Last updated: Apr 19, 2010
Colette DeBarros

Every so often, life takes a swing at you, connects, and knocks you flat: Your company hires you a new boss, a guy so young you could be his mom. Instead of finding yourself on a plane to Spain for a long-planned holiday, you're spending your vacation money paying the bills for an unexpected illness.

When these things happen—and happen they do—it's hard to imagine ever coming out the other side.

But you can bounce back. (Yes, even if you're still reeling from, say, discovering that your husband who claimed to be "hiking the Appalachian Trail" was off canoodling with a gorgeous Argentinian woman.)

You don't need to pen a best-selling tell-all and commune with Oprah to get it out of your system, à la Jenny Sanford, nor do you have to be able to envision a future filled with sunshine and lollipops like the impossibly perky few who seem to be born with the resilience gene. But you can get to a place where you're enjoying a few good laughs and happier moments—in short order, for that matter.

It's true that some people are born with easygoing temperaments that make it easier to bounce back from life-shaking events, but even those who are thrown by upheavals can learn how to ratchet up their resilience skills, says Karen Reivich, PhD, a psychologist and co-director of the Penn Resiliency Project at the University of Pennsylvania. "There are many aspects of resilience that can be taught," she says.

The next time youre watching your luck circle the drain, try these seven steps to get through it and move on to a new chapter of your life.

1. Get pissed off
Being resilient doesn't mean you have to smile serenely like a Stepford Wife. "It's critical to acknowledge to yourself whatever emotions youre going through, and share them with other people who can support you and help you keep perspective," says Mary Alvord, PhD, a psychologist in Maryland and a public-education coordinator for the American Psychological Association, who also confirms that holding in emotions is bad for your health. So go ahead and rage and curse until you start to feel better.

2. Quit catastrophizing
After a few days or weeks (depending on the scope of your crisis), that initial wave of emotions will start to feel a little less apocalyptic. That's the time to take a new look at the situation. "We spend a lot of mental energy making problems much bigger than they really are," Reivich says. The loss of a job can morph into thoughts of I'm going to live on the streets.

"When you hear that voice in your head, label it as the worst-case scenario," she says. Then write it down along with the best-possible scenario—I'll help an old lady across the street, and she'll leave me her estate in her will. Finally, put down the most-likely scenario—I'll tighten my belt while I find a new job. "As you write things down, you can feel your anxiety start to lessen," Reivich says.

3. Assemble your pit crew You know those friends who love to snipe about how bosses suck and husbands dont appreciate you? Don't call them. They will keep you stuck at Step 1. Relationships can only buoy you through bad times if theyre based on positive traits, says David Palmiter, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at Marywood University. Make a list of the friends who listen without reinforcing negative feelings and who root for you to succeed. Then meet for lunch or a jog so you can soak in their advice.


Colette DeBarros

4. Make your what-I've-got list
Though it may be hard to feel thankful right now, there is always something to be grateful for. Studies have shown that keeping a gratitude journal makes you feel more optimistic, the cornerstone of resilience. Grab a notepad and list the good stuff that you have in your life, from the big-picture (your children, your health) to the small (the flowers that bloomed on your terrace this morning, the Thai restaurant that gives you extra spring rolls).

While you're at it, make a list of your own best qualities, Reivich suggests. Do you have a great sense of humor? Skill in the kitchen? "When you take time to think about what you do best, you can more easily access those strengths when youre facing a challenge," she says.

5. Plan your strategy The key to resiliency is to spend less energy on what you cant change and more on things you can be proactive about, Alvord says. If your child has been diagnosed with a learning disorder, instead of wondering Why him?, take the skills you listed in Step 4 and work on the things you can control—finding a top-notch tutor, nurturing his talents, and letting him know how much you adore him. "Ruminating over the problem can get you stuck in a holding pattern," Reivich says, "but focusing on solutions can help you see a way forward."

6. Make your plan B (and C)
Once you've got your immediate situation under control, start thinking ahead. "If you remain flexible, a crisis can open up opportunities," Alvord points out. Lets say you get laid off. There may be some tough times ahead, but there will be new possibilities, too: you can spend the summer with your kids, downsize to a less-stressful life, go back to school for that degree.

7. Do good
Spreading positive karma by volunteering or just helping a neighbor will help you conquer any lingering feelings of helplessness. "Not only are you proving to yourself that you have the ability to make a difference in your life, but you are literally making the world a better place," Palmiter says. In the end, resilience is about knowing that you have the power to adjust your plans and feel secure in your new normal. Once you have that, you'll feel as good as you did before—if not better.