Can Resilience Be Learned?

The Covid-19 pandemic is a challenge to many peoples’ emotional well-being. Recent studies indicate a rise in fear, anxiety and depression during the lockdown. It stands to reason that the threat of serious illness along with the loss of economic security have been big factors in this decline in mental health.

But just as in past crises and disasters, some people are better able to weather adversity than others. They are, in a word, resilient. “Resilience” is the capacity to not only recover from setbacks, trauma and other negative experiences, but even to grow and thrive from them.

Many experts have studied the characteristics of highly resilient people, those individuals who’ve successfully navigated a lot of adversity in their lives. What they seem to share are these traits:

  • A positive, yet realistic outlook. Such people don’t focus on the negative, but tend to see the positive in difficult situations.
  • The capacity to see opportunities in adversity.
  • A moral compass. They have a firm sense of right and wrong that guides their actions.
  • A belief in something greater than themselves. They often derive strength through religious or spiritual practice and community.
  • An altruistic attitude. They have concern for others — which often manifests in dedication to causes they find meaningful and important.
  • An acceptance of what cannot be changed and the commitment to change what is possible in a given situation.
  • A mission or purpose. They find strength and courage in a commitment to a meaningful purpose in life.
  • A support system. They give and receive support from a network of friends and family.

Is resilience just a matter of personality — that some people are naturally better able to face setbacks? “A lot of people erroneously believe that if you didn’t get a good scramble of genes, resilience is not going to be your thing. But resilience is a set of skills that, with effort, anyone can develop.” says Dr. Karen Reivich, co-author of The Resilience Factor.

So resilience can be learned. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed by what life has thrown at you, consider these guidelines for strengthening your capacity to cope:

  • Take meaningful action. Even a small act, like cleaning out the garage, can help remind you that you are not powerless.
  • Practice self-care and maintain healthy habits. Ask yourself if your next decision feels like it will be helpful or harmful.
  • Connect with your social support system.. Your relationships with friends and family (even if long distance) are an important factor in building resiliency.
  • “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” as the saying goes. See the positive in the situation and look for opportunities for making things better.
  • Dedicate yourself to a worthy cause or a belief in something greater than yourself. Engaging in an altruistic activity or spiritual practice can boost resilience.
  • Try “mental time travel.” Indulge in nostalgia: cherish pleasant memories and recall times when you successfully faced other difficulties. Envision a positive, better future when the current adversity is finally over. And consider an alternative present when conditions are much worse than in reality. All three of these shifts in perspective can help you feel better about the current situation.
  • Practice mindfulness. This will help you to release tension and stress in the body and to disengage from negative narratives and catastrophe thinking.
  • Practice generosity. For example, help out an elderly neighbor with shopping, or a stranger by putting money in someone’s expired parking meter.
  • Practice self-compassion. Soothe your suffering with warmth and kindness, without judgment.
  • Develop some realistic goals and regularly take steps, however small, toward their realization.

These suggestions can involve serious effort, but they’re worth trying if you’re struggling during the pandemic. For in-depth instruction on developing resilience, check out Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty, a free online course offered by the University of Pennsylvania through the Coursera educational service. It’s taught by Karen Reivich, referenced above.

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