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Bouncing forward with resilience

Phoebe Jenkins - Mental Health Coach at Headspace. Passionate about how eating, energy (thoughts, mood, sleep), and exercise impacts life.

I used to think resilience just meant being a strong person. Then one day I received a phone call that made me rethink what I knew about resilience. I learned that my partner had been severely injured in an accident and spent the following several months bedridden. Suddenly, I was asking myself, “How do people get through tough times without giving up? What’s their secret?!” A year later he was in another accident. On top of that, we were struggling financially because of the first accident. I was juggling three jobs and caring for someone who was unable to help himself. At this point, my partner and I could have said, “Why us?” We could have felt down about our unlucky circumstances. Instead, we came out of this experience stronger — individually and as a couple. Why? The answer was resilience. The following strategies helped me then and continue to help me today.

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In this article

First, what is resilience?

Resilience is an individual’s ability to bounce back from challenges, both big and small. It’s being adaptable in the face of hardships, such as relationship problems, health problems, and workplace or financial stressors. It involves bouncing back from difficult experiences, however I like to call it bouncing forward because the experience is often accompanied by profound personal growth. Keep reading for strategies to build resilience.

Use wisdom gained from past experiences

Many of us have gotten through hardships in the past. Make use of what got you through before. Maybe it was a song, a book, spiritual writings, quotes, or memories from your own experiences. For your resilience plan to be effective it needs to be personally meaningful and useful.

Bouncing forward with resilience

Move towards your goals

Even if life throws curveballs, you can still move towards your long-term goals. Staying connected to these goals and making forward progress can help boost your resilience and keep you rooted in your purpose, despite dealing with a tough time. To do this, clarify your long-term goals. Make some realistic short-term goals to get started. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in that direction?” Having a master list of these items may help you maintain focus on your purpose, regardless of what life throws at you.

Practice adaptability

Adaptability is flexibility and creativity, and resilient people are often flexible and creative in the face of stress. When we are adaptable, we are more likely to feel in control of our situation, which can help us feel more resilient. To build your adaptability, practice brainstorming new ideas, which can prepare you for coming up with solutions during a hardship. To do this, come up with lists of ideas — maybe 10 ideas for a book you want to write, a business you want to start, date nights, vacations, etc. The next time you’re faced with a situation that’s out of your control, say losing your job, you can write a list of things you do have control over, like updating your resume and building new job skills. This tool isn’t about coming up with good ideas, rather it’s about training your brain to generate multiple ideas, so avoid judging your ideas or censoring them.

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Identify what’s in your control

The key to resilience is to focus on what’s in your control and let go of what isn’t. In my example, I couldn’t change my partner’s injury, however, I could still be active in dealing with the situation and my emotions about the situation. I could control the food he ate, the people we saw, how much self-care time I took, and his daily dedication to his rehabilitation exercises. By focusing on what was in our control, rather than complaining about what wasn’t in our control, we felt more resilient.

To do this yourself, make a list of what’s in your control and a list of what’s not. Letting go of these things can be important in feeling resilient. Next, look again at the things within your control and think of what action you can take to deal with those things.

Build social connections

Support systems can help you feel less stressed and alone when you’re suffering. When it comes to being resilient, accepting support and help is crucial. To build a support system, focus on finding trustworthy and compassionate individuals who validate your feelings. One thing I love to do to nurture my already existing support system is to do something nice for someone every day. I might text someone to tell them why I’m thankful for them, do something kind for an essential worker, or bring a meal to someone I know is struggling. By doing one form of “outreach” per day, in addition to the benefit of helping someone, I am strengthening my support system for when I might need it for my resilience.

"The key to resilience is to focus on what’s in your control and let go of what isn’t."

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Create constants

Having routines or constants in our life during times of crisis can help us feel like things are still in our control. We can turn to routines like regular exercise, self-care, consistent meals, a daily meditation or a regular bedtime for purpose and stability. To start, pick one small self-care habit to start with. It may be helpful to write it out, and create a schedule for yourself. Some people also find it helpful to have a visual reminder such as a note, or a checklist, or to put out running shoes the night before to prepare for exercise in the morning.

Engage in movement

Regular movement reduces stress, improves mood, and improves sleep, providing energy for tackling challenges. Movement can also improve our concentration and planning which are important tools for dealing with difficult situations. If you’re just getting started, begin with something small and easy. This might mean just one push-up. Or a two-minute stretch. Or a 10-minute online exercise class. You’ll likely need to set aside time for yourself, schedule it, and stick to it. If possible, have an accountability buddy who can help you stay on track.

While these strategies are useful in the moment during a tough situation, they can also help you prepare for hardships in the future. Just like we have shock absorbers in our cars to make the experience on a bumpy road smooth, practicing these strategies now can make challenges easier to navigate later. These strategies aren’t meant to be tackled all at once if they’re new to you. Pick one or two to get started and reach out to a mental health coach if you need support.

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