Building resilience is a lot like building a muscle — it takes time, practice and patience.
Resiliency is essentially mental toughness — it's a measure of how you respond to difficult life experiences. Specifically, it's how you think, feel and behave after experiencing internal or external stressors, says Jeff Temple, PhD, a licensed psychologist and Director for the Center of Violence Prevention at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
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And it's not a fixed thing you're born with — rather, it's something you can strengthen over time.
Here, Temple shares how to build resilience to reap the positive health effects that come with it.
The Benefits of Building Resilience
Setbacks in life are inevitable, but how you respond to them is within your control — and that response can affect more than your in-the-moment feelings.
Case in point: A May 2022 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests people with coping strategies, high resilience and emotional intelligence are more likely to have better overall wellbeing than those with lower resilience.
And according to the Mayo Clinic, resilience is linked to protecting people from mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
It can also offset negative experiences that often lead to mental health issues, like traumatic events or bullying. Building resilience can improve the way you cope with adversity and allow you to keep functioning.
"We know that experiencing trauma and being overburdened with stress — whether that's everyday stress or a single traumatic event — can contribute to poor mental and physical health. We also know that everyone will experience stress, and many will experience trauma," Temple says.
But higher resilience increases your ability to recover from stressful events, Temple explains. This limits the negative health effects of stress, including anxiety, PTSD and depression.
How to Build Resilience
Think of building resilience like you would a workout plan — by breaking it up and tackling different muscle groups (or areas of your life).
There are four core components to building resilience, per the American Psychological Association (APA): healthy thinking, wellness, connection and purpose. Here's how those break down, and how a mental health professional can help, too.
1. Enhance Healthy Thinking
Intentionally embracing healthy thoughts can help you regulate your emotions when internal or external stressors come up.
Temple suggests these strategies:
- Practice positivity: Not every situation in life will be pleasant, but finding a silver lining can be a healthy way to get through painful scenarios. Practice finding something positive in the middle of a tough situation. "People who have lived through difficult circumstances and developed an ability to cope are sometimes more resilient to future stressors," Temple says.
- Reframe negative thoughts: Having a positive mindset can sometimes feel impossible. In those moments, try reframing negative thoughts. Instead of saying to yourself, "I will never get through this," you can reframe it to: "Once this is over, I'll be stronger on the other side."
- Keep things in perspective: When you feel overwhelmed by a challenging situation, remind yourself that what's happening to you (and how you're feeling) is only temporary and not an indicator of your future. You might not be able to change the stressful situation, but you can control how you interpret and respond to it.
2. Prioritize Your Physical Health
Because stress is as much physical as it is mental, another way to build resilience is to take care of your body, Temple says. "What happens to your mind happens to your body, and vice versa."
In other words, practicing physical healthy habits results in a healthier mental state.
Temple suggests doing the following:
- Get enough sleep: The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend adults get at least seven hours of sleep each night to promote optimal health.
- Exercise regularly: According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise each week (think: brisk walking, biking) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise (like running or HIIT). To make this goal less intimidating, try breaking it up into more bite-sized sessions, like five 30-minute workouts a week, or even shorter workouts if that works better for you.
- Eat whole foods: Aim to eat mostly whole, nutrient-dense foods for optimal nutrition, like whole grains (oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa), lean protein (beans, seafood, poultry), fruits and vegetables. Limit highly processed foods like chips, crackers, desserts and pre-made meals. The better you eat, the better your body and mind will feel.
- Cut back on alcohol: Enjoy alcohol only in moderation. Having too much of it may lead to a hangover and potentially poor decisions (and no one ever feels their best the day after overdoing it). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults 21 and over limit their alcohol to no more than two drinks a day.
Having healthy habits and routines can mentally and physically strengthen your body to adapt to stressors, per the APA, ultimately reducing the toll of emotions like anxiety or depression.
3. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness means being fully present in what you're doing and being aware of your thoughts and feelings without judging or reacting to them, according to the APA.
Being intentionally mindful prepares you to handle situations that require resilience. "Learning how to relax and be mindful, or simply learning to breathe deeply can improve your ability to navigate stressful situations," Temple says.
- Journaling: Jot down any nagging thoughts and work through them by putting it down on paper.
- Deep breathing: Try deep breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 method. Inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds and exhale for eight seconds. Repeat the cycle four times (or longer if it feels good to you), and try doing it twice a day. This kind of focused breathing can also be helpful in the moment, to help you focus and be more mindful in the midst of a stressful situation.
- Go for a nature walk: Take a break from your responsibilities and get outside for fresh air (sans smartphone). You can also turn this into a walking meditation.
- Listen to soothing music: Turn on music that makes you feel good and calms your nerves.
4. Stay Connected
Building resilience doesn't have to be done alone. In fact, staying connected with supportive loved ones and cultivating new, meaningful relationships can make a major difference when you're navigating stressful or traumatic life events, Temple notes.
"Finding and spending time with caring and compassionate people can strengthen your resilience," he says.
This might mean scheduling regular calls or FaceTime sessions with family members who don't live close by, going on "date nights" with your partner, planning lunch or an outing with friends or joining a group, such as a faith-based organization, volunteer group or even a running team.
To that end, you might also consider joining a support group, especially if you're struggling with a specific challenge like grief or chronic illness. The APA suggests building connections with empathetic people who can remind you that you're not alone.
5. Seek Help When You Need It
There is no shame in asking for help. Working with a mental health professional, like a psychologist, can support your efforts to lead a more resilient life.
A therapist can help you identify, challenge and replace your negative thoughts and support you in making changes that help build resilience.
"Keep in mind that resilience does not mean you won't experience stress or trauma," Temple says. "It just equips you to adapt to and handle these situations more effectively."
- Mayo Clinic: "Resilience: Build Skills to Endure Hardship"
- American Psychological Association: "Building Your Resilience"
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society: "Recommended Amount of Sleep for a Healthy Adult: A Joint Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society"
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: "2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol"
- American Psychological Association: "Mindfulness"
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