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Building Resilience: 7 Psychological Tips to Help You Bounce Back

When life gives you lemons, how exactly do you make lemonade? Resilience is the ability to adapt and bounce back after adversity, and it's a skill you can learn.

By
Jade Wu, PhD
8-minute read
Episode #335
The Quick And Dirty

Resilience is the ability to adapt and bounce back after a setback or stressor, and it's the key to surviving and thriving through life's inevitable challenges. It doesn't mean brushing painful feelings under the rug, because we need to allow difficult emotions in order to move forward. To be more resilient, we can look to our values as a guide forward, set reasonable goals, and trust in our own control over our fate. While we're at it, we should recharge with exercise and quality sleep, and remember to lean on our friends.

Destiny’s Child told us what it’s like to be a survivor. Taylor Swift knows how to shake it off. And Elton John is still standing. What’s the common thread? A little thing glinting in the eye of the tiger called resilience.

Resilience is the ability to adapt and bounce back after experiencing stress and adversity, like bamboo canes that bend in the wind but don’t break. Think of a small, mom-and-pop bookstore that's close to bankruptcy because Amazon has become such a giant competitor. The owners might show resilience by shifting their marketing strategy and finding a way to build a loyal following. Or think of a child falling off her bicycle and scraping her knee. She might show resilience by getting back on that bike the next day and practicing again.

Resilient people are able to learn, change, and move forward, ultimately growing and thriving even when they run into obstacles.

Both the bookstore owners and the child were resilient because they were able to learn, change, and move forward, ultimately growing and thriving even when they ran into obstacles. Notice that resilience didn’t just befall them—no fairy godmother came to rescue them. Instead, their resilience came from within.

Is resilience always possible?

That's not to say resilience is all up to you. You may be dealing with many obstacles that are out of your control, so no matter how much grit and motivation you have inside, you're still held back. This is why critics of the resilience concept are worried. By advocating resilience, are we implying that all setbacks are the individual person’s fault and everyone should be left to fend for themselves?

In reality, many people carry the weight of systemic barriers, like racism, sexism, economic inequality, or other injustices, and individual resilience is not the answer to these problems.

Many people carry the weight of systemic barriers, like racism, sexism, economic inequality, or other injustices, and individual resilience is not the answer to these problems.

At the same time, we don’t need to throw the resilience baby out with the bathwater. While we fight for equity and justice, we can also cultivate our own resilience, which isn’t an empty idea. We can learn to be resilient by responding to adversity in psychologically healthy ways. In other words, when life gives us lemons, we can still practice making lemonade!

And “practice” is the key word here. Resilience is a skill, not a you-have-it-or-you-don’t trait. This is good news because it means you can have some control over how resilient you are. 

7 tips to help you be more resilient

Here are seven ways to be a psychological bamboo cane that bends but doesn’t break.

1. Give yourself permission to feel lousy

You heard that right. We’ve all heard the cheerful encouragement: “Just keep on keeping on!” or “Hey, when one door closes, another one opens!” But rah-rah motivational slogans often feel useless and sometimes even tone deaf.

Rah-rah motivational slogans often feel useless and sometimes even tone deaf.

True resilience doesn’t mean you never feel defeated or get discouraged. In fact, pain is almost universal among the resilient. After all, if you never encounter painful struggles, you never get to discover your resilience. So, resilience isn’t about hiding your pain and pretending everything is peachy. Nor is it keeping a stiff upper lip. You’re human, not a machine, and getting knocked down hurts.

Acknowledging this makes you authentic to yourself, which makes it easier to  get up again. And getting up? That’s resilience.

2. Don’t keep watering weeds

Once you’ve given yourself time and honesty to acknowledge the painful feelings, start taking steps towards getting back to life. That might mean doubling down on studying for the next exam, making a new training plan for the next competition, or committing to meaningful self-care for the next month.

Once you’ve gleaned what lessons you can from a failure, ruminating is not going to help.

Don't brush your disappointment, loss, or pain under the rug as if your setback never happened. Just don't water those emotional weeds over and over again. You don't have anything to gain from replaying the dropped ball on repeat in your mind, or going through all the reasons to blame yourself for losing your job.

Once you’ve gleaned what lessons you can from a failure, ruminating is not going to help. So, take a deep breath, and ask yourself “What next?”

3. If you don’t know what to do, look to your values

It’s all fine and good to get up and move forward, you might say, but which way do I go?

Look to your moral compass. Studies show that having an internal system of values and ethics goes hand in hand with resilience. This makes sense. If you believe in our common humanity and the importance of having a purpose, you have a bigger force to help you bounce back. This bigger picture thinking also helps to put things in perspective--Yes, losing your job is a huge deal, and in the aftermath of this devastation, believing in your greater purpose reminds you that it’s not the end of your meaningful contribution to society, and not the end of your story.

So, even if it doesn’t feel like your values have anything to do with your pain right now, turn to them anyway. Do you believe in justice, beauty, compassion, curiosity, creativity, helping, family, discovery, love…? Ask yourself, “What is my guiding North Star? What can I do today to move towards it?”

RELATED: How to Have a Meaningful Life (Hint: It's About Values)

4. Recharge with some rest and recreation

While you're charging forward towards your values, remember to stop for some rest. Dealing with setbacks can be physically and emotionally exhausting. It’s important to not just push, push, push your way back, but also to recharge along the way.

Dealing with setbacks can be physically and emotionally exhausting.

How do you do this? You have full permission to recharge in any way you wish. On the couch with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and a Bridgerton marathon? Go for it! But consider getting some exercise between episodes. Do a few jumping jacks, or a few sun salutations. This is not only immediately good for your body and mood, but also sets the scene for your greater comeback.

There's no shortage of research to show that regular movement (especially outside) has profound advantages on mental health. For some easy, sustainable tips for getting more functional movement into your life, follow my Quick and Dirty Tips colleague Brock Armstrong's Get-Fit Guy podcast.

In a way, exercise is a metaphor for overcoming life’s larger challenges: We set short-term goals, we build momentum, we create our own motivation, and we’re getting ourselves off our butts. This is resilience in action.

And don’t forget to sleep, too. There is no greater balm for life’s hurts, according to Shakespeare, than sleep. I agree! Whatever challenge or setback you’re recovering from, it’s much easier to do it when you’ve gotten good quality sleep. This means prioritizing winding down in the evening, protecting your sleep space from intrusions, and getting up at the same time every morning so your internal clock stays strong.

RELATED: 5 Ways to Quiet Your Mind for Sleep

5. Set bite-sized, realistic goals

You may want to get rich, get famous, and look fabulous doing it right now, but part of resilience involves not setting ourselves up for failure.

If the goals you set are too many and too lofty, you'll have a lower chance of seeing success when you need it most.

A study in Hawai'i, which I'll talk about more in a bit, showed that one of the characteristics of resilient adults is that they set realistic educational and career goals for themselves. If the goals you set are too many and too lofty, you'll have a lower chance of seeing success when you need it most. You're likely to chalk that lack of success up to personal failure. That's demoralizing, and it can discourage you from pushing forward.

So keep the scale of your goals reasonable. Challenge yourself, of course, but also be fair. When you chunk your bigger ambitions into smaller, actionable goals, you get to celebrate milestones and successes more often.

6. Tell your friends how you’re feeling

It’s cliche, but it works. According to a study of nurses working in a life-and-death environment, two things are associated with less burnout. The first is drawing on support from friends and colleagues, and the second is to genuinely express emotions—from sorrow to frustration to joy.

Be honest and authentic rather than trying to put on a 'everything's fine' face.

The nurses who sought support and expressed their feelings were better able to muster the resiliency to continue the tough emotional work their job required. So build relationships with people you trust and tell them how you feel. Be honest and authentic rather than trying to put on a “everything's fine” face. You’ll come out the other side able to keep calm and carry on.

7. Trust that you control your fate, not the other way around

In 1955, the psychologist Dr. Emmy Werner and her colleagues began to follow every child—almost 700 of them—born that year on the Hawai’ian island of Kaua’i. It marked the beginning of a study that would last more than 40 years.

The researchers itched to know: how did they beat the odds? What was the secret ingredient in such resilience?

Kauai in the 1950’s was not a privileged place. Many of the kids were raised in poverty, had unstable, chaotic families, and had mothers who never went to high school. But despite all this, by the time they reached age 40, one-third of the group was, as the study said, “competent, confident, and caring.” They defied the odds—none of that one-third was unemployed, had been in trouble with the law, or relied on social services. Their accomplishments equaled or surpassed many of the kids who grew up in more stable environments. The researchers itched to know: how did they beat the odds? What was the secret ingredient in such resilience?

Again, it’s complicated. Some of it was luck, some of it was having at least one emotionally stable and loving family member to look out for them, and some of it was finding an emotional home in a civic organization, at school, or at church.

But the most important thing the resilient kids had was something called an "internal locus of control." These kids believed that they, not their circumstances, were in the driver’s seat. They believed they could control their life, as opposed to being controlled by whatever life dished out. For example, the researchers noted that resilient kids with a dysfunctional family were good at "recruiting" surrogate parents, whether a youth minister, a trusted teacher, or even a friend’s parent.

Resilient kids had was something called an 'internal locus of control.' They believed that they, not their circumstances, were in the driver’s seat.

How can you apply this to you? In short: Act. Do. Take decisive action. It’s tempting to put the future in the hands of fate, and I won't lie—a lot of the future is unpredictable and uncontrollable. But take control over what you can: your actions and your attitude. And when life does chew you up, remember that it’s only in the middle of an obstacle that you can hone your resilience.

After all, Katy Perry brushed off the dust and let us hear her roar. And you can, too!

Sources +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD Savvy Psychologist

Dr. Jade Wu was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast between 2019 and 2021. She is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine.