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Building Resilience

A woman helps her child ride a bike in the park

After a year of anxiety and stress, many of us are feeling depleted and finding it harder than ever to face life’s challenges. In the latest Household Pulse Survey from the CDC, 41.5 percent of those surveyed reported feeling anxious or depressed. It seems like our collective resilience — our capacity to recover quickly from difficulties — is in short supply.

From a psychologist’s perspective, being resilient is about more than being tough; it’s about being able to manage challenging times and tap into the resources that you have to keep moving forward. It’s more about how you conceptualize challenges and failures and continue to maintain a growth mindset in a difficult time than it is about being naturally able to handle adversity. Resilience does not mean that you don’t have strong feelings, or that you don’t have meltdowns or ups and downs. It means that you are able to find ways to keep going, to keep building and growing and realizing that you have intrinsic strengths.

A Teachable Skill

Resilience is a strategy that we can learn and teach. Here are a few of the concepts that I emphasize when I talk to people about resilience.

  • Believe in yourself. There is a concept in psychology called “affective forecasting.” Most of us believe that we will fare far worse than we do in crises. So, realizing that we’re actually more capable and stronger than we think we are is game-changing. When we tell ourselves that we can’t do something, it plays into our inability to go on or to face our fears.
  • Hunt for the good stuff. We all experience many positive things each week, yet we tend to focus on the negative things, like that one email that tells us what we missed. Too often, we create self-narratives based on those negative things. So, give yourself credit for what you have done and note all the things that go right. For some people, keeping a gratitude diary really works.
  • Learn from challenges. Confronting a challenge and coming up short is part of life. Don’t dwell on so-called “failures.” Life is a learning process. You can only make the best decisions you can with the information you have at the time. Focus on what you’ll do differently next time.
  • Do something different. Studies show that there is merit in trying new things, especially things that we’re not good at and can do without putting a lot of pressure on ourselves. So, try a new hobby, or challenge yourself to learn a new sport without worrying about winning or even getting better.
  • Fuel up. As we emerge from the pandemic, we are going to feel aftershocks. Start to take some time to relax. If you have vacation time, take it. Be kind to yourself. Time away helps us come into our lives and our jobs with renewed energy.

A lot of resilience is treating yourself — and talking to yourself — as you would someone you love. We can also help support the resilience of those we love. Parents understand that children look to them to see how upset they should be when challenges arise. For example, when a toddler falls down a step, it’s okay to recognize their hurt, but you can also turn it into a learning experience that will help them the next time they face a step. We have to teach through our own example that life is not about just sailing through and getting everything right the first time.

Older adults also sometimes need support in remembering the beautiful and positive things in life. It can become too easy to focus on what has been lost. Helping our elders can be as simple as shifting perspective mindfully to the here and now and to the mundane things we can be grateful for, such as a sunny day.

Acknowledge Your Feelings

In the coming months and years, we will all be hearing a lot about resilience: how to build it, how to measure it, who has it and who doesn’t. Beware of what I call “toxic positivity,” the idea that resilience means you should keep going at all costs, and not allowing yourself to feel anything. Remember that resilience is not a trait, but a learned skill and a practice.  Acknowledge your feelings. Be honest about feeling anxious, sad, or frustrated. Then figure out how you can use those feelings to build, learn, grow, and try. Even when we can’t change our circumstances, we can change our mindsets.

Your mental health plays an important role in your overall well-being. Find out more about how your mind works, and how to help yourself and your loved ones through emotionally challenging times at

Thea Gallagher

Thea Gallagher, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the director of the outpatient clinic at Penn’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, and the clinical director of COBALT, a wellness platform for Penn employees. She also hosts Mind in View, a mental health-focused podcast.