How to Strengthen Your Resilience Muscle

Resilience has never been more in demand: Here’s how can you train yourself to be more resilient, whether you’re already a little resilient or you’ve never heard of resiliency.

How to build resilience - strengthening resiliency muscle (woman flexing)
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Everybody’s gotten knocked down at some point in life. For many, that time may have even been during this current pandemic. Those who have resilience or emotional resilience in their toolbox recover from adversity and keep on keeping on: As the English rock band Chumbawamba once quipped in its well-known song, “I get knocked down, but I get back up again.”

That’s exactly what having resilience is: the ability to overcome adversity and carry on, despite it not being done beautifully or perfectly, says Colleen D. Cira, PsyD, founder and executive director of the Cira Center for Behavioral Health in Chicago.

While most folks do get up again (although Cira says most don’t give themselves credit for doing so), true resilience takes it a step further. “Some people are able to learn, grow, feel, and reflect on the hard thing they just experienced and become wiser, stronger and more grounded as a result,” she says. In other words, these folks move from surviving to thriving, and you can, too.

Resilience 101

Resilience might sound like something you’re either born with or you must do without, and that’s true—to a point. “For some, there’s a genetic predisposition to think and act a certain way,” says Eva Selhub, MD, a resilience expert in Newton, Mass., and author of numerous books, including the Stress Management Handbook. These individuals have been born with an inherited and biologically determined temperament that shapes how they interact with others, respond to external events, and perceive the world, Cira says.

Yet that encompasses a small part of the population, and for the most part, resilience is something you can learn. “Part of what creates resilience is recovering from adversity and then being curious about that experience,” Cira says. To be truly resilient, it’s not enough that you just make it to the other side. “Some amount of feeling and then reflection and/or introspection about these feelings is what creates and builds on resilience,” Cira says

Building resilience

Of course, when you’re faced with adversity, it’s easy to think you’re not good enough or you don’t have enough resiliency to rebound. “That type of stress response decimates your ability to think optimistically,” Dr. Selhub says. Rather than thinking that the stress you’re facing isn’t manageable and putting yourself in victim mode, you need to take action to fuel your body mentally and physically. “You want to give yourself what you need to function at your best,” she says.

That’s why Dr. Selhub recommends doing things like nourishing your body with healthy foods, exercising and moving more, connecting with others while physical distancing, spending time in nature, meditating, developing a spiritual connection, working with somebody who can help you turn lemons into lemonade, and shifting from a physiology of fear to love. “Think of courage as fear with an open heart,” she says.

While those are certainly sound strategies that resilient folks employ, there’s also a trait that separate resilient people from others, according to researcher Brené Brown: They’re able to tolerate distress. In other words, “They’re aware of and can sit with their emotions without needing to react immediately,” Cira says. Instead, resilient people pause and respond deliberately, which is the opposite of letting your emotions take the wheel. “Distress tolerance builds resilience,” Cira says. It’s not easy, but it’s worth the work.

So how do you do become more resilient? Cira has a six-step guide.

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Step one: Take a mindful pause

When you feel threatened or overwhelmed, your sympathetic nervous system takes over, and the only three unconscious choices you have are to fight, flee, or freeze. Yet instead of reaching to those feelings and responding (for instance, you’re so scared that you’re just going to hide in bed), employ mindfulness. “Use your sense to get present in the moment,” Cira says. Look around: What do you see? Close your eyes: What do you hear? What can you physically feel and smell?

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Step two: Ask questions

Ask yourself what you’re feeling and get specific. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, for instance, tease that apart. Are you also feeling sadness, anger, frustration, grief? Get as detailed as you can.

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Step three: Get curious

Now that you’ve identified and labeled feelings, question why you’re feeling this way, Cira says. For instance, does it remind you of something you experienced in your past? Is it how you want to be responding? And what could you do differently that would be more ideal?

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Step four: Take what you’ve learned and challenge yourself to think and respond differently

So you want to go back to bed for the day? Take a different approach by taking a nap and then reevaluating. About to yell at somebody? Before saying anything, exercise, talk with a friend, or journal. Reaching for a glass of wine as you’re sobbing? Make some hot tea instead and reevaluate when you’re less upset.

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Step five: Get curious again

Now that the crisis has ended, ask yourself more questions. Follow Cira’s script: What happened there? Why did you respond the way you did? What did you learn about yourself? Was that a pattern that’s played out throughout your life? How can you learn from this experience? What’s the take-away?

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Step six: Wash, rinse, repeat

Do this every time you’re faced with adversity and you’ll find that your resilience muscle is indeed stronger.

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