The Art of Coping
Resilience is the ability to withstand, recover and bounce back amid high stress, chaos and ever-changing circumstances. Resilient people don't dwell on failures, disappointments or setbacks but instead they acknowledge the situation, learn from their mistakes, losses and disappointments and move forward. The good news is that resiliency is a skill that can be learned and improved on with practice.
Even for the relatively self-aware and emotionally adept, struggles can take us by surprise. But learning healthy ways to move through adversity—a collection of skills that researchers call resilience—can help us cope better and recover more quickly, or at least start heading in that direction.
Three Science-Backed Strategies to Build Resilience
- Change the narrative
- Face your fears
- Practice self-compassion
1. Change the narrative
When something bad happens, we often relive the event over and over in our heads, rehashing the pain. This process is called rumination; it’s like a cognitive spinning of the wheels, and it doesn’t move us forward toward healing and growth.
The practice of journal writing can move us forward by helping us gain new insights on the challenges in our lives. It involves free writing, exploring your deepest thoughts and feelings around it. The goal is to get something down on paper, not to create a memoir-like masterpiece.
Studies have shown that people who did journal at least four days builds their resiliency muscle, when compared to others who did not engage in journaling. In writing, the researchers suggest, we are forced to confront ideas one by one and give them structure, which may lead to new perspectives. We’re actually crafting our own life narrative and gaining a sense of control.
2. Face your fears
The practices above are helpful for past struggles, ones that we’ve gained enough distance from to be able to get some perspective. But what about knee-shaking fears that we’re experiencing in the here and now?
The Overcoming a Fear practice is designed to help with everyday fears that get in the way of life, such as the fear of public speaking, heights, or flying. We can’t talk ourselves out of such fears; instead, we have to tackle the emotions directly..
The first step is to slowly, and repeatedly, expose yourself to the thing that scares you—in small doses. For example, people with a fear of public speaking might try talking more in meetings, then perhaps giving a toast at a small wedding. Over time, you can incrementally increase the challenge until you’re ready to nail that big speech or TV interview.
3. Practice self-compassion
Fears and adversity can make us feel alone; we wonder why we’re the only ones feeling this way, and what exactly is wrong with us. In these situations, learning to practice self-compassion—and recognizing that everyone suffers—can be a much gentler and more effective road to healing.
Self-compassion involves offering compassion to ourselves: confronting our own suffering with an attitude of warmth and kindness, without judgment. In one study, participants in an eight-week Mindful Self-Compassion program reported more mindfulness and life satisfaction, with lower depression, anxiety, and stress afterward compared to people who didn’t participate—and the benefits lasted up to a year.
One practice, the Self-Compassion Break, is something you can do any time you start to feel overwhelmed by pain or stress. It has three steps, which correspond to the three aspects of self-compassion:
Be mindful: Without judgment or analysis, notice what you’re feeling. Say, “This is a moment of suffering” or “This hurts” or “This is stress.”
Remember that you’re not alone: Everyone experiences these deep and painful human emotions, although the causes might be different. Say to yourself, “Suffering is a part of life” or “We all feel this way” or “We all struggle in our lives.”
Be kind to yourself: Put your hands on your heart and say something like “May I give myself compassion” or “May I accept myself as I am” or “May I be patient.”
If being kind to yourself is a challenge, an exercise called How Would You Treat a Friend? could help. Here, you compare how you respond to your own struggles—and the tone you use—with how you respond to a friend’s. Often, this comparison unearths some surprising differences and valuable reflections: Why am I so harsh on myself, and what would happen if I weren’t?
Once we start to develop a kinder attitude toward ourselves, we can crystallize that gentle voice in a Self-Compassionate Letter. This practice asks you to spend 15 minutes writing words of understanding, acceptance, and compassion toward yourself about a specific struggle that you feel ashamed of say, being shy or not spending enough time with your kids. In the letter, you might remind yourself that everyone struggles, and that you aren’t solely responsible for this shortcoming; if possible, you could also consider constructive ways to improve in the future.
Enhancing mental toughness, highlighting and honing strengths, and fostering strong relationships are core competencies for any successful healthy human-being.