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Overcome Stress and Challenge: 7 Mechanisms of Resilience for High Productivity

written by Timothy T.C. So 18 May 2009

Timothy So, Msc, es candidato al Doctorado de Psicología en el Departamento de Psiquiatría de la Universidad de Cambridge. Es Investigador Asociado del Cambridge University's Well-being Institute y Psicólogo Ocupacional. Timothy también es responsable de los sitios del PPND tanto en chino tradicional como en el simplificado. Biografía completa.

Sus artículos anteriores en inglés están aquí. Y también puedes encontrar sus otros artículos traducidos al español aquí.

“It ain’t about how hard you hit, but how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.”
Rocky Balboa, 2006

Resilience is a Fast Comeback

This quote from Rocky in the movie Rocky Balboa is the best summary of this month’s optional theme of “Stress and Resilience.” Living in an ever-changing business world today, we are confronted with challenges at workplace almost every day. Under the very same circumstances, why do some people fall apart and spend months trying to stand up again, but others are resilient, and recover and keep moving forward? Why do some regard stress as a motivator that pushes them climb higher, but others are beaten down by stressors?

7 Mechanisms of Resilience: The Model

What I have learned from my studies in Leadership and Positive Psychology is that one common characteristic among successful leaders is that they do not let disappointments deter them from what they want and beat them down – instead, they stay focused and navigate according to their plans to succeed. Based on various research and studies, I summarize here the various research and studies into a 7-mechanism model of resilience that aims to offer a comprehensive picture of a state of personal functioning and resilience, which leads us to optimal performance with manageable stress. The 7 components can be categorized into three parts:

  • A) Inner Self Mechanism – monitoring your physical, meditative, and mental awareness
  • B) Relationship Mechanism – monitoring the taking and giving awareness as well as your self-relationship
  • C) Method – monitoring your habits


A) Inner Self Mechanism

Envisioning external conditions alone cannot ensure happiness, says Mattieu Richard in his book Happiness (p. 34). When we focus too much on external conditions, we ignore our inner self – our body, our meditative state and our cognition, which determine the very quality of our resilience.

1) Physical Mechanism – Exercise, rest, and food

We wouldn’t leave the house for a long drive without putting gas in our car, yet people can often neglect the importance of fundamental elements in our life – food, nutrition, exercise and rest – in fueling our body when under stress. How many times do you skip meals, breakfast in particular, with the excuse of being too rushed? Without proper nutrition, we would not have the energy to cope with our daily demands, especially at times under work stress. Exercise doesn’t just improve our physical condition, but also improves our mental health (Salmon, 2001). Exercise acutely reduces feelings of tension, anxiety and anger and increases feelings of vigor (Gauvin, 1990) and these effects are suggested to be long lasting. A nice sleep and sweet dreams are soothing and helps relieve stress and negative emotions, according to Dr. Peter Hauri, the founder of America Sleep Disorders Association and author of No More Sleepless Nights. Do you feel refreshed in meetings after a good sleep?

2) Mind Mechanism – Meditation and mind relaxation

Resilient people know how to stay calm and avoid letting their emotions run over them. They know how to revive their mind rather than just the body. Research suggests that mindfulness exercise and mediation is the best way to reduce stress (Grossman et. al 2004), as many articles have shown this month here on PPND. To stop the clutter, noise and “traffic” in your mind during adverse times, you need to control your flow of thoughts and your brain waves. Meditation (but not sleeping) does just that, according to Grossman and colleagues (2004). You may think that a vacation can do just the same, but it is not unusual when we are sitting on a beach or walking in the hills, and suddenly some worry or concern pops up in our mind and re-emerges in our head. By developing the skills and power to relax and clear your mind, you gain peace mentally and emotionally, and probably more than that.

3) Cognitive Mechanism – Positive and long-term perspectives

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Practice what you want to be and see clearly what you want for your future, in a positive way. Sometimes we are hoodwinked by problems at present and forget our longer term goals and dreams. One organizational study in Harvard Business Review nonetheless found visualizing and imagining the sense of long-term accomplishment and overcoming problems helps us better deal with changes and stress (Strebel, 1996). Athletes practice this all the time. Tiger Woods will visualize the ball going into the hole, and Larry Bird will imagine the basketball going into the net from the three point line. With patience and a larger and long-term viewpoint, we know we exist in spiraling cycles of blessings and pain, and resilience people often see challenges are temporal and the best as yet to come.

B.) Relationship Mechanism

Those whom we support hold us up in life,” said Marie Ebner von Eschenbach. No one wants to fight alone during hard times, nor can we keep battling on our own. We receive social support from all kinds of relationship with other people, and we learn to give in return. We come to build up a relationship to ourselves. All these fortify our psychological capacity, as well as our resilience when facing challenges.

4) Taking Mechansim

Shaking Hands The beneficial impact of social support on human performance is well-documented (e.g. Goffin & Gellatly, 2001), from enhancing motivation to becoming willing to engage in challenging tasks to facilitating recovery from physical illness and injury. Friends, family, or supporting groups can be a great source of social support during hard times, and having in-depth interactions with friends and family satisfies our need for love and affiliation and grants us feeling of safety, happiness and satisfaction, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is the taking of social support.

5) Giving Mechansim

You can’t be tough and resilient if you keep receiving but never give. Peterson and Seligman identified in the 24 VIA Strengths “Love and Be Loved” as a virtue, and note that this is not the strength of “Be Loved” by itself. Successful leaders with high resilience are found to be more aware of others, understanding and empathetic, according to Daniel Goleman (Goleman et. al, 2002). Try to consciously and willingly open our hearts to another’s difficulties and experiences, with a deep desire for connection and relationship. It will help us build close relationships with others, and could end up enhancing our self esteem and courage to overcome barriers as well. True compassion comes when we use such empathy for others to fuel our motivation to help others in return, as I mentioned in my previous article: “People who help others are happier than those who don’t”.

6) Self-Relationship Mechanism

In addition to building close relationships with others, it is important to build good relationships with yourself. Most people are often too harsh on themselves: being overly critical to themselves, or overly indulging in their wrong doings and weakness while being blindfolded to their strengths or things they did great. Instead of treating yourself as your biggest enemy, building a relationship with yourself helps you get through in tough times. This can be done in three steps. First, develop awareness, understand and acceptance of yourself – to know your strength and weakness. Second, develop respect and appreciation of yourself (such as taking the VIA strengths assessment) – to give yourself encouragement, patience and unconditional support. Third, develop a fair treatment to yourself, – to forgive yourself when you make mistakes, reward yourself when you do well and, if you do not like what you do or the way you are, change it with compassion and understanding as how you do to others.

C) Method

7) Habit Mechansim

The final component of the model is habit. Tal Ben-Shahar cited a quote from John Dryden: “We first make our habits, and then our habits make us” in his book Happier. I use this concept to conclude the model of resilience as once the above components became your habit, they can boost your resilience. When these mechanisms become our habits, they become something unconscious in our mind and we automatically have the power and persistence to react to various nasty stress and challenges. If you make the earlier six mechanisms your daily practice (and not only pick them up under stress), then they become a habit just like brushing your teeth or taking a shower.


The 7 mechanisms of resilience work together as a closely interconnected system. You are getting nowhere if you only work on some mechanisms and ignore others. You will not become as resilient with a strong body but no mental resilience, just ask any athlete. You are not likely to get through difficulties if you never give in any relationships even if you achieve the inner self-mechanisms, as people around you are not likely to stand by you and give you a hand during hard times. Pretending or faking compassion and caring to others instead of bringing it into habit is not likely to give you intimate and supportive relationships with others.

The 7 mechanism as an integrated system works well on me, I hope it can also give you some insights. Good Luck!



Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Professional.

Gauvin, L. (1990). An experiential perspective on the motivational features of exercise and life-style. Canadian Journal of Sport Science, 15, 51-58.

Goffin, R. D., & Gellatly, I. R. (2001). Social support, group consensus and stressor-strain relationships: social context matters. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 22, 437-451

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2002). Leadership and emotional intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 35-43

Ricard, M. (2007). Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. Little, Brown & Co.

Salmon, P. (2001). Effects of physical exercise on anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to stress: a unifying theory. Clinical Psychology Review, 21, 33-61.

Strebel, P. (1996). Why do employees resist change? Harvard Business Review, 74, 86-92.


Bike race (Motion Blur Frozen) courtesy of Mariano Kamp
Meditating (Belinda) courtesy of Drab Makyo
Einstein shirt (IMG_0917) courtesy of MsLiberty
Teamwork (3D Full Spectrum Unity Holding Hands Concept) courtesy of lumaxart

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J.Lee 1 June 2009 - 3:19 pm

Thanks Tim for advising us on how to maintain a habit in resisting stress under this economic situation. I now have clue why i cannot resist stress persistently after reading this article, i only focus on an aspect and ignore another aspect, like i believe most girls like myself treat shopping and taking a healthy dose of chocolate as a common way to destress, however, we always ignore other mechanisms which could lengthen and strengthen our resilience persistency. I particularly realize I used to ignore “cognitive Mechanism” which is needless to say effective to not only resist to pressure, but to become a better person with better psychological well being.

Thanks Tim again for making me a better person through positive psychology! Please keep up with the good articles =)

Elaine O'Brien 1 June 2009 - 3:20 pm

Great! Resilience is a hot interdisciplinary topic. Thank you Tim, for developing these 7 Mechanisms for higher productivity. I want to put these into action right now!
I enjoyed your Rocky analogy of getting hit hard and then moving forward and climbing higher, as well as your reflective Einstein citation
Your provocative reflections about the interconnectedness of the Inner Self Mechanisms of physical, meditative; the Relationship Mechanism – the taking and giving awareness as well as self-relationship considerations married with monitoring habits methodically, make sense.
I love the Positive Exercise research, the VIA, Brain, Body, Relational integration. I’ll recommend this article and best to you, Elaine

PS Tim, I’m wondering about the role of spirituality within the model?

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 1 June 2009 - 3:21 pm

Great article Timothy, very strong systems model of resilience. I particularly liked the references to self-awareness and creating habits, which are both essential for developing resilience & frequently forgotten in training.

Warren Davies 2 June 2009 - 5:45 pm

Good stuff, I like how your suggestions are all based on building long-term resiliency instead of just dealing with symptoms when they come up with short-term solutions.

I had a weird day a couple of days ago where I got very frustrated with a challenging project I’m working on, I got to about 4pm before I went and bought a few beers and a film to de-stress. In the week previous, this project had been taking up most of my time, so I wasn’t exercising, meditating (which I recently started trying) or spending much time with others. So my stress and frustration was exactly what your diagram would predict.


Timothy So 4 June 2009 - 3:58 pm

Thanks for your encouraging comment Lee. Retail therapy may not be helpful in many cases, and here is an interesting article about how shopping makes us depressed. 😛


Best, Timothy

Timothy So 4 June 2009 - 3:59 pm

Thanks Elaine! It is always sweet to hear from you and I am very much looking forward to seeing you soon again in Phily.

Re your clued question, spirituality surely helps building resilience. Strong and coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe, or an articulate philosophy of life, religious or secular might surely help with dealing with stress. However, I suppose it would be hard for some of the people who are with low spirituality to be developed in a short run. In the model, the cognitive mechanism offers a very similar construct as it also talks about longer and higher term of purpose and thinking and fitting oneself in the larger scheme.
Best, Timothy

Timothy So 4 June 2009 - 4:00 pm

Thanks for this Bridget. I am thinking to put this model into research to test the utility of the mechanisms so that we can better develop for further training and counselling purpose.

Best, Timothy

Timothy So 4 June 2009 - 4:00 pm

Warren, thanks for your feedback. I think to build long term resilience, the habit mechanism would surely play a significant role. Once we make exercising, meditating and etc. our habit, it would be harder for us to be knocked down by stresses and challenges. I hope your project will turn out a wonderful one! Best, Timothy

Shabana Kirmani 3 October 2011 - 9:03 pm

thanks its amazingly positive and practical. i am a university teacher and currently working on developing a model for my PhD research and it seems to be a direction that i was looking for to build my model. i belong to a terror-stricken country Pakistan- where people are living in constant fear, hopelessness and uncertainty resultant in low/no resilience. you have opened up a door that leads to self-help and community help in dealing with hard times.


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