This trick can help boost your resilience

Resiliency is an advantageous quality in life. This world tends to throw us surprises when we’re least expecting them, and a little bit of resilience can go a long way toward staying cool, calm, and collected in the face of adversity. Of course, certain people are more resilient than others. Some even appear to thrive on adversity. What paralyzes one individual with stress and worry, may just serve as a motivator to someone else.

If you fall into the former category and would like to be more resilient the next time life pulls the rug out from under you, the findings of a new study just released by the University of Zurich will be of interest to you. Swiss researchers say an effective way to increase resilience is to reflect on one’s past accomplishments and capabilities. Consider it an internal pep talk.

At the core of these findings is the concept of self-efficacy. The research team says personal resilience is often dependent on self-efficacy. In other words, it all comes down to believing that you’re capable of taking control of your life or making a tangible difference.

“Self-efficacy is a key element of resilience,” explains study director Birgit Kleim, professor of psychology at UZH. “By self-efficacy, I mean the belief that we have the ability to influence things to at least a small degree, even if some things are unchangeable.”

“Without believing in your own capabilities, you wouldn’t take on any challenges in the first place,” she adds.

When something unexpected or problematic happens to a self-efficacious person, they remain resilient because they’re confident in their ability to navigate said situation. That isn’t always the truth, by the way. Some situations are a no-win game regardless of how confident one is in themselves. Still, even in these cases, it’s more helpful to stay calm in comparison to panic.

Self-efficacious people tend to be more persistent in the face of failure, boast stronger problem-solving skills, and even show unique brain activity in neural regions controlling emotions.

So, it’s clear that self-confidence and self-efficacy are key elements to building better resilience. With this in mind, the team at UZH set up an experiment with 75 people to determine the best way to boost self-efficacy. Each study subject was asked to recall a particularly negative or distressing memory from their past. Before that, though, participants were separated into two groups. 

The first was told to think back on a pleasant memory such as a fun day spent in nature or a wild night out with friends. The other group was instructed to recall an instance in the past when they were especially self-efficacious (acing a big test, navigating a tense conference call, etc).

Almost immediately, the differences between the two experimental groups were apparent. Those who were told to think back on past successes didn’t become nearly as upset when asked to focus on their negative memory. These subjects found it much easier to look back on the unfortunate event from a different, healthier perspective. In comparison, the other group became much more distressed after remembering the negative episode.

“Recalling a specific instance of one’s own self-efficacy proved to have a far greater impact than recalling a positive event,” Kleim notes. “Our study shows that recalling self-efficacious autobiographical events can be used as a tool both in everyday life and in clinical settings to boost personal resilience.”

In moments of crisis, it can feel like the entire world is crashing down on our shoulders. Taking a moment to think back on times in the past when you overcame adversity can go a long way toward promoting calmness during tense times. 

We’re all our toughest critics, and it’s super common for people to ruminate and reflect on mistakes and errors made years and even decades ago. We’ve all had those thoughts enter our heads at two in the morning. This study shows that we should all find some time to look back on our successes as well.

The full study can be found here, published in Emotion.