Yes, you can build resilience. Here’s how.

by Kaiser Permanente |
Smiling woman sits on front porch

You’ve probably heard about the importance of resilience. It’s vital to have during a crisis. But it’s also helpful for dealing with everyday stressors like rush hour traffic, disagreements between friends, or getting your kids ready for school.

Leigh Miller, LCSW, a psychiatric social worker at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, shares what you need to know to build more resilience.

What is resilience, and why is it important?

Most people have heard the word resilience, but it’s often misunderstood. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from challenging thoughts or experiences, but it’s not about thinking positive or avoiding stress.

“Being resilient means staying present during challenging moments and managing whatever emotions come up,” Miller says. “It’s not avoiding your feelings. It’s leaning into them and confronting situations skillfully.”

Resilience is also a part of mental health. It can help you handle stress better and be less overwhelmed during difficult times. On the other hand, people who struggle with resilience have a harder time rebounding from challenges, worry, or anxiety, Miller says. They may shut down, become irritable, or turn to alcohol, smoking, or drugs to avoid their feelings.

Struggling with resilience can also have physical effects, like insomnia, stomach problems, headaches, and muscle tension.

Can you build resilience?

We’re all born with some resilience. But everyone’s level of resilience is different due to things like genetics and economic or social backgrounds.1 You can strengthen resilience by learning coping tools and strategies to use during challenging times.

“Your resilience toolkit can help you manage the intensity of depression, anxiety, stress, or worry so it’s more manageable,” says Miller.

Check in with your feelings

The first step in building resilience is learning what your different emotions look like — good and bad.

Throughout the day, ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now?” Follow up with, “What do I need?”

If you have a hard time describing your feelings, you’re not alone.

“People struggle to know how they’re feeling because we’re not taught how,” says Miller.

She recommends using a “feeling faces” chart, which shows different emotions. You can find a variety of styles for free online. Choose one that you connect with and save the image to your phone or computer. You can also print it out and put it where you’ll see it often, like near your desk or on the refrigerator. It can help you to better recognize your emotions and feelings. 

Ask for help

Resilience doesn’t mean facing challenges alone. It’s OK to ask others for help when you’re struggling.

It’s easier to ask for help when you’ve nurtured relationships with family, friends, co-workers, or spiritual and religious leaders. They can be a good support system. You can also seek out a mental health professional or care to get the support you need.

Make a list of your strengths

When you write down your strengths, you may find traits you’ve forgotten about. This list can be helpful when you’re feeling down, dealing with a challenge, or focused on the negative.

It could include things like:

  • I have a great sense of humor.
  • I’m dependable.
  • I'm creative.

Make a list of things that make you feel better

Sometimes stress makes you forget about all the resources that can help you. Write them down so you can reference them when you need them.

Your resources could include:

Practice mindfulness

When our minds are in the past, we can become depressed and remorseful. And when we’re thinking about the future, we tend to have more anxiety and fear, says Miller. Practicing mindfulness can help us stay in the present moment.

Mindfulness includes meditation. Yet it can also be as simple as listening to the sound of water and noticing the feeling of soap as you wash your hands.

Avoid comparisons to others

It’s unfair to compare yourself to others, especially when it comes to social media.

“With social media, it’s the compare-and-despair trap,” Miller says. “Our brain doesn’t look for similarities; it looks for differences. So, if you’re feeling down and see what people are sharing about their lives, you’ll often see the things about your life that you don’t like.”

If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed, limit or avoid social media. Also be selective about who you follow. Choose people who mirror your values and reflect your strengths. And remember that what people post on social media isn’t always the true picture of reality.

Help others

Doing things for others lets us see that we’re not the only ones who have difficulties. It can also help us go through tough times with more self-compassion. Studies also show that helping others can reduce stress and increase happiness.2 One study found that older adults who volunteered had an increased sense of well-being — and less feelings of hopelessness and loneliness.3

Acts of kindness include things like volunteering at a homeless shelter or simply holding a door open for someone. Just try to show someone you care.

Resilience takes practice

Resilience is hygiene for your emotional and mental health, Miller says.

“Sometimes there’s this idea that resilience is attained and then you’re done,” she adds. “But it’s something we need to work on consistently.”

And part of that work is reminding yourself how strong you already are.

“You’ve survived difficult things before,” Miller says. “You can persevere. Even if it takes time, you will.”

Rhitu Chatterjee and Marco Werman, “What We Can Learn From the Resilience of Trauma Survivors,” TheWorld.org, accessed April 8, 2022.

Tristen K. Inagaki and Edward Orehek, “On the Benefits of Giving Social Support: When, Why, and How Support Providers Gain by Caring for Others,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, April 6, 2017.

3Eric S. Kim, et al., “Volunteering and Subsequent Health and Well-Being in Older Adults: An Outcome-Wide Longitudinal Approach," American Journal of Preventive Medicine, August 2020.

Tags: