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As a student, you’re probably pretty familiar with stress. You might also have wondered why some of your peers on campus seem to handle their challenges relatively easily while others struggle to meet similar demands. That difference relates to resilience, or grit: the ability to overcome and draw strength from difficult situations. “At our most resilient, we can surf the waves of change and stress rather than being swamped and drowned by them,” says Dr. Holly Rogers, a psychiatrist at Duke University.

In recent years, researchers have identified protective factors and processes that help individuals cope and explored how those can be nurtured. “A large number of people do not develop the problems we would expect them to have [after serious adversity]. We have for 50 years been interested in explaining what makes the difference,” says Dr. Michael Ungar, founder and co-director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia.

Why is resilience so important?

“Resilience skills can help students not just get through college but actually thrive and flourish while doing it,” says Paula Davis-Laack, who designs resilience training programs for professionals and organizations. “Resilience skills bring out the best qualities in a person and activate desirable behaviors. Resilient students can tolerate change, stress, uncertainty, and other types of adversity more effectively. They are less likely to experience setbacks and diminished work/school performance, ‘learned helplessness,’ and other problems.”

Is resilience born or made?

“Resilience has been very conclusively shown to be a bundle of skills that everyone can learn, develop, and practice. One of the leading researchers calls resilience ‘ordinary magic,’ because it doesn’t require anything fancy or sophisticated to build,” says Davis-Laack. External supports matter too, including “the capacity of the institution to create opportunities for students to succeed,” says Ungar.

What builds resilience?

  • Hanging in through a challenge
  • Learning from experience
  • Strong relationships
  • Seeing your current situation
    as a turning point
  • Humor and realistic optimism
  • Appropriate environmental supports

Got grit? Find out here

How does your resilience rate? Test yourself

Which early life experiences block resilience?

Early life experiences have long-term implications. People who go through adverse childhood experiences—like childhood abuse, witnessing violence against their mother, or living with a substance abuser—are at higher risk for alcohol and drug abuse, depression, and other health conditions, according to an influential study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 1998, and ongoing research.

Other childhood risk factors include:

  • A lack of strong connections
    within the family
  • Difficulty with social relationships
  • School issues, including low achievement, absenteeism, and dropping out
  • Living in poverty
  • Serious physical or emotional health issues within the family

Which habits make it harder to bounce back from adversity?

  • Negativity bias: Bad experiences have more impact on our neuropsychological development than good ones. Resilience-building strategies offset this effect.
  • Denial: Difficulty accepting the event or experience
  • Victim mentality: “Why does it always happen to me?”
  • Placing blame—on yourself or others
  • Comparing yourself to others, or unfavorably comparing your present with your past
  • Avoidance: Not talking about it and not seeking support from friends, family, and/or a professional

What helps us overcome severe setbacks?

Most children who grow up in difficult circumstances develop into well-adjusted and successful adults. Why? In part, because certain protective factors can offset the challenges.

Protective factors for resilience include:

  • Supportive, nurturing parents or other adults
  • Stable housing and income
  • Regular physical activity
  • Mindfulness meditation and/or faith-based services
  • Access to religious or faith-based services
  • Access to health care
  • Strong social relationships and positive peer influences and mentors
  • Personal characteristics such as social skills, problem-solving abilities, autonomy, and sense of purpose
  • Community programs, such as after-school activities and college supports

TRUE OR FALSE? what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

This is both true and false.

Mild and moderate adversity can help build coping skills, according to research. More than 8 out of 10 students surveyed by Student Health 101 said they had experienced a challenging experience or situation that made them a better person.

Severe adversity is a different story, and there are risks in assuming that any suffering makes us stronger. “By perpetuating the belief that pain is edifying, we place the onus on survivors to heal themselves—and we deemphasize the value of prevention and support services,” pointed out a columnist in the Washington Post in January. The growth potential lies in working with others to overcome trauma, specifically giving and receiving help.

What difference does resilience make to students?

Even in everyday circumstances, resilience makes a difference. In a 2010 study of medical students, the resilient students:

  • Had a more positive view of the learning environment
  • Were less likely to develop depression or experience burnout
  • Were better able to develop and maintain relationships with teachers and other students

Your school can help build your resilience
“A student’s resilience is not just the individual’s capacity to cope. It is also the capacity of the institution to create opportunities for students to succeed. So when Carleton University [in Ontario] noticed that a lot of their first year students felt lonely or disconnected to the university, they began creating cohorts of 100 students who all take classes together. The students felt better supported and made friends, [which] predicted better coping when first-year stressors piled up.” —Ungar

7 ways to build resilience

1. Think of three good things

Positive experiences are opportunities to identify and build our inner strength. Try the Three Good Things exercise from the Penn Resiliency Project at the University of Pennsylvania.

The three good things exerciseEvery day for a week, write down three good things that happened that day. For each event, write why it happened, what it means to you, and how you can have more of it. This is a great way to discover your strengths and how you can use them to overcome challenges. This exercise was developed by researchers at the Penn Resilience Project, University of Pennsylvania.

Sample exercise:
What happenedWhy it happenedWhat it means to meHow I can have more of it
1. Cooked huge pot pie with KarenFinished assignment in advance, made time for relaxing and socializingHealthier food, fun company, all set for 3 more dinners this weekInvite Rhodri to cook with me next weekend
2. Good grade on my research paperCreated a plan to complete my paper over a week instead of trying to do it all in one nightFeeling proud, less anxious, more in controlCreate a study plan for every assignment
3. Got invited to a partyGot to know Dana in classGreat time. I have more friends then I thought, and a new Zumba partnerChat more with classmates etc.

2. Practice mindfulness

“Mindfulness has been identified as one of the primary ways to develop resilience in college students,” says Dr. Rogers. Her class-based approach, Koru, is the only evidence-based mindfulness training program developed specifically for college students, and is in place on more than 30 US campuses. Many colleges offer other mindfulness classes and programs. Koru’s mindfulness exercises for students.

Quick mindfulness exercise
Practicing mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes a day—for just a week—results in better sleep, less stress, and greater self-compassion, according to research.

Free guided meditations

Read this through a few times before you practice:
Wherever you are right now, close your eyes. Pay attention to your breathing and see if you can find the place in your body where you most clearly feel the sensations of your breath moving in and out. For some people, the belly moving in and out is most prominent. Others notice the rise and fall of their chest. Still others most easily feel the breath moving in and out at the tip of their nose. It makes no difference at all where you feel your breath; you are just trying to discover the place in your body where you can most easily make contact with the sensations of breathing.

Got it? OK, now just let your attention settle on that place where you most easily feel your breathing. With an attitude of relaxed curiosity, count 10 breaths. Don’t try to change your breathing. You don’t need to do any special or fancy breathing. Just count 10 inhalations and 10 exhalations.

Most people will notice that their mind wanders before the end of the first breath. When that happens, just notice that you are thinking about something else, and without judging yourself or your wandering mind, bring your attention back to your breath. Stop after you’ve completed 10 breaths.

3. Be NUMB to negative thoughts

The NUMB Technique, a four-step process for redirecting your thoughts, was developed by Dr. Ilena Boniwell, professor of applied positive psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK.

Notice the negative thought. Keep an elastic band around your wrist and flick it each time.

Understand it. Why is this thought occurring?

Manage it, using the acronym ACT:
  • Active intervention: Walk around the block, or run up and down stairs.
  • Calm intervention: Take a few minutes to meditate or refocus.
  • Talking intervention: Involve a friend or therapist.
Build on the positive emotions.

NUMB technique [TED talk]

4. Nourish your happy experiences

Our experiences drive our brain development. To empower yourself through positive experiences, try the HEAL system identified by Dr. Rick Hansen, a neuroscientist at the University of California Berkeley.

Have a good experience: For example, celebrate a friend’s birthday.

Enrich it: For about 20 seconds, reimagine the venue, the food, the cake, the joke. This consolidates your long-term memory of the event. Practice this with every positive experience, and make it a habit.

Absorb it: Focusing on the experience encodes it into your neural structure.

Link positive and negative experiences: Allow the positive feelings to soothe negative memories and heal old pain.

HEAL technique [TED talk]

5. Identify and apply your strengths

The Penn Resiliency Program recommends this method:
  • Recall past experiences (good and bad).
  • Focus on the strengths that brought you that positive experience or helped you overcome that challenge.
  • When you experience difficult situations in the future, think about how to use those strengths to handle this challenge too.

6. Find your growth mindset

To build grit, develop a “growth mindset,” says Dr. Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Find ways to remind yourself regularly of the following:
  • The ability to learn is not fixed. It can change.
  • Failure and setbacks are not permanent and can be overcome.
Growth mindset [TED Talk]

7. Nurture close relationships

Social connectedness is key to protecting us from stress. Helping friends or family members, and volunteering, can help improve your self-confidence, self-worth, and resilience.

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