Developing a thick skin takes practice, but doing so keeps us prepared for whatever challenges life throws us. Here’s how to be mentally strong, according to science.

By Lexi Walters Wright
Updated September 30, 2019

Bumps big and small can drag our day down. A coworker says your new haircut is “cute, for someone your age.” Your phone loses charge right as you’re expecting a time-sensitive call. Terrible health news befalls your best friend. How well do you deal with these setbacks? “Resilience is our response to any challenge,” says Donna Volpitta, Ed.D., the founder of the Center for Resilient Leadership. "If we become more resilient, we can handle bigger challenges."

And how we react to life’s potholes is important. “Each time we respond to challenges, we create brain pathways for how we respond in the future,” Volpitta says. She teaches clients—kids and adults—that responses to stress, unfair micro-aggressions, and even tragedy are based on how we think about four key areas she calls the 4 Ss of Resilience: self, situation, supports, and strategies. Here are her tips for harnessing each to prepare for, handle, and reflect on any challenge.

Image courtesy of Getty.

1. Check In with Yourself

When your neighbor lets her dog bark all day long while you’re trying to work from home, it’s infuriating, for sure. But ask yourself: Why is this bothering me? Is it because you’re on deadline and feeling frustrated with yourself for procrastinating on this assignment? Are you actually concerned about the well-being of the dog? Has a past poor interaction with this neighbor bled into how you’re reacting this time?

We all have thoughts about who we are: our strengths and weaknesses, values, likes and dislikes, things that upset us. These affect the way that we respond to challenges.“It is also good to have an idea about how certain situations may affect our ‘self.’ For example, we may respond differently if we are overtired or hungry. Checking in with our Self might help us to respond more mindfully,” Volpitta says.

2. Assess the Situation

If your car gets a flat tire on the way to a job interview, it might feel like an emergency in the moment. But as frustrating as it feels, most situations likely aren’t as disastrous as they seem. Being able to diffuse a stressful scenario with the understanding that there is a way out and that maybe this will even one day make for a funny anecdote (after you calm down enough to call HR) can help.

Putting the situation in perspective—of the rest of your day, this quarter, your child’s teenage years, etc.—and being able to break the solution down into doable steps is an important part of building resilience 

3. Consider Where to Turn for Support

When you and your partner get into a spat, you likely don’t complain to your mother-in-law. That same logic should go into whom you head for when you need help with other problems. For example, don’t confide in the office gossip when your cube-mate’s stinky lunches are driving you crazy. Going straight to the source may feel trickier but will likely get you closer to the resolution you want: “Jill, do you mind, please, eating your tuna wrap in the office kitchen?”

Likewise, thinking through which person—a friend, a pastor, your dad—will offer what you might need (advice, a supportive ear, paid therapy services) in a troubling time can help you feel more in charge of what’s happening. “So often, we think that we need to handle challenges on our own, but knowing who to go to and how to ask for help is a hallmark of resilience,” Volpitta says.

4. Identify Strategies to Cope and Move Forward

Sometimes, knowing what won’t be helpful when dealing with unfortunate incidents can help you rule out how to respond. If, for example, texting your sister an apology after your last argument made her feel like you didn’t care enough to call, pick up the phone this time. And if hitting the bar with your work posse made the last round of layoffs even more painful (especially the day after), see if anyone is up for a power walk—or a trip to that new axe-throwing joint—this time to burn off that anger.

Then think about what will be useful for moving forward: Call on those supports, for sure (see No. 3). But can you also use some planning skills to plot a next step? “Resilient people have multiple strategies,” Volpitta says. “If one strategy isn’t working, they move on and try something else. They also know that saying no or quitting is sometimes the best strategy.” So know when to cut your losses if it is appropriate for the situation.

5. Flex your Mindfulness Muscle

No, it doesn’t start with S. But, according to Volpitta, mindfulness is a truly helpful way of becoming more mentally strong. Practicing mindfulness, whether through formal practice or simply being present in the moment, gives our brains the chance to best determine how to respond and strengthen those resilient pathways. Consider these 10 little ways to practice mindfulness every day.

The 4 Ss—self, situation, supports, and strategies—can be powerful tools to build your brain’s emotional resilience factor. The missing S? Start now.


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