5 Ways to Increase Psychological Resilience

In Playmore & Prosper’s first blog post in our series about resilience, Rob Winkler defined resilience as “the ability to endure, and even thrive, in the face of adversity because of internal and external resources.” These resources help protect us against negative life events and stress. A crucial facet of resilience is that physical and mental health are intertwined, and boosting resilience helps enhance both (Herrman & Jané-Llopis, 2005). In other words, attending to physical health potentially helps improve your mental health – and vice versa.

For my graduate degree in school psychology, I took a 2014 edX course on resilience called “Becoming a Resilient Person: The Science of Stress Management and Promoting Wellbeing.” This class is based on principles from the University of Washington and Dr. Clay Cook about stress and resilience. In my blog, I’ll be summarizing what I see as the key learnings in the class as well as my thoughts. If you want to learn more, the course is free and can be accessed at https://courses.edx.org/courses/course-v1:UWashingtonX+ECFS311x+2T2015/course/.

With that in mind, let’s dig into 5 research-based ways that you can boost your resilience!

1. Make an effort to develop mindfulness – not mindlessness.

We’re not always encouraged to seek the self-care we need in a demanding world with numerous competing responsibilities – increasing our levels of stress and breeding mindlessness. Mindlessness is reacting to situations and letting our emotions lead instead of our thinking (Cook & University of Washington, 2014). When we’re mindless, we work based off of our automatic thoughts and react accordingly. In other words, mindlessness is a type of “knee-jerk” response to situations. For example, say that your coworker Lena gives you a veiled insult about how brave it is for you to dress the way you do. Instead of constructively talking to Lena, it might be easier to make a passive aggressive comment back.

Mindfulness, as the opposite of mindlessness, is paying attention to the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. It breeds awareness of our thoughts and feelings, which helps us respond with calmness instead of stress. Cultivating mindfulness is important – but at the same time, mindfulness is also about letting go. Mindfulness is intentionally keeping your thoughts and emotions in the present without focusing on worries about the future or past.

If you’re like me, mindfulness sounds great but is an abstract concept to understand. Check out this article about ways to increase mindfulness for concrete examples of what cultivating mindfulness looks like. A way to start could be focusing on mindful eating – savoring your food and paying attention to the experience instead of speeding your way through a meal.

2. Pay attention to the positive and practice gratitude.

It’s easy to focus on what we don’t have instead of appreciating what we do have. Advising others to appreciate the positive is almost trite, because it’s commonsense advice. But it’s surprisingly difficult to implement because comparisons can be made to others, especially on social media. There will always be someone who you perceive to be smarter, more attractive, or more successful than you – no matter who you are.

The antidote to this is to make yourself your comparison. Focus on the things about you that make you amazing. It doesn’t have to be qualities that others appreciate (though it can be), but instead it should be things that make you feel good. For example, my sense of humor is one of my best qualities and focusing on that makes me feel strong and balanced. Connecting with your core values and embracing who you are boosts resilience.

Gratitude is also important – not just about your personal qualities but also about the things in your life that are good. In addition to being grateful for the big things in my life – for example, my health, family and friends – I can be grateful for something like a sunny day. Research has shown that gratitude helps boost life satisfaction, reduce loneliness, and potentially fosters progress with life goals (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005). To reap the positive benefits of gratitude, it’s best to incorporate gratitude into your routine on a regular basis.

3. Manage negative emotions and build positive experiences.

Life is challenging and has its struggles. Reframing overly negative thinking patterns/negative emotions can help us feel better in some situations. Consider using techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to challenge negative thoughts. An excellent example of this is the CBT thought log (find an example here). In a CBT thought log, you record your thoughts about a situation – as well as evidence for and against the thought. This can help us avoid catastrophizing to see new possibilities if we're being overly negative.

Remember, however, that it's all about context: Do what works for you, and CBT might not be a good fit for everyone. Consider other ways of managing negative emotions if a thought log doesn't feel right. For example,