We're hearing a lot about resilience these days and we need it more than ever. Unfortunately, however, much of the advice given isn't always helpful. Often, it's even overwhelming or impractical.
For instance, you know you should exercise but that won't do you any good if you don't have the energy. And how the heck do you “feel your emotions” when you've shut out your feelings just to get through the day? Advice like this only adds to stress and can make you feel worse.
We need to start with small habits in order to improve ourselves.
Rather than thinking about strength and resilience as big to-dos, it's more helpful to think of these as traits that you will reinforce over time. A great place to start is with a few small actions that give immediate gratification.
With regular practice, these will become little habits that improve your strength and resilience for when times get tough.
Here are 9 small habits to improve your strength and resilience.
These small actions may seem inconsequential but they can make a big difference.
1. Savor the moment.
The best things in life are often found in the small moments of pleasure and connection. Your first cup of coffee, a child's hug, or appreciation of a blooming flower. We all have these moments even in the midst of the most challenging circumstances.
Looking out for the small enjoyable moments that occur throughout the day and anchoring them into memory with a bit of extra attention will go a long way toward keeping you in a positive state of mind. This promotes positive emotion and interrupts negative rumination.
2. Focus on positive emotion.
All emotions are adaptive, meaning that even what we think of as a “negative" emotion has a positive role in our lives. But the emotions we think of as “positive” hold special power.
It's thought that positive emotions evolved as a way of helping us broaden our outlook past the immediate crises at hand and to help us maintain supportive social connections.
Thankfully you don't have to wait for positive emotion to come naturally. You can induce positive emotions by watching something cute or funny (which might be why cat videos are so popular), turning your attention to something or someone you love (such as a tree, artwork, person, or pet), or moving in a way that’s enjoyable (such as dancing to an upbeat song).
3. Take a deep breath.
This timeless advice is rooted in science because our breath is the quickest way to bring our nervous system into relaxation. Breathing slowly and deeply also ensures that oxygen reaches our brain and muscles.
When practiced over time, deep breaths enhance cognitive and psychological flexibility. Even one deep breath can be rejuvenating and give you the pause you need in order to make better choices.
4. Do something menial.
You may not see a link between making your bed and meeting your long-term life goals, but taking any small action gives energy and shows you that you’re capable of getting things done.
Additionally, small actions can jump-start a chain reaction of more action. The idea is that, while the way we think can influence the way we feel and act, the opposite is also true. In actuality, these loops are the result of the complex interplay between thoughts, emotions, goal-directed behaviors or actions, and imagination.
We can change our moods and thoughts indirectly by taking action. When you're feeling unmotivated pick any small, even micro, action, even one completely unrelated to your goals. Then stand back and acknowledge your work.
5. Play a little.
It may seem self-indulgent when you've got too much to do but a short play break can work your brain in different ways which can help you stop worrying and instead better access your creativity and problem-solving capabilities.
An app, word game, puzzle, or craft will do, as will throwing a ball in the air, or shooting a few hoops. Anything you find fun for 15 minutes or so will give the needed boost.
6. Counter a negative thought.
We're often brought low by our own negative thoughts, and when times are tough these negative thoughts add unnecessary weight to our load. Try countering negative self-talk that you become aware of with a statement of self-compassion.
Sometimes people have the erroneous belief that self-compassion is an excuse or harsh self-talk is motivational. But research has confirmed the benefits of kindness over criticism.
Simple statements to yourself like “you're doing your best,” “this is hard,” or “everyone makes mistakes” can lift your mood and give you the energy to keep going.
7. Take a brain break.
Doing a body check-in is another way to give your brain a break. Do this by scanning your body and asking what you’re experiencing inside. This can be physical needs like thirst, hunger, or exhaustion. It could also be emotional manifestations like butterflies or a knot in your stomach.
8. Eat when you're hungry.
In our culture of dieting and food restriction, it’s easy to forget that eating is important to maintain both energy and brainpower. The brain is an energy hog, accounting for only 2% of our body weight but using 20% of our energy. It requires continuous glucose to function which is why eating when hungry is so important to maintaining strength and resilience.
Paying attention and honoring your appetite signals rewards you in multiple ways. Not only does it ensure that you get the nutrients you need when you need them but it also helps you learn to differentiate between the sensations of physical and emotional hunger.
9. Practice gratitude.
Research shows that gratitude is an important practice for staying strong and resilient. A prayer or thank you before eating is an easy way to practice gratitude. This also brings your body into relaxation which aids digestion.
You can take a moment each day to reflect on three things you are most grateful for. When done at the end of the day, this has the bonus effect of putting you in a relaxed positive space which is helpful for better sleep.
Building tried and true little habits like these can have big impacts. They can help you feel stronger in the moment as well as build resilience over time.
You can do any one of these actions until it becomes a real habit, or you can keep a list handy to pick from when you need a power-up. You can even stack them for greater impact. Think "taking deep breaths" plus "being grateful" plus "savoring the moment" while taking a meal break.
If something seems too hard, break it down further into individual, doable actions. The most important thing is to bring some focus onto what's good in life to help balance out the rest.
Lisa Newman, MAPP is a positive psychology practitioner and certified intuitive eating counselor specializing in helping women end the cycle of yo-yo dieting.