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As a student, you’re probably pretty familiar with stress. You might also have wondered why some of your peers seem to handle their challenges relatively easily while others struggle to meet similar demands. That difference relates to resilience, or grit: the ability to overcome and draw strength from difficult situations. “At our most resilient, we can surf the waves of change and stress rather than being swamped and drowned by them,” says Dr. Holly Rogers, a psychiatrist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
In recent years, researchers have identified factors and processes that help individuals cope and explored how those can be nurtured. “A large number of people do not develop the problems we would expect them to have [after serious adversity]. We have for 50 years been interested in explaining what makes the difference,” says Dr. Michael Ungar, founder and co-director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Why is resilience so important?
“Resilience skills can help students not just get through [school] but actually thrive and flourish while doing it,” says Paula Davis-Laack, who designs resilience training programs for professionals and organizations. “Resilience skills bring out the best qualities in a person and activate desirable behaviors. Resilient students can tolerate change, stress, uncertainty, and other types of adversity more effectively.”
Is resilience born or made?
“Resilience has been very conclusively shown to be a bundle of skills that everyone can learn, develop, and practice,” says Davis-Laack. External supports matter too, including “the capacity of the institution [e.g., school] to create opportunities for students to succeed,” says Ungar.
What builds resilience?
- Hanging on through a challenge
- Learning from experience
- Strong relationships
- Seeing your current situation as a turning point
- Humor and realistic optimism
- Appropriate environmental supports
7 ways to build resilience
1. Think of three good things
Positive experiences are opportunities to identify and build our inner strength. Try the Three Good Things exercise: Every day for a week, write down three good things that happened that day. For each event, write why it happened, what it means to you, and how you can have more of it. This is a great way to discover your strengths and how you can use them to overcome challenges. This exercise was developed by researchers at the Penn Resilience Project, University of Pennsylvania.
2. Practice mindfulness
“Mindfulness has been identified as one of the primary ways to develop resilience in students,” says Dr. Rogers. Her class-based approach, Koru, is an evidence-based mindfulness training program developed for students. Try out her quick mindfulness exercise below.
Quick mindfulness exercise, by Dr. Holly Rogers
Practicing mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes a day—for just a week—results in better sleep, less stress, and greater self-compassion, according to research.
Read this through a few times before you practice:
Wherever you are right now, close your eyes. Pay attention to your breathing and see if you can find the place in your body where you most clearly feel the sensations of your breath moving in and out. For some people, the belly moving in and out is most prominent. Others notice the rise and fall of their chest. Still others most easily feel the breath moving in and out at the tip of their nose. It makes no difference at all where you feel your breath; you are just trying to discover the place in your body where you can most easily make contact with the sensations of breathing.
Got it? OK, now let your attention settle on that place where you most easily feel your breathing. With an attitude of relaxed curiosity, count 10 breaths. Don’t try to change your breathing. You don’t need to do any special or fancy breathing. Just count 10 inhalations and 10 exhalations.
Most people will notice that their mind wanders before the end of the first breath. When that happens, just notice that you are thinking about something else, and without judging yourself or your wandering mind, bring your attention back to your breath. Stop after you’ve completed 10 breaths.
3. Be NUMB to negative thoughts
The NUMB Technique, a four-step process for redirecting your thoughts, was developed by Dr. Ilona Boniwell, professor of applied positive psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK.NUMB technique [TED talk]
4. Nourish your happy experiences
Our experiences drive our brain development. To empower yourself through positive experiences, try the HEAL system identified by Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley.HEAL technique [TED talk]
5. Identify and apply your strengths
The Penn Resiliency Program recommends this method:
- Recall past experiences (good and bad).
- Focus on the strengths that brought you that positive experience or helped you overcome that challenge.
- When you experience difficult situations in the future, think about how to use those strengths to handle this challenge too.
6. Find your growth mind-set
To build grit, develop a “growth mind-set,” says Dr. Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Find ways to remind yourself regularly of the following:
- The ability to learn is not fixed. It can change.
- Failure and setbacks are not permanent and can be overcome.
7. Nurture close relationships
Social connectedness is key to protecting us from stress. Helping friends or family members, and volunteering, can help improve your self-confidence, self-worth, and resilience.
Holly Rogers, MD; psychiatrist, Duke University; founder, Koru Center for Mindfulness, Durham, North Carolina.
Michael Ungar, PhD; Killam professor of social work and founder of the Resilience Research Project, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia; scientific director of the Children and Youth in Challenging Contexts Network.
Paula Davis-Laack; founder and CEO, Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute.
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