How to build a resilience mindset.

When things get tough, it can be hard to keep perspective. Learn the 4 essentials habits of a resilience mindset.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
27th Mar 2018 • 5m read

Hal Elrod wasn’t supposed to walk again.

Hit by car and pronounced dead for 6 minutes, Elrod was lucky to just be alive. His doctors told him he was unlikely to regain use of his legs. Elrod simply nodded and accepted his fate. At the tender age of 19, his doctors couldn’t believe how well he was taking the news.

They told his parents he was in denial.

But Elrod was no stranger to adversity. Having lost his baby sister to metatropic dysplasia at a young age, and seeing the foundations and charities that his parents built as a result, he learned that adversity isn’t permanent and that even terrible events can produce something good.

He called upon the 5-minute rule to get him through: “When things don’t go your way, you can feel bad about it, but for five minutes. If you can’t change it, move on.”

Day by day, and much to the surprise of those around him, he began to walk again.

Eventually, he began to compete in ultra-marathons. And in the midst of the 2008 Financial Crisis, as his world began to collapse around him, he decided to write a book called The Miracle Morning. Today, that book has been translated into over 17 languages, is hailed by celebrities as a life-changing read, and stands as one of the most popular and highly-rated books on Amazon.

But Elrod is just one of millions of resilience stories that inspire and energize the rest of us.

Resilience refers to people’s capacity to recover quickly from difficult circumstances.

We all look at people like Elrod, and wonder if we’d be as upbeat and resilient in the same situation. In the absence of difficulty, we sail along and applaud the strength of people doing it hard. Deep down, we know that life is an ocean with crests and waves and we hope that when the next crest comes along, we’ll be ready for it. When we are swept up in that deep, bottomless crest, we wonder how on earth we’re going to get out.

And the truth is, there is no easy answer.

Resilience is a necessary antidote to a cruel and unpredictable world. Without resilience, we are:

  • At the mercy of circumstance and prone to crumbling when things don’t go our way.
  • Sensitive to the smallest of setbacks and quick to give up
  • Unable to move forward because we are perpetually allowing us ourselves to regress

Some people are born naturally more resilient to difficulty than others. But resilience can be, and is, a learned trait (what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?).

So how do we learn to be resilient?

It’s all in the mindset.

To grow or not to grow...

American psychologist, Carol Dweck, was fascinated by student’s attitudes to failure. She noticed that some students rebounded from setbacks whilst others were completely devastated by them. After many years of research, she described a mindset dichotomy that explained these attitudes to learning and intelligence: fixed vs growth mindsets.

In a nutshell, a fixed mindset describes a state of thinking where a person does not believe he or she is capable of improvement. Meanwhile, those with a growth mindset accepted failure as an opportunity to learn and used those learnings to continue to grow.

Brain plasticity research has shown us that the brain is much more malleable than we previously thought. Our neural growth is affected by the actions we take and the thoughts we allow ourselves to have. Key word here being allow. One of the most interesting observations from Dweck’s research is that what we believe about our ability to learn and grow was one of the key factors in how quickly we rebound from failure. So even if we currently have a “fixed” mindset, if we keep telling ourselves that we can grow, we will.

Building resilience works in a similar vein. If we’ve responded to negative events in the past in a certain way, it’s easy to believe that this won’t change. But the journey to changing the way we deal with negative situations begins by recognizing that we currently suck at it and that we need to improve. The key to remember here is that building resilience is like building a beach body. To reap the rewards of a beach body in the summer, you need to be hitting the gym in the winter. Building a resilience mindset is something you need to consistently work on and maintain, even when life is all smooth sailing.

Dealing with difficulty: 4 steps to building a resilience mindset

Accepting that you need to deal with setbacks in a more effective way is the first step. Once you’ve recognized this, it’s time to do the work to build a mindset that will get you through those tough times.

Been there, done that.

Whatever situation you find yourself in, know that someone else has been there before you. Empathy is a powerful human emotion and it helps us to build bonds with people who’ve been through what we have. Remembering that there is a long list of resilient people who’ve already faced what you’re facing and conquered what you’re trying to conquer is surprisingly powerful. When you feel down and out, remind yourself that if others have gotten through it before you, so can you.

Internalizing control

When things go pear-shaped, we can be tempted to blame others for it. In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes those who feel helpless and blame external events as having an external locus of control. On the flipside, those with an internal locus of control believe that they can influence and change circumstances in their lives. This difference in mindset is subtle and may be difficult to notice yet is one of the most powerful things you can do to deal more effectively with hardships. Own the situation and rather than focusing on what you can’t control and being upset about it, take the proactive approach and focus on what you can.

Reject victimhood

A natural flow on from internalizing control, refusing to see yourself as a victim of circumstance gives you the strength to move above it. It does not own you. You own it. Anybody can be a victim of a certain event but you can only be a permanent victim if you choose to be. Choose instead to not let the circumstance define you.

Establish happy habits

Good habits are essential because they autocorrect our lives when things are going south. When we’re in the middle of a crisis, we tend to catastrophize and lose sight of reality. We don’t necessarily see the crisis in the context of our larger goals and our lives generally. Our habits are often the first to go in a crisis and yet they are precisely what we need at that moment to keep us centred. A good, well-established routine is perhaps the best antidote to a situation gone wrong. It keeps you focused and grounded. If you have a rock solid foundation, it will stay strong when crap hits the fan. Happy habits like mindfulness, reading, keeping a journal, and exercise will all form a ring of protection around you when the forces of despair come calling. And again, focus on these in the winter so you’ve got that beach bod in the summer. Resilience is our coping mechanism for life. We can choose to build it or wait for it to build itself when it’s too late. Resilience gets us through dark times and gives us the strength to power through to make something great of the situation. Focus on these steps now so you can have that fortress built when you need it the most.

Want to hear how some rockstar doctors got through their toughest times? Check out the Medmastery podcast now.