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5 Ways to Build Resilience

5 Ways to Build Resilience

Under intense pressure and stress, what separates those that thrive versus those that fold under pressure?  In the world of elite athletics, the power of resilience is on constant display.  Some players and teams rise up in the face of insurmountable odds while others collapse under the stress.  The answer lies within an athlete’s training and ability to build resilience in both body and mind.  Science has taught us that we are not necessarily born resilient, but we certainly can build the capacity for resilience over time.

So, what exactly is resilience?  Perhaps the simplest definition is “the acquired ability to bounce back, recover, adapt, and grow from stress.”  Increasing your resilience is a dynamic process that takes time, intentionality, and consistency.

In the face of threats of any kind, it is normal for someone to experience fear, anxiety, and stress.  The threats can show up as excessive work demands, unexpected health issues, a high-pressure event, or a myriad of external factors. The year 2020 has been especially challenging for many people.  While there are many things we can’t control, how we respond in the face of stress is something we can. 

The stakes are high.  Not only can excessive stress undermine our health, it can diminish the happiness we get out of life.  Below are 5 ways to help build your resilience ‘muscles’:


Most of us think about stress as an insidious villain who robs us of our happiness.  Therefore, it is something negative that should be avoided.  However, the lessons from elite performers teach us that stress is actually the stimulus for growth.   Chronic stress is the issue to be avoided.  Acute bouts of stress can help us grow mentally, emotionally, and physically. 

Imagine someone who wants to build a bicep muscle.  They might “stress” the muscle by doing dumbbell curls until there is discomfort, which is actually injury to the muscle fibers.  The curls serve as a stimulus for growth.  The growth occurs when you allow the muscle to recover. The healing process enhances the strength of the muscle. 

In the world of stress, the bad guy is chronic stress.  When you deny the opportunity for recovery and continually strain the muscle, it can lead to more serious injury.  Many people have heard the old saying “no pain, no gain.”  It may be more appropriate to say “no pain, no recovery, no gain.” 

When it comes to mental and emotional stress, Stanford psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal has shown that people who view stress as being good for them, were less likely to suffer negative consequences of the stress. When your mindset embraces stress as a positive catalyst for growth it can lead to improvement in focus, energy, and our personal relationships. 

One way is to be open and accept that mistakes are an inevitable part of learning.   Everyone makes mistakes.  However, not everyone learns from their mistakes.  When you seek to learn from any situation, you can become a better version of yourself.  With this growth mindset, you will become more confident about your ability to figure things out when a crisis hits and seize the opportunity for personal growth.

Another way to deal with stress is to accept and not dwell on things you cannot change or control. Focusing on the uncontrollable is an exercise in futility.  You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond to it.  You can only control how you think and act in the moment. Your mindset rules your destiny.  As Henry Ford said,  “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.”

Whether bouts of stress are physical, mental, or emotional, if they balanced with a positive mindset and bouts of recovery, you can grow and build resilience.


We can’t trade in our body, like we trade in cars.  We get only get one, and we need it to last.  There is a clear link between physical health and our mental and emotional health.  Physical health can improve sleep, mood, and self-esteem, and reduce stress and anxiety.  To enhance your physical health, you should:

  1. Prioritize sleep. Sleep plays a vital role in supporting healthy brain function and maintain your physical health.  The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends adults get 7-8 hours of sleep a night. If you have trouble sleeping or don’t wake up refreshed, you may have a common sleep condition like obstructive sleep apnea.  It is important to talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your quality of sleep. 
  2. Get exercise. Our bodies are designed to move.  Run, walk, or ride a bike.  If you had a gym membership, but COVID-19 prevents you from going, check out free apps like the J&J 7 Minute Workout, which only requires a floor, a wall, and a chair, and can be done anytime and anywhere.
  3. Eat nutritious meals. In the military, there is recognition that proper nutrition is vital to maintaining good health and mission readiness.  A balanced diet rich in whole grains, lean protein, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products can lower the risk of disease and maintain overall health and resilience.  Food is fuel for the body, so the quality of food matters. And when you put more in the tank than the body needs, it stores it away as fat, which in excessive amounts can jeopardize the performance of the entire system.   

Science has shown that happiness is enhanced when you spend on someone else rather than ourselves.   Brain imaging studies suggest a link between generosity and its role in happiness.   Other studies have shown that donating money to charitable organizations activates the same parts of the brain that responds to sex. Researcher Sonya Lyubomirsky has shown that one of the best ways to enhance happiness and resilience is to perform acts of kindness, volunteering, or simply expressing gratitude toward others.


Healthy thoughts are foundational to building resilience. In the face of adverse situations, there are numerous mindsets that can contribute to building resilience, such as joy, gratitude, hope, pride, humor, and love.  

Performing gratitude exercises is one of the most time-tested and proven ways to enhance your wellbeing and resilience.  One way is to keep a gratitude journal. Before you go to bed in the evening, write down three things you were grateful for that day. This exercise has been shown to increase happiness levels in those who journal regularly.

Science has shown that experiencing gratitude can improve your mood and health. Think about what gives you a sense of hope and give love to those in your life. Gratitude is an anchor for a happy life.


Humans are social creatures.  Nurturing relationships with family, friends, or others are important contributors to building resilience.  Many studies have shown that strong relationships built on love, empathy, and trust can provide guidance and support. 

Outside of one’s immediate family, COVID-19 has made it more difficult to stay physically connected. However, apps like FaceTime or the free version of Zoom can help fill the void. Consider setting up individual or group calls to celebrate a birthday, an achievement, or just to have a virtual happy hour with friends.  The more you invest in relationships, the larger your relationship ‘bank account’ will become and the richer your life will be.

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step.  Find one area to focus on and invest energy in it for the next 6-8 weeks.  You may just find that you are not only enhancing your resilience but contributing to your overall happiness.  And then… you won’t want to stop.