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Reflecting on Your Own Capabilities May Boost Resilience, Study Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • Self-efficacy can be increased by recalling moments when you were successful, new research suggests.
  • In addition to emotional health, resilience has several health benefits as well, including stronger immunity.
  • Creating resilience can be as easy as making it a habit to jot down your accomplishments.

Self-efficacy, which is considered a key part of resilience and mental health, can be increased by recalling moments when you showed adaptability, according to research in the journal Emotion.

Scientists asked 75 people who were distressed by negative memories to recall one of two experiences. One group remembered a positive event in nature or joyful time with others, while the other group was asked to remember when they felt particularly self-efficacious.

For example, a time when they overcame a difficult challenge, had a successful conversation, passed a tough exam, or gave a presentation.

The latter group found it significantly easier to pivot when the negative memories reappeared. In many cases, they perceived the experiences as less distressing compared to the group who recalled joyful interactions or pleasant scenes.

Harnessing Resilience for Our Current Times

Although this technique can be helpful for gaining a new, more positive perspective on old memories, the strategy could also be an effective way to deal with ongoing pandemic stress, according to researchers.

Christine Carter, PhD

It can be easy to lose sight of the contribution we’re making to the world. Taking time to slow down the pace, get grounded, and build a stronger foundation can give you a greater sense of control.

— Christine Carter, PhD

They noted that stronger self-efficacy and more resilience are characterized by:

  • Quick recovery from disappointments and setbacks
  • View problems as tasks to be mastered
  • Deeper engagement in activities
  • The pursuit of challenges rather than avoiding them
  • Focus on personal successes and traits
  • Have confidence in abilities

Recalling self-efficacy episodes may be so powerful for dealing with negative memories that the researchers believe it could be a robust addition to standard treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy.

This type of treatment focuses on changing the type of automatic thoughts that can contribute to emotional difficulties as well as depression and anxiety.

Health Benefits of Resilience

In addition to promoting better mental and emotional health, resilience has been studied for its potential role in reducing chronic illness and boosting wellness overall.

For example, several studies show a strong association between resilience and lower cardiovascular disease, most notably among Black people, a group hard hit by these risks.

A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association looking at 1,433 Black Atlanta residents found that those who scored higher on resilience measures had significantly lower rates of cardiovascular events and risk factors. This was true even when residents lived in neighborhoods with elevated rates of heart disease.

Sharon Chirban, PhD

Keeping a journal can be helpful as a reference when you’re feeling stressed, but it also “trains” your brain to dig up those positive memories on a more frequent basis

— Sharon Chirban, PhD

There also seems to be a bi-directional correlation between resilience and immunity, with one giving the other a lift. A research review in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity suggests resilience helps protect against the stressors that can weaken the immune system response.

In turn, stronger immunity—which lowers inflammation throughout the body and improves gut health—can make people feel more resilient.

Building Emotional Resilience

As the recent research concluded, even a few short sessions of recalling past successes can be beneficial. Developing a resilience habit could not only help you navigate through emotional difficulties but may even prevent them from occurring, according to Christine Carter, Ph.D., sociologist, and senior fellow of Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley.

“Right now, we’re living through a time of incredible anxiety and stress, and so many people are struggling with achieving a sense of balance,” she says. “That makes self-care very difficult, and it makes it harder to focus on anything except what’s happening right now.”

However, she adds, reflecting on your capabilities and even “small wins” can have profound effects for easing everyday challenges.

“It can be easy to lose sight of the contribution we’re making to the world,” says Carter. “Taking time to slow down the pace, get grounded, and build a stronger foundation can give you a greater sense of control.”

One easy tactic is to keep a journal or notebook and jot down past examples of your capability, suggests clinical psychologist Sharon Chirban, Ph.D., founder of Amplify Wellness and Performance. "Keeping a journal can be helpful as a reference when you’re feeling stressed, but it also “trains” your brain to dig up those positive memories on a more frequent basis," says Chirban.

What This Means For You

Many of us experience moments where we feel like we are doomed to fail, but research now shows that directing your focus and memory on times you were successful can build resilience and strengthen our confidence in ourselves, as well as our ability to persevere.

If you're struggling with self-doubt, take a moment to reflect on your capabilities and reassure yourself of what you can do!


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  1. Paersch, C. Recalling autobiographical self-efficacy episodes boosts reappraisal-effects on negative emotional memories. Emotion. Advance online publication. 2021. doi: 10.1037/emo0000949

  2. Topel, M. et al. Individual Characteristics of Resilience are Associated With Lower‐Than‐Expected Neighborhood Rates of Cardiovascular Disease in Blacks: Results From the Morehouse‐Emory Cardiovascular (MECA) Center for Health Equity StudyJournal of the American Heart Association. 2019 Jun; doi: 10.1161/JAHA.118.011633

  3. Dantzer, R., et al. Resilience and immunity. Brain Behav Immun. 2018 Nov;74:28-42. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2018.08.010