Resilience Toughens Us Up but How Do We Master It?

Resilience. We all have it in different degrees. Just think about the past two years. We all lived through a pandemic and adjusted to wearing masks, practicing social distancing, wiping off newspapers and groceries and mastering Zoom gatherings in lieu of in-person meet-ups. Pat yourselves on the back for being resilient.

However, we're still going to need heavy doses of resilience as we enter year #3 of the pandemic. Who knows what lies ahead. At the same time, we face rising inflation with unprecedented prices at the pump and the realities of a war in Ukraine that could escalate with catastrophic consequences. How about the resilience of the Ukrainians and their leaders? What an example they've set for the world.

What exactly is resilience? The American Psychological Association defines it as "the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat."

That definition led to more questions, however. Is resiliency something we're born with or something we learn from our parents, friends and work colleagues? Or can we learn how to gain it by reading about resilient people?

We decided to start by reading about those who are described as extremely resilient. In a digital post in the New York Times' newspaper's column, "DealBook" by Andrew Ross Sorkin, the former New York Times writer Joe Nocera quotes businessman Marc Schessel who says that "Resilience is the byword of the day." Schessel is a hospital supply chain expert who worked to develop alternative supply chains for personal protective equipment (PPE) that was in very short supply at the height of Covid. His efforts personified resiliency since he didn't give up and came up with a solution. 

We applaud his actions yet still wondered: Where did his resilience to keep going come from? And why do some seem so much more resilient than others? A Huffington Post piece, "The Science of Resilience," gave us some answers since it dug into the origins of those who have resilience in spades.

Writer Steven M. Southwick, a contributor and Professor of Psychiatry, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Resilience, at Yale Medical School, wrote, "When my colleagues and I began to study post-traumatic stress disorder, we assumed resilient people were somehow special, perhaps genetically gifted. We were wrong. Everyone can learn and train to be more resilient."

The book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges, co-authored by Southwick and Dennis Charney M.D., also addressed resilience and found it to be a complex product of genetic, psychological, biological, social and spiritual factors.

All of these ideas prove comforting since they gave us hope that we might learn how to train ourselves to handle the vicissitudes of life and bounce back healthier or smarter and be better prepared for the potholes ahead. Obviously it helps if we inherited some of the necessary gene pool, but even if we didn't, we could pump up our resiliency level with some work.

We thought about our own experiences and what we did and could have done more of to shorten the learning curve. We both struggled with geometry in high school. We're too old to each remember how we dealt with it at the time but now as adults we think we would get extra help if we faced a similar tough course, focus on our strengths so we didn't feel totally worthless and know that it probably wouldn't affect our lives permanently, even if it impacted our report card.

There have been other times when we needed resilience-after dealing with a difficult boss, losing out on a bid for a home, having an editor critique a story we loved and telling us to redo it or not getting an invite to a party we really wanted to attend.

And we've thought of others not getting a job after multiple interviews, not winning a marathon or even doing well when they had trained for months. The list of disappointments goes on and on. We've watched as some have taken to their bed, sat in a corner feeling hopeless and sorry for themselves or gotten stuck and given up.

What probably hurts us the most is watching our kids and grandkids when they've had disappointments or experienced problems and not yet learned the secrets of resiliency. When they were little, it was the accepted practice to give everyone a trophy or ribbon on every sports team just for participating. What's the lesson there? No child should be disappointed or fail. Everyone always wins. No, but transferring a big dose of resiliency to our children isn't as easy as making and delivering a big bowl of proverbial chicken soup.

We have learned in our older age that having small failures early in life, when a child has the safety net of family and friends to turn to, helps build our suits of armor and prepare us later as adults to deal with the big setbacks. Failure begets strength and early failure makes later failure easier to digest.

We came up with 12 ways we feel anybody can boost their resilience IQ. 

  1. Turn to your inner circle of friends and family to be a support system. Listen to their ideas. You needn't accept them automatically. Ruminate about them or try some and then decide the best course of action. When you're asked for help, carefully suggest ways rather than offer criticisms such as "You should have done this or that sooner."
  2. Focus on assets and accomplishments rather than deficits. Be kind to yourself. Maybe, your best account went to a competitor but think about all the business you've done with other clients. Now you have time to focus more on them or find new ones. Keep plugging away but perhaps in a different way.
  3. Don't sweat the small stuff. Easier said than done but try it. Not invited to a party, so what, keep telling yourself. Do something positive by calling a friend you cherish to do something that night. Or stay home and pour yourself a nice glass of wine and learn some new technology, practice on the piano you haven't played for months start to journal. Shift your mindset; be thankful for what you have.
  4. Tap into your spirituality. This is not religion but it's about treating others the way you'd like to be treated. Show kindness to others. Do a volunteer project. It will make you feel good in the moment if you're hurting. Also, you never know where a volunteer job might take you or whom you'll meet along the way. And that's a positive step toward resilience.
  5. Get happy in nature. Notice the world around you more. Walk, enjoy people watching the scenery all around. This can be healing. Try to spend a little time outdoors each day; nature has been proven to help us both emotionally and physically. With spring here, this is so much easier to do.
  6. Do something spontaneous; something that isn't planned. Goof off by going to a movie during the day or meeting a friend for coffee and having a good schmooze. You'll feel like you're playing hooky. It's freeing. You'll come back perhaps more relaxed with a clear head.
  7. Budget so you don't get strapped for money and panic. However, if you do find you're short one month, figure out how to make it up. Walk dogs, babysit, work in a retail store a few evenings a week, maybe be a server, sell some possessions you never use to a consignment shop or an online resource. There are lots of jobs available now, too, as most places have "help needed" signs in their windows. Working in retail can be fun and a way to connect back with live conversations.
  8. If you're down in the dumps after a setback, start a new healthy routine. Stretch in the morning, floss, walk to coffee shop rather than drive, try a new exercise regimen, practice mindfulness or learn yoga. Make a small purchase, perhaps, that new lipstick color for spring.
  9. Declutter. If you lost your job, this is a great time to clean out your stuff while waiting to hear if you get that new job. Purging your life of stuff and messes makes you feel more organized and in control. It can be a small task rather than a big attic or basement. Example: Cleaning out your pantry in the kitchen of stuff with expiration dates is a great start.
  10. If you're sinking down a rabbit hole and feel paralyzed, really sad and in the dumps, time to call up the cavalry, perhaps, a mental health professional. It takes strength, not weakness, to do so, to share your sadness out loud with someone else. Together you can strategize and see things more clearly. If you don't like the first or even second professional you meet with no chemistry perhaps--go for a third. It takes time to build this type of relationship.
  11. Find a purpose. This includes helping others. Generosity makes you feel good, and it doesn't have to cost anything at all. Studies have shown that it's more beneficial to give than to receive. We read about a man who gave CPR to a complete stranger who went into cardiac arrest on a sidewalk in New York City. He saved the person's life, according to hospital reports.
  12. Look for role models. There are so many examples of people who overcame all sorts of different odds. But with resilience, they have moved forward. Think of Nelson Mandela, Viola Davis, Naomi Osaka, battered women, other prisoners--some wrongly accused, hundreds of kids in foster care, and so on.

The light at the end of what may seem like a dark tunnel in the moment may be a small, hot, glowing bulb of resiliency that slowly helps you find a way out and sometimes not all at once. However, once you learn to be resilient, you're in better shape for the next hurdle or challenge, and then the next. Being alive means facing what's thrown our way head on and moving beyond.

* Note: We wrote and ran this blog last December and thought it was relevant to what's now going on in the world. We have updated our thoughts to be current.



  • Savitri Jain

    Good blog on resilience. sorry missed your book signing
    Am recovering from a thigh bone fracture but getting better

  • Lynn Lyss

    Sorry we missed you when you were in StL. I fractured rwo bones in my spine. Between that and covid we have been pretty much housebound. Hope you both are well.

  • Audrey Steuer

    Outstanding! Very concrete and helpful.

  • Mary Lou

    Wonderful message on resilience!

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