6 Habits of Mentally Resilient People

Being able to withstand whatever life throws your way is a superpower — especially in 2020. Here’s how to build yours up.

By Lucy Maher
woman laughing in the rain

In a time when all of our usual routines — from sending our children to school to seeing our friends — have been disrupted, many of us feel like our lives are in disarray. In fact, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that life is always going to present us with challenges; it’s just a matter of how we cope with them.

How well you face obstacles like these and how easily you bounce back from setbacks is determined, in part, by your resilience — a.k.a. your psychological strength or mental fortitude. As Frank Lipman, MD, Chief Medical Officer at THE WELL, explains, “The gift of resilience is that it gives you a solid and very seaworthy ship, so that when a storm comes, you don’t drown.” 

In other words, resilience is the ability to adjust, adapt and/or recover from any type of change, whether it be good or bad. It is a metaphorical “muscle” that requires awareness and effort to build and maintain. 

The gift of resilience is that it gives you a solid and very seaworthy ship, so that when a storm comes, you don’t drown.

As you may have observed, some people seem to be more resilient, or have a better ability to weather turbulent times, than others. They possess a certain amount of “grit” that allows them to stay calm, manage their emotions and not only understand, but embody, that somewhat-cliche saying that “this too shall pass.”

Not one of those folks? Don’t sweat it. The good news is that resilience, or “grit,” is not something you’re either born with or without. You can develop the ability to become more resilient and mentally strong, says board-certified psychiatrist Margaret Seide, MD. “Resilience doesn’t happen by accident,” she explains. “It shows up when we make space for it with a decision to not be swallowed up by our circumstances, but to come out on top.”

Read on to learn how to build up your own mental strength to handle the next obstacle that comes your way — because this year, you never know what to expect.

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1

They look to the past to inform the future

Think back to a major disappointment in your past: Maybe it was not getting what you were sure was your dream job, or a breakup that brought you to your knees. While at the time it felt like you might never get over it, you did — and you probably came out better for it on the other side.

Knowing you can weather tough situations and persevere can help you see your way through subsequent tough times.  “Developing grit takes using past experiences as a flashlight to see yourself through future situations,” says Brittany A. Johnson, a licensed mental health counselor and author of Get Out of Your Own Way

“Take time to imagine yourself working and moving through tough times,” she recommends. While resilient people may have developed this skill in childhood or through diversity, anyone can learn it by taking inventory of the times you have persevered — and succeeded — in the past, Johnson explains. 

Remember how you landed an even more perfect job? Or recall how it felt to realize that person who broke up with you wasn’t ever really your soulmate? Bring those feelings into the present, and you’ll develop the grit to get through whatever it is you’re going through right now. 

2

They watch their words

What if I don’t meet this deadline? What if I lose my WiFi connection before a big presentation? What if we can’t travel to see family for the holidays this year?

Sound familiar? Assuming the worst about the future can send you into a mental tailspin in which negative thoughts have you assuming the worst about a situation that has yet to play out, says Colette Ellis, a life and well-being coach for women. “Instead, aim to rethink or reframe the problem by becoming conscious of your language.” 

“For example, notice when you say things like: ‘I’ve always had bad luck’ or the converse, ‘Good things never happen for me,’” Ellis says. “These absolutes likely are not the reality, merely your perception of reality.” Try, “I think that this time, things will work out for me,” or “Good things are coming to me — I can feel it.”

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3

They lean on others for encouragement

In a 2017 study on Paralympic athletes, researchers found that the athletes they studied were able to rise to challenges thanks to past support from friends and family. This helped them develop mentally tough characteristics and behaviors as well as cognitive coping strategies. 

You can do the same by voicing your feelings to those you are close to, and absorbing their feedback. “Resilience is bolstered by engaging in relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance,” says Erika Davey, PA-C and health coach. “Having friends and colleagues you can talk to and discuss your concerns with allows you to see things from another point of view.”

Resilience is bolstered by engaging in relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance.

4

They make time for movement

You've probably heard that exercise can help reduce stress levels. Even better? There’s no need to spend hours each day on the treadmill to reap the benefits.

A recent study of 1.2 million people who had an average of 3.4 days of poor mental health per person in the past month found that that number dropped to about 1.5 days, or 43 percent fewer, when they exercised. The study defined poor mental health as stress, depression and troubled emotions. The ideal amount of physical activity? Just three to five 45-minute sessions a week.

To reap even more mental health benefits, take your workout outdoors: Spending time in nature has been shown to lower blood pressure, help you sleep and even improve immunity. 

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5

They have practices to center and calm themselves

We probably didn't need science to tell us this, but a lot of research has shown that in emergency situations, it's the people who are calm and centered who live, Rick Hanson, PhD, a psychologist and author of Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, told the Wall Street Journal.

To become one of these peaceful people, create a daily calming ritual, whether that's doing 10 minutes of meditation or prayer a day, practicing yoga, going for a run or walking the dog. "When you slow down and take in the good, you develop traits of calm and centeredness," Hanson notes.  

Your breath can also be a powerful tool for quieting your mind and soothing your nervous system — try one of these simple, beginner-friendly breathing exercises to get started.

6

They take care of others

A final note from Hanson: While self-preoccupation creates a lot of anxiety and stress, taking care of other people "reduces stress hormones in your own body, and protects your heart and strengthens your immune system," he notes. 

During tough times, showing loved ones care and affection is a win-win situation. If you are in a position to give back, consider volunteering — a wonderful way to help others, while also helping yourself become stronger and more resilient with each good deed.

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