How to Cultivate Resilience, or What It Takes to Keep on Keeping on

It’s the utter resolve I’ve seen in a training client who lost his legs in an accident and now runs marathons with the use of prosthetics. It’s the friend who lives with a medical condition that imposes debilitating pain and continues to run a successful business, raises a tight-knit family, and volunteers in his community. It’s any of us who pick ourselves up after a profound loss or life transition, who decide exceptionally challenging circumstances aren’t going to keep us from leading fulfilling, grateful lives. I’m also mindful of those who may have struggled through the recent 21-Day Challenge, but don’t want to give up just days after it has ended. If that’s you, listen up.

Resilience can encompass the emotional and physical stamina to get through a patch of rough weeks or bounce back from illness or injury. Even more dramatically, however, resilience can mean the fortitude to deal – and even grow – with life-changing setbacks.

There’s no romanticization here. Resilience isn’t a superhero trait. We talk of “conquering” limitations, beating back disease, overcoming loss. The reality is much more complex. Those friends and clients who have been amazing models of resilience have also been fully, richly human. Not every day is a good day. Not every step leads you forward. Not every battle is won. We all pick ourselves up at some point, and some days we let ourselves stay “down” a little longer than others. We feel what we need to feel. The pivotal point is recovering yourself and reengaging your life on renewed terms.

Psychologists have examined the phenomenon of resilience as a varying characteristic among people. Some people, when faced with hardship seem buoyed by a sense of perspective and energy. They are more likely to get back on the horse while others struggle more intensely. Resilience appears to be a trait influenced by our individual brains themselves – our molecular mechanisms that process stress to be more precise.

More so, however, it’s a mindset that can be cultivated, a flexibility in engaging the rough and tumble of life as well as a willingness to live with ambiguity. It’s perhaps also an art we can undertake, a richness we can weave into the support and substance of our lives. The more resilient we are, research shows, the more satisfaction we tend to garner from life.

The Primal question is how can we cultivate resilience in ourselves? How can we design a life that encourages optimum thriving – and supports us most when life challenges us head on.


Good solid health with all the basics in line will do you right every time. Sleep, diet, and movement all matter as much if not more when it comes to building resiliency. Some interesting research highlights the role of exercise, however. A whole host of research highlights the stress, depression, and anxiety busting (and buffering) effects of exercise. When compared with rest, for example, a 30-minute block of moderate exercise was better at decreasing anxiety as measured by subjects’ responses to photographs, including stress provoking images.

Research does seem to suggest, however, that this buffering becomes more than an immediate dose response, so to speak, but a persisting pattern over time. Regular exercise produces a continuing psychobiological impact that overhauls our stress response itself. Over time, exercise contributes to our overall mental resilience.


In the midst of major life challenges, we can at turns benefit from the richness of nostalgia and envisioning future prospects. Also important, however, is the capacity to be purely in the moment, to release expectations, questions, and plans. Mindfulness, in addition to eliciting the body’s relaxation response, can play a key role in acceptance, a crucial process for living with challenging circumstances.

We often expend a lot of energy and anguish pushing back against difficult changes when we’d be better served shifting gears and realigning our paths in light of new realities. Likewise, it can take an immense patience to “sit with” a feeling – physical and/or emotional. To be sure, there are things that people unnecessarily, even irresponsibly, accept when they have the opportunity to change them. There’s a difference, I think, between conscious acceptance and expedient resignation. If you talk to survivors of significant trauma or serious health crises, I think they’d tell you acceptance isn’t by any stretch a passive endeavor. It’s a dynamic, growing, and ongoing process. True mindfulness attends to this process.

For different people, mindfulness can take different forms. Some may practice yoga, Tai Chi, or other programs. Others might pray or immerse themselves in other meaningful ritual. Still others might seek peace simply by spending time in the wild, letting their involuntary attention take over and letting go of everything but their awareness of the world in front of them. All, I think, would say they’re taking comfort in releasing themselves to something larger than themselves and their struggles.

Social Connection

Research has long affirmed the importance of social connectedness to well-being. A close (not necessarily large) social network is, in fact, one of the major contributors to life satisfaction and a protective factor that contributes to resilience.

We all know how good it can feel to lean on those who we know when times get tough. A solid support system can be there to provide emotional and logistical help when times get tough, but close friends and family can also make a difference in how we handle the challenge of normal life transitions. The well known longitudinal Grant study revealed that close friendships were among the most key influences on how subjects adapted to life in their later years. Overall, our close social connections can dampen the stress of our experiences by giving us a critical outlet for the myriad of emotions life evokes and providing perspective when we see them go through struggles of their own.


Children use play to experiment with the wide variety of feelings, experiences, and ideas they encounter in their development. Experts use play therapy to help children process trauma, transition, and other difficult events. Across lifespan and experience, play builds connections and cultivates behavioral, intellectual, and emotional flexibility. Our species maintains the capacity for play throughout our many years and for good reason. As a result of play – the experimentation, exploration, and creativity it fosters – we can continually adapt to different circumstances. When we expand ourselves beyond the daily practice of efficiency and specialization, we can see life – and ourselves – with new eyes. Play, in short, makes us intellectually and emotionally hardier.

In adults, play can mean everything from competitive sport to creative endeavor. Following the death of her husband, a friend of mine took up all manner of handiwork. She did woodworking, carving, and chair weaving. In her words, the crafts took her mind away from her grief and gave her a sense that there were new journeys to be taken. Another family friend took up painting again when she was going through a painful divorce. Another wrote to work through the emotional difficulties he experienced when his child was seriously ill. Play, however we conceive of it, can be an experimental space and emotional sanctuary.

None of us know what the full story of our lives will look like in the end. Amidst (hopefully) a lot of joy, there will undoubtedly be travails. Some problems fall in our laps. Others we create for ourselves. Regardless of their source, we’ll struggle at times – against illness, against failure, against change, against loss. I’d venture to say that many of us have already navigated some kind of critical transition or hardship in our lives.

In our ancestors’ day, calamity was likely more imminent. Grok and his clan, by necessity, weren’t as consumed by the smaller stressors of life, but death and danger loomed in a way we aren’t used to in modern times. What supported our physical survival and resiliency then – social connectedness, intellectual creativity, mental flexibility, and emotional balance – serves our psychological resiliency today.

Resiliency isn’t a fixed capacity. Nor is it an indefinitely standing reserve. We continually create and recreate our resilience by investing in our engagement with life and others. Our daily practices and connections over time deepen our resilience. What helps us thrive in the now grants us fortitude for the long – and difficult – hauls ahead.

I hope you’ll share your own thoughts on resilience. What does it mean for you and your experience? What have you learned about in the course of life and wellness? What stress and adversity have you been able to cope with and bounce back from? Share your thoughts, so that others may follow suit. Thanks for reading today, everyone.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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