How To Cultivate Resilience, or What It Takes To Keep on Keeping On

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It's the utter resolve I've seen in a training client who lost his legs in an accident and now runs marathons with the use of prosthetics. It's the friend who lives with a medical condition that imposes debilitating pain and continues to run a successful business, raises a tight-knit family, and volunteers in his community. It's any of us who pick ourselves up after a profound loss or life transition, who decide exceptionally challenging circumstances aren't going to keep us from leading fulfilling, grateful lives. I’m also mindful of those who may have struggled through the recent 21-Day Challenge, but don’t want to give up just days after it has ended. If that’s you, listen up.

Resilience can encompass the emotional and physical stamina to get through a patch of rough weeks or bounce back from illness or injury. Even more dramatically, however, resilience can mean the fortitude to deal — and even grow — with life-changing setbacks.

There's no romanticization here. Resilience isn't a superhero trait. We talk of u201Cconqueringu201D limitations, beating back disease, overcoming loss. The reality is much more complex. Those friends and clients who have been amazing models of resilience have also been fully, richly human. Not every day is a good day. Not every step leads you forward. Not every battle is won. We all pick ourselves up at some point, and some days we let ourselves stay u201Cdownu201D a little longer than others. We feel what we need to feel. The pivotal point is recovering yourself and reengaging your life on renewed terms.

Psychologists have examined the phenomenon of resilience as a varying characteristic among people. Some people, when faced with hardship seem buoyed by a sense of perspective and energy. They are more likely to get back on the horse while others struggle more intensely. Resilience appears to be a trait influenced by our individual brains themselves — our molecular mechanisms that process stress to be more precise.

More so, however, it's a mindset that can be cultivated, a flexibility in engaging the rough and tumble of life as well as a willingness to live with ambiguity. It's perhaps also an art we can undertake, a richness we can weave into the support and substance of our lives. The more resilient we are, research shows, the more satisfaction we tend to garner from life.

The Primal question is how can we cultivate resilience in ourselves? How can we design a life that encourages optimum thriving — and supports us most when life challenges us head on.


Good solid health with all the basics in line will do you right every time. Sleep, diet, and movement all matter as much if not more when it comes to building resiliency. Some interesting research highlights the role of exercise, however. A whole host of research highlights the stress, depression, and anxiety busting (and buffering) effects of exercise. When compared with rest, for example, a 30-minute block of moderate exercise was better at decreasing anxiety as measured by subjects' responses to photographs, including stress provoking images.

Research does seem to suggest, however, that this buffering becomes more than an immediate dose response, so to speak, but a persisting pattern over time. Regular exercise produces a continuing psychobiological impact that overhauls our stress response itself. Over time, exercise contributes to our overall mental resilience.


In the midst of major life challenges, we can at turns benefit from the richness of nostalgia and envisioning future prospects. Also important, however, is the capacity to be purely in the moment, to release expectations, questions, and plans. Mindfulness, in addition to eliciting the body's relaxation response, can play a key role in acceptance, a crucial process for living with challenging circumstances.

We often expend a lot of energy and anguish pushing back against difficult changes when we'd be better served shifting gears and realigning our paths in light of new realities. Likewise, it can take an immense patience to u201Csit withu201D a feeling — physical and/or emotional. To be sure, there are things that people unnecessarily, even irresponsibly, accept when they have the opportunity to change them. There's a difference, I think, between conscious acceptance and expedient resignation. If you talk to survivors of significant trauma or serious health crises, I think they'd tell you acceptance isn't by any stretch a passive endeavor. It's a dynamic, growing, and ongoing process. True mindfulness attends to this process.

For different people, mindfulness can take different forms. Some may practice yoga, Tai Chi, or other programs. Others might pray or immerse themselves in other meaningful ritual. Still others might seek peace simply by spending time in the wild, letting their involuntary attention take over and letting go of everything but their awareness of the world in front of them. All, I think, would say they're taking comfort in releasing themselves to something larger than themselves and their struggles.

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