Figure hiking on rock/mountain outlined by setting sun

Resilient People Live Fulfilling Lives

Did you know that individuals who display characteristics of personal resilience are more able to proactively engage in positive change, feel more confident and empowered, and are more equipped to thrive amidst uncertainty? That businesses who build resilience practices into their organizational culture have less turnover, higher employee satisfaction, and are able to withstand market impacts better? And that communities who integrate resilience into their short- and long-term planning experience less disruption during extreme events, a greater sense of community overall, and less political strife?

Imagine living in a world where we are able to thrive despite large disruptions and day-to-day stressors. Building resilience provides the capacity for individuals, businesses, and communities to anticipate risk, limit impact, and bounce forward into the future.

What is Resilience?

As we know, the world we live in is changing at exponential rates, the intensity and frequency of extreme events are increasing rapidly, and available information is vast and diverse. As the world becomes more complex and the future less certain, the challenges we face are more complicated. In order to address these challenges, we must first understand that each of us lives in a set of intricately nested systems. Our experiences are determined by how these systems function and connect to one another. As challenges increase, the drive to build resilience is stronger.

So, what is resilience? It depends on who you ask. The field of psychology has been using this term since the early 1970s and humans have been using it colloquially for ages. The field of adaptation began using it in the mid-1980s to address complex challenges in developing countries. From my perspective, resilience is a combination of adaptation and systems with a side of psychology. The foundation of my work is in systems resilience, solving complex challenges around the world and at home in Boulder County. I’ve learned over the last two decades that any system’s ability to adapt hinges on the resilience of the individuals within that system. Seems obvious? It’s rare to see mental health at the forefront (or even included) in most adaptation and systems science work. I was deeply motivated by the need for human-centered practices so I embarked in the study of human behavior and developed people-focused resilience strategies, including a program for building personal resilience for individuals. Humans are the center of our systems, and it’s futile to try and adapt any system without first understanding human behavior.

Here are a few definitions of resilience:

  • Resilience is the capacity to anticipate risk, limit impact, and bounce forward in the face of shocks or stressors.
  • Resilience is a thriving system of interconnected individuals and organizations, legal and cultural norms, flows of communication and transportation, ecosystems, and infrastructure.
  • Resilience is a lens through which to view the world. We can see ‘the world’ as collective resources, assets, and opportunities.
  • Resilience is a way of functioning in the world. We all have the ability to be resilient as individuals and groups through a combination of nature and nurture.
  • Resilience is the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences and the ability to rise above one’s circumstances
    source: Donald Meichenbaum, Ph.D.

These definitions come from years of work by researchers and practitioners. For me, resilience is all of the above.

How we apply resilience depends both on our understanding of it and gaining the tools we need to put it in practice. We all have the ability (whether we are aware of it or not) to build resilience in our businesses, professional lives, families, relationships, communities, governments, etc. Resilience applies to everyone and everything.

What Qualities Do Resilient Communities, Businesses, and Groups Have?

  • Robust Systems: Systems and people are interconnected; they share resources and information, are designed to function in complementary ways, and provide mutual support.
  • Transparent and Equitable: Processes are transparent, resources are accessible for all, and power dynamics are equitable.
  • Diverse: Functions can be delivered in multiple ways and people have a range of options to achieve their goals and meet their needs.
  • Ability to learn: Groups and individuals are able to learn and integrate that learning in the future.
  • Fail Safely: There is a capacity to withstand regular impacts, fail safely in the event of a larger disruption, and adapt and thrive in response to changing circumstances.
    (Adapted from BoCo Strong 2016 Boulder County Resilience Assessment)

How Can We Build Community Resilience?

Lyons has some great examples of community resilience. During the 2013 flood and in our current time of COVID-19, community members and leaders have gone to great lengths to support local businesses, provide resources to those in need, help their neighbors, create forums for discussion, and much more. These examples utilize strong social ties and a true sense of community to create a safety net for the most vulnerable. In all the research done around the world, knowing your neighbor and contributing to your community has proven to be one of the most notable characteristics of communities that survive and go on to thrive during and after a disaster. It makes sense that when we are truly resilient as individuals, we are more able to contribute to our work, families, and communities. The more resilient we are personally and collectively, the more resilient the world is.


What is Personal Resilience in Terms of Our Personal Ecosystem?

Each of us has a unique internal system that dictates how we interact with the external systems that make up the world around us. What you experience day-to-day is a direct reflection of your inner self. Your internal landscape is the source of your thoughts, processes, and conscious and unconscious behaviors. It determines how you build relationship and how and where you work, play, and live. Developing resilience within your personal ecosystem allows you to tap into your innate integrity and human ingenuity, embolden your greatest gifts, and adapt in times of uncertainty.

At the core of your personal system is your nervous system, which is full of stored memories and pre-existing neuropathways that dictate how you behave. Your repeated thoughts and actions strengthen specific pathways by creating deep grooves and increasing the speed by which neurons fire along them, ingraining your behaviors. Neuropathways start forming during gestation and continue to develop during your 20s. After that point, it becomes more difficult to form new ones. However, it still can be done. The saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is not true. By building new pathways that put you in sync with your innate strengths, you can bring your personal ecosystem into alignment with your core self and change your overall behaviors to be more resilient. Creating new, more resilient pathways in your nervous system equates to tangible resilience in your daily life, which propels you towards the future you seek. 

What Qualities Do Resilient Individuals Have?

  • System Integrity: You understand your personal ecosystem, and are authentic, transparent, and equitable in your interactions with yourself and others.
  • Able to Sense and Adapt: You are able to sense, presence, adapt, and thrive in response to changing circumstances.  
  • Participatory and Collaborative: You participate in the creation of thriving communities and collaborate with the world around you in complementary ways.  
  • Resourced: you are supported and have access to the resources you need.  
  • Flexible and Diverse: You are flexible and able to deliver functions in multiple ways – and – you have a range of options to achieve your goals and meet your needs.  
  • Able to Learn: You are able to learn and turn learning into action.  
  • Fail Safely: You are able to withstand the regular impacts of day-to-day life and are set up to fail safely in the event of a larger disruption.
    (Adapted from BoCo Strong 2016 Boulder County Resilience Assessment) 

What Does Personal Resilience Coaching Look Like? 

I’ve integrated many different frameworks into my work with individuals to offer a holistic approach to building resilience from the client’s core self. While the process isn’t linear, it includes the use of somatic practices to de-escalate the nervous system’s automatic responses so that you can move away from triggered reactions and into awareness and understanding of your deepest self. From this softer, more genuine place, we introduce new, more authentic pathways and support the sustainment of those pathways until repetition creates new grooves. We work together to explore the systems in your life through awareness of the physical body, gain clarity about who you are and why you do the things you do, and adapt to the circumstances that surround you. Somatic practices are paired with cognitive exercises such as visual brainstorming and planning, asset mapping, scenario planning, and more for a complete head to toe (body, heart, and mind) resilience-building program.

These practices have resulted in clients experiencing less stress, improved problem-solving capabilities, more feelings of happiness, increased cognitive capacity, increased confidence, successful personal and professional transitions, and more.

How Can You Become More Resilient Right Now? 

These tips, while seemingly simple, can create powerful shifts that enable you to step into your resilience.

Interrupt Patterns

  • Sit in a different chair at dinner
  • Work from a different location in your house or take your work outside
  • Take a different route on your morning walk

Create Some Space

  • Get curious! Practice asking yourself “what wants to happen?” when something challenging arises. This initiates a drastic shift from feeling stuck to opening up to possibility.
  • Give yourself a break from the intensity of the news cycle by limiting consumption.
  • Create ‘containers’ or boundaries around your highest daily priorities to ensure they happen.

Soothe the Central Nervous System

  • Take a presencing walk in nature
  • Wiggle. Yes, stand up and wiggle – shake it out! Bonus for making it playful and adding sound. Parents, invite the kids to join in.
  • Find a safe place to express your emotions. Feel like screaming? Maybe double it up with howling at 8 pm so your neighbors don’t worry. I give my husband a warning when I need to let a good scream out—I go into my office, close the door, and let it rip! Feels amazing!!

Personal Resilience Coach & Executive Director of the Boulder Center for Resilience