Want to increase your mental toughness? Here are 7 strategies to cultivate resilience.

by beyondwell

On the weekend, I co-hosted a workshop on resilience in times of Covid-19 with my friend and psychologist Calliope Callias. In this post, I want to take the opportunity to share some of my insights with you.

I remember a couple of times in my life when I thought that I could no longer go on. Truth be told, there were dark weeks in which I battled with depression.

One of the most testing times in my life was the cancer diagnosis (followed by the loss) of my mother when I was 19. In the midst of chemotherapy and an 8h-long surgery, I was trying to fight with the reality and I felt powerless because there was nothing I could do to change her health. But in time a certain level of acceptance settled in and I was able to make practical adjustments, like my temporary move to Berlin.

It was only when I focused on the things that I could control that my experience shifted from being a “victim” of the situation to feeling empowered and full of purpose to be there and love her in all my actions until the day that she died.

This experience was my transition into adulthood. I learned what is important in life and how precious our time is on this planet. I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for that tough experience so early in my life.

The experience seriously broke my heart, but it also opened my heart to more light, possibility, and compassion. I thought that it was going to break me, but instead, I came out stronger.

This is my experience with resilience.

Why bother with resilience?

Whether we like it or not, adversity is an inevitable part of our lives. We may be spared for a couple of years, but sooner or later unexpected curve balls will be thrown at us. We lose jobs or loved ones, we struggle with our health or fail to reach an important goal…

Whenever we face hardship we have a choice to make: we can either allow it to crush us, or we can use it as an opportunity to grow.

I’d like to argue that resilience is one of the most valuable psychological qualities we can develop in life.

Resilience was not a concept I was familiar with as a young adult. But what I understood intuitively after going through loss is that hardship cannot only be survived – it can also lift us up, give us purpose, deepen our relationship and increase our happiness.

What is resilience?

Psychologists define resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.”

Source: https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience

In essence, being resilient means that we have the ability to “bounce back” from difficult circumstances.

Resilience can also give rise to profound personal growth. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term “post-traumatic growth” to describe this phenomenon, defining it as the positive psychological change that is experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances.

While I do not wish hardship on anyone, resilience is built through actual practice, and the more adversity we experience, the more resilient we can become. So if you are facing adversity right now, I hope you can find solace in knowing that you will grow tremendously from this experience.

What resilience is not

Resilience is not the absence of (negative) emotions, fear, and stress, but the ability to hold these feelings without drowning in them.

Resilience is not a personality trait, but rather a muscle we can build.

Resilience is not numbing your pain, but instead being open to whatever comes up and knowing that feelings are ever-changing.

7 Essential Strategies to cultivating resilience

Here are the most effective strategies to develop resilience according to the latest insights from positive psychology:

1. Being flexible and accepting inevitable circumstances
This does in by in no means mean that we give up. What I mean by being flexible and accepting circumstances is that you stop resisting unpleasant change, you accept what you cannot influence and focus all your energy on what you can control. You don’t numb your pain or run away from your feelings but you give yourself enough emotional space to feel it all while cultivating healthy practices for your mental health.

2. Finding purpose & stepping into action
The most inspirational leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Viktor Frankl, Nelson Mandela, and Abraham Lincoln have two things in common: 1) they were resilient and 2) they used their adversity and turned it into the courage to fight for a larger purpose.

The story you tell yourselves about what happens to you determines how much resilience you can tap into. The meaning you give to anything that happens to you is 100% in your control. Find your purpose in the face of adversity and tackle your problems head-on.

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” —Viktor Frankl

3. Practicing gratitude 
Most of us have a serious flaw in that we take so many things for granted until they are taken away from us. Only when you are confronted with loss, an illness or an accident do you truly appreciate what you had.

You may take your health for granted until your body stops working. You may take for granted that you can walk miles and miles until you have a terrible accident and end up in a wheelchair. You don’t fully appreciate your partner until they leave you for someone else.

So one of the most powerful antidotes to going through hardship is the cultivation of gratitude. The more you tune into the good and practice your gratitude muscle, the more you pay attention to what you already have, right here in front of you. This can be as simple as writing down 3 things you are grateful for every day. Practice seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary.

4. Changing your thoughts
While a lot of your thoughts are automatic and outside of your awareness, there is huge room to change unhealthy thought patterns. Noticing unhelpful thoughts is the first step since you can only replace thoughts that you are aware of. Through mindfulness practice, you can gently notice thoughts and let them go. Also, cognitive-behavioral therapy (also known as CBT) can help you replace unhelpful thoughts with more helpful thoughts. For example, if I tell myself “This is so damn unfair that I have to deal with an illness. Why me!?”, I will feel disempowered and defeated. Instead, I could change my thought to “okay, this sucks, but I am going to do everything I can to improve my health” and feel much more empowered and hopeful.

5. Relying on social support
Going through tough circumstances alone is so much harder than sharing your pain with someone. It is possible to deepen and solidify your relationships in the face of adversity.

Being vulnerable and feeling supported can be incredibly healing and give you a reason to go on when you feel like giving up. So even though you may feel like withdrawing from the world when you are down, it’s important to counteract this inclination and open yourselves up to others to feel better again.

You can get support from friends, family, or by seeking professional help. Seeking help is the right thing to do and does not mean that you are weak in any way.

6. Nurturing yourself (self-care)
Your bodies tend to keep a score when you experience stress and trauma. Going through tough times consumes a lot of energy. As a result, it is essential that you treat your body even better than usual.

Regular exercise, healthy nutrition, and sufficient sleep are all fundamental to tapping into your most resilient self. Prioritize your mental and physical health is key to have enough energy to endure and thrive in difficult times.

7. Developing trust in yourselves (and the universe)
Over the years you go through many hard times and your resilience grows as well because you develop a belief in your own ability to weather whatever storm comes your way.

Building this sense of trust helps to stay calm in the middle of a storm because we know that we will come out stronger on the other side. You may even connect with your spiritual side and develop the trust that the universe only serves you what you’re strong enough to handle.

In summary

Resilience is an essential coping mechanism that we can all cultivate with deliberate practices and strategies. No one can take resilience away from you. The same is true for your personal growth as a result of your struggles in life.

Sometimes all it takes is a change in your perspective to shift your experience. Start by asking yourself: What can this hard situation teach me right now? What can I gain from going through these hard times?

It’s important to know that you are not alone with your struggles. We all carry some pain. People may not show it, but you can be pretty sure that everyone is fighting some battle outside their Instagram highlight reel.

Further reading

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl

Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow – Elizabeth Lesser

Rising Strong – Brené Brown

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