What is Resilience, and How Do I Bounce Back?

The ABCDE of managing life’s challenges


“Resilience is our ability to bounce back from life’s challenges and unforeseen difficulties, providing mental protection from emotional and mental disorders,” says Professor Michael Rutter, often described as the father of child psychology.

A resilient person is less vulnerable to stressful events, has an internal drive, and can think with flexibility when confronted with new challenges. Perhaps, most importantly, they can focus on that which is within their control.

Research has shown exposure to stress and resilience training can increase your ability to deal with stress, reduce anxiety, promote growth, and inflate accomplishment.

We have all seen examples where two people handle the same situation very differently.


Sam and Paul perform similar roles in their company but have recently been told they are no longer needed.

A difficult time for both.

For Sam, the initial shock passes. “It’s a temporary setback; it’s the economy; it’s been tough lately; it’s not a personal reflection of how good I am,” he says.

He sends out resumes, accepts rejections, and eventually lands a job.

It may not be a match for his previous job but provides new opportunities and meets financial needs.

Paul does not overcome the initial shock. “I’m useless; I didn’t perform,” he says. He believes he has failed and falls into a spiral of hopelessness.

The two reactions are opposite extremes, based on composites of hundreds of interviews by psychologist Martin Seligman.

We all find ourselves somewhere on this scale. At different times in your life, you have reacted as both Sam and Paul.

However, it is not the experience of hard times that determines your success or failure, but how you perceive and respond to it.

Sam’s of the world tend to bounce back after a brief disturbance, and often rise to the top, accepting failure as a part of life and growing from the experience.

But Paul (again this is an extreme profile), without help, is paralyzed by a fear of the future.

At times in your life, you will fail — it is guaranteed. No one succeeds all the time.

You cannot always control situational outcomes; the only real control you have is your response to life.

But decades of research have confirmed that resilience can be taught.

The US army uses a program known as Comprehensive Soldier Fitness to ensure they are as fit psychologically as physiologically — by building mental toughness and healthy relationships and identifying signature strengths

By teaching people to think like optimists, it is possible to change their outlook, provide a buffer against depression, anxiety, and learned helplessness.

Surprisingly, for some, even the worst examples of trauma, war, and disasters can lead to positive outcomes and even post-traumatic growth.

Training offered to soldiers includes understanding their response to trauma, reducing anxiety, encouragement to share experiences, and creating a narrative that identifies an incident as a fork in the road — the aim to take back control and build a new, stronger identity.

Your beliefs impact your emotional state more than external events.

Albert Ellis’s ABCDE model aims to change emotional and behavioral consequences by identifying irrational beliefs and swapping them with rational ones.

1. Identify the Adversity or Activating event

Consider the event that triggered your emotional response, usually just before extreme feelings of anxiety, sadness, or anger began.

For example, “I failed an exam.”

When you become more mindfully aware, you are better able to recognize similar events in the future and be more suitably prepared to deal with them more effectively.

2. Recognize the Belief

Irrational beliefs often lack clear evidence, are overgeneralized, or based on faulty reasoning.

For example, “my teacher or supervisor does not like me.”

Such negative beliefs frequently lead to maladaptive emotional responses and perpetuate problems.


3. Recognize the Consequence

Rational beliefs lead to healthy consequences, and irrational beliefs lead to unhealthy ones.

They can be emotional or behavioral — being upset, withdrawing, experiencing debilitating anxiety, or sadness.

For example, anger towards the teacher or exam, feelings of failure, or dropping out.

4. Dispute the irrational belief and turn it into a rational belief

A harmful belief system can be rejected through a process of examination, questioning, and challenge.

Does your belief:

  • Fit with reality?
  • Support constructive interests and goals?
  • Benefit positive, healthy relationships?
  • Seem reasonable and logical?
  • Seem generally detrimental or helpful?

Reject your irrational belief and replace it. For example:

  • “This is the only exam I have failed on the course, I am not useless”
  • “My supervisor/teacher has been supportive and helped me in the past”
  • “Being angry, and avoiding my teacher, is not a constructive reaction”

5. Assess the Effect of your new rational belief and how it leads to healthy consequences:

  • I contact my teacher and ask for more feedback
  • I use a more focussed approach to revision
  • I review past papers

Learn from the process of disputing an irrational belief, and put in place a more authentic, beneficial belief system.

The benefit of the ABCDE model is that the environment does not need to be changed. The solution is to recognize and replace irrational and unhelpful beliefs.

You may not have control over your environment, but you do have control over your reactions.

You must challenge your belief systems to find more positive and constructive responses that enable you to identify similar situations, learn, and provide a more reasoned response.

This article, and other like it, first appeared on Medium