How to Increase Emotional Resilience to Withstand Adversity

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Emotional resilience is a learnable process that allows you to adapt well to adversity and major stress. Follow these steps to develop your own resilience.

You’ve probably heard the saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but this is not necessarily true.

Some people are crushed by stressful times, while others not only bounce back, but thrive, after major setbacks.

The difference is that some people possess more emotional resilience than others.

They don’t break, they bend — like a willow in the wind — and come back stronger than before.

Emotional resilience can help you deal with problems that arise on a day-to-day basis, and even allow you to cope and recover when major adversity strikes.

What Is Emotional Resilience?

The American Association of Psychiatry describes emotional resilience like this:

“Emotional resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.” (1)

Emotional resilience is often portrayed as something you’re born with or a basic personality trait, but it is more accurately defined as an ongoing learning process.

Many factors, including genes, your family environment, level of education, and the state of your physical and mental health, affect your innate emotional resilience set point to some degree. (2)

But as clinical psychologist Meg Jay, PhD, who has studied resilience for decades, observes:

“Resilience is not a trait. It’s not something you’re born with. It’s not something you just have.” (3)

The experts agree that anyone can learn how to increase their emotional resilience.

Attitudes of Highly Resilient People

Steven Southwick, MD, and Dennis Charney, MD, have been studying the effects of trauma on resilience for nearly 20 years.

They have investigated why some survivors can overcome extreme adversity and go on to have purposeful lives, while others don’t.

When they began their research, they assumed that resilience was rare, but, in fact, they found resilience to be surprisingly common.

While gathering information for their book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, they worked with people who have endured, survived, and even thrived in spite of extreme stress, such as those in the US Army Special Forces and prisoners of war.

They found that extremely resilient people have this set of attitudes in common:

  • They remain optimistic, but balance optimism with realism.
  • They face, rather than ignore, their fears.
  • They have a strong sense of right and wrong that provides an attitudinal framework.
  • They partake in a religious or spiritual practice or are part of some other group with strong beliefs.
  • They have a strong social support system in which they give to and receive from others.
  • They have resilient role models to emulate.
  • They make physical fitness a priority.
  • They keep their minds fit by engaging in lifelong learning.
  • They stay mentally flexible and have a good sense of humor.
  • They have a calling, mission, or purpose in life.

Additionally, emotionally resilient people tend to be persistent, responsible, and self-confident. (4)

They learn from their mistakes and use them to make themselves stronger.

They refuse to see themselves as victims or let adversity define them.

They realize that everything that happens, including hard times, is temporary.

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How to Become More Emotionally Resilient

Clearly, having these admirable attitudes is something to aspire to!

But adopting the mindsets of exceptionally resilient people takes some work.

Here are some specific things you can do right now to develop your own emotional resilience.

1. Stop Negative Self-Talk

The average human brain does a lot of thinking, up to 70,000 thoughts per day. (5)

And, for most people, these thoughts are predominantly negative.

One very common type of negative thinking is cognitive distortion — a sneaky way your mind has of convincing you of something that isn’t really true. (6)

A prime example of a cognitive distortion that sabotages emotional resilience is catastrophic thinking, where you imagine and expect the worst possible outcomes.

Clearly, blowing a problem out of proportion makes it appear harder to deal with than it really is.

This leads you to feel overwhelmed and incapable, the opposite of resilience.

2. Choose Your Support Team Carefully

It’s been said that you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

So, when you’re developing your social support system, be selective.

Surround yourself with people who already have the attitudes and mindsets you hope to cultivate — positive thinkers and potential role models who boost your self-confidence and resilience.

Social support is a two-way street, so also look for what you can do to help others.

Supporting others will make them feel good, and it will make you feel stronger and more capable too.

If you don’t know anyone personally who needs a helping hand, volunteer.

You can find organizations in your area that align with your interests at Volunteer Match.

3. Set Goals and Take Action

Setting goals and taking active steps to achieve them will help you stay in control of your life and keep your sense of self-efficacy high.

Too many people rely on FATE, an acronym for From All Thoughts Everywhere.

When you don’t make goals, you’ll wind up working to meet the goals of others, such as your boss, your parents, or your significant other.

When setting goals, take large goals and break them down into smaller, bite-size goals.

Each time you meet even a small goal, you’ll get a boost of dopamine, the brain chemical that fuels motivation, productivity, and focus.

This will help keep your momentum going.

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4. Develop a Growth Mindset

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, has spent 40 years studying the “growth mindset.”

People with a growth mindset understand that they can continue to develop their abilities throughout life.

They are emotionally resilient and don’t let failure get them down.

In fact, they welcome failure because it helps them learn what doesn’t work and propels them toward new discoveries.

The world’s greatest innovators, including Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Elon Musk, have embraced a growth mindset.

Conversely, people who believe they are stuck with their current level of talent or intelligence have a “fixed mindset.”

They would rather appear to know all the answers than actually learn because they are afraid of failure.

You can learn more about developing a growth mindset in Dweck’s perennial bestseller Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

5. Fake It Until You Make It

There will be times when you don’t feel particularly resilient, but it’s in your best interest to act as if you are anyway!

Smile when you don’t feel like it.

The act of smiling releases endorphins which make you feel better about everything, including yourself and your life’s circumstances. (7)

Mimic the body language of confidence — stand straight, uncross your arms, and make eye contact.

Self-confident body language pushes your brain into feeling more confident.

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6. Discover Your Calling

While attending his twentieth-year class reunion, movie producer Adam Leipzig found that 80% of his former classmates felt that they had wasted their lives.

So he talked to the 20% who considered themselves happy and found that the thing they had in common was a strong sense of their life’s purpose.

Exceptionally resilient people have a calling that keeps them going when things get tough, but many people struggle to figure this out.

Leipzig makes finding your calling simple in his TEDx Talk video “How to Know Your Life Purpose in 5 Minutes.”

Video: How to Know Your Life Purpose in 5 Minutes
Click the image above to see a video of the TEDx Talk “How to Know Your Life Purpose in 5 Minutes” by Adam Leipzig.

A Healthy Brain Is Key for Emotional Resilience

Most emotional resilience advice revolves around the attitudes and mindsets that you need to develop.

But if you are riddled with stress, or feel overwhelmed, stuck, depressed, or anxious, this level of self-improvement may seem impossible.

Your capacity for resilience largely depends on the current state of your mental health.

Here are some things you can do to improve your brain health, mental wellness, and ability to cope with stress in order to boost your emotional resilience.

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Supplements for Resilience to Stress

There’s an entire category of supplements that works by increasing your resilience to both emotional and physical stress.

These are called adaptogens.

Adaptogens

Adaptogens are herbal remedies which are neither stimulating nor sedating, yet help you achieve that ideal state of feeling both energetic and calm.

They support overall health by helping the body achieve a state of balance known as homeostasis.

Here’s a list of some of the most useful adaptogens:

  • American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
  • Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea)
  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
  • Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
  • Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
  • Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum)
  • Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
  • Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
  • White mulberry (Morus alba)

Certain vitamins, minerals, and amino acids can also help you manage stress:

L-Tyrosine

L-tyrosine is an amino acid that excels at countering the effects of extreme physical and psychological stress.

Various militaries have used l-tyrosine to help their personnel maintain a high level of performance under circumstances more stressful than most of us will ever experience.

So far, it’s been found to mitigate the effects of stress caused by oxygen deprivation, sleep deprivation, extreme cold, high altitude, and low gravity. (8)

B Complex Vitamins

B complex vitamins can help you cope with stress.

When study participants were given a vitamin B complex supplement, they experienced significantly less work-related stress, anxiety, mental confusion, and personal strain. (9)

Vitamin C

Vitamin C suppresses the formation of the major stress hormone cortisol and can help you rebound from stressful situations faster. (10)

Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral that’s often lacking in even healthy diets.

Getting adequate magnesium can make you more resilient to stress, help you sleep, and improve your mood and ability to focus. (11)

Multivitamins

You can cover your core vitamin needs with a multivitamin supplement.

Research shows that simply taking a high-quality multivitamin can make you more resilient to stress, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improve general well-being. (12)

Lifestyle Habits for Increased Resilience

There are several habits and practices that increase emotional resilience via a variety of mechanisms.

Many will help you develop those desirable attitudes that emotionally resilient people display.

Create Art

Creating art improves self-esteem and encourages creative thinking.

It stimulates connectivity between various parts of the brain to build a healthier brain that is more psychologically resilient. (13)

Meditate Regularly

A regular meditation regimen can improve emotional stability and resilience. (14)

Meditation excels at taming negative mental chatter.

People who meditate tend to have better relationships and are more compassionate towards themselves and others. (15)

Exercise

Physical exercise can help you control your emotions, pull yourself out of bad moods, and be more emotionally resilient. (16)

Exercise improves self-esteem and self-control, important factors in emotional resilience. (17)

Exercise decreases cortisol and pumps out feel-good endorphins to help your brain deal with stress more efficiently. (18)

Drink Green Tea

Drink green tea instead of caffeine and sugar-laden soda, energy drinks, and specialty coffee drinks.

Two compounds found in green tea, l-theanine and EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), can alleviate anxiety and increase your ability to handle stress. (1920)

Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve

And finally, stimulate your vagus nerve, a major conduit of the mind-body connection.

Strengthening vagus nerve function can make you healthier, happier, and better able to handle stress.

You can do that with singing, meditation, cold showers, and laughter. (2122, 23, 24)

Emotional Resilience: Take the Next Step

Experts on trauma have determined the attitudes of highly resilient people by studying those who have survived and flourished in the face of extreme hardship.

Emotional resilience is not something you’re born with, it’s an ongoing process of developing a set of attitudes known to increase resilience.

Increasing your emotional resilience will help you handle whatever life throws your way so that you, too, can stay strong in the face of adversity.

You can do this by adopting the habits and attitudes of highly resilient people.

Additionally, you can take adaptogenic herbs which increase your resilience to both emotional and physical stress.

Recommended: If you're feeling over-stressed, anxious, or depressed, talk therapy with a professional can help you cope better with life.

BetterHelp online counseling is the better choice vs in-person therapy:

  • BetterHelp is more affordable & convenient.
  • It's discreet, private, secure & COVID-19 safe.
  • Same professionalism & effectiveness as traditional therapy.

REVIEW: Why we recommend online counseling and BetterHelp.