4 Ways to Build Resilience and Manage Stress

If you read any of my stuff, you probably know that I’m a pretty analytical person. I spend a lot of time breaking down my successes and failures. I want to see what distinguishes them and what I can learn from them. One thing that always comes up as a key factor is resilience.

Resilience is quite often the only thing that distinguishes my proudest accomplishments from those moments where I most disappointed myself or came up short. Same thing when I try to figure out what I most need in order to accomplish some big thing ahead. Resilience often turns out to be the answer. Not giving up at certain turning points is everything.

So is it me? Am I just such a quitter that simply quitting less often is the biggest thing I can do for myself? Or, is resilience actually that big of a deal to everyone? Well, let’s see.

Why Is Resilience so Important?

When you look into the lives of the ultra-successful, it’s not always obvious exactly what their “secret ingredient” was. What is it that separates world class athletes, titans of industry, and celebrated artists from the rest? When there are so many millions of contenders in one space with potential, ambition, and focus, what is it that sets these privileged few apart? Is it…

  • Innate talent that simply supersedes all others?
  • Being born into privilege and given the right opportunities?
  • Sheer ruthlessness and other morally questionable traits?
  • Pure, blind luck to be the one of many who actually “breaks through?”

While all of these things do certainly matter, they may matter a lot less than you think.

That is what Angela Duckworth argues in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. According to Duckworth, none of these things is nearly as important as what she calls, you guessed it, grit.

Our will to contribute effort to something, especially when it gets difficult, is the sole driver of progress and achievement. In other words: our resilience. 

Other factors, like natural talent and a great support system, play a role, but mainly as modifiers. They affect how much impact your effort will make, and how quickly you can progress. But that underlying grit, that resilience, is still driving the whole equation. With it, even people with no natural talent for something can succeed in it. And without it, even those who have everything else going for them can fail. 

Perseverance vs Resilience

When you think of this quality of persisting, of continuing to put in effort even when it gets difficult, you may think not just of resilience but of another term: perseverance. There is a lot of overlap between the two, but before we go on, let’s make a quick distinction.

While perseverance is something of a willingness to endure suffering or struggle, resilience is more like a tolerance to it.

Say you’re dealing with a bit of stress. Perseverance might help you to say, “man, this really sucks, but I’m strong. I can push through it.”

On the other hand, resilience may sound more like, “that’s definitely not great, but I’m ready for it. I’m not going to let it get to me.”

The difference is subtle, but important.

Perseverance lets something climb over your walls so you can fight it and defeat it. Resilience doesn’t let it climb all the way over the walls in the first place. Both help you to overcome difficulty and keep making progress. But perseverance takes a lot of energy and is not sustainable. Resilience helps us to keep going by not being quite so affected by our adversity to begin with.

Resilient Leadership

People who are highly resilient are better equipped to manage stressful situations, face discomfort head-on, and endure difficulty for the sake of doing the right thing. In other words: all the qualities you look for in a leader.

Show me one great leader who had no tolerance for stress or was deathly afraid of discomfort. I bet you can’t.

And when I say “leader” here, I’m not just talking about supervisors, team captains, senators and CEOs. I’m talking about anyone who finds themselves in a position to lead those around them to a certain outcome.

We encounter opportunities for leadership all the time: 

  • Taking charge of something for your family
  • Driving change in your community
  • Planning something in a social group 
  • Leadership in a professional setting (doesn’t have to mean management)

Pretty much all of us will, at various points, find ourselves serving as a leader. 

That leadership comes with decisions to make, people to watch out for, and stress to put up with. Those who succeed as leaders are the people who ready themselves for these challenges by building up greater resilience.

4 Ways to Build Resilience and Manage Stress

Fortunately, wanting to manage stress and push through difficulty is nothing new. This idea of building resilience so that we can persist against difficulty has been around a long time, and people have faced it from many different angles.

Below are just a few ideas for addressing this problem. Some are new, and others are quite old. But all of them continue to prove effective in building resilience and managing stress.

1. Voluntary Discomfort

The Ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism has had a bit of a resurgence in recent years. Largely, that’s due to its atypical views on finding happiness.

Stoicism, most often associated with classical philosophers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, teaches that happiness comes not from avoiding pain and discomfort, but from learning to accept it.

One technique for this pursuit is the practice of voluntary discomfort

The idea is that by willingly entering into uncomfortable (or just less comfortable) situations, you build resilience. Through this resilience, you learn to practice happiness and contentment in any situation. Common examples of voluntary discomfort may include:

  • Taking colder showers
  • Eating boring or bland food
  • Relaxing on an uncomfortable surface (like the floor)
  • Spending time in a room that is a little too hot or too cold
  • Putting yourself in socially uncomfortable situations

The idea here is essentially the same as the more modern concept of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. When discomfort becomes more familiar to you, it loses a lot of its power over you. And a high tolerance for discomfort is synonymous with greater resilience.

2. Practicing Presence

Mindfulness never goes out of style, and it’s easy to see why.

Look, I’m not even going to mention all of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness practice like improved happiness, focus, willpower, cardiovascular health, and idk, free tacos or something probably. Aren’t you glad I totally didn’t mention all those things?

Resilience goes hand in hand with your ability to remain present in the moment. And mindfulness is the most effective road to building a stronger sense of presence.

If straight-up meditation isn’t your thing, that’s okay. Take as much time as you need to realize it’s everyone’s thing and you just weren’t ready for it yet. But meditation isn’t the only way that mindful practice can help you build your resilience and strength.

Just work on bringing your awareness back into the present moment when you notice yourself slipping into discontentment with the past, or worry about the future. This helps you to experience feelings like stress, fear, and hurt, without them taking you over entirely. The ability to be more present is the ability to be more resilient.

3. Making Stress Your Friend

For a more modern take on resilience in the face of stress, let’s look to Kelly McGonigal. McGonigal is a fascinating health psychologist and one of my personal idols. She not only fundamentally changed the way we think about willpower, but she has also done a tremendous amount of work around how stress affects the body.

Through what she describes as “the new science of stress,” McGonigal uncovered one of our greatest misunderstandings.

The research shows that by shifting how we view stress, we can entirely change its impact on us. This leads to improved emotional resilience, physical health, and longevity. But I’ll let her tell you in her own words, in one of my all-time favorite TED talks:

4. Plain Old Exercise

No real trick to this one. Exercise, in any form, is a practice of putting yourself through short term physical (and as a result, mental) discomfort to create long term physical (and as a result, mental) development.

In a way combining #1 and #3 above, exercise is all about finding joy in putting your body under strain. This pushes it to become stronger and more capable. Since the physical strain becomes mental (fatigue), the physical reward also becomes mental (resilience).

A consistent exercise habit doesn’t readily build in someone who focuses only on how much they hate it. Those who become very physically fit over time do it by finding joy in the process. They acknowledge the difficulty, and rather than shy away from it, they welcome it as opportunity.

Perseverance will get you through a hard workout. But sticking with a routine that will last is all about building resilience.

Plus, a bit of exercise is great for managing stress in the short term. It gives you a productive outlet for all that pent-up, stressed-out energy!

Do you deal with a lot of stress? What tips or strategies do you use to build resilience and deal with it?

4 Comments

  1. Peg said:

    Another good one, Sam. Thought-provoking and helpful.
    I have often thought that we need to help our young population to develop stronger resiliency as a way to diminish substance abuse, mental illness and to develop internal strength.

    August 20, 2021
    Reply
    • Sam said:

      Thanks so much! It really is fascinating the number of different corners of life where a little extra resilience could be a big help.

      September 2, 2021
      Reply
  2. Interesting ideas here. I certainly need guidance on building resilience and managing stress so I found this post to be helpful. I especially enjoy the idea of making stress your friend. I think that listening to your emotions is important, which means that if you are feeling something, there is a certain reason why and getting to the root of that will help you start to resolve any issues you might have. Great post!

    August 30, 2021
    Reply
    • Sam said:

      yes, it’s always important to listen to yourself and work with where you are, rather than trying to force yourself through any certain issue.

      September 2, 2021
      Reply

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