By Lorie Swaydan, Huntsman World Senior Games

The year 2020 has been an incredibly stressful year everywhere but particularly in the United States. Raging wildfires and hurricanes, angry protests and a contentious political election all amidst a world-wide pandemic bringing loss of life and economic uncertainty. Everyone has been impacted - some more than others, but everyone has wondered, “How will we ever get through this?” 

Resilience, What is it?

The ability to deal successfully with trying times is called resilience. According to Eilene Zimmerman of the New York Times, “Resilience is the ability to recover from difficult experiences and setbacks, to adapt, move forward and sometimes even experience growth.”  Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health says that a small portion of our resilience comes from our genetic make up. In other words, some people are just born with a calm demeanor. A more powerful factor is our childhood experiences - our early attachments to parents and caregivers. According to Bessel van der Kolk, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine,  “How loved you felt as a child is a great predictor of how you manage all kinds of difficult situations later in life.” 


Common Characteristics of Resilient People

But if you aren’t naturally resilient or you had a difficult childhood, what then?  Can people become more resilient? And if so, how?  Steven M. Southwick, professor emeritus of psychiatry, PTSD and Resilience at Yale University School of Medicine and co-author of the book “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, believes that people can not only learn to be more resilient, but they can grow due the challenges they face. After numerous interviews with people who have faced adversity, they seem to display the following characteristics:

  • They have a positive yet realistic outlook. 
  • They have a strong sense of right and wrong which guides them.
  • They are often spiritual and believe in something bigger than themselves. They are also part of a spiritual community from which they gain support and comfort.
  • They put others first and find meaning and purpose in helping others.
  • They accept what they cannot change and spend their energy working on things over which they do have control.
  • They feel committed to a purpose that gives meaning to their lives.
  • They have a social support network. Dr. Southwick says, “Very few resilient people go it alone.”

Building Resilience

Tchiki Davis, Ph.D. and writer for Psychology Today adds these suggestions for building resilience. First, avoid becoming stuck in negative thinking cycles - analyzing every detail of a difficult situation over and over - questioning what you could or should have done differently. Instead, find ways to break that negative cycle. Have a plan, and put it into action when this type of thinking starts. For example, do something active. Exercise forces you to focus on something else. Or, go outside and enjoy the simple beauty of nature. Deep breathing or meditation can also be helpful. Another strategy for dealing with stressful times is to imagine a positive outcome instead of imagining the worst. Remind yourself of past successes in dealing with difficult situations. Were there any benefits from your struggle? What did you learn? Also, remind yourself that things change. The present situation will not last forever. Finally, Dr. Davis suggests that we should try to build a “challenge mindset.” That is, practice seeing struggles as challenges rather than threats. He points that these very challenges are what help us to build resilience. (

Suffering is Part of LIfe

Perhaps one of the most important lessons learned from resilient people is that they have realized and accepted that suffering is to be expected in this life. It is part of the human experience and no one gets through life untouched.  Lucy Hone, researcher from the University of Pennsylvania says that resilient people not only focus on the positive aspects of every situation, even when they are painful, but they also intentionally practice gratitude and look for ways that even hard times can bring about positive outcomes. After facing the death of her young daughter, she learned to ask herself, “Is what I’m doing helpful or harmful to myself?” Then, she would choose only those things that were helpful. One of the things that was most helpful was to intentionally make note of at least three good things every day. 


So how can we start to be more resilient? Here are some reminders:

  • Expect and accept suffering. No one gets through life without some.
  • Look for the good - at least 3 things every day!
  • Intentionally choose to see the positive in every situation. 
  • See difficulties as challenges rather than threats. 
  • Reach out to others. Build community and social support networks.
  • Practice gratitude. 
  • Remember that this difficult time will not last forever!

More resources on resilience: