4 Strategies for Building Psychological Resilience

AnnMarie Churchill

When did we start believing that expert help is required for life’s stress and struggles? I recently heard a radio segment on eco-anxiety, and at the end of the story, the radio announcer advised people who felt emotionally impacted by climate change to contact a mental health professional. I countered out loud for people to first try building their psychological resilience by talking with a friend or family member, going for a walk, or engaging in some purposeful or meaningful activity.

There seems to be a trend in the media and among some well-meaning organizations to direct people to mental health professionals at the first sign of distress. Although professionals can help, in many cases they aren’t required. By engaging a professional as a first step, there is the risk of pathologizing normal human emotions and weakening natural human healing responses that could otherwise strengthen individuals and communities. In other words, turning to a professional can prevent us from developing our own psychological resilience.

It’s normal for human beings to experience a wide range of emotions, from happiness to sadness and excitement to dread. We also know that emotions serve a purpose, including those that signal distress. These emotions let us know that something meaningful and important is happening that may require our attention.

Somehow, we have come to believe that it’s bad to feel bad – a belief that can intensify negative emotions as people become fearful of being sick or ashamed that they aren’t happy. However, experiencing and moving through difficult emotions can help us develop compassion for ourselves and others so we can learn to take action and grow as people.

Noticing the presence of distressing emotions early and doing something helpful can prevent them from getting worse.

Noticing the presence of distressing emotions early and doing something helpful can prevent them from getting worse. There are many simple strategies that can help individuals tolerate and work through difficult-but-normal emotions such as sadness, worry, anger, and frustration. Regular use of these strategies in good times and bad can help you build your psychological resilience so you can better cope with challenging life events and their accompanying emotions.

Four strategies for building psychological resilience:

  • Sharing concerns and stressful feelings with others can lighten the load. Just knowing that other people care and/or have experienced similar feelings can be helpful as we endure and move through difficult times. There is increasing evidence for the benefit of peer support programs that offer talk, text, and chat support by trained peer helpers.
  • Physical exercise can increase the production of neurochemicals that enhance mood and reduce stress-related chemicals in the brain and body. Exercising in nature will provide an additional boost to mood as it has a calming effect on the human nervous system.
  • Noticing the positive things that are present in our lives during difficult times can reduce the burden and prevent overwhelming emotions. It helps to be aware of what is working, going well, or brings us joy. Naturally occurring gifts such as our loved ones, sunshine, a deep breath, and the night sky can all be a source of comfort and awe.
  • Helping other people, our community, and the larger world shifts our attention outward. Harnessing the energy from stress and worry to make a positive contribution can create a sense of control and purpose. There are many kinds of community action groups that provide solidarity and meaning, which can offset feelings of worry and threat.

There is natural resilience in all individuals and communities. However, our strengths often go unrecognized and underutilized when we focus solely on deficits and problems. Validating and making use of existing resources builds individual strength and community capacity to support its members. This strengths-based approach provides different options for help that elevates natural supports and destigmatises seeking help.

Undoubtedly, specialized mental health services are the most appropriate option to seek out in some situations. However, utilizing natural supports that reflect an individual’s culture and preferences is often the most effective approach for building psychological resilience.


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Author: AnnMarie Churchill
Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership
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