Outlook: Newsletter of the Society of Behavorial Medicine

Summer 2020

Cultivating Resilience in the Face of Adversity

Lila J. Finney Rutten, PhD, MPH‚úČ, SBM Member Delegate; and Amit Sood, MD, MSc

Stress and Resilience

Data from more than 135,000 interviews conducted by Gallup Poll in 2017 reveal significant decline in well-being among U.S. adults.1 Indeed, feelings of stress, loneliness, and depression are pervasive in the U.S.2 All of us face stress and adversity throughout our lives, but some of us seem to manage it with greater grit, and recover from it faster and more fully. This ability to withstand and recover from adversity and derive personal growth from challenging life events is called resilience.2-9

Four domains of resilience have been described.7,10 Physical resilience is characterized by good health, strength, and the ability to quickly recover from illness or injury. Cognitive resilience is the ability to maintain focus and judgment and make good decisions under stress. Emotional resilience is characterized by emotional stability and the ability to quickly recover from negative emotions. Spiritual resilience can be described as having a sense of higher purpose, living a principled life, and having the ability to maintain an altruistic perspective when faced with adversity. Integration of these domains provides a useful construct for individuals to thrive personally and professionally.

Enhancing Resilience

A large body of research has emerged examining the association between resilience and health, wellbeing, and longevity.9-21 This research points to important ways in which all of us can cultivate our own resilience.7,10-18

Physical resilience can be nurtured through healthy lifestyle choices including participating in regular physical activity, eating a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep, and effectively managing stress.7,10

Cognitive resilience can be fostered through attention training practices.7,10 Bringing mindfulness and intentionality to your attention can help reduce internal distractions and worries and soften judgment of or reactivity to others. For example, by taking back control of your attention, amidst adversity, you may more easily be able to guide your thoughts toward the actionable, while keeping hope and positivity. Similarly, by training yourself to practice kind attention, you may more easily diffuse anger.

Emotional resilience can be fostered through mindfulness practices aimed at cultivating gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning, and forgiveness. 7,10


Making efforts to recognize valued aspects of one’s experience has been shown to improve mood, enhance wellbeing, improve self-esteem, and lower risk of post-traumatic stress disorder.22-24


Compassion refers to the ability to relate to others in a way that is empathetic, while being mindful of our shared human struggles, and the desire of belonging and safety. Cultivating compassion lowers stress, decreases pain, improves immune function, decreases length of acute illness, and improves satisfaction with healthcare.25-27 Compassion can be enhanced through recognizing and validating others’ struggles, delaying negative judgment, and identifying a sense of connectedness to those who are struggling. Compassion toward self is as important as compassion toward others.


Acceptance is the ability to recognize and cope with that which you cannot control. Acceptance requires openness to experiences as they are, allowing for imperfections, set-backs, and failure. Acceptance isn’t giving up; instead acceptance is empowered engagement. Research has demonstrated that acceptance is associated with improvements in quality of life, greater coping ability, better control of anxiety and depression, decreases in chronic pain, and improvement in chronic disease management 28-30 Acceptance can be cultivated through: developing rational expectations; seeking meaning in challenging aspects of your relationships; and considering the context of others’ behaviors while valuing their strengths. 


Meaning is attached to consideration of one’s identity, existence, and place. Finding meaning is associated with reductions in negative affect, improved quality of life and coping skills, improved physical health, and increased survival.31,32 Experientially, meaning is often derived from our sense of belonging (relationships), purpose (work), and understanding (spirituality).7 


Forgiveness is a conscious choice to let go of anger and resentment. It does not mean denial or justification for wrong doing. It is a purposeful choice to free up your energy for more positive experiences. Forgiveness is associated with improvements in psychological, social, and positive health outcomes33-37 Practice patience with the process of forgiveness as it may take time and repeated effort. Draw upon compassion for others recognizing that everyone struggles in their own unique way. Accept imperfections in yourself and others, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Try these easy practices to foster emotional resilience.

Spiritual resilience can be pursued through varied paths including service, meaningful work, attending to nature, intentional focusing on the moment, tending to relationships, and through specific faith-based practices.7,10 Practices and experiences that allow you to get in touch with that which is meaningful and serves your greater sense of purpose will nurture your spirituality.

Meet Yourself With Loyalty

Reflect on the ways you may benefit from efforts to nurture your own resilience. Show yourself compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness as a starting point for developing new practices and perspectives that will help you build reserve for life’s inevitable challenges and losses.



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