We build resilience through healing AND challenge

I’ve been chatting to students in one-on-one coaching sessions over the last couple of weeks, as well as listening to friends who are finding the news really personally challenging. I’ve been finding these ideas really helpful to talk about, for researchers, activists, as well as for myself. All of this is really well known in psychology, exercise and social justice circles, so the evidence for this blog might as well be ‘see everything in the literature since the 1970s’, but I’ve listed some of the best places to start reading at the bottom of the post. I’ve also talked about this before in Exercising like a Girl, Good Stress and Self care for everyone.

Resilience is great. Everyone knows it’s great. But the way we think about resilience (both for ourselves and for other people) is broken, because we’ve forgotten that it has two parts. (General citations at the bottom of the post).

The first thing that happens in a situation where resilience is needed, is that we face a challenge that damages us in some way. Perhaps we caught a cold, or we exercised hard enough to feel fatigue, or we cut our finger on some paper, or we had an unpleasant conversation with a colleague, or a rejection from a job you applied to. (I’m using small examples to start with).  

The NEXT STEP IS NOT ‘LOL, WHATEVER DOESN’T KILL ME MAKES ME STRONGER’ (a. because no-one should be getting their psychological or physical health advice from Nietzsche, and b. because this isn’t how resilience works.)

You don’t get knocked down and bounce back stronger. At least not immediately. 

Instead you need rest and healing next. As strength-training athletes know, you don’t follow up leg day with more leg day if you want to get stronger; you alternate training your legs to exhaustion with a rest day (or a day where you focus on a different part of your body, like your arms). 

There are two parts to recovery. The first one is literally just time. A break from the hard/painful/tiring/damaging thing gives our body and brain time to heal itself. We might catch our breath, or the blood might clot, or we might cool down. In writing, I call this the ‘critical distance break’.

If it’s a minor challenge, time will probably do it. Especially if we go for a walk, eat some nourishing food and get a good nights sleep between bouts. (Wash your hands, too!) It’s like a mild cold, where a couple of days in bed will usually sort it out. Delayed onset muscle soreness is the pain you get the next day after exercising, or even 2-3 days later. It is actually the feeling of your muscles repairing themselves and getting bigger and stronger! After those few days, it will just go away. 

If it was a major challenge, then you might need to take a more active role in healing yourself, like stretching, immersing yourself in something enjoyable or doing some ‘self care’. We might even need to call in some help—getting a friend, trusted colleague or family member to give a listening ear or pass you the box of bandaids. If the damage was more than just a small cut, bruise or psychological hurt, it might need more than a day or two to heal, and might need a professional to step in and help. Whatever you need to get onto the road to recovery is the right thing to do. 

Once you are on the road back, then you can start your bounce. You don’t need to be fully recovered to recognise the momentum has turned upwards. You might still have fading bruises, a scab, or the beginnings of a scar (or their emotional and mental equivalents), but you can see it’s time to start turning that dial again. And so that’s the time to get back out there and be challenged once more. Apply for another job.
Open that file with all the red-pen feedback.
Address that difficult situation at work.
Face the blank page.
Get back into writing after a break.
Go back to the gym (if it’s open and safe to do so!).

If you have taken the time to recover, you will find you are stronger, have more energy and can withstand a slightly harder challenge this time round. (It should only be slightly harder. Like run for an extra 5 mins, or write for one more Pomodoro). 

You faced a harder challenge! Woot. Now it’s time to reach for the stars, right? 

Nope. Now it’s time to recover again. 

Challenge. Recover. Challenge. Recover. Challenge. Recover. Challenge. Recover. Challenge. Recover. Challenge. Recover. 
For ever. 

However old or experienced or elite or competent we become, we will always need to take time to recover between challenges. 

The good news is that over time a thing that used to challenge you will start to feel easy, so you can turn that into a nearly effortless habit or routine. (In exercise we call this a plateau, where the slope upwards becomes a flat plane, just at a higher altitude.) You could gear-up to write 500 words a day, or run 20 minutes a day, or go to the office 5-days a week for decades. You won’t get stronger but you also won’t get weaker. So you might need resilience to get yourself up to speed, but maintaining speed is more straightforward. (You will still need regular breaks, meals, sleep, holidays too! Hitting your plateau won’t make you a robot!) 

Yet, as researchers we are always looking for the next challenge, intellectually. And our industry keeps challenging us with increasing competitiveness and decreasing funding and time. So there’s some stuff you’ll want to become a habit, but you’ll always need to plan for the challenge-recover cycle when having original ideas, setting up new research projects, sending work out for review, or applying for jobs and grants. You’ll also need it if you’ve decided to change fields, become a freelancer, or transition out of academia. 


Many people I speak to feel guilty about their process taking time. That’s why I invented the term ‘critical distance break’, a way of incorporating time into a research/writing process. If you skip the recovery stage, you don’t give yourself the time to heal and to grow. You won’t get stronger. You’re more likely to create weaknesses or chronic injuries. Then you’ll have to take time because you are exhausted, burned out, or badly injured. 

Perhaps surprisingly the same is true if you avoid challenge altogether. Bones that never get loaded eventually get brittle with osteoporosis. Muscles that never get used just waste away. Avoiding your work-in-progress for too long turns into writer’s block. So put an end date on your recovery period. 

Challenge. Recover. Challenge. Recover. Challenge. Recover. Challenge. Recover. Challenge. Recover. Challenge. Recover. 

(Reflecting, this is basically just the Pomodoro technique writ large, which is probably why the technique works so well.) 


For people reading this who are like: ‘recovery isn’t a choice for me, I have a chronic illness, PTSD, I live as a marginalised person in a dangerously oppressive society!’ The good news is that  the research says you can have the choice to work towards wellness. There will definitely be aspects of your life where recovery is complex, ongoing, partial. And your ‘recovery’ might not mean you end up in a place that conforms to social norms of ‘wellness’. That doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from this pattern, just you need to put more time and care into recovery, and what works for you may be different from the examples and timelines I’ve given here. For example, self care and some time doesn’t typically lead to recovery for people with PTSD, they’ll usually need to work with a trauma-informed specialist to start turning towards healing. Your challenges might look different too: a paper cut or going to the office or running for 20 minutes is a ‘small challenge’ for many people but perhaps a big challenge or a really bad idea for you. Swap out the examples to work for you, they are a starting point not a prescription! 

We all need resilience right now. So much is painful, so much is challenging. It might get worse before it gets better. So before you pick yourself up and throw yourself back in, harder than ever … give yourself time to recover. Encourage your friends and colleagues to put recovery into their plans. As a manager or teacher, make sure to resource recovery for your team or students. Let’s give each other the privilege of recovery and the power of the bounce-back. Let’s go and make the world a better place. 


Starter pack of resources for recovery and resilience.  I tried to make this inclusive, and relevant to the news right now, so that makes it quite long. Hopefully that makes it more likely you’ll find something that gets you started on your own journey to discover what supports your resilience!

Audre Lorde first talked about ‘self-care’ as a radical, intentional act in A Burst of Light. I find Sara Ahmed’s development of these ideas really useful, start with her post, ‘Self care as warfare‘. Melonie Fullick further develops these ideas in her post ‘The uses of care‘.

I’ve been helped in my thinking about resilience by starting to pay more attention to how bodies work. Exercise science is one of the best places to explore for this side of things, even if you aren’t very into fitness. I really enjoyed Christie Aschwanden’s Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery which parallels a lot of the points I’m making here. I’ve been following Casey Johnston (aka Swole Woman) through her Hairpin, Self and now Vice career. She has great advice for women who are interested in starting to lift heavy weights, though with gyms (sensibly) closed in much of the world, you might be better to start with her advice for working out from home.

The other place I’ve been getting a lot of information is from anatomy-focused yoga instructors, I started with the extremely technical Your body, your yoga by Bernie Clarke that actually explains how muscles work and totally debunks the idea of a ‘normal’ body.

Yoga Teachers of Colour are using yoga for healing and restoration from racial trauma. Start with reading Jasmine Allen’s article ‘Yoga as Healing for the Black Community‘ and, if you are a BIPOC yoga practitioner, follow up with a class like Diane Bondy’s ‘liberated moves‘ (or any of her classes). And everyone should add Yoga Teachers of Color to your Instagram follow list.

Speaking of trauma, the classic place to start is Bessel can der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. If this is something that impacts you personally, do talk to your medical practitioner about getting a referral to a trauma specialist though. It can help to read about it, but it’s not something we typically recommend you try to fix yourself!

I was helped in thinking about the limits of my examples by listening to researchers with disabilities and chronic illnesses, a good place to start is the Chronically Academic blog and Twitter account.

Finally, resilience is something to be celebrated. For example, check out the art and poetry celebrating the Trans Day of Resilience. For LBGTQ+ stories, this short list of recent young adult books will add ‘queer joy’ and ‘revolution’ to your bookshelves.

Art is often a way to celebrate resilience, and to tell its story. ‘The Healing Journey’, by Australian and New Zealand Indigenous artist Riki Salam represents the resilience of the Stolen Generations through visual art. The Indigenous music magazine Revolutions Per Minute is a great way to decolonize your playlist (the zine is Canadian but regularly features Australian Indigenous music).


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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