Author Josh Squires tells of a gruelling multi-day hike that’s part of Army Mountain Warfare School training. It requires slogging up a mountain through ten-foot snowbanks:

On the morning of the infamous march, a drill instructor spoke to the soldiers. “If you want to quit, look at the top of the mountain.”  He went on, “But if you want to make it through, then just find the closest tree and tell yourself, ‘I'm going to make it to that next tree and then reevaluate.’ And then when you get to that tree, do the same thing again, finding the next closest tree. If you'll do that, tree by tree, soon enough you'll find yourself at the top of the mountain.” (Lord, Help Me Endure One More Day)

There’s a difference between surviving and true resilience. Life isn’t a casual stroll up a hill where you might get a few blisters. It’s a flat-out trudge in the cold and low oxygen through hardship and uncertainty and loss. We lose jobs, we lose our homes, we lose loved ones. We lose confidence, and we might even lose faith.

That’s why we need true resilience. We might physically survive the first hour of a soul-splitting loss. But a grin-and-bear-it stance won’t sustain us when the hour turns into days, months . . . a lifetime of trekking up a menacing mountain.

What is resilience?

Resilience isn’t merely surviving. And it’s not about denying the depth of pain and its ongoing impact. Instead, it’s about learning from and growing through adversity – about becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Resilience is the ability to take on difficulty and keep your balance. And if/when you lose your balance, you bounce back and keep going. It’s physical, emotional, mental and spiritual toughness with the flexibility to adjust to change and misfortune.

But resilience is not an intuitive skill and it can’t be taught. Rather, it’s trained into a person. It’s learned by experience, not lecture.

Get to know your Downstairs Brain

Dr. Daniel J. Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson describe the brain as having two parts: the Upstairs Brain and the Downstairs Brain.

  • The Upstairs Brain thinks, reasons, and evaluates. You teach the Upstairs Brain. (And once you’ve been taught something, like reading or riding a bike, it doesn’t take much upkeep.)

  • The Downstairs Brain reacts and responds. This is the fight or flight part of the brain and where our habitual memory lives. You train the Downstairs Brain. (Habitual memory is also known as procedural memory. It applies to things that we largely do without thinking but that have a use it or lose it quality – like playing an instrument. We have to keep practicing, keep training.)

The ability to be resilient lies in the Downstairs Brain. You train this part of your brain so that when a crisis stresses out your Upstairs Brain, your Downstairs Brain automatically responds with appropriate behaviours and attitudes.

How important is this training? Consider that the Navy SEALs use this saying from an ancient Greek poet: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.”

Train your brain for resilience

Believe it or not, training your brain to be more resilient isn’t complicated. In fact, you likely already do it in some areas of your life.

For example, have you ever attended sports camp or gone to the gym? Yes, there’s some teaching about the rules and how to be a better athlete. Most of the time, though, you’re training. You practice and practice and practice. And if you’re a musician, you play the same piece over and over and over until you can hear it and play it in your sleep.

Boot camp is another (very rigorous) example. New recruits enter basic training. They drill and drill and drill until preferred combat responses are ingrained into their Downstairs Brains. While it may seem extreme, instructors know that when you’re in a combat situation, you won’t have time to think – you’ll have to rely on deep-rooted responses to save your life and the lives of your fellow soldiers.

To be clear, you don’t need to become a self-imposed drill instructor to become resilient. But you do have to get out of your Upstairs Brain and into your Downstairs Brain. How? Step by step, one “tree” at a time until you reach the top of the mountain.

Step one: Choose to do something hard. Purposefully engage in stressful-to-you situations like sports competitions, music recitals or public speaking. Intentionally place yourself at risk of a negative, unpleasant consequence. At the same time, the stressful situation should have an element of predictability. In other words, one where risk is managed – where you know you can succeed even if it will be difficult.

Step two: Know how you want to respond. Decide ahead of time exactly how you want to respond during a “crisis,” realizing that you might not feel like it. If you slip up during a concert? You’ll keep playing and proudly take a bow. Fumble the ball? You’ll hold your head high and accept encouragement from teammates. Stutter and turn red at the podium? You’ll check your notes, press ahead and graciously accept your audience’s applause.

Step three: Practice, practice, practice – and take breaks. Whenever you meet that stressful situation, repeat your desired response over and over until it becomes automatic. But remember to also schedule and take breaks. Time to recuperate is important to becoming physically and mentally stronger.

One important reason to take those breaks is that we need to give our Downstairs Brain time to rest and normalize after training. We live our “normal” lives in our Upstairs Brain, but our Downstairs Brain is kept in reserve for times when we need a true fight-or-flight response. In other words, our Downstairs Brain isn’t supposed to be on all the time.

Part of training our brain for resilience means building a strong pathway from our Upstairs Brain to our Downstairs Brain – and that means learning how to come out of our Downstairs Brain when the threat is gone. That way, when the next training session (crisis) comes along, our Downstairs Brain is rested and ready to kick into action again.

Apply those skills to new stresses

Let’s be realistic: Most of us face challenges much worse than public speaking. However, the same skills that helped you build resilience in your chosen hard thing can also help you become resilient under threat from hard things you didn't choose.

For example, in an uncertain economy, be self-aware. Know your limitations and your strengths, and be ready to hold your head high and accept help from others if you lose your job. Know how you'll want to respond: with confidence that God has a purpose for your life and with trust in God’s provision.

And if you’re enduring personal illness or the death of a loved one? You’ll remember that God never ignores your sorrows (Psalm 56:8). At the same time, He tells you to grieve with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Know how you'll want to respond: with honesty but also with overriding trust in God’s care.

For most situations, try adding these suggestions to your brain-training routine:

  • Physically stop for a moment and slow your breathing by taking several deep breaths. This allows oxygen to flow into your brain so you can think clearly.

  • Relax any tense muscles. This helps you stay flexible.

  • Adopt a slogan that can carry you through the tough times. Here are a few to get you started:

    Hard is good.

    “God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2, ESV)

    I don’t quit when I’m tired – I quit when I’m done.

    I will trust in the Lord with all my heart. (See Proverbs 3:5.)

  • Accept the limits of what you can control. Acknowledge the things you can’t control, then focus on what you can control. Manage those the best you can.

  • Take a long-term view. Change is inevitable. No, you can’t be ready for everything. But remembering how God has met your needs before can calm your anxiety about the future. When we call on God in days of trouble, He will answer, even when we don’t know how (Psalm 86:7).

Remember that resilience leads to peace and hope

Resilience is a habit, a skill, and a mindset that can help you manage and keep your balance during difficult times. It doesn’t mean that your circumstances will change; it means that your heart and mind have changed. So pursue each day in ways that redirect your worries and reignite your worship. “Fear not tomorrows, child of the King, trust them with Jesus, do the next thing.”

If you or someone you know is having trouble coping with the hard things of life, call our counseling department for a free over-the-phone consultation. One of our professional counsellors would be happy to point you toward hope and resources. They can also help you find professional Christian counsellors closer to home.

In the meantime, take a look at all of our articles and tools to help you and your family thrive during the coronavirus crisis.

Tim Sanford is a licensed professional counsellor and the clinical director of counselling services for Focus on the Family's counselling department. He is also a pastor, a public speaker and the author of several books, the most recent being Forgive for Real: Six Steps to Forgiving. Tim and his wife, Becky, have two grown daughters and reside in Colorado.

Timothy L. Sanford is a licensed professional counsellor and the clinical director of counselling services for Focus on the Family in the U.S. He is also a pastor, a public speaker and the author of several books, the most recent being Forgive for Real: Six Steps to Forgiving. Tim and his wife, Becky, have two grown daughters and reside in Colorado.

© 2020 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at

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