What Does Resilience Mean? Definition, Qualities, & Examples
Curious what resilience means? Here we define resilience and explore the many different things that contribute to resilience.
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What Is Resilience?
Resilience is defined as the personal qualities that enable one to thrive in the face of adversity (Connor& Davidson, 2003). In life, we all face stressful experiences—the death of a loved one, financial hardship, social rejection, and many others. But we have a surprising amount of variability in how we cope with these experiences. Some of us cope well and may even grow and improve as a result of stress. Others struggle and may even develop mental health issues in the face of stress. It is thought that resilience is the thing that separates these two paths.
How Resilient Are You?
Resilience is a many-faceted concept, but here are a few questions you can ask yourself to get a better sense of how resilient you are.
If you answer yes on these 3 questions, that suggests you are more resilient:
If you answer yes to these questions, that suggests lower resilience:
Take our well-being quiz to get your personalized report and learn even more about yourself.
Why Does Resilience Matter?
Stress is really hard on both our physical and emotional wellness. The more effectively we can cope, the more quickly we can recover and return to normal functioning. Ongoing stress can have devastating effects on our bodies. Our personal resilience can buffer us from these effects, shutting down the stress cycle and HPA-axis, enabling us to better fight off illness and other negative outcomes (Gaffey, Bergeman, Clark, & Wirth, 2016).
Is Resilience the Same for Everyone?
Given we all struggle with different types of stressors, resilience means different things to each of us. For example, to someone who is extroverted, resilience may mean spending extra time with friends to cope with stress. To an introvert, resilience may mean spending more time alone. Although each of us may cope with struggles by using different strategies, there are generally accepted qualities that tend to make up resilience. We likely already have some of these qualities (as a result of our genes and/or environment). But we can also develop these qualities with effort and practice.
Below we talk about what resilience means and how to develop the qualities that make you more resilient.
Video: What Does Resilience Mean?
1. Resilience Means Acceptance
So much pain is created from our tendency to fight the things we can not change. "No, I didn't want that to happen! Arg!" But the more time we spend getting upset about the uncontrollable situations in our lives, the more time we spend stressed or angry instead of focusing on how we can make the future better. Perhaps this is why acceptance is linked to positive well-being (Ranzijn & Luszcz, 1999).
To cultivate acceptance, many people recommend practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness can help you to quiet your mind and practice being present (and accepting) of the moment and your current experiences. Focus on letting your thoughts and emotions just exist without judgment. Doing this can help cultivate mindfulness and resilience.
2. Resilience Means Self-Knowledge
Self-knowledge is essential to resilience. If we do not know ourselves well enough to cope with stressors in ways that are effective for us, then we are unlikely to be resilient. For example, maybe we cope by drinking alcohol or using drugs when we're upset. But the next day, we just end up feeling worse. By developing self-knowledge, we can take actions that help us recover from difficulties more easily.
To start, spend some time in self-reflection. Ask yourself,
By working to increase self-awareness, you can boost resilience.
Video: Resilience means connecting with yourself
3. Resilience Means Self-Care
One part of resilience is just taking care of yourself. When we're sick, tired, and malnourished, we have a harder time responding to any type of stress, big or small. Our bodies just don't have the resources. For example, research has found that sugar intake is related to depression (Knüppel et al., 2017). Indeed, if we focus on living and eating healthier, we are likely to boost our resilience. We can do this by eating more nutritious food, engaging in moderate exercise, and sleeping when we're tired.
4. Resilience Means Work-Life Balance
Burnout is a very real phenomenon that includes emotional exhaustion and cynicism (Maslach & Jackson, 1981). Research has shown that there are several causes of burnout including too much work, not enough control, not enough pay, social issues, and a mismatch in values (Maslach & Leiter, 2016). Any of these factors can contribute to burnout in the workplace. And burnout is kind of the ultimate non-resilience. You just have nothing left to give and your mind and body start shutting down.
This is why it's so important to prevent burnout before it gets to this point. If possible, try to switch jobs or roles that are not a good fit for you. Take breaks whenever possible. And be sure to implement relaxation techniques into your lifestyle.
5. Resilience Means Positive Thinking
Another way to change how we experience the world is to direct our attention towards the positive things. When we do experience stress, we can focus on how awful it is, how we wish we weren't here, and on how sorry we feel for ourselves. Or, we can intentionally shift our focus onto the positive. Admittedly, this is easier said than done.
One well-studied positive thinking strategy is positive reappraisal. When we use positive reappraisal, we try to think about the parts of the situation that are good (or not as bad as they could be). Positive reappraisal has been shown to contribute to resilience in the context of stress (Troy, Wilhelm, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2010). By finding ways to make our stressful experiences less stressful, we feel better and boost our resilience.
6. Resilience Means Self-Love
Self love (or self-worth, self-confidence, self-esteem, etc...) may be a crucial part of what it means to be resilient. Positive self-views are closely linked to positive outcomes like happiness and well-being (Miller Smedema, Catalano, & Ebener, 2010). This may be because if we feel bad about ourselves, it colors every other aspect of our lives. We set ourselves up for disappointing situations and then we blame ourselves for them. By cultivating self-love, for example by practicing self-compassion, we can hopefully respond to stress in healthier ways.
7. Resilience Means Social Connection
No matter what we're doing, we feel better when we're doing it with others. That makes social connections a crucial component of resilience. In fact, one of the most reliable ways to boost well-being is by developing high-quality social relationships and by feeling socially connected to the people in your life (Holt-Lunstad, Robles, & Sbarra, 2017).
If we're feeling worried or stressed, this is an especially good time to reach out to others. Having a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, or a brain to bounce ideas off of can offer tremendous value and truly help us thrive even in very difficult circumstances. That's why it's key to maintain high-quality friendships so that you can be there for each other when things are not going so great.
8. Resilience Means Taking a Step Back
Sometimes when we're going through something difficult, we get so immersed in it that we can't see straight. Our emotions overwhelm and our perspectives narrow. That's why resilience often means being able to take a step back to look at our situation from outside ourselves. More specifically, if we look at our situation as if we were “a fly on the wall” or "a passerby on the street", we can get some much-needed objectivity that can help decrease our negative emotions. This strategy is known as emotional distancing, and it can help us feel better during difficult times (Ayduk, & Kross, 2010).
A similar strategy that can help resilience is to take a step away from your situation in time. For example, when we say "this too shall pass", we are acknowledging that although we may feel bad now, we're not likely to feel so bad at some point in the near or farther future. When we remind ourselves of this, it somehow makes it easier to cope with present difficult circumstances (Bruehlman-Senecal, & Ayduk, 2015).
9. Resilience Means Effective Goal Setting
Our reality is more than just the things that happen; it's our interpretation of those experiences. That's why structuring our lives in ways that help us interpret situations positively can be helpful for resilience. More specifically, if we set small, attainable goals and break these goals up into even smaller baby steps, each of our successes can be seen as a win. "Yes, I crossed one more thing off my ToDo list!"
On the flip side, if we set large, difficult, or unachievable goals, we're likely to feel disappointed a lot. Even if we actually are taking small steps towards our goal, we may not notice them if we haven't taken the time to recognize that yes, doing this one small thing actually does get us closer to our goal. So when aiming to optimize resilience, it's key to set many small goals and celebrate successes. Once you reach those goals, set new ones. That way you're always advancing instead of feeling stuck.
10. Resilience Means Believing in Yourself
We all fail. Resilient people just get back up and keep going. They often have a growth mindset—or the belief that they can improve and grow. And they may even reflect on what they want their future to look like, for example by creating a vision board—a visual depiction of goals, values, and dreams.
By staying optimistic about our own abilities to achieve our goals, we are less deterred by events or people that try to get in our way. We believe we can meet any challenge and may even get a boost of confidence from successfully overcoming a challenge and proving that we should believe in ourselves (Connor& Davidson, 2003). Our beliefs can then help us manifest our dreams. It's not magic; it's just because we try hard and we don't get in our own way.
11. Resilience Means Being Adaptable
The less rigid we are, the easier it is to be emotionally resilient. If we can go with the flow and be flexible, then the twists and turns aren't so traumatic. To be more adaptable, we just need to let go a bit and give up some control. Ultimately, things will happen to us in our lives that we have no control over. Accepting it, dealing with it, bounding back, and moving forward is key to recovery from just about any challenge.
12. Resilience Means Making Meaning From Hardship
It's human nature to try to make meaning of our challenges. We often create explanations in our mind for why things happened to us and why they happened the way they did. This can help us cope with loss and other stressful events (Park, 2008). That's why meaning-making can be a key part of resilience. If we instead think that bad things happen for seemly no reason, we can end up feeling lost or out of control.
13. Resilience Means Not Giving Up
Life can be tough. We'll go through hard times. Resilient people aren't defeated by hard times. They fall off the horse and get back on. They don't get the job they wanted and they keep on applying. They're partner breaks up with them and continue to date to try to meet someone new. These things are not easy. It can be easier to hide or give up.
To develop this characteristic, push yourself to go outside your comfort zone. Did that presentation you gave at work go poorly? Try again. Did you throw up last time you went to the gym? Give it another shot. Building resilience takes gumption and perseverance but it's worth it and in the long run, it can vastly improve your life.
13. Resilience Means Recognizing Your Strengths
Do you think of yourself as a strong person? We all are in some ways. If you know your strengths and weaknesses, then you can get a better idea of the ways you are strong. Try these activities to identify your personal strengths and your positive qualities to help grow this part of resilience.
14. Resilience Means Emotion Regulation
One of the most difficult parts of a stressful situation is the emotions that come up. We can get overwhelmed, flustered, and even do things we regret if we can't regulate, or manage, our emotions effectively. That's why building our emotion regulation skills is key to cultivating resilience. Rather than suppressing our emotions, we face them head-on, reinterpret situations to change our feelings, and then let them go.
Video: Emotional Resilience Guided Meditation
15. Resilience Means Liking Challenges
We tend to think of challenges as a bad thing, but there are actually people who like challenges. When things are a little hard, it can feel stimulating or exciting. For example, if you like to push yourself at work, in sports, or to accomplish something special, you're likely more resilient. You might like challenges because you're already resilient (so failing or struggling isn't so bad) or you might have learned through experiencing challenges that you actually get a lot out of them. Whatever the reason, resilience is all about experiencing challenges and thriving in the face of them.
16. Resilience Means Taking Control of Your Life
What do all of these parts of resilience have in common? They all involve taking control of your life—your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The world happens to us, but we have control over ourselves and how we respond. And resilience is all about these responses. Resilience means responding in ways that make us feel good, ways that help us thrive, ways that are ultimately good for our health and well-being. And we all have that control. So even if we're feeling like our life lacks autonomy or we're stuck in a bad situation, we have control over how we respond to our circumstances and therefore we have the power to be resilient.
Hopefully, you have a better sense of what resilience means. Here are some examples of how someone might be resilient in the face of stress.
As you can see from these resilience examples, resilience isn't about suppressing or avoiding negative emotions or experiences. It's about handling them using all the mental, emotional, and behavioral skills available.
What Is the Meaning of Resilience to You?
So how do you define resilience? I've talked about how the research defines resilience, but what does it mean to you? By clarifying your own definitions of resilience you can have a better idea of how you'll cope with stress and choose the strategies that best fit you.
Video: Trauma Teaches Resilience
Final Thoughts on What Resilience Means
Resilience is a powerful tool for well-being. But it is also a complex, multifaceted concept. Hopefully this explanation of what resilience means helped clarify it for you and taught you some strategies you can apply in your life.