How to Build Resilience in Counseling: 12 Worksheets & Activities

Resilience counselingTrauma is part of life and will be faced by all of us at some point.

While it will lead to prolonged distress for some, others will return from the ordeal stronger in mind and spirit, having met the challenge and returned to purposeful lives (Southwick & Charney, 2018).

While it is neither realistic nor advisable to shield yourself from risk, it is possible to develop resilience and rise to “the challenge of tough times and find unimagined strengths within yourself” (Neenan, 2018, p. 3).

This article explores how counseling can help build such resilience in clients, helping them to see adversity as an opportunity for growth and using existing and new psychological potential to overcome challenges.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Resilience Exercises for free. These engaging, science-based exercises will help you to effectively deal with difficult circumstances and give you the tools to improve the resilience of your clients, students, or employees.

What Is Resilience in Counseling?

While the popular view of resilience is that we can and should bounce back from adversity, this may not be a helpful approach in resilience counseling. It suggests that the resilient person effortlessly overcomes tough times to return to ‘normal’ without missing a beat (Neenan, 2018).

And yet, this is rarely the case. When we face genuine adversity, do our lives truly return to how things were before? Constantly looking back to how things used to be before a life-changing accident can lead to us becoming psychologically stuck.

Whether facing traumatic adversity or overcoming something less severe but still significant (such as layoffs at work or a challenging client), coming back requires time for adaptation and recovery (Neenan, 2018).

Counseling resilience typically involves a strong focus on how we interpret events. Through understanding their clients’ thinking, counselors gain insight into their inner world and identify attitudes and beliefs that are helping, harming, or hindering their ability to cope with difficult times and challenging events (Neenan, 2018).

Resilience counseling invites consideration and focus on the following resilience factors (Southwick & Charney, 2018):

  • Facing fear
    Showing courage and resilience does not suggest the absence of fear.

  • Imitating resilient role models
    Mirroring and adopting resilient behavior in those we admire can inspire our resilience.

  • Social support
    Resilience is reliant not solely on the individual, but also on having an entire support network.

  • Mental, emotional, and physical training
    Experiencing challenges and hardship is not always negative. When accompanied and supported by training, it can result in opportunities to learn to be more resilient.

  • Increasing cognitive and emotional flexibility
    Resilient people tend to be flexible in how they think about challenges and their reaction to stress.

  • Finding meaning, purpose, and growth
    There are many examples of individuals who have remained resilient in the face of extreme hardship, relying heavily on the meaning they attach to their lives.

  • Fostering optimism
    Realistic optimism is an important factor in remaining resilient.

While far from exhaustive, the list begins to suggest the wide range of factors involved in building and maintaining resilience and its impact on our lives.

 

2 Examples of Fostering Resilience

Fostering resilienceWhile undoubtedly there are traits that support our resilient response, resilience can be grown through instruction and successfully overcoming adversity (Pemberton, 2015; Neenan, 2018).

The following two examples are very different accounts of individuals fostering resilience:

  • Mary’s story
    Mary had an incredibly tough childhood. She lost her mother to cancer, had a verbally abusive father, and had a difficult relationship with her step-mother and much older step-brother (Luthans, Youssef, & Avolio, 2015).

Placed in the foster care system, Mary experienced an early life full of uncertainty and instability. And yet, she tells of a point that changed everything. When a close school friend “challenged her to take control of her life,” she decided, there and then, to “hold onto only those things that could be in her control” (Luthans et al., 2015, p. 147).

Creating her own interpretation of resilience, she gave everything to her education and sports. Excelling at both, she went on to be awarded a full scholarship at a top university. Despite further bumps along the road, she later became a successful bank executive.

  • Jan’s story
    Jan arrived in therapy intending to change her behavior to make her boss recognize that his treatment of her was unfair and getting in the way of new opportunities (Pemberton, 2015).

Over several counseling sessions, she became aware that “the powerless victim did not serve her well” or reflect who she really was. Once she realized her resilience was not reliant on her working for the organization and that she had managed many other difficult situations in other areas of her life, she stopped talking and acting like a victim (Pemberton, 2015, p. 36).

Jan learned to tolerate uncertainty and gain self-confidence through adopting a more resilient outlook of “positive emergence” (Pemberton, 2015, p. 36).

 

Why Is Resilience Important in Counseling?

As a coach or counselor, it will not be long before you encounter a client whose life has been shaken to the core by events – a death, accident, illness, betrayal, or violence.

Thankfully, it is possible to help those who have experienced trauma, providing support to build the resilience needed to not only survive but ultimately flourish (Southwick & Charney, 2018).

After all, “a survivor and a person demonstrating resilience are not necessarily undergoing the same process of recovery” (Neenan, 2018, p. 8). Someone who survives trauma may be left bitter and consumed with anger, blame, and even guilt, while the resilient person seeks personal growth and a life with meaning.

The term self-righting – a phrase taken from restoring an overturned boat to its upright position in the water – is sometimes used as a metaphor for getting an individual’s life back on track and is especially relevant for the role of the counselor during therapy (Neenan, 2018).

Neenan (2018) describes how the support and advice offered by a trusted mental health professional can considerably reduce the degree and length of the client’s struggle to overcome problems. Resilience is rarely developed in social isolation, and if constructive support is available, it should be taken.

 

How to Build Resilience in Counseling

How to build resilience in counselingThere is no single proven approach for building resilience.

Resilience involves many factors and is underpinned by various support mechanisms; counseling must therefore be appropriate to the needs of the clients and the issues they present.

With multiple approaches available, we consider three broad therapeutic styles that can be used in isolation or combined as necessary (Neenan, 2018; Southwick & Charney, 2018).

 

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a powerful approach for understanding the impact of our thoughts and beliefs on how we feel and act.

CBT is particularly useful when working with clients to build resilience and learn to cope with unpredictable and often unwanted events. CBT interventions for building resilience might best be summed up with the statement, “it is not events, but our beliefs about them, that cause suffering” (Southwick & Charney, 2018, p. 52).

Thoughts and beliefs, such as, “Why me?” or “I’m a failure,” can be replaced with more helpful, sustaining beliefs that encourage resilient thinking and behavior.

However, it is essential to note that CBT is not always the right approach to foster resilience. Timing (the moment the client recognizes that their beliefs may be holding them back) and a willingness to “see themselves as an agent in their own life” are crucial (Southwick & Charney, 2018, p. 64).

 

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT does not seek to deny the difficulties that bring us suffering; they are inescapable (Southwick & Charney, 2018).

Rather than focusing on changing clients’ beliefs to foster resilience, ACT practitioners encourage their clients to learn to accept discomfort and experience what follows.

Facing reality, rather than withdrawing or seeking to blame others, is vital to ACT. Practicing mindfulness (grounding, in particular) can help clients develop a flexible mindset and learn to accept the present rather than repeatedly re-running thoughts that lead to feelings of rejection, disappointment, or failure.

 

Solution-focused coaching

Solution-focused coaching has an almost instinctual appeal, possibly due to its apparent simplicity (Southwick & Charney, 2018).

Rather than focusing on helping the client understand their problems, counselors encourage them to uncover how they would feel if their problem were solved and what they currently do that makes them think change is possible.

This innovative approach recognizes that the client is the expert in their lives, not the coach. The client is then helped to uncover the resources they already possess to overcome difficulties they face, building and maintaining resilience.

While these three approaches to building resilience in therapy have proven incredibly helpful, there are others. The resilience exercises and interventions that follow are drawn from many counseling and therapeutic styles and can be beneficial to a variety of clients and situations.

 

4 Interventions and Techniques for Counselors

The following is a selection of some of the many interventions and techniques available to counselors to build resilience in clients.

 

Understand your resilience

Pemberton (2015) lists three crucial areas that combine to form an individual’s resilience:

  • Resilience is a capacity partially shaped by innate personality factors.
  • Factors in the individual’s environment provide protection against the impact of the challenge.
  • Resilience can be learned through encountering difficulty and hardship.

To gain insight into the relative contribution of each theme, ask your client the following questions (modified from Pemberton, 2015):

  • Would you describe yourself as a naturally optimistic or pessimistic person?
  • How would your friends describe how you deal with life’s challenges and setbacks?
  • How easy do you find it to overcome difficulties?
  • What challenges did you encounter in early life?
  • What factors helped you with those challenges?
  • Who believed in you?
  • What has been your most significant challenge so far?
  • How did you get yourself through it?
  • What did you learn from that challenge that you continue to use in your life?

The answers provide a clue regarding what shapes your resilience and what might cause you to (temporarily) lose it.

 

Practicing solution-focused resilience

Resilience regarding existing challenges can be built by revisiting lessons from similar challenges in the past, reminding the client of what they already know but may have forgotten (Southwick & Charney, 2018).

The Solution-Focused Resilience Template is a practical approach for helping clients (re)discover resources they can draw on for building resilience.

What have you forgotten that you could use now to help you manage or overcome the present situation?

 

Understanding the Impact of Attitudes on resilience

“Attitudes are evaluations we make of an object, person, group, issue, situation or concept,” and they have three components (Neenan, 2018, p. 19):

  • Thoughts – What do you think about X?
  • Emotions – How do you feel about X?
  • Behavior – How do you act toward X?

Our attitudes and beliefs are powerful influencers on how we behave, positively and negatively. We often benefit from replacing unhelpful or harmful perspectives and viewpoints with ones that are more healthy and helpful. But how?

It is not always easy to change our beliefs; it takes effort and willingness. The Understanding the Impact of Attitudes on Resilience worksheet can help clients see things more clearly by asking questions about their existing beliefs and possible new ones.

 

Resilient Problem-Solving Skills

Whether our ability or capacity to become more resilient is thwarted by internal blocks (such as fear, anxiety, or anger) or external blocks (such as failing to hit sales targets or meeting financial burden), problem-solving can help (Neenan, 2018).

The ADAPT model is a practical tool that can help clients focus on problem-solving. Why not try out the Resilient Problem-Solving Skills worksheet with your client as a way of exploring possible solutions to the problems they face?

Ask the client to consider the following ADAPT prompts (modified from Neenan, 2018; Demiris et al., 2010):

  • A = attitude to the situation
  • D = define the problem and set realistic goals
  • A = generate alternative solutions
  • P = predict the likely consequences and develop a solution plan
  • T = try out the solution and see if it works

 

3 Best Activities, Worksheets, and Exercises

Resilience worksheetsResilience is not a given; while there are hereditary factors, resilience can be learned and grown.

You can use the following counseling activities, exercises, and worksheets to understand your client’s resilience and identify ways it can be developed (modified from Pemberton, 2015):

 

When Was I (Not) Resilient?

The When Was I (Not) Resilient? worksheet provides a helpful way to review situations when you coped well and coped poorly to identify qualities that are more developed than others and the nature of your resilience.

 

Uncover Your Purpose

Feeling a stronger sense of purpose can help you build and maintain resilience. It can be easier to persevere and push through difficult times when you understand the impact you would like to have on the world (Armstrong, 2019).

The Uncover Your Purpose worksheet can make your life narrative clearer. Discovering your compelling purpose can clarify your focus on overcoming and remaining resilient during challenging life events.

When considering challenges, review your answers to see what consistent themes develop and consider how they foster your resilience.

 

Creating Realistic Optimism for resilience

Positive emotions (e.g., joy, gratitude, and hope) and negative emotions (e.g., resentment, anger, and fear) influence resilience. Positive emotions can broaden our focus, attention, and behavior, helping us become more creative as we tackle our problems (Southwick & Charney, 2018).

The Creating Realistic Optimism for Resilience worksheet can help you positively appraise a situation that may at first appear negative.

Engaging in more optimistic thinking can help you become more resilient by actively employing more coping strategies to overcome challenging times (Southwick & Charney, 2018).

 

A Look at Group Resilience Counseling

One-to-one resilience counseling can be highly successful at helping clients adapt to life-changing and stressful situations and even encourage personal growth.

There are also benefits from attending group sessions that offer a support network and the chance to meet others facing similar challenges (Counselling Directory, n.d.).

Group sessions provide the opportunity to learn from and be inspired by others’ narratives and difficulties. Attending counseling with others may help the client develop the optimism and regain the hope essential for building resilience (American Psychological Association, 2012).

 

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have many resources, including activities, worksheets, and exercises, that help build resilience and cope with life’s uncertainties.

Why not download our free resilience tool pack and try out the powerful tools contained within?

  • Doors Closed Doors Open
    A simple but powerful tool to help you reflect on what doors opened as others closed.
  • Using Values to Build Resilience
    Here, we use value affirmations to build resilience during stressful life events.

Other free resources include:

  • It Could Be Worse
    This thought experiment encourages clients to face the world with increased feelings of gratitude and become more resilient.
  • Exploring Past Resilience
    It can be valuable to consider resilience resources and strategies that have helped people overcome adversity in the past so that they may use them again in the future.

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • Adaptive and Non-Adaptive Coping Thoughts
    This helpful tool educates clients regarding different ways of facing adversity.

    • Step one – Describe a challenging situation.
    • Step two – Observe your thoughts about the situation.
    • Step three – Reflect on different styles of coping: active, surrender, passive, and over-control.
    • Step four – Identify the coping style you are using from your thoughts.
    • Step five – Assess the helpfulness of your coping style.
    • Step six – Move toward a more helpful coping style.
  • Best Possible Resilient Self
    It can be helpful to visualize your most resilient self so that you have an image of how you can recover from adversity.

    • Step one – Describe a challenging situation.
    • Step two – Imagine yourself bouncing back from this situation.
    • Step three – Describe what your most resilient self might look like.
    • Step four – Now imagine how you would interview yourself.
    • Reflect – What were the key takeaways from interviewing yourself?

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others overcome adversity, check out this collection of 17 validated resilience tools for practitioners. Use them to help others recover from personal challenges and turn setbacks into opportunities for growth.

 

A Take-Home Message

Trauma in our lives is inevitable. While it may not always seem the case, we do have a choice regarding our response.

Counseling can support clients by uncovering their attitudes and beliefs regarding challenging events and encouraging them to adopt more helpful ones. As clients become better at returning from adversity, they will build resilience and be more ready for future life events.

We must remember resilience is not the absence of fear nor the ability to immediately bounce back from difficult times. Instead, it involves flexibility in how we think about challenges and react to stress.

Positive emotions can greatly reduce the length and depth of the struggle to return to a meaningful life or find a new purpose. And resilience should not be considered a solo activity, but rather part of a network of support and encouragement.

Why not support your client with some of the resilience techniques and activities in this article, encouraging them to adopt new attitudes?

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Resilience Exercises for free.

  • American Psychological Association. (2012, January 1). Building your resilience. Retrieved October 22, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience
  • Armstrong, A. (2019). Resilience club: Daily success habits of long-term high performers. Rethink Press.
  • Counselling Directory. (n.d.). Group therapy. Retrieved October 22, 2021, from https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/group-therapy.html
  • Demiris, G., Parker Oliver, D., Washington, K., Fruehling, L. T., Haggarty-Robbins, D., Doorenbos, A., … Berry, D. (2010). A problem solving intervention for hospice caregivers: A pilot study. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 13(8), 1005–1011.
  • Luthans, F., Youssef, C. M., & Avolio, B. J. (2015). Psychological capital and beyond. Oxford University Press.
  • Neenan, M. (2018). Developing resilience: A cognitive-behavioural approach. Routledge.
  • Pemberton, C. (2015). Resilience: A practical guide for coaches. Open University Press.
  • Southwick, S. M., & Charney, D. S. (2018). Resilience: The science of mastering life’s greatest challenges. Cambridge University Press.

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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