Adapting to change is never easy, but you can shift how you respond to stress.
When Luana Marques was growing up in Brazil, life was not easy. Her parents had her when they were very young, and they didn’t know how to take care of themselves, much less their children. Drugs and alcohol were also a problem. “Between the many instances of domestic violence, I often felt scared, wondering when something bad would happen next,” she says. She lived in poverty with a single mother and experienced a lot of trauma and adversity. Eventually, she moved in with her grandmother, who taught her how to approach her fears without avoiding them, and to tolerate discomfort. “My grandmother would call that being the water, not the rock,” she says. “When change happens, some of us become stuck, like the rock. The opposite is being the water. You flow around the change.”
Years later, when Marques, now an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, was studying cognitive behavioral therapy, she realized that her grandmother had been giving her lessons in resilience.
The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility,” but Marques puts it more simply: “The way I think about it is the ability to build mental strength in such a way that your brain has what’s known as ‘cognitive flexibility,’” she says. “It means that when life throws you curveballs or adversity, you are able to make decisions that are aligned with your values.”
As stressors like war in Ukraine and the Middle East pile on top of the pandemic, inflation, layoffs, and growing rates of anxiety and depression, cognitive flexibility can be an important skill to hone and keep in our emotional toolboxes.
But the good news is, resilience isn’t a fixed asset. Though studies show that some people are naturally more resilient than others, just as some people are naturally more optimistic, there are ways to strengthen those muscles. Heidemarie Laurent, a professor of caring and compassion at Penn State University (yes, this is really a thing), focuses on resilience in her work at the school’s College of Health and Human Development. “There is no one prescription,” she says. “For each person, it’s finding what you can really integrate into your life and stick with.”
Pause so you can respond better
The first step to becoming more resilient is to understand how your brain works. When you’re stressed, your amygdala, the part of your brain that handles fear, is activated, and you have a fight-or-flight response. “When you say to someone, ‘I’m so anxious, I can’t think straight,’ that’s actually your biology,” Marques says. “You can’t think straight because your prefrontal cortex is offline.” Instead of immediately reacting, Marques recommends that you recognize your emotional response to stress and take a pause. “That’s our superpower that we don’t use enough,” she says. “The ability to say, ‘Okay, I’m really angry, but I don’t have to act on that anger yet.’ Creating that pause builds resilience.”
Build community and improve self-talk
Taking a beat allows you to reframe the way you’re looking at a situation. When experiencing stress, one of the first things we typically do is appraise it to determine how taxing it may be. Social support is one of the biggest assets that plays into that appraisal, says Jennifer Wegmann, a professor of health and wellness studies at Binghamton University whose research focuses on stress mindsets. Just knowing that you have a text chain of friends you can vent to or family that can drop off groceries while you’re sick makes you feel as though you’re better able to handle the situation. “Social connectedness is honestly a game changer when it comes to stress,” she says. “It is one of the most powerful strategies and tools that we have.”
It’s also something that you can grow. Communities shifted in myriad ways during the pandemic years, and making friends as an adult has never been easy. If you’re feeling unmoored or unsupported, look for ways you can expand your social circle by joining clubs, asking a coworker to get coffee, starting playground meet-ups, or volunteering. “Pivoting outward to the needs of others in your networks can reinforce the realization that you’re a part of an interdependent network of humans,” says Laurent. “Helping others can be a really powerful strategy for improving our well-being.
Another big piece of reframing your view of stress is changing the way you talk to yourself. Too often, when we’re scared, we get trapped in cycles of negative thoughts, bullying ourselves in a way we never would a friend. To widen your perspective, Marques recommends asking yourself, “How would I talk to a friend in this scenario?” Would you tell them there’s no way they can finish a test on time or that a work project just isn’t good enough? Make a conscious effort to give yourself the support you would give a friend.
Approach your fears head-on
Sometimes, it’s hard for us to even think about the things that stress us out, much less face them head-on. Or we look so far into the future that we can’t deal with the decisions of the present moment. But, “resilient people walk toward their anxiety and stress,” Marques says. To ease that fear, she recommends finding ways to make your stressor less scary. If you’re afraid to ask for a raise, stopping to sit and write down five reasons you deserve it can help reinforce your own worthiness. If you have a stack of bills piling up, taking the first step of opening the envelopes and not putting pressure on yourself to take a second and third step could ease the process in the long run. It’s about “removing that extra layer of struggle with reality that gets in the way of meeting a situation as skillfully as possible,” Laurent says. “If I’m stuck getting frustrated with ‘this shouldn’t be so,’ it’s actually just creating more suffering within me. If I start with, ‘Here is the situation, and how can I meet that whether I like it or not?’ I leave space for myself to act.”
Mindfulness can also help. It’s a term people love to chat about on social media, but Laurent defines it as “fully living moment to moment with awareness of what is actually happening, and not our internal stories about what is happening.” Building mindfulness might involve activities like meditation or spiritual practices, but it can also mean going for a walk in nature or taking in artwork, music, or other things you find beautiful. It can also involve spending time with other people where you’re having a more thoughtful conversation that leads to deep awareness about what’s going on with you and the other person.
Align with your values
A huge part of resilience is making sure that you make decisions that match your values. If you say family is very important to you but you don’t make it home for dinner every night, there’s a dissonance there. “If you live a life where values are aligned with actions, you have less stress, less anxiety, and more life satisfaction,” Marques says.
And though you may think you already know what your values are, Wegmann recommends sitting down and thinking about what matters to you. “That takes time,” she says. “You have to be present and really be reflective to get to the nitty-gritty of, ‘What are my top values? What is most important to me?’” If your decisions are not lining up with those values, it’s time to make some changes and possibly set some boundaries. Are there things you can do to adjust your work/life balance? Do you need to start saying no to more things to protect the time you need to exercise, or spend time with valued friends? “Our willingness and our ability to put these bumper guards around us is one of the ways in which we can highlight our resilient nature because it changes how we navigate through the stress process,” Wegmann says.
Gratitude can be a piece of it, too. Keeping a gratitude journal or making a practice of finding five things you’re grateful for every day can not only help reveal things you value, but also lead to more positive feelings, she says. “It’s really connected to happiness,”
Focus on healthy habits
Even the most stress-resistant humans are going to have trouble bouncing back from adversity if they’re not taking care of themselves. The very basic healthy habits we’re all told to work toward — enough sleep, a healthy diet, regular exercise — are the foundations that hold up our ability to deal with stress. “If you’re not sleeping enough, if you’re not moving your body and you’re not eating enough, you just don’t have enough energy in your body to even get your brain to function,” Marques says. “And so whenever somebody comes to me and says, ‘I need help with anxiety,’ I say, ‘How’s your eating? How’s your sleeping? How’s your exercise?’ Because if I don’t get your foundation right, then you don’t even know if you’re hungry or you’re anxious.”
Know that resilience is a process
The process is not linear, and that’s okay. “A person’s journey to becoming more resilient is more of a spiral or a labyrinth,” Laurent says. “At times, it might feel like you’re going backward from where you started. But all those twists and turns are taking you along this path. And seeing that is part of having a broader perspective.” It’s important to look back and give yourself credit for the stressors you have moved through and all the adversity you have overcome. You can remind yourself that if you’ve gotten this far, you know you can take on the next thing that comes your way.
Marques, who wrote Bold Move: A 3-Step Plan to Transform Anxiety Into Power, has seen people who have focused on resilient practices change the trajectory of their lives. In working with a nonprofit focused on men transitioning out of prison, she met a young man who told her that after a challenging look from another man, he asked a friend to bring him a gun so he could shoot him. But in the time it took for the gun to arrive, he paused, thought about his options and what he wanted, and walked away. After a presentation, a woman came up to her and said Marques had convinced her not to quit her job and deal with problems at work instead, and she got a promotion. But most of all, Marques knows that her grandmother’s lessons in resilience are the reason she was able to leave Brazil and make it to Harvard. “If her advice didn’t work, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” she says.