. Lee says that focusing on the present–not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future–helps you tolerate distress and acknowledge that hard times don’t last forever. You can improve your resilience when you see and savor uplifting moments as they occur, but you can only do that if your mind isn’t lost in the past or future.

What about Spiritual Resilience?

Neurosurgeon and neuroscientist Darlene A. Mayo, author of Keys to Your Breakthrough: Unlocking Secrets to Faith, says, “Many people don’t realize that our body, our mind, and our spirit are all connected.”

One of the ways to measure spiritual health is to look at your emotions. “Our emotions are like a spiritual ‘thermometer’ to tell us how our spirit is doing,” says Mayo

If you’re feeling angry, overwhelmed, or discouraged, it can be a sign that you need a deeper spiritual connection. Mayo suggests spending time in prayer is the simplest way to find that connection.

Of course, our telltale emotions are linked to our thoughts. Negative emotions come nipping on the heels of negative thoughts, so it’s important to address your thought patterns when you are seeking to enhance your emotional and spiritual life.

“No matter how strongly you build up your mind with positive thoughts, you will have negative thoughts or influences that come into your life,” Mayo says. She recommends releasing toxic thoughts the moment they come to mind. “Break them down for the lies they are. To test thoughts, I ask myself, Would God say this to me? If not, then I label the thought as toxic and replace it with a thought based on truth. Speak life-giving words such as, ‘I am becoming more resilient every day.'”

Teach your Children To Be Resilience

Maybe you suspect your kids are struggling this year. Maybe they seem fine. Either way, resilience is a trait that will serve them well in life and is best learned early. To help them learn to bounce back from anything that comes their way, consider this advice from William Stixrud, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist, and Ned Johnson, a motivational coach and tutor, authors of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.

Help them assess themselves

Teach your kids to measure their mood quickly, says Johnson and Stixrud. For example, tiredness is a condition that makes everything so much harder for humans of any age. Help kids recognize how adequate rest, burning off steam with exercise, and taking a little time away from an overwhelming situation can dilute the intensity of challenging circumstances

Show them love and support

When kids feel deeply, unconditionally loved, it builds resilience and mitigates stress, says Stixrud and Johnson. It instills an empowering sense of responsibility in them to know they can come to you for support and love. They gain the ability to solve their problems within your family’s set rules and boundaries. Instead of nagging and arguing with them, empower them by providing a safe, supportive environment in which they take responsibility for their own choices. Stixrud says that it takes time for the dynamic to change, but the long view is rewarding. Children learn to be self-motivated solution-seekers who can go with the flow.

Practice plan B thinking

Kids get super stressed when they feel “I have to … but I can’t.” That’s when “plan B thinking” comes to the rescue. Plan B thinking involves asking the child a question such as, “If this doesn’t work out as you’d like, what are some other things you could do?”

Johnson gives the example of a student who feels that his entire life will be ruined if he doesn’t get into his first-choice university. Having the courage to imagine life at the second college of choice, and learning about opportunities at that campus, makes it easier to stay calm and feel in control; after all, it is a choice to attend college. The student may then remember that some of his close friends are attending the other college, and that that school emphasizes a particular sport the student enjoys in a way that the first-choice school doesn’t. Sooner rather than later, the second-choice school doesn’t seem that bad

Stixrud says that plan B thinking strengthens the prefrontal cortex’s ability to regulate the amygdala, the part of the brain that helps us envision a different future. Knowing there are alternative solutions, and happy endings, can relieve stress, allowing us to think more constructively and be flexible.

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