A Personal Strategy for Engaging and Building Your Resilience

Home / Campus / ( Published on 2014-08-12 )

How do we deal with difficult events that change our lives such as the loss of a job, serious illness, loss of a loved one, and other challenging life experiences? Many people react with a flood of strong emotions and a sense of uncertainty. Yet people generally adapt well over time to life-changing situations and stressful conditions. What enables them to do so? It involves resilience, an ongoing process that requires time and effort, and involves people in taking a number of steps.


The American Psychological Association reports that "resilience" is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress (such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors). Resilience is "bouncing back" from difficult experiences. Research has shown that resilience is ordinary—not extraordinary—and that people commonly demonstrate resilience. One example is the response of many Americans to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and people’s efforts to rebuild their lives.

Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or stress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in individuals who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress. Moreover, resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that resilience involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.

Factors Regarding Resilience

Many factors contribute to one’s resilience. Studies demonstrate that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust provide role models and offering encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person’s resilience. The American Psychological Association reports the following factors regarding resilience:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and to take steps to carry them out.
  • A positive/optimistic view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
  • Skills in communication and problem solving.
  • The capacity to manage strong feeling, emotions, and impulses.

Strategies for Building Resilience

Individuals do not all react the same way to traumatic and stressful life events; developing resilience is a personal journey. In other words, an approach to building resilience that works for one person might not work for another. People use varying strategies with some variations that may reflect cultural differences. For example, an individual’s culture might have an impact on how he or she communicates feelings and copes with adversity—and may influence whether and how a person connects with significant others like extended family members and community resources. With growing cultural diversity, the public has a greater access to a number of different approaches to building resilience. Some or many of the ways to build resilience discussed may be appropriate to consider in developing your personal strategy. Below are guidelines towards building your resilience:

  • Take Care of Yourself: Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. You should exercise regularly. Taking care of you helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.
  • Establish and Maintain Connections: Good relationships with close family members, friends, and others are important. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience. Some people find that being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local groups provides social support and can help with reclaiming hope. Assisting others in their time of need also can benefit the helper.
  • Monitor Your Exposure to Media Coverage of Violence: Staying informed of current events is important; however, avoid overindulging yourself and be able to note when you have heard (radio), seen (television), and read (newspaper) the same horrific story over and over again. Take needed breaks from the media.
  • Avoid Viewing Problems as Impossible: You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events occur, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations.
  • Accept Changes as Part of Life: Certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.
  • Progress Towards Your Goal: Develop some realistic goals for yourself. Do something regularly—even if it seems like a small accomplishment, which enables you to move forward. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask "What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?"
  • Take Clear Actions: Act on adverse situations as much as you can. Make decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stressors and wishing they would just go away.
  • Maintain a Hopeful Outlook: Optimism is learned and nurtured over a period of time. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.
  • Keep Things in Perspective and Avoid "Catastrophizing": Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context, and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion, such as catastrophizing everything. Noted mental health researcher and clinician Aaron Beck describes "catastrophizing" as fortune telling, meaning you predict the future negatively without considering other, more likely outcomes. For example, "I’ll be so upset, I won’t be able to function at all."
  • Nurture a Positive View of Yourself: Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.
  • Engage in Opportunities of Self-Discovery: People often learn something about them and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle with loss. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardships have reported better relationships; a greater sense of personal strength even while feeling vulnerable; increased sense of self-worth; a more developed spirituality; and a heightened appreciation for life.

Staying Flexible is the Key

Resilience involves maintaining flexibility and balance in your life as you deal with stressful circumstances and traumatic events. This happens in several ways, including:

  • Letting yourself experience strong emotions, and also realizing when you may need to avoid experiencing them at times in order to continue functioning.
  • Stepping forward and taking action to deal with your problems and meet the demands of daily living, and also stepping back to rest and reenergize yourself.
  • Spending time with loved ones to gain support and encouragement, and also nurturing yourself.
  • Relying on others as well as yourself. Remember, you are not an island.

Resources for Help

Getting help when you are in need is crucial in building and maintaining your resilience. Beyond having caring family members and friends, individuals often find it helpful to seek prompt and specialized assistance from the following:

  • UCSF Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FSAP).
  • A licensed mental health professional:
    • Psychologist (PsyD, PhD, EdD, DMH).
    • Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).
    • Marriage and family therapist (MFT).
    • Psychiatrist (MD, DO).
    • Self-help groups.
    • Online resources and books.

Resilience is an ongoing process that requires time and effort and engages people in taking a number of steps.

The Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at UCSF provides confidential assessment, counseling, referrals, and consultation services that support the wellbeing of both the individual and the organization. For more information or to make an appointment contact us at 415/476-8279 or visit the FSAP website.