The concept of resilience has become quite a popular one lately. There are countless articles, workshops, lectures, and even centers that focus on resilience.

But what exactly is it? And from where does it come?

Is it an inherited personality trait predetermined by genetics? Or is it something that can be taught, fostered, and developed? Perhaps more importantly, why do some people seem so much better at it than others?

These are exactly the kinds of questions that have inspired my colleague, Dr. Darlyne Nemeth, and me to probe deeper into the concept of resilience. Our research and experiences eventually transpired into a book, which was recently published.

We described the hallmark of resilient people as being grounded in today, learning how to benefit from yesterday, and imagining themselves in tomorrow. Resilience is not just about surviving, but also about thriving in the midst of challenge.

Regarding the nature versus nurture debate, unsurprisingly, the research appears to suggest that both contribute. Sure, some people are inherently more resilient than others, which is likely in part the result of genetic factors. There is plenty of evidence to also suggest, however, that resilience can be taught. If it can be taught, it can be learned; and if it can be learned, it can grow.

Perhaps no field of study and practice is more interested in fostering resilience than mental health. After all, isn’t this exactly what psychotherapy is about? But let’s turn our attention away from the patient for a moment, shall we? What about clinician resilience? It is possible to become a more resilient clinician? The answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

There are four types of people when it comes to resilience:

  • Some have already learned how to become resilient and are actively engaged in the patterns, processes, and habits that allow them to thrive.
  • Others have the knowledge, but they lack either the skills or the discipline needed to build resilience.
  • Then, there are those who know how to build resilience but simply choose not to do so. After all, it takes more effort to move past surviving and on to thriving.
  • Lastly, some people simply just do not know how to foster resilience.

Practical Resilience

With that very brief introduction, I’d like to share a few concepts for you to consider incorporating into your life. Remember, resilience isn’t something that is achieved: it’s developed over time, and it takes a certain amount of discipline.

As you peruse the following, keep in mind that, unfortunately, nobody can provide the “Five (easy and finite) Steps to Building Resilience.” It simply doesn’t work that way. We are constantly learning more about how the most resilient individuals develop and maintain the characteristics that make them flexible and easily able to bounce back. With that in mind, here are some thoughts.

Budget Your Time

We are all familiar with the general mantra that it takes 21 days to develop a new habit. While this may be true for some behaviors, it is certainly not true with regard to building resilience. Becoming more resilient is a lifelong process.

We have all been granted 1,440 minutes per day, which amount to 168 hours per week. Too often we think in terms of days, weeks, months, and years. The truth, however, is that the things we do on a minute-by-minute and an hour-by-hour basis are the things that actually change us. Watch your minutes, for they turn into hours. Watch your hours, for they turn into days…you get the picture.

Often, we think of resources in terms of money, but time is just as much if not more valuable. Most people can make more money, but no one can make more time.

Yet, we mindlessly waste so many of our minutes and hours. Do you realize that even a 60-hour-a-week job only accounts for about 36% of the hours in an entire week? Resilient people understand this concept and carefully budget their time, which frees them to experience more of what life has to offer. They limit mindless activities and aim to incorporate things that build themselves and others up.

For more thoughts on making the most of your 168 hours, check out the work of Laura Vanderkam.

Be Like a Duck

Have you ever watched a duck splash around in a lake? It doesn’t matter how wet the duck’s feathers get, or how long the duck has been submerged – the result is always the same. Water simply beads up and rolls off its back instantly. If only we could be more like the duck!

All too often, we over-internalize, mull over, and catastrophize about information received from our environment. This seems to be especially true for trainees, whether at the graduate school, internship, or postdoctoral level. A supervisor says something “constructive” – we ruminate for hours. You receive report edits with more red than black (shout out to all the track changers out there) – instantly you start to think of how you’re “never going to be ready” to write your own reports.

In reality, challenges are more the rule than the exception. (Not to mention that other people are actually evaluating us far less often than we think.) The quicker we learn to accept challenges and frustrations, deal with them, and then let them roll off our backs, the more resilient we will become.

Put Some Rouge On

My Italian great-grandmother was quite the lady. She always dressed impeccably, whether she was going out for a night on the town or staying at home doing laundry and watching The Price is Right. She used to tell my mother that it doesn’t hurt “to put a little rouge on.” (For those younger readers, she was referring to lipstick). Of course, this is an analogy to the importance of taking care of ourselves. My grandmother was not wealthy, but she dressed nicely because it made her feel good about herself.

What is your rouge? Is it taking a short walk in the middle of the day? Is it making time for a FaceTime session with your friends or family who may live far away? Is it taking a few extra minutes in the morning to enjoy a cup of coffee before frantically getting ready for work or school?

This statement has been hammered into our heads, but it is worth repeating – we cannot take care of others unless we take care of ourselves. Identify the things that add joy and meaning to your life, and make time for them daily.

Use the Power of the Hustle (Work Hard)

Work has gotten a bad reputation in recent years. We don’t eat right, neglect to allocate time to restorative sleep, and sacrifice exercise for the couch. We inevitably experience extremely high levels of stress, which leads to a host of metabolic chaos, and eventually, chronic mental and physical illnesses.

Unfortunately, work often gets the blame. Many times it is the scapegoat for our health problems, poor relationships, and decreased overall wellbeing. (Of course, that’s not to say that other things don’t also contribute.) “More work-life balance!” we scream from the rooftops.

Balance is absolutely important in every aspect of life, but studies show that we grossly overestimate the amount of time we actually spend working. Very few people work more than 60 hours a week, yet it is not uncommon to hear people proudly tout 80 hours. In fact, I recently heard someone say that she works 100 hours a week! A quick run of the numbers shows that is highly unlikely.

What is more probable is that we are simply inefficient with our time. Chatting it up in the hallway? Not work. Checking Facebook or getting distracted by the latest tweets? Nope, probably not part of your actual job description. Even time spent in meaningless meetings can hardly be counted as work, especially given stats that suggest most meetings are pointless, include the wrong people, and are grossly inefficient with time.

Let’s face it – hustling from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and being uber-efficient with your time just isn’t as glamorous as pushing 12-hour-plus days but wasting half of your time. Resilient people accurately define work, they use their time wisely, and they’re not afraid to work hard, even at the expense of momentarily pleasurable options.

Be Mindful of Sabbaths (Rest Intentionally)

The flip side of the hustle is intentional rest. They are two sides to the same coin, and you simply cannot have one without the other. You may be able to sustain such a state for a period of time, but you’re either going to fizzle out quickly (if you neglect rest) or become a lazy blob (if you neglect the hustle).

Those familiar with Jewish culture understand the concept of the Sabbath, a weekly rest period during which no work occurs for an entire day. Though some still observe a traditional Sabbath, this concept is a remote one for most of us. Could you imagine a world in which everything shut down one day a week? No punching the clock, no open stores, nothing! Just rest. Some will find this thought quite refreshing. Unfortunately, our world is not structured in such a way, but this remains an important concept. We pay a price when we neglect intentional rest.

And let’s be clear – rest is restorative: it builds the soul, enlightens the mind, and refreshes the spirit. Many of our “traditional” ideas of rest do not fit the bill (think social media and television), but instead zap our energy and our drive, increasing complacency and mindlessness.

When we neglect time for intentional rest, our bodies and our minds revolt: we become sick, stressed, and unpleasant. Resilient people value rest and regularly incorporate it in their lives.

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Traci W. Olivier, Psy.D.

Traci W. Olivier, Psy.D.

Dr. Traci W. Olivier completed her graduate training in clinical psychology at Nova Southeastern University, concentrating in neuropsychology, followed by an internship in pediatric neuropsychology and consultation at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is currently a second-year pediatric neuropsychology postdoctoral fellow at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Her clinical and research interests include psychology across the lifespan, fostering resilience in patients and clinicians, the neuropsychological sequelae of brain tumors and cancer-directed treatments, and the impact of deafness on language-related processes and functional outcomes. A few of her favorite things include a cup of café au lait, anything Louisiana, and spending time with her husband. More information on her recent book entitled Innovative Approaches to Individual and Community Resilience: From Theory to Practice, can be found here. She can be reached at traci.olivier@stjude.org.
Traci W. Olivier, Psy.D.

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