Five Strategies to Build Resilience after Difficult Life Experiences


By Catherine A. SandersonAmherst College

Although some people find it easier to approach life’s challenges with a positive mindset, we can all learn to engage in thoughts and behaviors that help us develop greater resilience, no matter our natural tendency. Increasing resilience is like building a muscle—it takes time and effort. Here are five strategies supported by empirical research.

Resilient daisy plant growing on sandy desert with no water
Some strategies can help people build resilience following their difficult times. (Image: AlessandroZocc/Shutterstock)

Take Care of Yourself

Adverse experiences are inherently stressful, meaning they put tremendous wear and tear on the body. This is one of the reasons why people who experience stress are at greater risk of injury and illness, both minor and major. This is also why it’s especially important to stay strong mentally and physically, even when trying to cope with a traumatic experience. Basic self-care that may seem more challenging also becomes even more important: Get enough sleep. Eat healthy foods. Exercise. Meditate. Pray.

Conversely, be especially careful to avoid relying on drugs or alcohol. Behaviors that may temporarily mask pain, can over time just make you feel worse, leading to increased usage, then addiction, and a bunch of other negative consequences.

Find Purpose

When you face serious life challenges, look for a way to create some good. If you get fired from a job, have a romantic relationship end, or lose a close personal friend, find some ways to learn from the experience, and move on.

A longitudinal study published in 2014 examined data from more than 6,000 people, ages 20 to 75, over a 14-year period and found a single consistent factor that distinguished between those who lived and those who died during this time: Whether they had a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. We see this example time and time again of people who have experienced great loss attempting to find meaning. Finding some way to make meaning from a tragedy helps build resilience.

Build and Maintain Connections

Unhappy woman trying to comfort a depressed man
People need to connect with others to become happier after a great loss. (Image: Fizkes/Shutterstock)

One of the challenges of finding happiness following a great loss is that we often feel isolated and alone in our grief. It’s therefore really important to make connections with other people who understand your loss and remind you that you’re not alone. This is one of the reasons why people often find both formal and informal support groups helpful.

Researchers in one study assessed how survivors responded to the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in which 32 people were killed. Although some students, as expected, showed higher levels of depression and anxiety over the next year, others didn’t show a big change in their overall mood state, for better or for worse. 

But the most remarkable finding was that some students actually felt better in the year after experiencing this tragedy. Thus, even in the face of truly devastating events, people who make connections with others experience substantial benefits.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to PsychologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Write about It and Build Resilience

Some people have a tendency to replay bad events over and over again, which makes it pretty hard to let them go and move forward. But there’s a pretty simple strategy that can help us move past difficult events: Writing about them.

Researchers in one study assigned people to write for 20 minutes a day for four days in a row. Half of the people were told to write about the most traumatic and upsetting experiences of their entire life, including their deepest thoughts and feelings. The other half were told to write about an object or event on a topic that the researcher assigned.

People who wrote about their most traumatic experiences were happier and healthier as long as three months later on. Researchers believed that this act of confronting traumatic events helps us gain new perspectives and gain a sense of control. 

Subsequent research has replicated and extended these findings showing that expressive writing leads to fewer stress-related visits to the doctor, a stronger immune system, and greater psychological well-being. These benefits are also seen in people managing on-going highly adverse events—chronic pain, HIV, and cancer.

Practice Positive Thinking

If you are struggling to cope with a major loss, it can be really hard to find much happiness. No matter your circumstances, try to find a few good moments every day. The ability to focus on positive experiences seems to increase with age and is even seen in patterns of brain activation.

Researchers in a 2010 study showed two groups of people photographs while they were in an MRI machine. One group consisted of younger people, ages 19 to 31. The other group consisted of older people, ages 61 to 80. People in both age groups saw the same photographs.

Image of a seagull flying towards the silver lining of the clouds
To reach happiness, finding the silver lining through tough situations is vital. (Image: BigDane/Shutterstock)

Some showed positive experiences, such as a skier winning a race, while others portrayed negative experiences, such as a wounded soldier. The researchers then measured patterns of brain activity to see if people of different ages processed these images in different ways.

What did they find? First, there were no differences in how people of different ages processed the photos showing negative experiences. But when people in the older age group saw photos showing positive experiences, their brain showed activation in two distinct areas: the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotion; and the hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes memory.

This pattern of activation was not seen in people in the younger age group. So, what this tells us is that when older adults see positive events, the brain regions that process good things are basically saying, “Remember this”. And this is good advice for all of us to keep in mind. Focusing on the positive in any situation, no matter our age or our circumstances, is an important strategy for finding greater happiness.

Common Questions about Five Strategies to Build Resilience after Difficult Life Experiences

Q: Why is it important to take care of oneself following hard events?

Because it’s one of the strategies for the person to build resilience. Since adverse experiences are very stressful, staying strong mentally and physically is important to cope with the situation.

Q: How does writing about bad events make people more resilient?

Researchers believe that people who write about their past traumatic events become happier and healthier than those who don’t. They also believe that confronting traumatic events using this simple strategy helps people gain a new perspective and sense of control.

Q: Does positive thinking help people build resilience?

Yes. No matter the circumstances, positive thinking will help build resilience following tough experiences.

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