Building resilience

Life can be a slog a times. How well do you cope when things go wrong? Do you go to pieces like an egg dropped on concrete or do you bounce back like a ball?

When you have resilience, you pull together your inner strength that helps you bounce back from a setback or challenge, such as a job loss, an illness, a disaster or the death of a loved one. If you lack resilience, you might dwell on problems, feel victimized, fearful and anxious or turn to unhealthy coping strategies, such as alcohol or substance abuse.Understanding the characteristics of resiliency and how to build it could be very helpful to your mental and physical well-being.

Researchers who have studied a person’s resilience and ability to cope with stress have found that it is comprised of three core feelings:

Self worth and feeling valued
Connection and feeling bound to others e.g. family and friends
Security and feeling safe

The good news is that these feelings can be developed at any stage of our life and we can value and teach resiliency components to our children.

Components that build resiliency

Resiliency depends on internal (personal) and external (communal)  factors and here are some examples of how some of these things may benefit our mental and physical health.

Internal or personal components

  • Setting appropriate boundaries  to what you will and won’t do with yourself and others.
    e.g Trying to reduce alcohol intake… “When I go out for dinner tonight I will try to limit my drinking to a couple of stubbies.”
  • Persistence and courage  determination to keep going even if the going gets tough.
    e.g. The last leg of a cycle race… “I’ve just got another thirty minutes to go I’m almost there.”
  • Effective decision-making and setting achievable goals
    e.g. Trying to reduce my cholesterol level… “I will aim to lose 0.5-1.0 kg per week. So I should expect to lose around 3kgs per month, that’s 10kgs in 3 months – sounds great.”
  • Empathy  The ability to ‘read’ other people’s feelings and to help them bounce back and feel supported.
    e.g. A child fails to kick the winning goal. “I know you feel bad, that was a tough game. I think you are running faster though. How about we go out at the weekend and practice your kicking?”
  • Social and emotional literacythe ability to communicate with others and to seek help to broaden friendships and coping networks.
    e.g. Visitor to the citizens advice bureau “I’m just new to this city. Can you put me in touch with some allergy awareness groups please?”
  • Optimism and humour helps to keep things in perspective.
    e.g. “I may look like a beached whale in this swim suit right now but swimming makes me feel great each morning and I’ve already lost 10kgs in 3months. So next summer it’s going to be ‘move over Pamela Anderson’ when I buy myself some great new togs.”
  • Gratitude the ability to appraise potential gains rather than responding exclusively to losses.
    e.g. “I wish that I had been chosen for the team this year but I am looking forward to the extra coaching and drills I have to do to keep fit as a reserve.”
  • Habits of the mind Applying prior learning to problem solving.
    e.g.”Last time we went out together I drank too much. How about I be the designated driver this time?”
  • Internal feelings of self-control Rather like a stabilising device it may include a set of personal guidelines that are based on positive self talk and prior learning or experiences.
    e.g. “I’m not going to take any notice of Peter’s put-downs this morning. He’s not sleeping very well and is stressed at work. I know that I look and feel fabulous and the sun is shining, in fact I think I’ll walk to work this morning.”
  • Competency the ability to perform a task well.
    e.g. “My walking has really picked up since I bought this pedometer. It was tricky to use at first but now I’ve got the hang of it, I’ve noticed my step rate has really increased each day and so has my weight loss.”
  • Spirituality the inner beliefs or connections that can act like a guide in life.
    e.g. “I love walking early in the morning because it’s really peaceful and I like to feel close to nature  and have time to think. It really helps me cope with stress.”
  • Self esteem feelings of self-worth.
    e.g. “I’m proud of getting my degree. It proved to me that with hard work, time and commitment there is nothing I can’t achieve if I set my mind to it.”
  • Values  the things we treasure.
    e.g. “I need to lose weight because I value my independence and mobility. Lately I’ve noticed my knees and joints are starting to hurt when I walk. I’m worried that if I keep going the way I am then I’m limiting my options, my sense  of freedom. I want to be able to travel whenever I can.”

External components

As discussed above it is possible for individuals to improve their own mental health and well-being by altering their attitude to set backs and becoming more resilient to life’s stresses. When individuals are also surrounded by a caring community that is supportive of change then resiliency becomes easier for everybody. Examples for how resiliency could help health could include:

  • Access to resources and support
    e.g. good cycle and running tracks, swimming pools and parks for recreation to encourage everybody to become more active.
  • Role models people who can demonstrate how to behave, respect and improve natural talent.
    e.g. parents, family members, school teachers, who are prepared to offer time to teach others and lead by example.
  • Meaningful participation in community groups.
    e.g. a parent who can offer to coach Saturday morning netball so that children can learn ball skills, team dynamics and how to keep fit and active.
  • Positive peer relationships.
    e.g. Sally knows her friend Jan is keen to lose weight and so recommends that they go for a walk or bike ride today rather than a movie.
  • Values base, is about building a good culture.
    e.g. the cricket coach reminds the team that there is a week-long ban on alcohol before the important match  at the weekend because the team has agreed that they all want to be playing at their best. 
  • Connection to school, work and family.
    e.g.Its easier to stay healthy when you know that others care about you and the choices that you make.  Easier also when we live in a culture that supports good health and fitness. Such as schools that teach children about healthy eating and then backs this up by providing a healthy school environment where  healthy food choices are available in  their tuck shops and fitness is a core subject in the curriculum.

Stress is a natural part of life but it is how we learn to handle it that really counts. By building resilience it is easier to make healthier food and lifestyle choices for you and your family.

At Lea Stening Health we endeavour to support and assist people to build personal resilience so contact us if we can help you.


Kids Behaving Bravely – Raising a Resilient Child  by Tania Roxbourgh
and Kim Stephenson. Penguin Books 2008.

Mental health, resilience and inequalities – Dr Lynne Friedli WHO Europe 2009 

Other articles by Lea on related topics

Tips to cope with unexpected change 
Our attitude is the key to better health
Find optimism for goal success

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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