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The key to mental health, happiness and success? It might be resilience

23 November 2021

Could resilience be the key to a happier life? Find out what it is, why it matters and how to develop it in yourself...


Plant growing and thriving in difficult conditions

‘Excellence withers without an adversary.’ Seneca, Stoic Philosopher

If you think back on your life, you’ve probably had at least one difficult experience that made you stronger as a result. Maybe it taught you how to face challenges, see things from a new perspective or even accept help from others (because yes, accepting help is a strength).


When you went through that experience and grew from it, you were building something crucial to mental health, success and happiness — resilience. But what do we mean by ‘resilience’ exactly? And how can it help us deal better with challenges, strain and pain — and even come out thriving?


What is resilience?


‘I am often asked about confidence and where it comes from, and my answer is always the same: from resilience. To know that whatever life throws at us, we have an internal toolbox to bounce back stronger than ever before.’ Katie Piper, author, TV presenter and burns injury survivor

 

Resilience is basically your ability to navigate emotionally and psychologically through tough times. It is about how well you can cope with a crisis, adapt to it and return to a state of wellbeing. In fact, you could think of it as anything that you do to protect yourself from the stress of an event, whether that’s a relationship breakup, job loss or accident. And ‘protecting’ doesn’t mean burying, minimising or being falsely positive. In fact, part of resilience is being able to face the truth of your situation head on and move forward.

In the words of Elizabeth Edwards, author of Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities, ‘Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.’ 


Thankfully though, resilience isn’t some innate thing that you either do or don’t have, it isn’t a talent or an inborn gift. Rather, as Katie Piper describes it, resilience is a set of internal tools that you can learn. It is also a muscle that you can build and an overall outlook that you can apply to adversity. Most importantly, resilience takes ongoing practice.


And yet it’s worth it, as a high level of resilience seems to make people happier — or at least more content and self-loving. For instance, in a survey of more than 8000 adults, 96% of those with strong resilience said they were friends with themselves. What’s more, they also accepted themselves and their lives. And according to the Resilience Center in Montana, resilient people ‘have a healthy relationship with themselves and feel complete, just as they are’.


Signs of low resilience

 

Do you think that you might struggle with feeling resilient at times? If so, this isn’t anything to be ashamed of and it isn’t a failing on your part — the truth is, it’s just not a skill that is commonly taught in our culture. You don’t get lessons about it in school and it might not have been modelled to you by your family either. For instance, maybe your parents didn’t cope with stress very well, or used coping strategies like alcohol or escapism instead? Or if something was challenging, they might have wanted to protect you from experiencing discomfort so did it for you instead. Maybe the concept of resilience just wasn’t talked about at all so that by the time you were an adult, you had no healthy strategies for managing challenges.

 

Also, our society as a whole doesn’t really celebrate resilience as a value, probably because it doesn’t really sell. It doesn’t sound glamorous or exciting, plus you can’t bottle it and sell it. Instead, we tend to emphasise things like quick fixes, motivational memes, or feelgood products and entertainment that might distract us from feeling pain. The trouble is that all of these things are only trite and temporary solutions to problems, whereas a strong inner core of resilience can be a way through them.

 

With this in mind, here are some signs that you might be struggling with resilience (either due to a particular upsetting event or just life stressors in general):

  • You feel victimised.
  • You feel depressed and hopeless.
  • You feel demoralised.
  • You feel disconnected.
  • You feel tired or fatigued.
  • You feel stressed.
  • You feel like you can’t go on.
  • You feel like one more problem might tip you over the edge.

 

In general, if you feel that stressful incidents sometimes knock you sideways, that you take a long time to recover from upsets or that you get easily overwhelmed by things, it doesn’t have to be this way. In learning how to build resilience you will find yourself much more able to survive life’s storms, both big and small. 

 

What are the traits of resilient people?

 

In 2003, PTSD researchers Conner and Davidson published a study on the characteristics that resilient people share. There were 25 traits in total, here are a few of them:

  • They are able to adapt to change.
  • They reach out to others for help.
  • They have close and secure relationships.
  • They can see the humorous side of things.
  • They believe that things happen for a reason.
  • They believe that they can achieve their goals.
  • Even when things look hopeless, they don’t give up.
  • They believe in acting on hunches.
  • They have a strong sense of purpose.
  • They take pride in their achievements.

Of course, you don’t have to be perfect at all of the above things to be a resilient person. However, it might be useful to think about which of these traits you already have and which you might like to cultivate in yourself.

For instance, are you able to laugh at bad luck moments such as getting caught without an umbrella in a downpour, or does it feel as if the universe is out to get you? Are you willing to ask for help when you need it or do you try to cope with everything alone? Are you able to feel proud of yourself for what you’ve achieved in life or are you more focused on the times when you have failed?

Sometimes, honest self-reflection about our responses to things can open the door towards becoming more resilient.

How can we build resilience?

 

With all of the above in mind, let’s look at seven key approaches that you can take to cope better with day to day stresses or bigger life crises:

 

1. Accept that suffering and loss is a part of life

 

‘Why was I the one who had the accident?’
‘Why did I get made redundant when the rest of my team didn’t?’
‘Why am I struggling with fertility when all my friends got pregnant easily?’

 

Often, part of the pain that we go through when faced with adversity is our resistance to it as well as our feelings of injustice or unfairness. For instance, you might find yourself feeling isolated, victimised or discriminated against as a result of what has happened, or that you are particularly ‘cursed’ or ‘unlucky’. This is very understandable and can be especially difficult if all of your friends seem to be well and thriving (on the surface at least).

 

Of course, it is totally natural to feel angry and sad about a bad experience, plus it is healthy to vent and process your emotions. But if you find that you are spending a lot of time dwelling on your anger or wrestling with the unfairness of it all, then you are not moving forward or dealing with your new reality constructively. You are also not giving yourself a chance to see the bigger picture.

 

Because the truth is that suffering is a part of life that no one escapes from unscathed. At one time or another, everyone will experience some kind of loss, disappointment, bereavement, sickness or trauma. This is not to deny the truth that some people have very real economic, cultural and social advantages in life, but it is also true that no one is immune from pain.

 

In understanding this, you can begin to see a difficult event for what it really is — not as something that has singled you out but as a normal part of life. According to resilience expert Dr. Lucy Hone, author of Resilient Grieving, a good rule of thumb is not to think ‘why me?’ but rather ‘why not me?’ This is often the beginning of resilience.

 

2. Choose what to focus your attention on

 

When something happens, aim to concentrate on two key things: ‘What is still good about my situation?’ and ‘What can you change about it?’ Put your attention on these things and turn it away from anything that you have no control over. This way, you will be able to see the bigger picture and deal constructively with what has happened, without being at war with your new reality.


Of course this is much easier said than done, especially as we humans have evolved to spot flaws in any situation. But trying to tune into the positive aspects of a situation, no matter how small they are, is all part of building your ‘resilience muscles.’ 

 

For instance, if your partner leaves you then you might not be able to change this but you can change how you respond to it. Do you see it as a chance to have time alone to reflect and grow? Do you reach out to friends for support? Practicing resilience doesn’t magically chase away heartache or loss, but it can make the process of it more manageable.


As another example, if you lose your job then this is obviously very stressful and you have every right to be upset about it. But you could also reframe it as a chance to take the leap and set up the small business that you have been dreaming about for years.

 

And you don’t have to just apply this skill when something unfortunate happens. In fact, it’s better if you make it a day to day practice, for instance, by creating a habit at the end of each day of writing down five good things that happened to you. This way, you are acknowledging the pleasures of life as well as the pitfalls.  

 

3. Look out for negative thought cycles


When things go wrong in our lives, it is easy for our thoughts to spiral. We can start to think about other things that are wrong, or blame ourselves, or worry that the bad situation will last forever. When emotions are running high, our rational minds are compromised and it’s more difficult to accurately appraise a situation or problem-solve. Basically, when we’re upset, disappointed, ashamed or scared, these feeling states put us at risk of getting caught up in unhelpful thought patterns.


However, one way to break free of negative thought patterns is to start noticing them when they are happening, then challenge them. One way to do this is to become aware of the three main categories of negative thought cycles: personalising, pervasive and permanent.


Personalising negative thoughts are when we fall into cycles of self-blame for things that go wrong in our lives, for instance, ‘It’s my fault that it didn’t work out’. However, life is complex and random, and other people play their part too, so it’s unusual for any person to be wholly to blame for anything. The thing about these kinds of thoughts is that they can create the illusion that we are in control of everything, that we are completely responsible for steering our own destiny, that bad luck doesn’t play a role. The problem is that they also end up adding guilt, shame and recrimination to already difficult situations, which isn’t helpful. So next time you notice yourself entering into self-blame, ask yourself ‘Is this really true?’


Pervasive negative thoughts are the idea that you or your life has some flaw that is ruining everything, for instance, ‘I’m a failure — everything I do always goes wrong’. These thoughts paint your life in broad strokes, where the ‘flaw’ seeps into everything, ruining everything. However, noone’s life is wholly bad or good and neither is any person. So it can be helpful to take a step back when having these thoughts and reflect on the things that you are grateful for. It can also be useful to make a list of your strengths and achievements, or the ways in which you make other people’s lives better.


Finally, permanent negative thoughts trap you in the idea that a bad situation will last forever, that you will never be able to escape. For instance, ‘I’ll never be able to succeed, it’ll always be this way’. If something has been wrong in your life for a long time — even since childhood — then it is totally understandable that you might feel this way. However, the past does not equal the future and change is always possible. Think back on other changes that have happened in your life, other situations that have improved, and remind yourself that nothing ever stays static. In fact, change is pretty much inevitable and you can also work to make small improvements in a situation, day by day.


Often, what we think about situations, rather than the situations themselves, is what matters. So in learning to manage our perspective on things, we are building resilience bit by bit.


4. Develop emotional regulation skills


When things don’t go to plan, it is all too easy to spiral into behaviours that only increase your pain. You might find yourself overindulging in alcohol, binge watching TV shows or scrolling through photos of other people’s ‘perfect lives’ on social media. Or you might find yourself stewing in anger or anxiety for hours, your thoughts in a downward spiral. 


One way to stop this spiral is to practice emotion regulation, which just means using certain tools to manage your inner state. This could include focusing on parts of your life that make you feel happy or calm, or reminding yourself that ‘this too shall pass’ and in time will not feel as big as it does right now. Being compassionate towards yourself while validating and soothing your emotions is likely to make the situation feel more manageable.


Another way of regulating your emotions is to start noticing which activities make you feel worse, even if they are supposedly ‘fun’ or ‘pleasurable’. In a sense, it is about switching off auto-pilot and switching on mindfulness instead. So if you are going through a hard time, make it a practice to pause regularly in the day to observe your thoughts and feelings. Then whatever you are currently doing, ask yourself, ‘Is this helping me or harming me?’ 


If you feel that your activity is harmful (for instance, zoning out on gaming or pouring over old texts from an ex) then switch to a self-care practice that supports your healing and peace of mind instead. This could be making a list of solutions to a problem, contacting a friend or going for a bike ride, the key is to tune into what works for you — and what doesn’t.


5. Learn to accept failure as a part of life


‘Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.’ Nelson Mandela


Failure is never easy — it can sometimes trigger deep feelings of inadequacy and shame. In fact, it can feel so bad that we can spend our lives avoiding it, never taking risks or following our dreams as a result.


Yet failure is an unavoidable part of life and for this reason, it’s really important to learn to cope with it. One way is to become aware of what your ’inner critic’ (that condemning voice in your head) says whenever you fail. Does it tell you that you are ‘worthless’, ‘untalented’ or ‘foolish for even having tried’? If so, it’s important to learn how to turn down the volume on your inner critic and start replacing some of its harsh accusations with compassionate, forgiving, affirming self-talk instead.


Also, remember that failure is often a valuable opportunity to learn, reflect and grow. Ask yourself: ‘What can I learn from this experience?’, ‘Am I further forward than I was before?’, ‘What are my options now?’, ‘Is something else now possible?’ and ‘How can I steer this situation into something more positive?’.


Remember, ‘failure’ often isn’t failure at all — it’s just a stumbling block or obstacle on the road to where you want to go. Once you let go of any rigid ideas of ‘success and failure’ and make room for flexibility, you won’t have to fear defeats so much. You can start to take more of a growth-focused approach to life, one that is about learning and expanding rather than self-condemnation. This is a big part of resilience.


6. Make friends with your nervous system


One thing that can sometimes be overlooked is the role our nervous systems play in developing resilience. For instance, our ability to healthily process or even ‘bounce back’ from difficult events can be severely impacted if we get stuck in our fight/flight/freeze survival response (the part of our nervous system that can be triggered when facing danger, shock or upset). For instance, if you have a serious accident, you might find yourself dealing with trauma symptoms afterwards that make it hard to move forward in a resilient way.


Essentially, what happens is that when we are stuck in fight/flight/freeze, we have less flexibility and our internal resources become depleted. Although some therapies can really help with this (and more of this in the next point), a good starting point is to cultivate awareness of this in your body. Start by noticing any fight/flight signals such as tension, fear or panic, then listen to what your body is telling you about what it needs. As a result, you’ll be more able to respond in ways which help your system return to a more safe, calm and connected (ventral vagal) state. 


This could include filling yourself with energy if you’re feeling shut down (through meditation or breathing exercises) or discharging energy if you’re feeling overwhelmed and on edge (through exercise or trauma release techniques like ‘shaking’). Focusing on yoga, music, nature and social connection can all be useful but it depends on what state you’re in and what your nervous system responds to. In Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory, Deb Dana suggests asking your nervous system ‘Does this feel like this would nourish me?’ rather than rigidly trying to apply recommendations from other people.


7. Get support from a therapist

 

While all of the above tips are useful in building resilience, you might still feel that you really need extra support in coping with things. If so, then therapy can help you to sort through your feelings and find a way forward.

 

As mentioned, sometimes, our ability to build resilience is blocked if we are trapped in the trauma of a shocking event. This is because we can stay locked in the initial fight/flight/freeze response to the incident, causing us to feel that it is still happening (a sign of this is feeling triggered by reminders of it). That is why approaches like Body-Focused Psychotherapies and EMDR can be helpful, as they are structured to help you process trauma in a safe space.

 

Also, both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness Therapy can support you in shifting your mindset about things, helping you to become more aware of your everyday thoughts and responses. Another mindfulness-based approach is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which can help you to accept your feelings about a challenge — and your life as a whole — while also committing to dealing with it head on and taking action according to what’s important to you.

 

Building resilience isn’t about having a stiff upper lip, putting on a happy face or burying your pain. Instead, it is about accepting suffering as an unavoidable part of life, then choosing how to view that suffering. It is also about committing to thoughts, habits and behaviours that will support your healing rather than hindering it.

 

In essence, resilience is an outlook, a skill and a character strength, yet it doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, you could see it as a journey rather than a destination, or as a tool that can be sharpened whenever adversity comes your way.


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