How to Cultivate the Resources for Resilience

Your basic needs can be matched by the mental resources we all possess, like courage or gratitude. Grow your inner strengths with this four-step HEAL framework to make you more resilient when challenges arise.

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One winter, I went camping with my friend Bob in the backcountry near Sequoia National Park. After spending the day slogging uphill through deep snow, we were exhausted but needed to make camp.

As the temperature rapidly dropped, Bob began shivering uncontrollably. He had poured out so much energy without refueling himself that he was sliding into hypothermia, the first stage of freezing to death. We hurried to set up the tent, get into our sleeping bags, light the stove, drink hot water, and eat hot food—and soon Bob’s teeth stopped chattering.

Luckily, we had just enough resilience to turn this misadventure around. Mental resources like calm, grit, and courage kept us going when we were hit with freezing temperatures. And these are the same types of resources we all can use to help us cope with and push through obstacles in our own lives.

But how do we cultivate them? The key is knowing how to turn passing experiences into lasting inner resources built into our brains. I teach this skill—called positive neuroplasticity—in my new book, Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness (written with Forrest Hanson).

Though it’s not a quick fix, you can change your brain for the better by working it the same way you would work a muscle. As you become more resilient in the face of life’s challenges, you move toward greater well-being and away from stress, worry, frustration, and hurt.

12 Resources for Resilience

Every human being has three basic needs—safety, satisfaction, and connection—that are grounded in our ancient evolutionary history. While our circumstances have changed enormously over the last 200,000 years, our brains have remained largely the same. The neural machinery that enabled our ancestors to satisfy their need for safety by finding shelter, for satisfaction by getting food, and for connection by bonding with others is alive in our brains today.

A particular need is best met by inner strengths that are matched to it—and these mental resources are what make us resilient.

To meet our need for safety, we can draw on:

  • Compassion: Being sensitive to the burdens and suffering of others and ourselves, along with the desire to help with these if we can.
  • Grit: Being doggedly tough and resourceful.
  • Calm: Emotional balance and a sense of capability in the face of threats.
  • Courage: Protecting and standing up for ourselves, including with others.

To meet our need for satisfaction, we can draw on:

  • Mindfulness: Staying present in the moment as it is, rather than daydreaming, ruminating, or being distracted.
  • Gratitude: Appreciating and feeling good about what already exists.
  • Motivation: Pursuing opportunities in the face of challenges.
  • Aspiration: Reaching for and achieving results that are important to us.

To meet our need for connection, we can draw on:

  • Learning: Growing and developing, a process that allows us to cultivate all the other strengths.
  • Confidence: Feeling a sense of being cared about, worthy, and self-assured.
  • Intimacy: Being open to knowing and being known by others.
  • Generosity: Giving to others through altruism, compassion, and forgiveness.

To start cultivating more resilience, pick a challenge in your life, and then consider the needs at stake in it, in terms of safety, satisfaction, and connection. You may be dealing with an external challenge, such as a relationship conflict, a stressful job, or a health problem. Or you could be facing an internal challenge, such as harsh self-criticism or feeling unwanted. Sometimes there’s a one-two punch. For example, tension with someone might be stirring up self-criticism inside you.

As you consider a major challenge and the need(s) at the heart of it, see if any of the twelve resources stand out. Ask yourself:

  • What, if it were more present in my mind these days, would really help?
  • What inner strengths could help me stay peaceful, content, and loving when I’m dealing with this challenge?
  • If this challenge began in the past, what would have been really helpful to have experienced back then?
  • Deep down, what experience do I still very much long for?

Four Steps to HEAL

The answers to these questions point to which resources you might need to get through your challenge. Next, follow my HEAL framework to cultivate this resource as a durable strength hardwired into your own brain:

  • Have a beneficial experience
  • Enrich it
  • Absorb it
  • Link it

1. Have a beneficial experience

Nearly everyone has many enjoyable or useful experiences each day, most of them mild and brief. For example, it feels good to put on a sweater if you’re chilled or feel friendly toward someone who is kind to you. But do you take notice of these experiences and highlight them in your awareness, or just pass by them and move on to the next thing?

The brain is continually remodeling itself as you learn from your experiences. When you repeatedly stimulate a “circuit” in the brain, you strengthen it. The brain operates so rapidly—with neurons routinely firing 5-50 times a second—that you can grow resilience and well-being many times a day, taking a minute or less each time.

To have beneficial experiences in the first place, it helps to be alert to the good facts around you—for example, fortunate circumstances, the beauty of nature, tasks you are completing, people who care about you, or your own talents and skills. You can even find the good in hard times, such as seeing the kindness of others as you go through a loss.

Besides simply noticing useful or pleasurable thoughts, feelings, or sensations that are already present in your awareness, you could create beneficial experiences, such as by