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Why developing resilience is more than pushing through challenging times

If you’re committed to building your resilience, you will have to open yourself up to uncomfortable moments and make yourself better from the added stress.

Why developing resilience is more than pushing through challenging times
[Source illustration: Anna Gudimova/iStock]
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Times are incredibly tough right now, and you may feel beaten down by quarantines, job loss, stress, and worries about your health. This is natural and can take a significant toll. The key to survival will be building your resilience and finding ways to persist and persevere.

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Resilience is made up of three things. First, resilience requires a clear sense of reality. Next, it requires the ability to make sense of what’s going on. And perhaps most importantly, it requires problem-solving and improvisation. The good news is you can develop all of these and become increasingly resilient. Here are a few strategies to help you develop the mental strength.

Know what’s real

It’s impossible to respond appropriately if you don’t have a clear sense of what’s going on around you. While it may be tempting to avoid all the bad news currently swirling around us, you’ll be better served to be aware of the realities around you. Uncertainty and ambiguity are stressful, and knowledge can reduce anxieties around unknown factors.

You don’t need to overwhelm yourself with a constant influx of pandemic content. You can, however, find ways to stay informed. Pay attention to reputable sources of information and ensure you have a sense of what’s new information. Things are changing constantly (sometimes even daily or weekly), so stay in the loop enough to understand context and what’s going on around you.

Make sense of things

A big part of being resilient is being able to find meaning in current circumstances. You can do this in a few ways.

  • Consider what the current reality means to you. If you’re at high risk or if you care for people who are at high risk of contracting the virus, you’ll need to take the appropriate action. If you’re looking for a job, the situation should inform the businesses or opportunities you target. If you have children, you will want to consider the implications for how you keep them entertained and whether they’ll be returning to school. Ultimately, you can view current conditions with your own lens.
  • Maintain perspective. It can be tempting to spiral into anxiety about an uncertain future. But try to stay focused on what you can control and reassure yourself this time will pass. It may be a marathon—when we were hoping for a sprint—but each of us will get through this.
  • Explore new viewpoints. Seek out multiple perspectives to find meaning in the difficult realities we face. Speak with others and obtain a variety of points of input. Interestingly, the number of conspiracy theories tends to rise when people have less contact with others and are more insular in their thinking. The opposite of this is to stay in touch with people you trust and respect. Your opinions may differ, and it’s often helpful to expand your thinking and extend your perspectives by exposing yourself to other ideas.

All of these will help you think beyond the “what” of the pandemic to the “so what,” in terms of its meaning for you.

Challenge yourself to adapt

Once you understand reality and have perspective on it, you’ll need to respond and adapt. You can do this by solving problems around you and approaching challenges in new ways. I’ve dubbed this “The MacGyver Rule.” For those who don’t know, MacGyver was an action character who originated in a late 1980s show (and who has been rebooted recently). He would get into perilous situations in each episode. With ordinary items like a paper clip, a watch, and some duct tape, he was able to get himself out of any scrape. He was the perfect example of improvising, inventing, and innovating to escape tough situations.

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Moreover, we can turn to improvising. Brain science tells us the brain is plastic and not elastic. If the brain were elastic, you would experience something novel, and afterward, go back to the way you were before. But the brain is plastic, meaning when you stretch, your capabilities expand, and your perspectives are broadened. In this way, stress can be a good thing.

Build your ability to respond by trying new things that challenge you. Learn a new technical skill, take up a new hobby, or try skydiving. Develop your ingenuity by reaching for professional opportunities, as well. Volunteer for a task force, join a team leading the latest work initiative, or start an affinity group, also known as an employee resource group. All kinds of new steps or novel stretches are positive ways to build the critical abilities of adapting, responding, and adjusting—essential skills during the pandemic and beyond.

Times are tough, and resilience will be one of the most important characteristics to nurture. Be aware, make sense of what’s around you and keep perspective. And most importantly, respond, adapt and challenge yourself to stretch. With time, you’ll develop yourself and have a positive influence on the challenges you encounter.


Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.