Building emotional resilience is a key factor in living a mentally healthy and successful life. Your level of psychological resilience directly impacts your ability to recover from hardship. It defines your ability to bounce back or recover after stress or trauma. It affects how well you are able to function in relationships with others. It allows you to keep going after setbacks.
Some people seem to have high levels of innate resilience, while others appear to be resilient on the outside, but secretly struggle to recover from setbacks. Many people struggle to cope with any level of stress; it negatively impacts their mental health and daily functioning to a crippling extent.
For an example of a lack of resilience, just look at a toddler; they crumble when the simplest thing doesn’t go their way. As we mature into adulthood, we’re meant to develop greater reserves of resilience that will allow us to cope when hard times come.
What is the secret to building resilience, what does it look like in everyday life, and how can developing greater emotional resilience impact your life for the better? Why do some people have greater resilience than others, and how can you increase your personal reserves of this character quality? Keep reading to find out more.
Emotional Resilience Explained
As we’ve already discussed, resilience refers to an individual’s capacity to recover from or overcome hardship. The American Psychological Association defines resilience this way:
“Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”
Resilience, therefore, is a response over time. It’s the way someone adjusts their behavior and mentality to cope with difficult circumstances. Being resilient means living an emotionally healthy and meaningful life, in spite of less-than-ideal, difficult, or tragic situations.
Psychology Today identifies several key factors involved with resilience:
- A positive attitude. This is not the same thing as toxic positivity, which does not allow for healthy emotional processing and acknowledgment of sadness. On the contrary, a positive person acknowledges the reality of living in a fallen world but looks for the good in life despite hardship.
- Optimism. Similarly, resilient people continue to hope that things will get better. They don’t always expect the worst.
- Ability to regulate emotions. Resilience involves a capacity to take ownership of your feelings and control them yourself, without expecting other people or circumstances to do it for you. A resilient person takes personality responsibility for his or her emotions and actions.
- Seeing failure as helpful feedback. Rather than internalizing failure or resorting to blaming/attacking others, a resilient person tends to look for lessons in personal failure. They might ask, “What can I do better next time?” or, “What can I learn from this?”
Another term for resilience is “mental fortitude” (Science Direct), the ability to rationally endure adversity. Fortitude is defined as “courage in pain and adversity.” Its synonyms are words such as backbone, grit, and perseverance. These words all paint a picture of resilience – bearing with struggles, continuing on through the pain, doing the right thing in spite of fear.
And, resilience is particularly mental. Science Direct describes it as, “the role of an individual’s mental processes and behaviors in his/her ability to withstand or adapt to demanding environments.” It’s how an individual chooses to think and act in a difficult situation.
When considering resilience examples, think about a hardship you’ve experienced, and someone you know who’s gone through something similar. How did they react? How did you react? The differences can illustrate how widely people’s responses can vary according to their individual temperaments, maturity, and levels of resilience.
It’s possible (and indeed, advisable) to increase your resilience over time. The Psychiatric Times explains that “Resilience is not a fixed attribute but a type of “functional trajectory” that depends on the quality of the stressor, the surrounding culture and circumstances, and individual variations in response to risk. For instance, a person can exhibit resilience to similar stressors at certain times in his or her life, but not at other times.”
You may display great resilience in one area of your life, but struggle to adapt to a different type of stressor. It’s important to know yourself and how you tend to respond in order to increase your resilience in any given area.
The Bible and Resilience
In the last section, we discussed the word fortitude and one of its synonyms, perseverance. Perseverance is a common theme in Scripture. It’s also referred to as endurance, patience, and longsuffering, and it’s a character quality that God grows in us through the process of sanctification.
Hebrews points to the example of Jesus as our model of perseverance (Hebrews 12:1-3). He endured the scorn and suffering of the cross, and opposition from sinners, and continued to fulfill his calling. Other resilience examples in Scripture include Joseph, who continued doing God’s will even when he was thrown in prison; Esther, who spoke up for the Jews even when it put her own life in danger; and Daniel, who prayed openly in defiance of the king’s laws.
Christian counselor Donna Gibbs says:
“God can indeed replace your suffering with resilience! Resilience is more than just healing. Resilience comes when God takes a painful circumstance in our lives and not only heals us but also makes us even stronger than we were prior to the struggle.” (Christian counselor Donna Gibbs, AACC)
Paul testifies that God’s strength is made perfect in his weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-11). This Scripture shows us that resilience isn’t something God leaves us to develop on our own. When we walk with Him and trust Him, we can rely on him for the strength we lack.
Our faith makes us resilient, because not only can we endure difficult situations knowing we are not alone, but we can also find meaning in them, knowing that God is working them together for our good (Romans 8:28, Genesis 50:20).
The development of resilience begins in childhood. You’ve probably often heard the phrase, “kids are resilient,” to reassure parents who are worried about their children’s reactions to difficult situations such as divorce or tragedy. It’s true that children have the capacity to develop greater resilience, but whether they will or not depends not only on their individual temperaments but also on other mitigating factors.
Harvard explains resilience theory this way:
“Science tells us that some children develop resilience, or the ability to overcome serious hardship, while others do not. One way to understand the development of resilience is to visualize a balance scale or seesaw. Protective experiences and coping skills on one side counterbalance significant adversity on the other. Resilience is evident when a child’s health and development tips toward positive outcomes – even when a heavy load of factors is stacked on the negative outcome side. The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”
So, if a supportive relationship is the most important factor in a child’s development of resilience, what are other protective experiences? According to Harvard, other factors include:
- Adaptive skill-building
- Finding sources of faith and participating in cultural traditions
- Generalized positive experiences
- Practicing self-regulation
- Self-efficacy and perceived control (the belief that you can make a difference in your circumstances)
Children who have been subjected to adverse experiences such as abuse, disaster, loss of a loved one, parental divorce, etc., have increased chances of positive outcomes if they have protective factors like those listed above.
Emotional resilience and stress have a sort of symbiotic relationship. Much depends on the perceived level of stress and propensity for overwhelm. Chronic stress can have significant impacts on physical and mental health.
Having a greater ability to cope with chronic stress can protect you from its harmful health effects to a certain extent. Verywell Mind offers several proactive ways you can cope with stress to increase your resilience:
- Practice positive self-talk. Avoid defeatism or learned helplessness. Identify actions you can take and the options you have.
- Increase your emotional awareness through counseling or journaling.
- Develop an internal locus of control. Recognize that your actions and responses are your choice, regardless of what others do.
- Increase your sense of optimism.
- Find social support. Build friendships, join a group, find a counselor, and seek to connect with others.
- Develop a greater sense of humor. Find the humor in the minor stressors of life.
- Exercise. Exercise increases your physiological ability to cope with stress over the long-term.
- Choose proactive stress management measures such as gratitude journaling, limiting a busy schedule, practicing yoga, doing artwork, etc.
While many of these coping mechanisms can help increase resilience in the face of chronic stress or minor hardships, they are not enough to treat serious ongoing issues such as complex trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, being a victim of a violent crime, recovery from abuse, etc.
Please seek counseling for trauma and recovery if you are struggling with the fallout of any of these issues. A Christian counselor can help integrate therapeutic techniques with coping mechanisms to help you recover from trauma and maintain mental and emotional health going forward.
It’s important to recognize that resilience is part of the way your brain itself responds to stress (not just your emotional reaction). Neuroplasticity refers to the capacity of your brain to change and grow over time.
According to researcher Richard Davidson, people with less psychological resilience have brains that are “less able to turn off negative emotion once it [is] turned on.” But, the good news is that your brain has the capacity to increase its ability to, as Davidson puts it, “recover from an upsetting experience.”
As you take steps to cope with stress in healthier ways, or you seek the help of a counselor to receive therapy for chronic stress or trauma, you can experience the health benefits associated with resilience, including “longevity, lower rates of depression, and greater satisfaction with life” (Harvard Health).
You can also help to mitigate the physical effects of chronic stress, including lowered immunity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
As Christians, we can turn to God for help with developing a greater capacity to respond to stress. If you are struggling to overcome hardship in life, don’t hesitate to seek Christian counseling for stress and trauma. You can develop greater emotional resilience, and experience the relief that comes with knowing that you have hope and a future.
“Cairn Stone”, Courtesy of Martin Sanchez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Canal at Sunset”, Courtesy of Frankie Lopez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Rock Stack”, Courtesy of Derzulya Zaza, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Garden of the Gods”, Courtesy of Andrew Ruiz, Unsplash.com, CC0 License