Becoming Stronger Than: The Road to Resilience

Nov. 2, 2020

We have all read stories of people who have thrived in the face of hardship- from JK Rowling writing the first Harry Potter novel on napkins between server shifts to Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head by the Taliban while advocating for girls' right to education and went on to earn a Nobel Peace Price.  What these people have in common is resilience - their ability to persevere and thrive under challenging conditions.  

Why is resilience important? 

Stress is an inevitable part of the human experience.  In fact, stress is an important and potentially motivating feeling.  Stress is what pushes us to study for a hard exam, helps us prioritize tasks and set goals.  But without the skills to tolerate and use stress to your advantage it can become overwhelming, sometimes even paralyzing.  The antidote to that paralysis?  Resilience. For a long time resilience was considered an innate personality trait but we now know how a few transformational strategies strengthen us in response to stress.

5 Ways to become more resilient:

1. Check your perspective- what we tell ourselves about a problem has a greater impact on our ability to overcome it than the problem itself.   When you are facing an overwhelming challenge try asking yourself some of these questions:  "Will this matter in 5 years?"  "What is the best, worst, and most realistic outcome?" "What advice would I give if my friend was in this situation?"  These questions help you to look at a problem from a different angle, which often is all you need to find a new way to deal with it.

2. Practice failing- The pressure to succeed in college can be intense, but it is important to remember that experiencing failure is not just inevitable, it is valuable!  Think back on times when you have experienced a failure- what did you learn? How did your life, your perspective, or your behaviors change as a result.  Innovation and experimentation only happens if we are willing to risk the possibility of failing.  When (not if!) you experience a failure, don’t allow it to define who you are.  Saying “I failed” is a lot less painful, and more accurate than “I’m a failure".

3. Be present- Take time to disconnect from screens and reconnect with the world around you.  Mindfulness has been shown to improve concentration and emotion regulation, and it can be as easy as taking a walk without listening to music or looking at your phone, or savoring every bite of your favorite food.  When we put aside the noise of our to do lists and instagram feeds we are better able to appreciate the easily overlooked moments of joy in our lives. 

4. Ask for help- Too often shame or embarrassment prevents us from using our available resources.  While it may feel like resilience is about getting through the hard times on our own, in reality the most resilient people have the strength to acknowledge when they need support, and the ability to reach out for help.  Identify the red flags that indicate you might need additional support- some common ones are changes in sleep, appetite, mood, and energy level.  Then consider what kind of support you need and who can provide that support- a friend may be the best person to lift your spirits, while an advisor can provide information to help you make decisions about your academic path.  Lastly, be clear about your needs- say directly "I need help figuring out my class schedule" or "I could use a hug".  That way you are giving them the best opportunity to give you the help you need.

5. Practice self compassion- The language we use is powerful, especially the language we use about ourselves.  When our inner critic become harsh or abusive it impacts our mood, self esteem, and ability to overcome obstacles.  We tend to hold ourselves to a much higher standard than those around us, so ask yourself what you would expect from a best friend or loved one in the same situation?    Celebrate successes, even small ones, and keep track of daily accomplishments.  It’s hard to have self compassion when we only acknowledge our failures. 

Everyone has the potential to become stronger than they ever believed, and often the most challenging times lead to the greatest resilience. Find out more about Campus Health’s resilience initiative, Stronger Than.