Building our Resilience

Why is resilience important?

Resilience appears to have benefits for both physical and mental health.

So what can we do to maintain and develop our resilience?

Surround yourself with Caring Relationships and make connections

The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests that strong, caring relationships are the primary foundation of resilience: “Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person's resilience.” To help build resilience, we can work to create good connections and social support with family, friends, and other groups in the community.

Developing a positive attitude can help Build Resilience

The APA also points to attitudinal shifts that people can strive to adopt in order to give themselves a stronger foundation for resilience. Most of these relate to setting realistic expectations, and looking at the world with a positive “things will get better” perspective, rather than letting stresses pile up. These attitude shifts include:

  • Making realistic plans and following steps to move towards these realistic goals and accomplishments 
  • Realizing and accepting that stress is a part of life that we all can handle 
  • Adopting a positive, confident sense of self 
  • Building ways to solve problems and deal with stressful situations. 

For example, the APA suggests “act on adverse situations as much as you can. Take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away.” A 2010 review on Resilience in the journal World Psychiatry summarizes this approach as developing “self-regulation abilities… positive views of self… and motivation to be effective in the environment… moreover, optimism, positive emotionality, perceiving stressful occurrences in less threatening ways and the ability to reframe adverse experiences in a positive vein, spirituality, and being able to find meaning amidst trauma have each been linked to resilience.”

“Rethink” Stress: Train Yourself to Deal with It Instead of Falling Apart 

We can use various methods to reappraise or rethink our reactions to stressful situations, to reduce the impact i.e. we can essentially train ourselves to react to stress in a different, better way. For example, a small-scale 2012 study suggested that when we experience physiological symptoms of stress (like low energy, headaches, upset stomachs, insomnia, frequent colds and infections) we can react better by telling ourselves that this “is not harmful… our body's responses to stress have evolved to help us successfully address stressors, and that increased arousal actually aids performance in stressful situations.” In other words, we can train ourselves to experience the feeling of stress as a positive, productive experience

A Healthy Body can support Resilience 

Activities like regular exercise and stress-reduction practices (such as mindfulness meditation) also appear to help build resilience and a 2017 study suggested that sleep can help build resilience by reducing “fear-related activity” in the brain. 

Building Resilience at Work: Workplace Training 

Some research on resilience has focused specifically on the ways in which people handle stress in the workplace. This is important.  One paper describes how “rapid change, high workloads and increased complexity in working environments has created the need for personal work resilience.” A systematic review of published research conducted in 2015 found that resilience training at work can have positive, effective benefits for employees. “The most common format involved group-based training over a 10- to 11-week period” though “the results do suggest that, until conclusive evidence is available, it may be wise to include individual support in any resilience training programme.” A separate analysis found “programmes employing a one-on-one delivery format (e.g., coaching) were most effective, followed by the classroom-based group delivery format.”

Building resilience at Work: the Right Environment

While workplace training can be useful, the way the organisation as a whole operates is arguably even more important. A 2017 review defined the practical steps that organizations should take to create resilient employees: “(1) design work to minimise harm, (2) build organisational resilience through good management, (3) enhance personal resilience, (4) promote early help-seeking and (5) support recovery and return to work.”

Building Resilience in Children: Establishing “Protective Factors” 

Resilient children have been found to have strong, supportive social relationships with adults, both in their families and communities. A 2017 systematic review of published research summarized the “protective factors” that are associated with resilience in children. These include “strong attachment to family, high levels of pro-social behaviour in family, school, and community, high social skills/competence, strong moral beliefs, high levels of religiosity, positive personal disposition, positive social support, and strong family cohesion.”  A 2015 paper on resilience describes, “when these positive influences are operating effectively, they ‘stack the scale’ with positive weight and optimize resilience.”

Building Children’s “Sense of Mastery” and Executive Function 

Resilient children also possess an inner strength, self-esteem and self-control that helps them cope with stress. Some call this “a sense of mastery over their life circumstances” and suggest that stress-coping skills can be learned through coaching and practice. For example, “programs that actively build skills for planning, organization, impulse control, cognitive flexibility” can help children cope and adapt to adversity.     

Other research refers to the importance of “executive function” for children, which is essentially a person’s “air traffic control system” in the brain or the “group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, monitor errors, make decisions in light of available information, revise plans as necessary, and resist the urge to let frustration lead to hasty actions. Acquiring the early building blocks of these skills is one of the most important and challenging tasks of the early childhood years, and the opportunity to build further on these rudimentary capacities is critical.” These functions can be built by ensuring a positive, non-adverse environment for children, through early interventions and training in primary schools, and through other “specialized practice and training.” Children have also been shown to develop executive function by getting involved in programs and activities like “computerized training, non-computerized games, aerobics, martial arts, yoga, mindfulness, and school curricula. Central to all these is repeated practice and constantly challenging executive functions.”  

Important in the development of resilience is children is the balance in parental interventions. While a strong relationship is foundational to resilience, research has also shown that “overparenting” or “helicopter parenting” can actually result in poor resilience. In these cases, the child does not have the opportunity to work out how to cope with stress or find a sense of self-responsibility that is important in developing resilience. A short-term study of ~800 parents found that “high levels of parental help reduce student opportunities to learn personal responsibility for their academic achievements.”  


To help build resilience we can: 

  • Surround ourselves with caring, supportive relationships 
  • Rethink the ways we react to stress, recognising it is an everyday part of life that we are equipped to handle and can learn from 
  • Be more positive about how we see ourselves and more active in finding solutions when faced with challenges 
  • Follow a Healthy lifestyle, with regular exercise, enough sleep and possibly meditation 

It is important for children to have opportunities to develop executive function and a sense of mastery so they know how to cope when facing adversity – so we need to be supportive and enabling parents but avoid overparenting and ‘helicopter parenting’. 

Jennifer Jamieson, December 2017

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