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An Action Plan for Building Personal Resilience

Erin Clifford


  • If you have a resilient disposition, you are better able to maintain poise and a healthy level of physical and psychological wellness in the face of life's challenges.
  • We need physical and mental resilience for more than just the big moments.
  • Lawyers experiencing high well-being are also likely to produce more, remain longer, and raise the morale of others.
An Action Plan for Building Personal Resilience
marcoventuriniautieri via Getty Images

More than ever, we need personal resilience in our daily lives.

Resilience is frequently defined as the ability to recover quickly from challenges. For us humans, those challenges can be anything from a broken leg to a job loss to the death of a loved one.

It follows, then, that building up both mental and physical resilience over time helps us meet life’s difficulties head-on and hopefully overcome them faster and with fewer long-term impacts. According to “Resilience Training” on the Mayo Clinic’s website, “If you have a resilient disposition, you are better able to maintain poise and a healthy level of physical and psychological wellness in the face of life's challenges”—on the flip side, those with less resilience are “more likely to dwell on problems, feel overwhelmed, use unhealthy coping tactics to handle stress, and develop anxiety and depression.”

The State of Resilience in 2022

Interestingly, “[t]he majority of Americans overestimate[] their own resilience,” according to a recent medically reviewed study by the Ohio State University (OSU) and Everyday Health. The study found that “83 percent of Americans polled thought they had high levels of mental and emotional resilience, when in fact 57 percent scored as resilient.”

Separately, the Cigna Resilience Index 2020 U.S. Report found that resilience “is at risk for 60 percent of Americans [Cigna] surveyed.” And low resilience, noted the report, can lead to consequences such as “poor performance in school and at work, the potential to be less healthy, . . . a higher likelihood of turnover [at work],” and a lower level of satisfaction with one’s career.

Both reports were written within the last two years — that is to say, right in the middle of a global health crisis that most would agree is testing our resilience like never before.

However, life’s stressors come in all shapes and sizes. Without depreciating the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic or recent geopolitical events like the war in Ukraine, it’s important to understand, too, that we need physical and mental resilience for more than just the big moments.

Just a few examples of hardships or adversity that we may need to overcome in our daily lives include the following:

  • Workplace stress like pressure from the boss, burnout, worries about a promotion, layoffs, or getting fired
  • Traumatic accidents or events involving kids or other family members
  • Catastrophes such as fires, floods, car accidents, or the loss of a home
  • Loss of a loved one like a family member or close friend
  • Stress that comes from lack of proper physical care
  • Chronic illness such as diabetes or heart disease
  • Mental illness, including addiction

Building up personal resilience doesn’t mean that we’ll never encounter adversity. Instead, the point of resilience is to stockpile reserves of it so that those reserves can then carry us through the adversity. According to “Resilience: Build Skills to Endure Hardship” on the Mayo Clinic’s website, “When stress, adversity or trauma strikes, you still experience anger, grief and pain, but you're able to keep functioning—both physically and psychologically.”

Resilience isn’t about being stoic or shouldering the whole of the burden on our own. In fact, the most resilient people know when to reach out for help, even when all appears to be going smoothly in their lives.

An Action Plan for Building Up Resilience

Building up your resilience reserves means keeping your physical and mental well-being in as optimal a condition as possible. That includes exercise, eating well, and seeing a mental health-care professional if needed. There are also numerous ways that you can arrange your social life and family life, not to mention your overall outlook, to boost personal resilience.

For lawyers, taking time to do this is especially important. The legal profession is rife with stressors, from heavy caseloads to uncertain outcomes to a culture that embraces binge drinking and has historically stigmatized mental health assistance. And, as noted in a Trial Magazine article, well-being is good not just for one’s personal life but for business too: “Lawyers experiencing high well-being are also likely to produce more, remain longer, and raise the morale of others.” Marianne C. LeBlanc, The Resilient Lawyer, Trial Mag., Dec. 2020 (quoting Lawrence Krieger & Kennon Sheldon, What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success, 83 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 554, 585 (2015)).

Some ways to boost your personal resilience reserves include building a strong social network, cultivating wellness, finding a purpose bigger than yourself, and asking for help.

Build a strong social network.

Fostering connections with other people leads to a strong network of caring, supportive friends when crisis arrives. The importance of this cannot be overstated.

Friends are a proven source of emotional strength, and having them can also be an effective stress buster. Of course, it takes a long time to put together a rock-solid circle of friends. For example, one study from the University of Kansas found that making a casual friend takes roughly 50 hours, while close friendships require about 200 hours to cultivate.

Don’t let this deter you from trying to make friends. Start small by saying yes to social invitations, and take advantage of the many technological tools available today for communication and connection.

Bear in mind the company that you keep and social circles that you choose reflect your values. For instance, there are many ways to meet and grow close to other people that don’t involve happy hour. Consider joining a local sports team or club focused on an activity that you enjoy, such as music, hiking, or films. Scan the list of available classes at your gym or get more involved with your place of worship or spiritual center, school committees, or other community-based organizations.

Remember that when it comes to friendships, you get out what you put in. If you want a network to support you during the tough times, you have to put the muscle into building those relationships during the good times.

Cultivate wellness.

Resilience must be built up over time, and one of the best ways to do that is to consistently care for your physical and mental health.

Exercising regularly, eating well, practicing mindfulness, and taking time for meditation—it may not feel like these are adding anything to your life in the immediate moment. But instant gratification is not the point of these routines. Instead, they are meant to build up strength—physical and mental—over a long period of time.

The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that self-care is “a legitimate practice for mental health and building resistance.” In addition to the above-mentioned mind and body routines, the APA also recommends “avoiding negative outlets” such as drugs and alcohol to cope with stress or adversity.

Find a purpose bigger than yourself.

One of the single biggest ways that you can build self-resilience is to stop thinking about yourself so much.

Research from Duke University and others suggests that helping others gives a person a feeling of connectedness and competence and delivers a satisfaction that can build up personal resilience.

The good news is that you don’t have to join the Peace Corps to help others. In fact, helping others can start in your own immediate circle of friends and family. Make it a point to check in regularly with friends and relatives with a phone call or text. Send birthday cards to show that you are thinking of them, and make time in your schedule to assist an aging parent or someone else in the family in need.

Outside the home, helping others can include anything from volunteering at a homeless shelter or retirement home to being willing to listen to a coworker caught up in a stressful moment at work.

Helping others can often get you out of your own head, which is key to overcoming the adversity that life throws at you. The point is not how big your efforts are in this area, but that you make the effort regularly to be there for others.

Ask for help.

The aforementioned study from OSU and Everyday Health found that 91 percent “of the most resilient Americans believe mental health is as important as physical health. Yet only 33 percent of Americans are likely to ask for help or counseling when faced with a negative situation that is emotionally taxing.”

The legal profession, in particular, is rife with mental health issues. In a now-famous study from the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), 61 percent of attorneys “reported concerns [over] anxiety” and 46 percent “reported concerns with depression” “at some point in their career[s].”

At the same time, according to the Survey of Law Student Well-Being, fear of job loss, fear of social ostracization, and the potential threat to bar admission are just a few reasons why law students avoid seeking help for mental health. On an even more basic level, many lawyers are afraid to talk openly about their issues for fear of being seen as vulnerable or insufficient.

Fortunately, perceptions are changing for the better. For example, lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) are now available to help lawyers manage stress. And nowadays, more law firms are rolling out all kinds of initiatives centered on not just practicing wellness but also addressing the root causes of some of the stressors and adversity that plague the legal profession.

One of the keys to effective mental health treatment is to address concerns as soon as they arise, not when they become insurmountable. This might require regular check-ins with a therapist or other doctor, even when things seem to be going smoothly.

The most important factor to bear in mind when working with a mental health professional is that the person should put you at ease and help you talk openly about the issues with which you are dealing, however large or small. If you’re not yet comfortable seeking assistance from a company-sponsored program, talk to your primary-care physician about finding a mental health professional in your own network.


For all of these things, starting small is the key. Resilience reserves are built up slowly over time and are a combination of doing a little of the above frequently and consistently. While progress may seem slow at first, know that any work you put toward boosting your personal resilience will pay off when life throws adversity your way and puts that resilience to the test.