It’s not magic—it’s habit.
It’s easy to think of resilience as a magical skill that appears for some people when a project or task becomes overwhelming. When stress levels rise, resilient people remain calm, manage setbacks, and analyze how to move forward. But this attitude doesn’t appear from thin air—resilience develops through the practice of regulating emotions and reacting rationally under pressure. With enough dedication and practice, anyone can learn how to employ these tools and become more resilient over time.
Resilience includes both a behavioral response to stress and the regulation of our emotions and body during stress. We can think about our development of helpful, regulating responses to stress in terms of the four resilience states shown in the matrix below.
Resilience looks different in different situations.
First, there is easy resilience. This refers to situations where stress levels are relatively low and easily handled. Alternatively, stress sensitivity situations are where people respond poorly to low stress levels.
For example, a teacher must manage the stress of instructing students, who are often tired and distracted. If the teacher threatens the students with failing grades and yells every time students misbehave, the teacher is not responding effectively, even though the stress level is low. This is an example of stress sensitivity. To better respond to the situation, the teacher could listen to the students to understand what was upsetting them. The teacher could also maintain a normal tone of voice and a positive demeanor (a smile, eye contact, active listening, etc.) to sooth the situation. The teacher who uses these strategies represents easy resilience in a situation where there is consistent, low-level stress. By demonstrating resilience in this second example, the teacher recognizes the problems at hand yet remains in control and calm.
In the case of the third type, active resilience, stress levels are high, but people are still able to regulate and manage their emotions. The fourth and final type, non-resilience, is the failure to manage emotions and reactions during highly stressful situations. Firefighting is a profession that guarantees highly stressful experiences where lives and homes may be at stake. Firefighters must maintain emotional fortitude and physical calm in order to be resilient in the face of such danger. They cannot risk blaming each other if something goes wrong or they fail to contribute to the squad while fighting a fire. The firefighters may not need to be actively resilient every minute of every day, but they must be prepared to handle stress whenever necessary.
Active resilience requires that people develop competent techniques to respond to stress in advance of expected chaos. While teachers respond to lower levels of stress on a more consistent basis, firefighters must be prepared to handle high stress levels at a moment’s notice. Both, however, rely on cultivating resilience strategies. Once we’ve identified the kinds of stress we experience most often, we can turn our attention to how we practice the resilience to react to and manage that stress in a healthy way.
Physical responses are a great place to start.
When we are stressed or expect stress, our hearts beat faster, we think less effectively, and our bodies become tense. Taking a minute to regain control of your breathing will help to counteract these physical responses. Breathing slowly and regularly will regulate the heart’s rapid beat. Thinking will become easier again and the body will relax. Additionally, stretching, going for a walk, or having a regular exercise routine will all contribute positively to soothing stress. If you expect stress from a necessary task, setting time aside to work out, meditate, or carry out breathing exercises can prevent anxious and unfocused responses.
Shifting our thinking about stress also refuels our resilience.
Taking time to remember something positive we’re looking forward to in the future can make current problems less overwhelming. Similarly, talking to friends or family can remind us of our true priorities. Support from friends and family can inspire us to see how capable we are of overcoming obstacles and stressful tasks ahead. While resilience allows us to complete the final stages of difficult tasks, it also permits us to enter into difficult tasks without hesitating. Taking on a project we know will be difficult requires as much resilience as finishing one. Having supportive friends and positive objectives in mind helps us to procrastinate less and accomplish more.
Openness to change is key.
No matter which strategies we choose for managing our stress, developing resilience requires being open to recognizing your own behaviors and thought patterns. Think about common stressors in your life. How do you tend to respond to them? How could you evolve those responses and reactions to stress? Whatever pressure we may feel, taking step back to recognize the source and plan healthy responses helps greatly. We can ask ourselves, “What am I feeling, mentally and physically, right now?” “Is it within my control to make the situation less stressful?” “Could I manage this situation just as well if I wasn’t feeling as anxious?” “Are my feelings impacting my coworkers?” These are all questions we can ask ourselves to detect and manage our stress.
Feelings of anxiety or insecurity can be managed, even in the most hectic situations, by developing strategies of resilience. Many of these practices can be honed at home or in advance of stress. Even if we’re just cooking dinner with family or waiting in a long line at the grocery store, trying to breathe deeply or to imagine a positive outcome can provide us with the resilient spirit to handle any task. With practice, we can strengthen our resilience and discover new ways of handling stress as it happens.