Sometimes we feel like the obstacles or challenges we face are so difficult that we couldn’t possibly overcome them. Confronting a medical situation, facing an unexpected job loss or even coping with the loss of a loved one all can make us stop dead in our tracks, not knowing if we can move forward.
So how can some people not only find the strength to move past these tests they face, but also become stronger as a result? They show resilience in the face of their troubles.
This in-depth guide on resilience defines resilient thinking and the 4 different types of resiliency. It also covers resilience factors that contribute to a positive mindset, how to apply resilient thinking at work, school, when life is stressful and perhaps most importantly, recognizing it in others.
We’ve also included 5 case studies of individuals who overcame the odds, displaying fervent resilience in the face of adversity, that are certain to inspire and show the true power of resilience, along with a handful of helpful books and resources on resilience.
Let’s get started.
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A Case Study In Resilience: Erik Weihenmayer
Alchemists work to turn chemical compounds into new creations, and Erik Weihenmayer calls himself such a person. But instead of chemicals, he says, he works to turn lead into gold.
“With an alchemist,” Weihenmayer says,” you can throw them in the midst of a fiercely competitive environment, strip away their resources, throw roadblocks in front of them, and they’ll still find a way to win – not despite adversity, but because of it.”
Weihenmayer’s No Barriers organization was created to provide opportunities for people with disabilities or challenges to find the resources and inner strength to reach their goals. But the No Barriers organization is more than a movement; it is personal for Erik.
Weihenmayer grew up as an active, athletic kid who enjoyed activities of all kinds and developed a love for wrestling in his early teenage years. At the age of 14, Erik began to lose his sight due to a progressive disease called retinoschisis, eventually becoming completely blind before leaving high school.
Instead of sitting on the sidelines, Weihenmayer used his blindness to strengthen his other senses, eventually representing his Iowa school at the state wrestling competition.
He began to seek out other ways to challenge himself that were tactile in nature, surprisingly landing on rock climbing since he could utilize touch to scan for hand and footholds on the climbing surface.
Using this adventurous spirit as a springboard, Weihenmayer went on to become the first blind person to climb Mount Everest, among many other physical achievements, eventually founding the No Barriers movement to show others that they too can overcome life’s challenges.
The organization’s motto of “What’s Within You Is Stronger Than What’s In Your Way” exemplifies the way Weihenmayer approaches his own life, choosing to strengthen himself from within to overcome the obstacles life presents.
Most people will see the bravery of young Erik and recognize that his experience is noteworthy but also unusual. Not many of us are faced with extraordinary circumstances like Weihenmayer, but it is hard to deny that his desire to continue his fight is remarkable.
What was that spark that kept him going in spite of the obvious risks? You guessed it — Resiliency.
» Related: Mindful Listening: How to Be More Present & Have Better Conversations.
Life Can Be Unpredictable
Life can throw all kinds of challenges at us. Unexpected events change the course of our life like when we face trials in our work and personal life, when loved ones become sick or pass away, or relationships end and disrupt families, or our expectations.
No one is immune to tests and hardship in life, and everyone is tasked with finding a way through the rain to the other side of the storm, even if some challenges are more like a gentle rain shower than a flood. But adversity can show up in small ways that feel big at the time, too.
Many of us have experienced struggles in school at one time or another, found ourselves disappointed when something didn’t go the way we anticipated, or even simply faced challenges we never saw coming.
So dealing successfully with the unpredictability that life can throw at us means that we have to find something within ourselves to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and move past the adversity. But how?
Coping with Adversity
We all have our own ways of surviving difficult times but getting through a tough time and coming out on the other side of it stronger and ready to face more challenges are two very different things.
Coping with adversity can come in many forms, but most people that successfully navigate a challenging situation have one thing in common: they have cultivated a spirit of resiliency within themselves.
Let’s look at what it means to be resilient, how you can cultivate it for yourself, and where you can look to for inspiration when times are tough and your own grit is hard to come by.
» You might like: Best High Income Skills (Anyone Can Benefit from Learning).
What is Resilience?
Resiliency is often described as the ability to push through and learn from challenges or trials. Psychologists say that this way of thinking factors into adapting well when struggles, adversity, traumas, threats or substantial stresses happen in our lives.
Those who have built emotionally resilient ways of thinking will find a way through or around the challenges that work, school, relationships or other aspects of life throws at them without crumbling and feeling stuck.
While it is normal to momentarily freeze up a bit when a huge curveball is thrown our way, building the strength, coping mechanisms, and mindset to face those challenges allows us to move forward and learn from the experience in a positive way.
Developing an overcoming mindset can be painful or uncomfortable sometimes, but the end result is usually a mental toughness and “stick-to-itiveness” that allows people to complete tasks or other challenges that come their way with newfound strength and capability.
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A Case Study in Resilience: Stephen Hawking
An early diagnosis of ALS didn’t slow Stephen down even though he became completely paralyzed and was dependent on full-time care for over 30 years.
When his speaking abilities waned due to a related medical procedure, he began communicating through a sight-activated computer program on his wheelchair.
But none of these understandably devastating physical obstacles kept the dedicated scientist from his life’s work: physics.
Stephen Hawking’s remarkable life and his contributions to science are extraordinary for anyone, but considering the most defining moments of his scientific career happened after his health challenges had devastated his physical body, is more remarkable than even his brilliant mind.
While many would have succumbed to a life of supportive treatments and medical care, Hawking persevered through the most heartbreaking of diseases to have a full life complete with a wife and children.
But even more remarkably, Hawking also continued to impact the scientific community with his gifted mind up until his death, even assisting in the development of computer-assisted communication and movement methods that would benefit others who were wheelchair-bound.
Hawking never gave in to the difficulties he faced in life and instead used them to fuel his future scientific contributions to the world.
Resilience Factors Contributing to a Positive Mindset
Many components contribute to the ability to overcome challenges and struggles in a positive way. In fact, both inner growth and outside factors can contribute to healthy resilient behaviors.
Some of the factors recognized as ways that resilient people cope with troubles and stresses well are:
- effective communication
- problem-solving skills
- realistic planning with achievable goals
- emotional regulation
- positive self-worth and optimistic spirit
- strategies to cope with adversity
- definable character that can distinguish between right and wrong
And, while a mental mindset enveloping any or all of these dynamics is the largest contributing element to developing resilience, outside factors also play a part. Those with a strong support system around them typically are able to develop resilience easier than those without.
However, not having people around you to lift you up, guide you through difficult times or provide help when it is needed doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to develop resilience. It simply is one less factor contributing to its development.
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Types of Resiliency
Depending on the situation, we can have situational toughness throughout different aspects of our life. While all categories relate to our overall ability to adapt and grow from challenges or adversity, this mindset can generally be described in one of four ways.
1. Psychological Resilience
Psychological resilience is the type of mindset that overcomes adversity with a focused calmness that belies the true struggles going on beneath the surface.
Psychological resilience might be called “mental fortitude,” and is seen by others as the ability to project a mental strength that keeps stress from a crisis or other devastating adversity from negatively influencing their life.
2. Emotional Resilience
When a person is emotionally resilient, they can be described as people who can tap into their feelings and emotions and use that knowledge to stay strong in the face of trials or challenges.
Emotional resilience describes people that are essentially optimistic about life, and this powers their mindset through difficult times and allows them to see the potential positive outcomes they would like to achieve.
3. Physical Resilience
Physical resilience describes bouncing back from physical challenges, injuries, accidents or traumas quickly or with a stronger physicality afterward. This type of resilience is fortified by healthy living but also is strengthened by those who have robust community ties as well as strong interpersonal relationships.
And, when medical issues or natural aging concerns affect our bodies, the physically resilient are even more well equipped to recover quickly and efficiently than their peers. Being physically strong is not a requirement for building resiliency of this type, but rather an overall healthy attitude that builds a wholesome lifestyle.
4. Community Resilience
Tightly connected to the people and world around us, community behavior is shared by groups of people that work well together in times of crisis or need.
When natural disasters, economic hardships or even crime or violence occurs in a community that is able to come together to work toward relief or solutions that benefit the whole, we call that being community resilient.
Typically, this type of group behavior eases the emotional, physical, or psychological stresses felt. When society bands together to rise up under such difficult circumstances, community resilience often provides positive, long-term benefits beyond the physical or emotional aid rendered in the situation.
A Case Study in Resilience: J.K. Rowling
As a newly divorced mother of a newborn, author Joanne was struggling to make ends meet. On government aid and unable to put food on the table reliably, she couldn’t afford to make copies of her latest book to send off to editors.
Hopeful that her hard work and intuitive understanding of the literary market she thrived in, Joanne hand-typed out multiple copies of her 90,000-word transcript instead.
Rejected dozens of times, Joanne’s manuscript was eventually accepted and published. Ultimately this author would be known as J.K. Rowling, and her psychologically resilient actions in the face of multiple professional rejections propelled her to be one of the most successful authors on the planet.
Applying Resilient Thinking at Work
Author J.K. Rowlings demonstrates why resilience at work is vital to our future successes as well as making the best of our current circumstances.
When Rowlings kept an eye on the goals she set out for herself for being a published author, she created actions that matched that goal, however difficult or challenging those steps to achieve her desires were.
In a similar way, almost any workplace or career will provide potential future pathways to success, and those who are building resilience will be the ones displaying a positive outlook that is paired with a tangible goal.
Realistic goal setting is a common tool that resilient workers use to motivate them through difficult work situations, propelling them towards better outcomes in the future.
Additionally, reflection on past decisions in the workplace can help to guide future successes as well as provide a mental calmness for coping with current concerns.
In Rowling’s situation, resilience psychology is evident in her ability to overcome the customary disappointment that came with a rejection of her writing with an optimistic spirit rather than losing hope.
Building mental toughness in the workplace is possible with a variety of concrete strategies that just about anyone can implement in their career or job place.
Five impactful actions or changes in thinking to do this are:
1. Plan out your decisions
Take risks that are calculated within the work environment to seek out new challenges that will further your career path.
2. Stay focused on your goals
Don’t let stress, changes in the field, or unexpected events derail well-thought-out plans.
3. Stay positive
Look for the things that will improve morale, job site or personal outlook to provide inner fortitude for yourself and others around you.
4. Reflect on past experiences
Use self-assessment to determine if different actions would create better future professional outcomes.
5. Use emotional responses appropriately
Don’t let emotions overwhelm you when normal disappointments occur. Instead, work toward keeping problems in perspective and allow yourself to grow in the process of experiencing setbacks.
Applying Resilient Thinking at School
As almost any teacher can attest, when graded essays are returned to a class, students either resume a posture of positivity or negativity immediately upon receiving their own work.
Surprisingly, not every student that clearly shows a positive response – nodding their heads, reading comments intently or assuming a content facial expression – is actually holding a paper with an admirable A or B grade.
Conversely, some students with high marks on their assignments are now slumped with downcast eyes, exhibiting physical disappointment through their body language and lack of positive response to their otherwise usually commendable grade.
As a student in the midst of learning new skills and content, perfect scores are not possible in every situation. So why does a seemingly impressive grade produce such an obvious negative reaction for some students but not for others?
Those students that are modeling this positive behavior can teach us why resilience is important: it helps us cope with academia’s sometimes disappointing circumstances. Resilience factors for students can usually be understood as characteristics of those who thrive in the stressful setting of school.
While a direct correlation can be made between academic success and professional or personal success later in life for some, a stronger connection is actually found between students who are resilient and adults who are happy or content.
In other words, students building resilience in school end up experiencing less stress as adults since they have developed coping mechanisms to deal with life’s inevitable challenges.
So what are some ways a young person can work on developing resilience in school?
1. Get connected.
Students that feel part of the school community are more likely to develop communal resiliency behaviors, strengthening their own personal grit and determination in the face of stress or crisis.
2. See yourself in stories
Students that can see connections between heroic characters and their identifiable traits that contribute to their successes can make greater links between themselves and their own possibilities.
3. Reflect on your strengths and weaknesses
Students that have a safe place to talk about their own abilities and areas that need improvement can use that knowledge to improve themselves and their ability to cope with future challenges.
4. Take ownership of your successes and failures
Classrooms are a place of learning, so not knowing all of the answers, all of the time is expected. Students who can be shown that the learning process is full of ups and downs are more likely to be able to cope with occasional difficulties in life outside of the classroom walls.
5. Develop a Growth Mindset
Stanford researcher Carol Dweck’s research on the two opposing mindsets, growth versus fixed, expand on the need for students to be aware of how their own attitude toward intelligence can set them up for success or failure.
» Related: You might like this in-depth guide on How to Develop a Growth Mindset.
A Growth Mindset will:
- see intelligence as something that can grow instead of just something you are born with
- embrace challenges instead of fear or dread them
- work to overcome challenges, seeing them as another opportunity for growth instead of a stopping point
A Case Study in Resilience: Lydia Jacoby
Watching the Olympic games is a right of passage for many young athletes around the world, imagining themselves one day too competing on the world stage.
Unlike many other 17-year-old swimmers who are still honing their skills and swimming against age-grouped competitors, phenom Lydia Jacoby had risen to the very top of the best breaststrokers in the USA to earn a spot on the 2020 Olympic swim team.
The young Alaskan swimmer competed individually in her event, but she also earned a place on the standout relay team and would be swimming with and against much older, more experienced swimmers.
But when Jacoby hit the water for her leg of the highly competitive relay race, the unthinkable happened: her goggles fell down immediately as she dove into the water, making the up and down movements of her swimming stroke impossible to complete with any visibility.
At Jacoby’s young age, this devastating fluke would understandably be the end of the race for most inexperienced competitors. But against all odds, the determined athlete pushed through the challenge, determined not to let her teammates or herself down.
In fact, Jacoby did not just finish respectably. She actually turned in a fast enough time to combine for the best time ever raced by a US women’s relay in that event.
Other athletes agree that it was the young competitor’s mindset that allowed her to be successful in a situation where most might understandably fail, depicting obvious psychological and physical resilience.
Recognizing it in Others
We face choices every day that provide us the opportunity to exercise and grow our own resiliency, but we don’t always recognize those times. And when we see a person who is resilient, we often describe them as strong, courageous, and hard-working, or having grit.
We may not know their motivations, but we can see that they are able to keep trying when the going gets tough. And while many factors may come into play, a mental mindset to overcome challenges is usually part of the reason people in difficult situations are able to find success in moving past their own adversity.
When we learn how to spot it in others, we can then begin to apply whatever traits, or lessons to our life and ultimately strengthen our own resolve and resilience.
Applying Resilient Thinking When Life is Stressful
Examples of resilience in people we interact with in our everyday lives are all around us, but we often describe those people as somehow stronger or different from everyone else. When in reality, almost all of us display some behaviors or practice a mindset that helps us to find success after failure as well as learn from the experience moving forward.
Take for example the pandemic. No one was prepared for the challenges, uncertainty and difficulties it would bring into our lives. What’s certain is that this generation defining event has changed/is changing us forever. Whether for the better or worst — that’s up to us.
George A. Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University is a prominent researcher in the field of resilience. He studied a variety of individuals who experienced dramatic challenges in life, and found that the variation in resilience among those people wasn’t determined by how bad their struggles were. Instead, it came down to how they thought about a stressful event.
In other words, if we think about a stressful situation as an opportunity for learning and growth, then our resilience can strengthen in tandem. Because after all, resilience is more about perception rather than how we are shaped by the difficulties in our life. It’s those who respond to life’s challenges (like a global pandemic) in a positive way that tend to capture meaning and significance from them.
This is nothing new as the ancient Buddhists and Stoics have known this for millennia. Ivy League scientists are now confirming it in the lab. As the popular podcaster Jordan Harbinger says:
“If we have any hope of coming out of this pandemic stronger, more grateful, and more connected, then it’ll be because we find meaning in the adversity of the last few years. Which means choosing which upsides to embrace, and taking them with us into everything we do in the future — whatever we decide that future looks like.”
A Case Study in Resilience: Sarah Jessica Parker
Born into unfortunate circumstances, Sarah lived in a coal-mining town as one of 8 children in a blue-collar family. Her blended family was often on welfare and young Sarah found herself earning money to help put food on the table before the age of 10.
Instead of letting the depressing start get her down, she turned to the arts. Developing resilience, she blossomed into a talented performer channeling her positive demeanor and hard work into the possibility of future successes.
Her mother shared Sarah’s affinity for music, dance and theater, and encouraged her to follow her passion and enjoy the escape that the arts provided the struggling family.
Today, Sarah Jessica Parker, as she is called professionally, is a very successful actress and entrepreneur recognized for her sunny disposition and work ethic that has resulted in a prosperous career far removed from her humble, challenging beginnings.
Books & Resources on Resilience
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
- Courage is Calling: Fortune Favors the Brave by Ryan Holiday
- The Hugging Tree: A Story About Resilience by Jill Neimark
- What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey
- Resilience for Dummies by Dr. Eva Selhub, Lynn Bradford, and Tantor Audio
- After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again) by Dan Santat
- Building Your Resilience by the American Psychological Association
Finding ways to overcome a challenge, reaching out to those who can help you, reflecting on ways to improve or change a negative situation or intentionally framing a positive mindset for yourself are all excellent examples of resilience in action.
From setting lofty but attainable goals to recognizing when you fall short and not letting an emotional reaction take over when the inevitable failure or obstacle happens, building resilience is an everyday effort with a long-term, positive payoff.
Stressful life situations call for healthy coping mechanisms, and physical, psychological and emotional resilience builds a solid foundation for coping with whatever adversities life throws your way.
Where in your life right now could you benefit from resilience?
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Looking forward to seeing you in there.