Over the course of Ally’s first semester at college, she struggled to find her footing. It wasn’t any one thing, but a build-up of small, annoying hassles. One of her classes was harder than expected; the professor was inflexible and gruff. Away from home for the first time, she missed her family and hometown friends, and she wasn’t getting along with her roommate. She didn’t have a car and public transportation wasn’t easily accessible. Feeling alone and miserable, she couldn’t help but think everything was going wrong. This was not the college experience she signed up for.
It’s all too common. You begin the year with a perfect picture in your mind of how your life will be, but when things don’t go as you imagined, or obstacles appear in your path, you quickly become overwhelmed.
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“I think about the fact that so many kids have never been allowed to fail,” says Dr. Laura Downs, a psychiatrist formerly on staff with the Student Counseling Center at Adelphi University and currently a program medical director at New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH). “Then, when they’re on their own at school, struggling with a class or a personal relationship, and Mom and Dad aren’t around to step in and ease the way, they just don’t have the tools to navigate difficult situations.”
Learning how to chart your course during trying times is what resilience is all about. Everyone faces setbacks, challenges, and unexpected changes. But having a bad day or a rough week shouldn’t knock you off your game. The goal can’t be to “get rid” of stress—that will never be possible—but to develop the tools to manage your response to it. And thrive despite it. That’s what it means to be resilient.
Anyone can learn to do this. But it takes practice. The first step is having the fortitude to say to yourself, “I’m having trouble. What steps can I take to make things better?” Here are four keys to help unlock your resilience.
Reframe problems in a different light
Things go wrong. They just do—and often despite your best intentions. But getting stuck in an endless loop of negative self-talk can undermine your ability to problem-solve.
For instance, maybe you have a big paper due, which you haven’t started because you put in some extra hours at your part-time job. Rather than stressing yourself out by thinking, I’ll never get it done on time, try this: It may come down to the wire—and one all-nighter—but if I set some mini-goals (for example, commit to writing 3 pages per day rather than focusing on the 20-page total) and stick to the schedule, I can do it.
Using words like never, always, and everything removes your objectivity and your ability to clearly assess a situation, and it makes it harder to find a solution. “Eliminate those all-inclusive, scary, ‘absolute’ words from your vocabulary,” says Elizabeth Munro, LCSW, a social worker on Long Island, NY. “They don’t allow you to see the truth.”
Turning negative thinking on its head builds confidence—and fosters success. Which, in turn, makes you more resilient.
Work on developing a “growth mindset”
While we’re on the subject of negative self-talk, picture this: You forgot to pay your credit card bill last month. You think to yourself, I’m always so disorganized, I can never get it together. I’ll end up having a bad credit rating.
With this type of thinking, called a “fixed mindset,” you convince yourself that people—in this case, you—can never change. You start believing that all characteristics are predetermined, fixed, and will last forever. You’re doomed!
On the other hand, if you have (or work on having) what’s called a “growth mindset,” you believe that you’re capable of evolving, whether that means cultivating a different personality trait (such as patience) or learning a new skill (like becoming more organized).
Which mindset do you think is better for buffering against anxiety, stress, and depression? Correct. Those with a growth mindset bounce back faster, because they feel more empowered to persist after experiencing a setback. In other words, they are more resilient.
Munro suggests this exercise: The next time you find yourself bemoaning a terrible day, ask yourself this: Was the entire day awful? Or just one class? “Very few things in life are absolute,” she says.
You may need to dig deep to banish those distorted thoughts. To change your self-talk from negative to positive, experts suggest writing it down. Often the voice in your head ends up looking completely irrational on paper. Writing your thoughts down can clear the path to a different perspective.
Use a planner
You’ve got a lot going on. Homework, your job, friends, family—it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. If you want to keep your head above water, a planner of some sort—to schedule priorities—makes a great flotation device. When you plan and prioritize, you limit your bandwidth to the tasks that need completion. And that, in turn, can prevent you from drowning in a sea of anxiety.
Whether you keep a daily, weekly, or monthly schedule depends on your needs and your lifestyle. You could use a personal planning tool, like a smartphone app with multiple tabs and organizational folders, or an agenda book with space to map out daily activities and tasks by the hour. (Experts suggest penciling in a short break after 45 minutes of hitting the books). Using a planner is a smart way to stay on top of assignments, manage your social life, and develop the kind of organizational skills that will help you be successful, now and later in life, too.
Regardless of the type you choose, a schedule brings order to what comes next, making you less likely to feel overwhelmed. For example, say you have a lab due in chemistry, a global studies research paper to write, two work shifts in the dining hall, and a family obligation on Sunday. Your planner for the week should lay out all those activities, prioritizing the most urgent items first (chemistry lab), and divide larger tasks into smaller pieces (perhaps scheduling out some hours over different days to research your paper). You can also take advantage of small gaps in the day. For example, a 30-minute break between classes can be used to go for a short walk or meet with your boss about a shift change.
Schedule resilience-building activities into your day
And while you’re planning your week, it’s important to block out time for the things that help you recharge. That could be working out at the gym, planning a game night with friends, or catching a good night’s sleep. What activities make you feel good? Energized? Positive? Whatever loosens the grip of stress should be part of your weekly routine.
Bottom line: Resilient people aren’t luckier—they make a practice of doing the things that bring them joy and help keep them afloat.
And remember, college is about finding and making your own way. It’s about figuring out what you’re good at and learning from mistakes. Which includes learning to take a deep breath, then step back and pinpoint one thing you can do differently to achieve a better outcome next time.
“You try something, and if it doesn’t work, you try something else. [Life is] a series of trial and error,” says Dr. Downs. “Some amount of failure is not necessarily a bad thing.”