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Mental resilience: what it is and how to make it work for you

Resilience is quite a buzzword these days, and for good reason – but what does it mean? Mental resilience, or psychological resilience, is essentially our ability to bounce back from adversity. In the same way that we assess someone's physical fitness by how quickly their heart rate and other bodily functions return to their base level after physical exertion, we can measure how mentally strong someone is by their ability to emotionally and psychologically cope with challenges and how quickly they can return to their base healthy state after experiencing hardship, anxiety, a low mood or sadness. 

People with mental strength and resilience are generally able to remain calm in crises and move forward from challenges without long-term negative consequences. If you lack in mental resilience, you may be more likely to fall apart when trouble hits. 

Adversity can come in many forms, from personal illness to bereavement, from job loss to the breakdown of relationships. A certain amount of hardship in life is inevitable, so building your resilience can be key to living a full and successful life. 

Why are some people more resilient than others

Our mental strength and resilience is somewhat dictated by our capacity to tolerate stress. As we all know, some people get more stressed than others. The reasons for this are complex – you can read more about them here. For some people, stress is extremely difficult to tolerate because of their past experiences. When we experience a traumatic or intensely stressful experience, it may influence our ability to handle future stress, as the new stress reminds us on a deep psychological and physical level of the stress we experienced before. In these instances, it may be that the past trauma needs to be resolved before resilience coaching can be of any real help. A psychotherapist is likely to be a better fit an experience from your past is affecting your present. 

EMDR is a recommended type of therapy for overcoming acute stress and trauma related to a specific event. Psychodynamic psychotherapy may be useful if you experienced chronic stress throughout your childhood or adolescence. If you find you have developed negative coping behaviours that are triggered by stress, such as problems with substance abuse or other addiction, working with an addiction counsellor would be recommended. 

Our past experiences can also boost our mental resilience. If we generally have a positive sense of ourselves and a good level of self-confidence, we are more likely to exhibit psychological resilience in the face of challenges. We are also more likely to display mental strength and flexibility if we have a strong support network. If we have always felt secure in our attachments, we are feel supported by a sense that ultimately, we will be OK. Without this support, challenges can feel much more overwhelming and it can be difficult not to be reactive or become overwhelmed. 

Good mental resilience is a key component of good mental health – even if we have struggled in the past, working through and resolving our past difficulties can make us more mentally resilient in the future than if we hadn't faced those challenges in the first place. 

How to be more resilient

Psychological resilience is really about how we respond to life's challenges: cognitively and emotionally. Resilience isn't something you are born with – it comprises thoughts, behaviours and actions that can be learnt and practised. You can make yourself more resilient over time.

Sometimes we confuse resilience with emotional detachment – we think of a stiff upper lip. However, being resilient doesn't mean you don't feel the emotions. It's healthy to be able to recognise and access the whole spectrum of human emotion, including anger, fear and worry. A person with robust mental strength may feel negative emotions in the face of a challenge or set back, but they will be able to bounce back from them, to process them, and to move forward. 

This is why being able to engage with a positive mindset in the face of adversity is key. When consumed with anger, sadness, worry or fear, the rational parts of our brain don't work at full capacity. Trying to engage with a more pragmatic, positive mental attitude promotes mental flexibility and problem solving, thus increasing our chances of being able to address whatever it is that has become an obstacle. 

Being resilient also doesn't mean doing things by yourself. A key factor of resilience is the ability to reach out to others. 

Mental resilience coaching: how does it work?

Coaching for better mental resilience will involve working with a coach to develop a positive mindset. A coach will be there to support you when challenges arise and to help you learn to respond to stress in different, more effective ways. As mental resilience is something that can be learnt, your coach can be there to teach you the skills. 

Various types of coaches will work with mental resilience, whether executive coaches for resilience in the workplace, or personal/life coaches for a more mentally strong mind in life generally. There are also mindfulness coaches who will be able to help you set up self-care practices for better psychological resilience, including mindfulness meditation, which has been shown to improve our ability to reflect, our emotional intelligence, and our capacity for emotional self-regulation – all of which are components of healthy mental resilience. 

Find a coach to boost your mental resilience here

Further reading

Mental flexibility and resilience to change

Do I need a coach?

What to expect in a first coaching session

What coaching can offer you

What's the difference between counselling and coaching?

How coaching can help you beat imposter syndrome

Where coaching and therapy overlap, and where they do not

How coaching can help you thrive in times of change

Last updated 2 November 2020