Four Research-Backed Strategies to Build Resilience

March 09, 2021

No matter who we are, there are times when life sends unexpected struggles our way. But learning healthy ways to cope with adversity — aka, building resilience — can help us manage our feelings in the moment, recover from setbacks more quickly, and build healthy habits to overcome future challenges.

What is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from setbacks and adapt when something unexpected happens.

People with high levels of resilience don’t let failures get them down; they accept and acknowledge the situation, learn and reflect, and find opportunities to move forward with a positive attitude.

Most of us aren’t born with high levels of resilience; it’s a skill that can be honed and developed over time. Below are four science-backed strategies to help you strengthen these skills and bounce back from struggles more easily:

Change the Narrative

When something bad happens, we have a tendency to relive the moment over and over again in our heads. This process is called “rumination” and is damaging to our well-being because when we ruminate, we allow ourselves to wallow in negativity instead of taking action.

The next time you find yourself spinning your wheels, try a practice called expressive writing. This process involves writing freely and continuously about a single topic for 20 minutes. This process is intended to give you a chance to explore your deeper thoughts and feelings around a topic without getting caught up in mental circles.

In fact, a 1988 study found that participants who did expressive writing for four days were healthier six weeks later, and happier up to three months later when compared to people who wrote about lighter, less emotionally deep topics.

The researchers concluded that the process of expressive writing allowed participants to focus on specific feelings and confront ideas one by one in a structured way, which helped them develop a fresh outlook.

Face Your Fears

The exercises above are great for confronting past fears — but what about challenges you’re experiencing like a fear of public speaking, flying, or heights?

The first step to overcoming these fears is exposing yourself to the thing that scares you in small, controlled doses. For example, if you have a fear of public speaking, you might try taking the lead in more meetings at work, or giving a toast at the next social gathering you attend. 

Build your experiences incrementally until you’re ready to speak onstage or face whatever your “biggest” version of that fear happens to be.

This kind of “exposure therapy” was examined in a 2009 study where researchers gave participants a small electric shock every time they saw a blue square. Over time, the blue square gave participants the same kind of gut-wrenching fear that an arachnophobe would have when looking at a tarantula.

However, after the researchers showed participants the square without shocking them, the fear dissipated.

We can see examples of this in action every day: someone who has flown in an airplane 100s of times doesn’t bat an eye about being in the air, just as someone who does a lot of public speaking eventually becomes comfortable onstage in front of an audience.

Learn how to be resilient with us! Sign up for our Learn to be Resilient online course today!

Practice Self-Compassion

Self-compassion means treating ourselves with compassion, warmth, and kindness, and not judging ourselves.

In one study, participants of an eight-week mindful self-compassion course felt more present, satisfied with life, and reported lower feelings of depression, stress, and anxiety for up to a year compared to a control group who didn’t participate.

If you’re not sure how to start practicing self-compassion, try these steps:

  1. Be mindful. Notice what you’re feeling without judgment. Say to yourself: “this feels stressful,” or “this hurts.” Be honest with yourself about how you feel.

  2. Be kind to yourself. Look in the mirror and say “I accept myself as I am” and “I will change what I can, and accept what I can’t.”

  3. Remember that you’re not alone. Everyone goes through challenging times, so remind yourself by saying “everyone feels this way” or “struggling is a normal part of life.”

Cultivate Forgiveness

Nothing keeps hurt and disappointment in our lives like holding a grudge, and hanging onto negative feelings, resentment, and anger can be bad for you mentally and physically. Studies have shown that people who practice forgiveness have stronger immune systems, improved heart health, and lower blood pressure.

Not sure how to take the first step towards forgiveness? Try these steps:

  1. Acknowledge what happened. Be honest with yourself about what happened, how it made you feel, and how it’s affecting your life right now.

  2. Spend a few minutes writing feelings of compassion towards whoever hurt you. Put yourself in their shoes and spend five minutes writing compassionate statements about them, being mindful and aware of your thoughts and feelings, and any resistance you may feel.

  3. Make a commitment to forgive. Look over what you’ve written and decide to focus on the positive things about the person, and to forgive what you can’t change.

Research has shown that cultivating compassion led participants to feeling more empathy, positive feelings, and having a greater sense of control over their lives than those who ruminated on or repressed their negative feelings.

Building Resilience: Next Steps

We all face challenges and adversity throughout our lives.  The practices above will help you cope with stressful situations as they occur, and enhance your ability to develop your resilience to be better prepared for future challenges.

More research-backed exercises to build your resilience and other essential skills like emotional intelligence in our book “Emotional Intelligence: Your Foundation for Success” — buy it on Amazon today!