Building our Resilience Muscle


(6 min read) 

What keeps people going when the going gets tough? And what supports people to bounce back?

It was a personal experience this week which made me get curious. I was having one of those work weeks were everything seemed intense and I started to worry, particularly about taking on a new home and about money. The worrying led to doubt, which led to feelings of overwhelm, which led to physical symptoms of stress- not being able to sleep, bouts of tears, feeling nauseous- a classical vicious cycle. Thankfully over the years, with my yoga training and learning about cognitive behaviour, I was able to apply some skills to bring me out of the spiral, and this time, relatively quickly.

Turns out, I am not alone. Money worry is one of the highest stress triggers there is. A quick google search will produce a litany of articles about money, stress and health. Irrespective of how much money you may have, and depending on your attitude towards that figure, money is cited as one of the prime causes of relationship breakdown and personal anxiety. At a chronic level worry can have knock on effects on long term physical and mental health.

I decided to treat myself as my own own guinea pig this week and keep track of the tools and techniques which I applied to bring me back to centre and enable me to bounce back. This buoyancy is a quality which can broadly be defined as resilience and research has shown that it is a learned set of behaviours which can be improved upon over time. Emmy Werner’s landmark longitudinal study on resilience, for instance, identified a set of skills and belief systems which can be acquired and augmented with practice. We can think of resilience in this case as a muscle which if used regularly gets stronger.

So what are these behaviours and what actions to take? 

The first and immediate step in building resilience is to appease any physical stress symptoms. The stress response, trigged by a perceived threat, differs per individual. Typical responses are sweaty palms, increased heart rate, neck and jaw pain, and more rapid breathing. The stress response can only be moderated through the body; which is to say, we can’t think ourselves out of stress. As we begin to feel more stressed, the ‘stress hormone’, cortisol,  is released as a way to keep our blood sugar and heart rate up so that we are remain in a heightened state of alertness and are ready to respond to danger.  Once cortisol is increased, our thinking mind can not decrease it- but our bodies can. And here is the simple hack: by intentionally controlling, slowing and deepening the breath, our blood is thereby oxygenated and we are able to put brakes on the level of cortisol production. Endorphins are released into our system, our heart rates slows and our body moves out of ‘flight or flight’ mode. It is not surprising then to find that deep breath work (or pranayama) is the basis of many meditative traditions. And so we have lesson one: breath deep.

Posture too can play a role. Amy Cuddy’s research at Harvard Business School, is a study of ‘presence’. Her ever popular TED talk has helped to put data behind years of these ancient body practices. Cuddy was interested in the role of body language, non-verbal behaviour and posture in relation to performance outcomes. ‘Could you fake it before you make it?’, she queried.

Cuddy went on to up an experiment in which two groups were invited to an interview. Prior to the interview the first group, were asked to inhabit ‘small’ postural positions (folded arms, crossed legs, slightly slumped over), while the second were instructed to inhabit large poses, or what can be called power poses- open arms, chin slightly raised, broad chest- essentially: to take up more space. And you can guess which cohort performed better in interview- yes, exactly- the ‘take up more space’ group.

The eminently eloquent, Maria Popova over on BrainPickings offers a brilliant synopsis of Cuddy’s work;

At the heart of Cuddy’s research is the idea that the opposite of powerlessness, that ultimate fuel of impostor syndrome, isn’t power but what she terms presence — the ability to inhabit and trust the integrity of one’s own values, feelings, and capabilities. This capacity for presence is the seedbed of the confidence, courage, and resilience required to rise to even the most daunting of life’s challenges.

Then to bring us back to the question of how to be present, perhaps we can find some reassurance in Cuddy’s work: that if we are not feeling it, we can indeed fake it. Make yourself bigger, lengthen your posture, broaden your shoulders, take deeper breaths. Do this for two minutes. Bingo. The endocrine pathways are fired and our bodies are filled with a flush of ‘good’ endorphins. Of course the ancient yogis knew this all along: do a few sun salutations each morning to get not just our bodies limbered, but our brain chemistry too.

And so, back to how I got myself out of a quandary last week. Knowing the power of yogic breathing, I focused on calming my breath, deeper and slower, expanding the frame of my body. Re-calibrated, within minutes, literally.

So that is some of the short term crisis management so to speak, but what are some of the longer terms tools which can help to build resilience?

Values and Purpose

This is where the thinking mind does play a role, on numerous fronts.

Let’s start with values. As Popova touches upon above and which is explored through Werner’s longitudinal research, our capacity to develop resilience is related to our relationship to our internal values, or as what Werner refers to as our ‘internal locus of control’. Essentially, that when we can identify ourselves as the drivers of our own lives rather than external forces determining our circumstances, we have the capacity to design our responses to the majority of external stimuli which we encounter. I say the majority here, as of course, picking up a red hot poker will always trigger unconscious auto-responses which are designed to protect us from immediate and real harm, and thankfully so.

In thinking about resilience I am reminded of the beautiful book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Victor Frankl, a pioneer in the psychological field of logotherapy. The book is Frankl’s personal account of own experiences in Auschwitz concentration camp and how by focusing on finding purpose gave him the will to live. From this he went on to develop a wave of thinking in psychology that ultimately posits that finding meaning and the pursuit of purpose is a central force in what makes each of us tick; the thing that helps us to bounce back in the face of tribulation; i.e. that purpose and resilience are wonderful bedfellows. ‘Those who have a ‘why’ to live’, offers Frankl, ‘can bear with almost any ‘how’.

What do I stand for? What do I value? What is my ‘why’. How do I choose to respond? These are resilience forming questions.  To some spending time pursuing these could be interpreted as idle daydreaming, or to others, they may be literally considered as life-giving. I’ll pick the generative route.

Last week, being clear on my values helped me through that brief black hole. I asked myself, ‘What would creativity do now?’, ‘What would joy do now?’, ‘What would leadership do now?’- all values which I have identified to be core to my personal make up as they have been consistent drivers in my decision making and how I have chosen to live my life. So by asking these questions it helped me to re-orient me to the larger picture and see beyond the immediate challenge in front of me. Values, I have learned, always take a long-term, grounded and wise route. 


Next up in thinking about what builds resilience is the role of narrative; what is the story of the situation we choose to tell to ourselves. In resilience thinking, how we speak to ourselves really does matter: our story is an act of design.

We can borrow for a moment from design thinking – a methodology for innovating- here too. In design thinking we learn about ‘reframing’. This is like flipping current thinking on it’s head, and considering alternatives to be true. In the design industry this is generally applied to how to solve design challenges, but it can also be applied to our belief patterns. What if our ‘failures’ were reframed as our learning? What if worry is a signpost to the things that need our attention? What if our circuitous paths were accumulations of vital life experience?

The latter holds true to my own story. I have tried out so many career routes and different jobs over the years, and there are so many ways I can tell the story of this route. Do I internalise a narrative of ‘I am a failure, I can’t stick with anything for too long’, or do I flip it and reframe, choosing to narrate a positive version of this: that only through the circuity can I offer what I offer now, knowing it too will evolve.

So, this week, a quick re-frame of my situation was needed. Yes, I had a few days of intense worry. Does that make me a failure? Does that mean I am not good enough to do the work I feel I am being called to do? Well, only if I choose to narrate that story to myself and fail to recognise the power in the vulnerability I was experiencing. As Brené Brown’s work consistently reiterates, it is only through vulnerability that we can get to courage. So in as much as we can design how to narrate our stories, we can also design how we choose to categorise core human experience: in-built flaw or route to courage? You choose.

Social Relationships

Which brings me to my last point for the moment on building resilience: friendship.

Last week I sitting across the table from my good friend. I cried and shared how I was feeling worried and anxious. She chose not to advice me but instead listened with an open heart. Once I had the space to vent, without the sense of being judged, everything shifted. (Listening too is a radical act, but more on that later)

Resilience, we have learned, is not an isolated fact but happens in community. Corresponding studies on longevity have been asking, ‘what is the single determinate of a long and meaningful life?’ You’d think it would be a healthy diet or not smoking. Well it turns out that while both of these are contributing factors, it is the quality of our relationships that is a key determinant in healthy longevity. So to flex our resilience muscle, we also need to buffer ourselves with social interaction, daily. That ‘hello’ to the stranger on the street, that knowing the name of the person who makes your coffee, that reaching out to a friend who you have not heard from in a while- these are the foundational building blocks of a life well lived.

So, if you too are feeling like you need to build some resilience muscle, for the moment here are a few very simple and practical ways you can choose:

  • Breath deep,
  • Make yourself big,
  • Get clear on your values,
  • Honour your vulnerability,
  • And phone a friend.

Now, I’m choosing sleep (we’ll get to that point too)- it’s been a long week. Thank you for reading (we’ll also get to gratitude!)

Clare xx

Part two on resilience coming next week when I’ll share some more tools to help build personal and professional resilience.

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In this article: 

Listen to Amy Cuddy’s TED talk and follow it up with Maria Popova’s reflections. 

This New Yorker article is where I first read about Emmy Werner’s research.

Rising Strong by Brené Brown and Braving the Wilderness have much to offer in the way of resilience building and vulnerability, as too this recent On Being Conversation with Krista Tippett. 

Man’s Search for Meaning leaves a lasting impression. It was given to me as a 21st present. (Maybe gift it to someone you know too!)


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