The Resiliency Workout

Building resilience is no different from building fitness. You have to work at it regularly for the most improvement.

Building resilience is no different from building fitness. You have to work at it regularly for the most improvement. What follows is a two-week program that features 14 different exercises for increasing resilience. Some are as simple as looking in the mirror, while others will take a great deal of self-control and willpower. Some are fun, like laughing more, while others might sting a little, because they force you to confront life and your role in it.

Overall, it’s a novel type of “personal training” that we think will benefit you and that you’ll enjoy. One final tip: Keep the program next to the coffeepot or in your bathroom so you’ll be reminded to “work out” every day. Now, let’s get started.

1. LAUGH AT LEAST FIVE TIMES TODAY.

Humor and resilience are actually quite similar. After all, what is humor but the ability to make light of real life? Laughter keeps you optimistic, helps you cope, reduces stress, and reminds you of what’s important. If you don’t have a sense of humor, it’s time to work on one. Start with the professionals: Add more funny movies to your Netflix queue, or start listening to humorous books-on-tape during your commute. Be less stern and more playful with your family. Have animated conversations about unimportant things with friends. Learn the art of the gentle tease — and be open to teasing in return. Come bedtime, look back on your day, and think about whether you laughed enough — and then vow to laugh more tomorrow. Just one warning: Avoid sarcasm, mockery, and any other forms of humor that degrade or hurt others. Humor, when twisted improperly, can be more bitter than sweet.

2. IDENTIFY ONE POSITIVE THING IN A NEGATIVE SITUATION.

We’re not recommending you become a “lemonade-out-of-lemons” kind of woman, but no matter how bleak a situation is, there’s always something positive to be found. Today, when a challenging situation emerges, your task is to find it. We know a couple whose house burned down on Christmas Eve, just two days after they’d moved in, when the husband tried to light a fire in the fireplace. They lost everything they had accumulated over their 40-year marriage. But they still had each other. And, they told us, starting over was kind of fun.

3.  BUDGET 20 PERCENT MORE TIME FOR EVERYTHING.

If you expect everything to go perfectly, you’re setting yourself up for continual disappointment. Plan for road construction, flight delays, and missed deadlines by building 20 percent more time into everything on today’s schedule. You’ll quickly find that saving frustration is even more important than saving time.

4.  LIST SEVEN PERSONAL STRENGTHS.

This could be anything from your ability to interact with anyone at any time, to your talent for baking. It doesn’t matter if you keep the list in your head, or on your smart phone. Just don’t make it entirely on your own; ask people who know you well for their advice. Knowing your strengths — becoming aware of your strengths — is like putting money into the resilience bank. When it’s time for a withdrawal, you’ll know how much you have to use.

5.  CHANGE THREE THINGS ABOUT YOUR ROUTINE.

“With age, we move in tinier and tinier circles,” says Professor Davey. We become so entrenched in our routines that we no longer even notice them. Then, when something happens to change that routine, we lack the flexibility to cope with it. To prevent this from happening to him, he changes one thing about his routine every day. He might brush his teeth with his left hand, take a different route while riding his bike to work, or sleep in a different bedroom in his house. It sounds trivial, but it isn’t. Being open to change, and handling it well when it occurs is a fundamental part of resilience that takes practice to maintain.

6. PICK SOMETHING THAT’S WORRYING YOU, THEN LOOK IN THE MIRROR.

This exercise teaches you to compare yourself only to yourself. Just because Mary in accounts receivable got laid off this week doesn’t mean you’ll be downsized next. And just because Sandy’s husband is cheating on her doesn’t mean you need to start checking up on yours. Mary and Sandy are very different women in very different situations. Don’t believe us? Just look in the mirror. Focus on your situation in the context of your life, not that of anyone else around you.

7. WHEN YOU FEEL YOURSELF GETTING ANGRY, CHOOSE NOT TO.

Although anger often seems like an involuntary reaction, it isn’t. Getting angry — or more importantly, NOT getting angry — is totally within your control, if you work at it. Let’s be honest: There’s no shortage of people and things that make us angry, be it the government, the clerk at the store, your spouse’s insensitive comment, the living room mess, or the distracted driver in front of you. In every case, you have a choice: Get angry, or don’t. Try choosing the latter. Remember that getting angry solves nothing. But it does accomplish something: It ruins your mood, hurts your health, and gets in the way of constructive responses. Resilient people avoid anger. If they can control the situation, they work to improve it; if they can’t control it directly, they find ways to cope.

8. SPEND SOME TIME IN ANOTHER PERSON’S SHOES.

Resilient people are empathetic people. They take the time to ponder the other side’s perspective. Let’s say your boss is a continual source of frustration in your life. Instead of letting that stress percolate inside you, spend some time in his shoes, so to speak. Think about why he says what he says, and acts the way he does. What is his boss like? What is it about his past, his home life, his standing in the company, that makes him act as he does? The ability to see situations objectively, from multiple viewpoints, is extremely useful for building a more resilient personality. Remember, too, that being empathetic doesn’t mean being a pushover, or forgiving everything. It just means you look at things from all angles and from a deeper perspective before reacting or commenting.

9. ASK THREE QUESTIONS IN A FRUSTRATING SITUATION.

People often let situations control them instead of them controlling the situation. Many times, this occurs because they haven’t bothered to gather the information they need. So when a problem arises today, ask questions. They could be directed to the source of the frustration, or to yourself, or to a third party. The answers will provide you with the information to start developing alternative responses, at least one of which will enable you to bounce back. An example: Your child comes home from school in a fury, and quickly makes an insulting comment. You could immediately get angry and have a fight, or you could search out answers from him or his teachers about what happened that put him in such a mood, in the fair assumption that his anger isn’t really with you but something else.

10. WHEN ADVERSITY ARISES, COUNT TO FIVE.

But we don’t mean 1…2…3…4…5. Rather, take a deep breath, and then come up with five possible ways you can respond to or remedy it. Think about solving the situation, not about its unfairness or how it is hurting your day. Say to yourself, “In the near future, this will already be worked out, and things will be getting better.” If no situation arises today where this may apply, think back a few days. Identify a tough situation, and go through how you could have problem-solved it in this way.

11. PICK ONE CHALLENGE, GIVE IT 100 PERCENT, THEN RELAX.

This is an exercise in learning to recognize what you can and cannot control. In a quiet moment, identify a major challenge in your life, and think of all you’ve done to overcome it. If the answer is that you’ve done your best, accept it, take pride in your efforts, and move on. If you have diabetes, for instance, and you’re following a healthful diet, taking your medication, and exercising regularly but your blood sugar still fluctuates, recognize that you’re doing all you can and put the rest in the doctor’s, researchers’ or even God’s hands. You can do your best, but you can’t do everything.

12. SPEND A TOTAL OF 30 MINUTES IN THE MOMENT.

The mind spends most of its time either worrying about the future, or rummaging through the past. Rarely is it grounded in the now. And that adds to stress. To live more in the moment, James Carmody, PhD, director of the Research Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, recommends first becoming aware of how your attention wanders. Then, whenever you find it jumping into the future to worry, or stepping back into the past for regret, consciously pull it back and settle it in the present — even if it’s just for a few minutes or seconds. “We find that when people do this every day for about 30 minutes,” he explains, “not only do their stress levels fall significantly, but their sense of feeling overwhelmed also drops and their sense of being able to cope increases.”

13. SET THREE GOALS FOR YOURSELF.

You need a sense of accomplishment every day to strengthen your belief in yourself. These goals could be small, such as calling your mother today, or they could be large, like cleaning out the garage. Just make sure they’re as specific as possible and doable within 24 hours.

14. LIST 10 PERSONAL BLESSINGS.

It sounds hokey, but recognizing the many things you have to be thankful for is a sign of resilience. Don’t leave anything out. Maybe you’re blessed because you moved into a house with the master bedroom on the first floor and now you don’t have to haul the laundry upstairs; add it. At the end of the day, make copies of the list and put one in your bedroom, kitchen, glove compartment, and on your smart phone. Whenever you’re tempted to bemoan your fate, look at the list and remind yourself how lucky you really are.

And there you have it. If, at the end of these two weeks, you like how you’re feeling, by all means go ahead and repeat the program. The more of a habit these little exercises become, the more in control you’ll be.

We were listening to a call-in radio show the other day, and the doctor being interviewed was asked how he defines good health. He responded that it’s waking up each morning optimistic and eager for the day ahead. That’s a wise and eloquent answer, and one that reinforces the importance of all we’ve been discussing. If you have a resilient personality, you will feel that way every day. As it turns out, good health may or may not make you happy, but happiness without question contributes mightily to good health.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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