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How to: Building Resilience

  • Published
  • By Col. London Richard
  • Air Force Special Operations Command, Operational Psychology
Contrary to what many believe, you do not build resilience by focusing on weakness or by avoiding hardship. In an elite population that comprises less than one percent of less than one percent of the U.S. adult population, AFSOC has a proven method for building resilience. AFSOC warriors seek challenges, confront threats, are accountable, and develop confidence in their control, commitment and skills. They enhance success with their positive attitude, tenacity, fitness, discipline, adaptability, teamwork, and rigorous training. Unfortunately, most people only consider mental factors when discussing resilience when in reality four factors determine whether or not someone is truly resilient: physical, mental, social, and spiritual fitness.

First consider physical fitness. Everyone would agree that someone who is physically fit has increased strength, endurance, and flexibility. These individuals are less likely to be injured and have increased tolerance to environmental factors like heat and cold. On the other hand, when someone is overweight, out of shape, or does not exercise (i.e., avoids physical stress), that person is weaker, less tolerant, easily fatigued, and more prone to incidental injuries. They more easily become heat casualties, exert less effort, and/or quit when exposed to physically demanding activities. Athletes with poor physical fitness often ache or are frequently injured due to being in a constant state of over-exertion as a result of their bodies having a low threshold for physical demands.

Obviously, for those who have long been physically inactive, gradually getting back in shape can take some time. Additionally, periodic recovery is essential, and there are understandably times when extreme physical stress (e.g., broken arm) is followed by the need for more extensive physical recovery (e.g., casting). However, physical fitness is neither static nor passive. It occurs by actively exposing ourselves to progressively increasing levels of physical stress via things like weight lifting, cardio, stretching, isometrics, sports, etc.

Mental fitness has parallels to physical fitness. Consider what happens when you break your leg. While in a cast, your leg muscles begin to atrophy, becoming small and weak. That is a dramatic example of what happens when muscles are overprotected from physical stress...They progressively weaken. Broken bones result from too much physical stress, while deteriorating muscle results from too little stress. The same holds true for mental fitness. Overstressed bones and muscles react the same way we do when exposed to too much or too little psychological stress. Individuals who are not mentally fit or consciously avoid mental/emotional challenges tend to be the same ones who are pessimistic, whine, complain, blame, or quit when faced with inevitable disappointments or difficulties in life. With a lower threshold for coping, they simply don't have much capacity to respond to increased psychological demands. However, the good news is that mental fitness can be developed. Research confirms that facing stress actually strengthens the body and enables it to prevail in harsh environments and during harsh times. In other words, we grow stronger, not weaker, through adversity - but only if we allow ourselves to experience adversity ... with the correct mindset and attitude.

Social fitness includes family, peers and friends. There are ample scientific studies that prove surrounding yourself with people who genuinely care about you has positive benefits on your resilience and mental well-being. Consequently, how do you challenge yourself socially and/or cultivate your social fitness? Are your friendships and family interactions positive and supportive? Have you become complacent or destructive, or do you actively pursue self-improvement, positive friendships, and healthy relationships?

It is not necessary to attend formal meetings to become socially involved. Having lunch with a coworker, talking with a neighbor, or calling a friend are all ways to foster meaningful relationships. Social fitness includes developing and maintaining trusted, positive relationships as well as mentoring and encouraging others.

What about your spiritual fitness? Do you engage in productive community activities, or are some of the things you do stagnant, destructive or self-serving? Do you foster your faith, belong to a faith group, utilize a trusted spiritual counselor, have positive values that guide you? Do you volunteer in your community or help others? All these things build spiritual fitness and resilience. There are a number of studies that confirm the beneficial effects of spirituality on health and adaptability. Spiritual individuals are more optimistic, have fewer medical visits to their doctor, report greater psychological well-being, and experience less stress. Likewise, volunteering gives individuals a greater sense of purpose, feeling of connection, and satisfaction in their ability to help others. In other words, people of faith get positive benefits from their spirituality, and their spirituality motivates them to "pay it forward" without expecting anything in return.

It would be nice if life was always pleasant or uneventful, but that is not reality. Thus, it is not "if" but "when" adversity will occur. Luckily, resilience can be honed through a multi-faceted process that strengthens you and helps you adapt and thrive when facing difficulties and challenges in life. Don't run from adversity, but embrace it.