Mental & Emotional Health

Becoming Resilient: The Ability To Bounce Back and Thrive

How a person deals with stress can mean success or failure throughout their life.

When faced with a stressful situation, a personal setback or trauma, do they feel confident that they can both face and work to resolve the issue? Or do they react to life’s stressors through a lens of frustration, fear and self-doubt.

Do you know someone who regularly reacts and succumbs to life’s setbacks; a person who blows things way out of proportion, or alternatively, one who hides their head in the sand.

Or someone who routinely portrays himself or herself as a victim of circumstance of some other “external” factor of which they have no control.

If so, you likely know someone who is not resilient.

Ask a psychologist about resilience and you will hear that it is a protective behavior that helps a person adapt and respond to stressors. Those stressors can be small everyday hiccups (commute traffic, not getting that new job) or they can be more acute traumas (violence, loss of a loved one). Regardless of the stressor, people without resilience are more apt to view a stressful situation as a threat rather than as another life challenge that needs to be successfully dealt with. They will be more likely to express blame (on others), self-doubt, and pessimism; while less likely to feel they themselves are capable and in control of solving the problem.

But is that person stuck with being that way forever? Is resilience a trait, like eye color, that you either have or don’t have? Or is it something that can be changed and developed over time?

Resilience can be developed

Resilience has been studied for some 40 years. The word itself means, “To rebound”.

Initial research that looked at examples of successful behavior in stressful situations focused on the children of schizophrenic parents; why didn’t these children suffer greater psychological problems given their chaotic and stressful home environment? The researcher’s conclusion? Many of the children had developed great resilience, the ability to roll with the punches while reaching out and finding support and connections at school or elsewhere. The children also possessed a particular perception about their reality: that they could affect their everyday situation and control their destiny.

Researchers found that how a person views a situation – how they framed it and their sense of control – was key to their resilience. Two people could experience the same stressor with two completely different outcomes. It was all about how each person interpreted and responded to the stressor.

Two people may be faced with a dying family member. One may frame it as yet another negative happening in their life of which they have no control, and say, “Why me? Things are always going wrong in my life! Now my relative is even sick!” Another may frame it as, “I can help my family member be more comfortable!” They know the family member’s health has nothing to do with their own life’s successes and failures. And they are optimistic they can help their family member in some small way.

Resilience is not a trait that people are born with, or that they either have or do not have. Yes, a child’s resilience may be influenced by his or her family and exposures while growing up. But remember those children of schizophrenic parents? They still found role models who could offer them the encouragement and support to help nurture resilience.

Resilience can be developed in people.

Key characteristics of resilient people

Resilience involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that are learned over time. Some key characteristics include,

  • Having a “self-righting” tendency: When they fall, they dust themselves off and try again.
  • Feeling a sense of control in achieving their goals: Believe that they, and not a given circumstance or external factor, will affect what they are able to accomplish. (This doesn’t mean they don’t seek out help!).
  • Having a high frustration tolerance. Are patient and adaptable; will try to solve a problem again.
  • Finding a way to express optimism.
  • Actively coping: Addressing a problem with action versus just dwelling on it or putting one’s head in the sand.
  • Having good communication and problem solving skills.
  • Managing their impulses and emotions.
  • Having a positive view on their self-worth even when there is a setback. Knowing that you will bounce back and realizing that bad things can happen to anyone. Finding the good in the bad.
  • Developing realistic (achievable) goals.
  • Living in the moment versus fearing the future/unknown or obsessing over past wrongs.
  • Utilizing the following in their ability to cope: Laughter, spirituality, altruism, use of a strong moral compass and gratitude.

How can you develop greater resilience?

The Navy is just one organization that has looked at how their personnel can benefit from developing greater resilience in response to stress. The Naval Center for Combat and Operational Stress Control (NCCOSC) is an organization that focuses on ways to promote resilience as well as determine ways to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). NCCOSC has identified factors that are key to resilience and has implemented training and guidelines for their personnel. Chief among these guidelines are: Finding a role model of resiliency; realizing you will have successes and failures, always taking action, and finding opportunity for learning in every stressful situation.

Here is our list of things you can do to develop greater resilience over time. The key is to practice them today so that you will respond more resiliently to the stressor of tomorrow.

  • Look for opportunities for self-discovery.
    • Identify what types of events are most stressful to you.
      • When you feel challenged?
      • When there are a lot of ambiguous unknowns?
      • When you do not feel confident?
      • When you feel frustrated or angry?
      • When you aren’t in control (like a job involving a team project)?
    • How did you react?
    • What was the outcome of that reaction? What could have worked better?
    • Reflect on situations where you have overcome obstacles, what did you do then?
    • Reflect on times when you’ve experienced failure. What could be learned from that situation? What did you do right?
    • Summarize your findings:
      • When I do not feel in control I blame others, get angry and sabotage team member relationships. I hide behind emails.
      • It has resulted in loss of cooperation, relationships and my reputation.
      • Next time: I will address roles upfront so I feel more in control of my responsibilities. I will use self-calming techniques. I will not send angry emails but will face co-workers directly. I will model my behavior after “Person X”.
    • Keep things in perspective. In the course of your life, how big of deal is this one thing you are reacting to? Keep a broader and longer-term perspective. Most hardships are temporary.
    • Focus on achievable goals. And be willing to change your goals if necessary.
    • Move toward achieving your goals. “What is one thing I can accomplish today” versus sitting and feeling overwhelmed.
    • Develop confidence in yourself. All of us are good at certain things. Don’t focus on the one thing that challenges you/that you are bad at. Remind yourself of the things you are good at and that you can learn the new thing as well.
    • Learn to avoid procrastination; it typically makes the current stress worse and results in greater issues.
    • Focus on the positives.
    • Develop relationships where you can gain support and encouragement; as well as where you can GIVE such support. Reciprocal social support correlates with higher levels of resiliency.
      • Find resilient role models: what do they do to deal with setbacks that might work for you? What characteristics do they have that you can try to imitate?
    • Find ways to build in higher frustration tolerance and more calm. Practice patience.
    • Develop self-calming techniques. Imagine you are a thermometer and when something happens you go immediately “HOT”…you need to learn ways – possibly through breathing exercises, meditation or positive self-talk – to take that thermometer down to a calm measure. You are more likely to be able to think when you are calm. And when you can think, and not react, you can better keep things in perspective.
    • Take care of your health. Sleep in particular is very important to how you deal with stress. Diet and exercise, too.

Resilience is important in personal relationships, on the job and throughout your life. And greater resilience can be achieved!

Diane Blum is a freelance writer. Please visit her at or at

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