Everyone goes through tough times in life. But many things can help you survive—and even thrive—during stressful periods. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Learning healthy ways to cope and how to draw from resources in your community can help you build resilience.
“Resilience is the extent to which we can bounce back from adverse events, cope with stress, or succeed in the face of adversity,” says Dr. Cindy Bergeman, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame.
You’re not born with resilience. “It’s not something you either have or don’t have,” says Dr. Alexandra Burt, a child development expert at Michigan State University.
“Resilience is a process in which many factors—including family, community, and cultural practices—interact. It boosts wellness and protects you from risks to your well-being. For many people, these risks are compounded by hardship and discrimination,” adds Dr. Lisa Wexler, who studies suicide prevention at the University of Michigan.
Researchers are studying what helps people become more resilient. Creating healthy habits and taking care of yourself can help. And so can family, friends, and your connection to community and culture.
Finding Your Strengths
Stress can cause wear and tear on the body and brain. Chronic stress has been linked to an increased risk of many health conditions. These include heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety.
Many stressful situations can’t easily be changed by one person. And some—such as parenting or a challenging job—can be things you want to do, even if they’re taxing.
But resilience isn’t just about eliminating stress. It’s also about tapping into your strengths. Researchers call these protective factors. “They can buffer stress or directly promote well-being—and sometimes even do both,” Wexler says.
Your strengths include those of your neighborhood and community. Different cultures have developed different ways to help people cope. The ceremonies, teachings, and cultural practices that are meaningful to you can help, Wexler says.
Other protective factors involve nurturing your body. “Being able to manage your stress is key to what underlies resilience. And a healthy body is going to deal with stress much better,” says Bergeman.
Other tools are emotional, like expressing your feelings rather than bottling them up, she explains. Looking at problems from different angles can help, too.
“Can you see a difficulty in a more positive way?” Bergeman asks. “For example, you can look at a stressful situation as a growth opportunity instead of thinking of it as a threat. Ask yourself: What can I learn from this situation?”
Meeting your own needs also makes a difference. “We’re often so busy trying to take care of other people that we don’t do good self-care. I encourage people to do something that they enjoy every single day. Many people feel guilty about that. But it really helps us replenish our emotional reserves, just like a meal fills our physical reserves,” says Bergeman.
In times of stress, self-care can be the opposite of selfish. Adults who take time for themselves can better help nurture resilience in children, says Burt. “One of the best things any parent can do for their child is to be well and healthy themselves. That makes it a lot easier for you to provide the support your child needs.”
Tapping Into Resources
Another part of resilience is about using the resources available to you. More and more, researchers are understanding that resilience doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
“The presence of resilience in a person is related to the supports around them,” Burt says. For example, she and her team found that growing up in a very impoverished neighborhood can change the way a child’s brain develops. But when adults in the community work together to support and monitor neighborhood children, it helps protect the children’s brains despite their circumstances. “A child can be resilient because they have these resilience-promoting things around them,” Burt explains.
Supportive adults don’t have to be a parent or relative, Burt says, though they often are. Some kids don’t have supportive families.
“That supportive person can also be a teacher, or someone else who’s important to them. Just one person who they really feel has their back,” she says.
Wexler is part of the NIH-funded Alaska Native Collaborative Hub for Research on Resilience (ANCHRR). This is a group of researchers working with local community leaders. They are studying which cultural strengths help protect Alaska Native young people from suicide.
Many protective factors for these young adults come from their community’s culture. “Access to cultural resources combined with the ability to use them is what helps lower suicide risk,” says Dr. James Allen from the University of Minnesota.
ANCHRR is also looking at how the cultural and spiritual practices that Alaska Native communities harness work to protect youth against the suicide and other risks they face.
Choosing Your Tools
The tools that best help you offset stress can differ from situation to situation, says Bergeman.
“Sometimes you have a stressor where you need to take action and solve the problem. But for other types of stressors, maybe you need emotional support,” she says. “A way to think about resilience may be: How do you match what you need with the kinds of tools that you have?”
In a way, practice makes perfect, Bergeman says. Keep tabs on what felt helpful to you during stressful times. Ask yourself: How did you deal with it? Did you choose a healthy strategy? How might other people have helped you deal with it?
“That can prepare you for the next experience that may be more difficult,” Bergeman says.