Building Resilience a Step at a Time

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

The term resilience stems from the Latin resili, meaning “to spring back.” Originally it was used to describe the capacity of plants to adapt themselves to different growing conditions. These days we mainly use it to refer to the human ability to remain flexible and to come back from adversity. This is a good basis to work from but I’d be negligent if I didn’t point out that the term resilience is still far from fully understood.

Back in 2014, the European Journal of Psychotraumatology published a paper that attempted to tackle some of the questions to be resolved and which, to my knowledge, remain. Topics such as the definition and determinants of resilience and effective ways to enhance it were outlined, as were more fundamental issues such as whether resilience should be regarded as a trait, a process, or an outcome. The fact that resilience may change over time and may be evident in some circumstances and situations, yet not in others, points to a complex system.

So, what is Resilience?

A very quick Internet search reveals many personal definitions and even types of resilience. This suggests a kind of certainty about the meaning of resilience that doesn’t actually exist. Our understanding of resilience is still developing, but in the meantime it seems reasonable that we recognize it more broadly as a quality that we draw on all the time. Every time a train is cancelled, an argument happens, or new systems are introduced at work, we draw upon our ability to reorientate. How successful we are depends upon us as individuals and our unique circumstances, but we do know that resilience can be developed as a skill.

Carole Pemberton, Ph.D., author of Resilience: A Practical Guide for Coaches, dismisses the notion of resilience as bounce back. As she rightly points out, “The ‘pick yourself up’ approach denies the reality of working through difficulties.” She goes on to say that resilience does not provide invulnerability, armored protection, or even toughness, but it does provide an opening to learning and growth and the ability to take risks based on a sense of being able to deal with the consequences.

Why we should learn resilience

I’ve said that resilience is both a quality and a skill. We develop skills through learning and practice, but we also learn by trial-and-error and by making mistakes. Making mistakes is an interesting one. There’s an article on the Harvard Graduate School of Education website that discusses a rise in anxiety among teens. Within the article, Josephine M. Kim, Ph.D., a lecturer on education, is cited as claiming too few young people have opportunities to practice and build resilience. One of the reasons, claims Dr. Kim, is that middle-class kids from affluent communities have little practice in making mistakes. Their parents are said to be so hyper-involved in their academic and social lives that they don’t learn the skills to cope: “Instead, they worry, envision the worst, and shut down.”

From what we currently understand, resilience derives from opportunities to make mistakes from an early age in supportive adult/parental structures. It’s also about our sense of self-control and our ability to draw upon sources that help us cope. These are highly individual. For some people it may be about drawing strength from faith, cultural traditions, and so on. For others it may be about the practicalities of problem-solving. I can’t therefore provide a one-size-fits-all answer to the question “How do I build emotional resilience?” What I can offer are some general guidelines:

  • Make decisions rather than prevaricate. The more you do nothing, the more you create a vacuum into which worry and anxiety will spill.

  • You can’t detach from life and wish it wasn’t happening. We all make wrong decisions, but if you stand back just in case you do, things will only get worse.

  • Taking some form of action will almost always improve your perspective on the situation that worries you, even if a different course of action would have been more effective.

If you are part of a close-knit family you are fortunate, because this does appear to be a key factor in building resilience. Caring and supportive relationships that provide trust, reassurance, encouragement, and freedom to experiment are essential ingredients in resilience development. Feeling able to ask for help and advice is often easier with people we love and respect.

Cultivating friendships and accepting help if and when it is offered are equally important. You will find that if you offer your services to others, the sense of achievement can be tremendous. Apart from providing them with practical and emotional support you’ll probably learn things about yourself.

A number of techniques such as relaxation, mindfulness meditation, yoga, and other types of exercise all contribute towards the development of resilience. So does breaking seemingly big and insurmountable problems into smaller chunks. Give yourself permission to experience new emotions that come with trying out new approaches. When necessary, step back, regroup, and try again. Life will continually throw up obstructions, but for any of us to get anywhere we need to decide on a route and take it.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of