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August 4, 2017

Resilience is an 'emotional muscle.' Here are 7 ways to strengthen yours.

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Editor's note: This story was updated on Aug. 15, 2019.

While research shows resilience—the ability to bounce back from adversity—is important in childhood, it is equally, if not more, important in middle age, Tara Parker-Pope writes for the New York Times.

The 4 foundational cracks that are undermining your nurses’ resilience

"Midlife can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks, and retirement worries, yet many of us don't build the coping skills we need to meet these challenges," Parker-Pope writes. But as an adult, you may be better prepared to develop resilience, according to Adam Grant, a management and psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Parker-Pope outlines seven tips to strengthen your "emotional muscle" and increase resilience in midlife.

1. Adopt an optimistic frame of mind

Parker-Pope writes that being optimistic doesn't mean ignoring the seriousness of a terrible situation, but rather thinking of bad situations in a more hopeful way. For instance, an individual practicing resilience would look at the loss of job and say, "This is going to be difficult, but it's a chance to rethink my life goals and find work that truly makes me happy."

Steven Southwick, a psychiatry professor at Yale Medical School, notes that optimism can be infectious and that it's important to "hang out with optimistic people."

2. Reframe your personal narrative

One study from Harvard University showed that people who saw stress as an inspiration for better performance did better on tests and were able to physiologically manage their stress better than those who tried to ignore stress.

This can be particularly challenging and helpful for victims of trauma. Dennis Charney, a resilience researcher and dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, was shot last year by a disgruntled former employee, but during his recovery, he tried to focus more on the opportunity the situation presented, rather than on how his life had been forever changed.

"Once you are a trauma victim it stays with you," he said. "But I knew I could be a role model. I have thousands of students watching my recovery. This gives me a chance to utilize what I've learned."

3. Avoid blaming yourself

While people "have a tendency to blame ourselves for life's setbacks and to ruminate about what we should have done differently," Parker-Pope writes that it's important to remind yourself that other factors likely contributed to your situation and to focus on the next steps, rather than dwelling on the past.

"Telling yourself that a situation is not personal, pervasive, or permanent can be extremely useful," Grant said, adding, "There is almost no failure that is totally personal."

4. Remind yourself that you've overcome worse

When things are difficult, people often try to cheer themselves up by comparing themselves to others who may have it worse. But "you will get a bigger resilience boost by reminding yourself of the challenges you personally have overcome," Parker-Pope writes.

When faced with adversity, Grant recommends, "Look back and say, 'I've gone through something worse in the past. This is not the most horrible thing I have ever faced or will ever face. I know I can deal with it.'"

5. Be there for others

Providing support to someone going through a similar hardship can further strengthen one's own resilience.

"Any way you can reach out and help other people is a way of moving outside of yourself, and this is an important way to enhance your own strength," said Southwick. "As long as what you're involved in has meaning to you, that can push you through all sorts of adversity."

6. Give yourself a respite from stress

Manageable stress can be an important tool in building resilience, but in order to manage stress you must first "change the way you look at" it and realize that stress will never be eliminated from your life, Jack Groppel, the co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, said.

Groppel said people should "invite stress into your life," while at the same time finding regular chances to recover from stress, similar to how one would rest their muscles when weightlifting. It's important to do things like taking a walk, taking a short break to meditate, or having a lunch with a close friend.

7. Challenge yourself

Parker-Pope writes that it's important to know resilience doesn't just come from overcoming negative experiences. Putting yourself in challenging situations, taking "an adventure vacation," or completing a triathlon can also help you build up your resilience.

"There is a biology to this," Charney said. "Your stress hormone systems will become less responsive to stress so you can handle stress better. Live your life in a way that you get the skills that enable you to handle stress" (Parker-Pope, New York Times, 7/25).

Learn more: The 4 foundational cracks that are undermining your nurses’ resilience

Check out our infographic to learn which four cracks in the care environment leaders must repair to rebuild the foundation for a resilient workforce.

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