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How to Build Resilience

We all have difficult things to overcome in life. Some of these “things” to overcome come easily, while others are more difficult. Some of us seem to overcome everything easily, while others seem to really struggle. We might even identify ourselves as one of these folks. You could feel helpless at times. But, the good news is that you can learn to overcome these challenges. It’s a skill that is a natural part of life, and something you can work on, not some innate talent only born into a few people (1). This bounce-back from challenges, or adversity, is called resilience.


For resilience to happen, two psychological processes have to occur. First, is admitting that something went wrong. You have to accept it, and own it. This is all about taking control of the situation and doing something about it. The second process is sticking to that decision and not wavering, no matter what it is you decide to do. Commit to it. (2).


Now, to help with these, another key element has to be in play, and that’s optimism, a trust that things will work out and where the future looks bright (3). And the level of optimism you have tends to be a predictor for how well you handle stress. A study done in 2006 reported that those who were optimistic also tend to live healthier lives, have less physical illnesses, and feel better about themselves and their abilities (4). When you feel better about your abilities, you tend to perform better, and in the world of sports, that’s the name of the game.

Elite athletes work on something called mental toughness, which is a combination of many things, one of which is resilience. Mental toughness is defined as “A personal capacity to produce consistently high levels of subjective . . . or objective performance.” (5). When we start to explore mental toughness, we get a better understanding at what resilience is, because all mentally tough people are resilient, but not all resilient people are necessarily mentally tough. In short, the difference between the two is the attitude we feel towards the challenge.


One of the most commonly used models of mental toughness is called the four “Cs”. Challenge. Commitment. Control. And Confidence. Challenge refers to whether we see something as an opportunity, or a threat. Commitment is about the promise you make to yourself and keeping it. Two skills used within here is motivation and focus. While we might focus on exercising more, we can’t without being motivated to do it. A skill to help with this is something called cognitive inhibition, which is the ability to block out irrelevant thoughts or things that aren’t related to the task. For example, if you were studying for an exam, motivation would keep you studying, but cognitive inhibition keeps the thoughts of you putting down the book to go outside and do something else.


The third C is Control, the element of how in control we feel. Here, there are two kinds: Life control and Emotional Control. Life control deals with how much we believe that we are in control of what happens to us. If you feel like a victim of everything that goes on in life, you would probably have a very low sense of life control, something called learned helplessness. To explain this, there was a study done in 1975 that involved dogs.


Here’s how it worked. A dog was placed in a room, and the floor of this room was metallic, and administered mild electric shocks. In the room was a lever, and the dog was trained that if they switched the lever, the shocks would stop. This study included a number of dogs, and while some dogs were trained to switch the lever and stop the shocks, there were other dogs that learned even when they do switch the lever, the shocks continued.


Next, these dogs were placed in another room with a small divider, one that they could easily hop over. On the side they were on, the floor was again administering mild shocks, and on the other side was a normal floor with no shocks being added. The researchers found that the dogs who learned to flip the switch to stop the shocks quickly hopped over the divider to the other side. The dogs that learned the switch did nothing to stop the shocks didn’t do anything. They simply stayed on their side of the divider, assuming they couldn’t avoid it. This is the aspect of learned helplessness, where we learn that no matter what we do, we are helpless in avoiding the adversity of life, and must bear it.


Back to the four Cs of mental toughness. The other type of control is emotional control, the ability to keep our emotions in check. This isn’t so much about not showing emotions, but rather controlling whether we decide to show our emotions or not. People are either sensitive to emotions or not so sensitive, so some people might have to work at this skill more than others. This is related to emotional intelligence, and it’s been shown that those who are mentally tough tend to have higher emotional intelligence (6).


The final C is Confidence, which is pretty self-explanatory, and there are actually two types: Confidence in your abilities, and interpersonal confidence. Confidence in your abilities is the belief that your abilities will allow you to reach your goals. And interpersonal confidence is the confidence in your interpersonal skills to reach your goals. In sport, this is thought of as your verbal abilities, but it’s really your ability to work with others in reaching your goals. To make things clearer, Confidence deals with how confident you are in your “hard skills”, and your “soft skills”.


Now, remember, not all resilient people are mentally tough, and you don’t need to be mentally tough to bounce back in life. Mental toughness is a highly intense skill professional athletes develop to stay at the top of their game and keep giving their peak performance. In life, we don’t need to do our best all the time. It’d be nice, but staying mentally tough is an exhausting process. Regardless, in order for us to get there, we first need to deal with the primary element of mental toughness, which is resilience. And resilience can be developed.

One effective way to achieve this is to focus on your strengths. There is more and more mounting evidence to prove that our thoughts affect our behavior, and by focusing on your strengths, you are moving your focus away from your negative thoughts. This is a form of cognitive inhibition as you block out the negative thoughts that “should be” irrelevant to your task. Ask yourself what you do well in and what resources you have at your disposal to help you. This is an aspect of positive psychology which asserts that happiness cannot exist amongst a lot of stress.


Another way is to focus on how you interact with your life. Because resilience is all about getting back to feeling good about yourself, the point is to engage with others. Those who withdraw and don’t involve themselves in activities are more at risk for depression, and engagement was the one thing that mattered more than happiness when it came to being satisfied with one’s life. MentalHealth.gov states that an important aspect to positive mental health is contributing to the community in some way. You can involve yourself with clubs of any sort, playing on a sports team, board game nights, meditating, or exercising. These are all considered forms of therapeutic lifestyle changes which have been shown to help us feel better about ourselves.


Some other examples include:

Getting exercise. Duke University found that regular exercise is as effective, if not more effective, than antidepressant medication.


Focus on your nutrition. Keep up with your social relations, as socializing with others benefits your wellness.


Challenge yourself by learning another language or a musical instrument. A cognitive challenge builds new neural pathways in the brain.


Getting enough sleep, a critical component to brain functioning.


Meditation, which can increase gray matter in the brain by doing just 10-20 minutes a day, making you much calmer throughout the day.


Resilience doesn’t develop overnight, but it can be developed. There will be times when you have to stop and consciously decide to put a TLC in place, but eventually these “cues” will become more natural, making them quicker and quicker to implement, and eventually lifestyle habits. Life is about balancing this eb and flow of stressors, and learning to build resilience throughout life is one of the key factors for those who succeed.


References


1 – Mason, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic. Resilience Processes in development. American Psychologist, 56, 227-238.

2 – Perry, J. (2015). Sport psychology: A complete introduction. Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd.

3 – Ivey, A. E., Ivey, M. B., & Zalaquett, C. P. (2018). Intentional Interviewing and Counseling: Facilitating client development in a multicultural society, 9th ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

4 - Segerstrom, S. C., & Nes, L. S. (2006). When Goals Conflict But People Prosper: The Case of Dispositional Optimism. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 675–693.

5 – Gucciardi, D. F., Hanton, S., Gordon, S., Mallett, C. J., & Temby, P. (2015). The concept of mental toughness: Tests of dimensionality, nomological network and traitness. Journal of Personality, 83, 26-44.

6 – Nicholls, A. R., Perry, J. L., Jones, L., Sanctuary, C., Carson, F., & Clough, P. J. (2015). The mediating role of mental toughness in sport. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 55, 824-34.

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© 2017 Maxwell Myers